Distal Muse

Evolution And Morality

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     I stumbled this past Sunday morning on a preacher on television.  The reason I stopped to listen was that on the screen he was scrolling through a litany of famous scientists, their fields and contributions, and noting that each was a Great Christian.  Then the preacher--I don’t know who he was, sorry--ended his litany by making the claim that science and religion are inextricably linked, that they must have each other to work, that there is no dispute between them--
     --and that evolution is wrong.
     This was a week after I listened to an NPR interview with Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in which he makes the claim that it is vital to settle this question of where “we” (meaning humans) came from because if evolution were true, then we would have no basis for morality.
     This is one of the most perverse false syllogisms I have ever heard, and it baffles me no end.  Underlying it is the assumption that morality only ever comes from god, that without a deity we are too dumb, puerile, self-serving, and just plain hopeless to ever do anything right--for ourselves on anyone else.  That atheists are a priori immoral and that evolutionists, who reject special creation, are necessarily atheists, and therefore, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, likewise immoral.  They can’t help it.  They have no god giving them direction.
     A minute of clear thought shows how this is substantively untrue.  A few more minutes and you might begin to see that this is one of the foulest assaults on our civilization ever mounted.  By linking the two things in this way, you automatically create a Sisyphean task for anyone who doesn’t fit the fundamentalist christian mold.  Not only do we have to demonstrate how your argument is false, we must first demonstrate how we have a legitimate basis from which to make our counter argument, a basis automatically designated immoral, godless, groundless...
     Even christians should be afraid of this.  The logical result of this is to set a standard from which one may never deviate without fear of being labeled atheist and moral threat.  It shuts the door on any possibility of examining the universe in new ways, discovering new explanations for existence, and indulging in the wonder of examining life.
     One hesitates to engage the argument because it seems so infantile.  But when someone of Santorum’s stature makes such pronouncements--along with all his other rants about homosexuality, family planning, and the Liberal Agenda--it’s not a crackpot on the corner standing on his soapbox that one can ignore, though ignore him we should.
     What the basic argument comes down to is this: god--in this instance the christian god--supposedly created Everything.  By his will alone the universe exists and all that is in it.  By his will alone we strive to be Good.  That without him, we have no reason to be Good.  That evolution proposes that the universe just Happened and everything in it arose by processes independent of conscious intent.  And therefore, as this is an impersonal process, all the creatures within the universe have de facto no basis for being Good.  Morality, therefore, cannot pertain and we would all be lost.
     So.  The question comes to mind: if tomorrow it was demonstrated beyond any possibility of counter argument that god was gone--dead, left the building, or never existed--would you, Mr. Santorum, embark on a life of debauchery and self-satiation?  Would you rape?  Take drugs?  Go on a drinking binge?  Steal, murder, slander, and otherwise let your barely-suppressed immoral urges have free rein?
     I doubt it.  You’ve grown up living according to certain standards, standards which I’m sure you have found useful simply on the face of them, regardless of their provenance.
     Of course, if I’m wrong, and you would go on a major party rampage, flouting every standard you ever had, I would then ask: Why?  Didn’t you understand the utility of those standards?  Or are you so corrupt to begin with that you require divine muzzling?  (If that’s the case, why would anyone  have elected you in the first place?)
     You have to make the argument that morality cannot exist outside a religious context, which is demonstrably untrue.  No, let me be clearer--it’s flat wrong.  Clearer still--that’s a lie.  It’s slander, in fact.
     But to make the case we have to ask a more fundamental question: what is morality?
     Depends who you ask, but the most common feature of any explanation is that Morality is the impulse to live in accordance with beneficial principles.  Maybe that’s a bit dry, but I think it’s accurate.  Ethics represents a codified approach to appropriate living within a community, and more often than not entails negotiations about terms of interaction.  These are processes and can vary from place to place, culture to culture, time to time.  What is ethical now was not always and what was ethical once is often quaint or repugnant now.
     My Oxford Companion to Philosophy, interestingly, doesn’t have one segment on “morality” but rather several segments on the various aspects of it--moral judgment, sexual morality, slave morality, morality and art, etc.  A common theme in all is that the person acting from a moral sense does not see such action--or the necessity for such action--as optional.  In other words, it is a given that morality defines what ought to be done regardless of circumstance.  Kant called this the Categorical Imperative.
     Ethics, on the other hand, is more conditional.  Ethics gives leave to weigh issues and choose among options which might be appropriate.  In our traditions, ethics is informed by morality, but often there is a break point between them.  For instance, morally one can argue that slavery is under no circumstances a moral activity.  But in the face of it, when it becomes a question of property rights and restitution to those who have paid out money, an ethical barrier may arise to freeing slaves.
     To compound that particular argument, though, if the moral standard is taken and the slaves are free, are we not then morally obligated to accommodate those newly-freed persons and make sure they can survive and flourish?  There is no moral imperative to secure the well-being of disconnected groups, even while one could argue that ethically it would be prudent to do all one could to alleviate the worst consequences of a sudden social transition.  Certainly those who have lost their property may feel no obligation to provide benefit to the group(s) responsible for their loss of property, since, in their view, they have been victims of robbery, and there is a moral imperative against that.  Ergo, the situation remains in flux and no clear hierarchy of action emerges that might be called proscriptive--namely, free the slaves, educate and house them, find a place or circumstance under which they may assume acceptable lives.
     You can see how this leads into a tangle of definitions and clashes of will.
     The fact is, slavery did exist, and existed among people who counted themselves in all other regards among the most moral (i.e. religious) people on the planet.  Others no less moral made sound arguments against slavery, condemning it as fundamentally immoral, even though passages of Paul in the New Testament could be found that seemed to support slavery.  If in the foundational book of christianity one could not find a clear statement of moral imperative about this issue--written by those presumably close to the source--then how are those two millennia removed supposed to figure it out?
     In the hindsight of 150 years, it is clear that the ethical arguments against slavery--namely, that it is ultimately an unsupportable institution that eventually will damage the community indulging it--offers a more sound critique and standard that the muddied waters of so-called morality ever did.
     My point is, that if morality is supposed to be god’s law written in the heart for all to know, then those who need it most are functionally illiterate.  It does not do what it is supposed to do.
     At least, not the way those pushing the fundamentalist argument suggest it does.
     At this point I should be clear: do I believe there is such a thing as morality?
     Do I believe it is divine in nature and origin?
     We have to figure it out just like we have to figure everything else out.  Moral law is a result of millennia of humans trying to work out what is right and what is wrong universally.  You can see the attempts, the rough drafts, the marked-out texts, the failed experiments strewn through history.
     We still don’t have it right.
     The reason we don’t, I think, is because we keep expecting it to come from without.  We’re still waiting, many of us, for god to send a clearer, revised version of the ten commandments.  Anything short of that is just ethics and we’ve seen where that gets us.
     But we’ve also seen where a reliance on morality can get us.  Just about in the same sort of fixes.
     Kant, among others, wanted to find a method of defining universal principles that could be held to be Morals.  The categorical imperative, fine tool that it is, fails to do this.  What it does do is allow us to determine what is not universalizable, and therefore not a moral principle.
     Morality shares in common an attribute held by both science fiction and pornography--that is, people know what it is when they see it, but find it next to impossible to define concretely.  (Why, for example, is Lady Chatterly’s Lover considered literature and Debbie Does Dallas pornography?  Granted, some people consider the former to be pornography as well, but barring the willfully blind who refuse to look at it, there is a clear difference between the two--but how to describe that difference in moral terms?)  Essentially, it is a category of judgment concerning things that ought not to be negotiable.  Things one should or should not do under any circumstances.  What we have learned from history (if nothing else) is that Ecclesiastes was wrong--there are always new things, and most of them come in the form of unpredicted circumstances.  The 20th century--and now the 21st --have handed us more of them in more unexpected ways than any other time.
     The sanctity of marriage is a case in point.  Marriage--never mind how it has actually played out--is a bulwark against illegitimacy.  People have sex.  It’s natural.  We have to do it in order to survive as a species, but the consequences--babies--are expensive and need tending.  Ergo, marriage.  The so-called family unit.  In its ideal formation, it’s a fine notion.  But very little in human activity is ideal.  There are always people--and circumstances--that simply won’t conform to our solutions.  (Note also that “legitimacy” concerning progeny is not a natural idea--it is a human one.  Nowhere else in the animal kingdom does one see any evidence of concern over the “legal” status of the parents.  Legitimacy is not about caring for the child--it is about inheritance, and, among those with no property to inherit, an easy yardstick to determine “suitability”, whatever that means.  Legitimacy, therefore, is also what we say it is when we point at it.)
     Nevertheless, the rule was for centuries that before you can (legally) have sex, you have to get married.
     Birth control methods were notoriously fickle and unreliable for centuries before the advent of vulcanized rubber.  There simply was no way to avoid marriage under most conditions, except through a life of celibacy (chiefly affecting women--men always screwed around) or ignominy--running from ones responsibilities.  Not a good lifestyle, really.
     But now Circumstance--and human ingenuity--have handed us a number of practical methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
     So why do we have to get married in order to have sex?  And if the consequences are containable, where’s the downside?
     Well, there are downsides, but you see my point.  Circumstances changed.  And we can now see that a hard and fast rule that had a certain practical utility for a long long time, has become an option for some, in fact a burden to many, and begs the question of its ultimate utility.
     It is optional.
     Which drives a certain crowd nuts.
     The same argument can be made in many instances.  Racial equality is a biggie.  Education is another one.
     But the one that drives me to distraction--at least in the way it’s batted about in public discourse--is the quandary over killing.
     Now here’s an instance where morality and ethics part company in so many ways it’s laughable, and where the loudest proponents of so-called Moral Virtue trip over themselves so often it amazes me they can stand and walk across a room.
     Thou Shalt Not Kill.  Commandment number five.
     There was an academic debate over whether or not the word is “kill” or “murder”.  If it could be settled, then the arguments engendered under this commandment might clarify a bit, but the last I heard people still opted to say “kill”, which if followed strictly (religiously) would make christians into Hindus, at least concerning the hierarchy of life.
     The taking of other human lives is what concerns this essay, though, so let’s stick with that rather than add the murk of vegan morality.
     Clearly, Yahweh didn’t mean it.  At least, according to the Old Testament, after handing that dictate down, he then named as his favorites some of history’s great butchers.  Joshua, Saul, David, Samson, Tobit.  David in particular, setting aside the whole issue of military actions, qualifies as a murderer.  He manipulated the rosters of troops so Uriah died and David could make his move on Bathsheba.  So not only a murderer, but an adulterer.
     It can be argued, of course, that there was a war on, and Uriah might have died anyway.  That’s beside the point.  David intentionally put him in harm’s way to achieve that end.  If Uriah had lived, what next?  But he didn’t.  David knew the odds and relied on them.  That’s murder.
     (You could make a larger point about military action in general--when is an officer/leader guilty of murder and when is it just the outcome of the vicissitudes of war?  Was Robert E. Lee a murderer when he ordered Pickett’s Charge?  Everyone--including, apparently, Lee--knew it would fail.)
     So Yahweh plays favorites.  You can find many instances in Scripture where these hard and fast rules of behavior--morals--are set aside because Yahweh decided they didn’t apply in a given instance.  So his own laws he deployed according to Circumstance, more like ethics than morality.  (Abraham knew it was immoral--heinous indeed--to be ordered to kill Jacob.  He was going to do it anyway.  Yahweh was “testing him”.  One reading of that is, Abraham holds loyalty to Yahweh higher than all else, which is the traditional reading.  My take on it was that he failed.  The law obviously had not “taken root” in his heart.  The test was whether or not he could make moral judgments and act on them regardless of circumstance.  But of course that’s not a popular reading.  However, if a moral virtue is to have the force claimed for it, shouldn’t it apply no matter who is telling you different?)
     Killing is one of those acts which falls into a category of choices which may from time to time be necessary--but can never be defended as moral.  Self defense is a case in point.  Your life or the life of your loved one is under imminent threat.  You kill to end the threat.  We classify it legally as justifiable homicide in those instances where clearly the choice came down to you or them.
     Does that redefine the act as moral?
     No, categorically not.
     But is it therefore immoral?
     Maybe.  It depends on how it stacks up against your own metric.  You may do it anyway and then loathe yourself for committing an immoral act.  Yet to not do it, to abide by your own moral code, would have meant the sacrifice of your life--which is a legitimate trade--or someone else’s, which is not yours to weigh.
     Then of course there’s the instance of war.  What is it in the decree of your state that makes killing suddenly “all right”?  Or at least acceptable?  If, to be a moral law, an action is wrong under any and all circumstances, from where does a state derive the authority to set such law aside in the instance of war?  And how can that decision be relevant to your own personal moral code?
     If, as seems to be the assertion by the chief purveyors of a “return to moral values”, morality is an absolute standard, then by what authority do some of these same people claim to establish exceptions to that standard--which would make it somewhat less than absolute?
     Easy answer, complex phenomenon.  Obviously, absolute standards will get you in trouble just as quickly and thickly as no standards at all.  At least, they will if your notion of a standard is a hard and fast rule, like Thou Shalt Not Kill.
     Consider: a rule like that doesn’t give leeway to circumstance.  It’s a Law.  You may not violate it.  Strict adherence means you will find yourself in positions where killing may be the only way to survive and you will therefore not survive.
     What is the point of handing down such rules to people who will not survive?
     This quickly becomes redundant.  The blatant impossibility of living by absolute codes of conducts undoes the asserted necessity of them.  We get into a round of begging exceptions which are only practical and often necessary to the survival of the species.
     (Let’s take a biggie--incest.  Now I’m not about to advocate it, but there’s a Bible story* that has always bothered me: Lot’s daughters.  Here in this one saga we see all manner of exception to hard and fast moral conduct being indulged.  The part of the story that gets me, though--never mind the mass destruction of two cities who had no warning and never knew they were on trial--is the aftermath, when Lot and his two daughters hide in a cave.  Genesis 19: 30-38.  They became the mothers of two tribes, which fared well, and no taint of the sin of incest followed them.  Now, they seemed to think the world was over, and that they had some responsibility to repopulate--circumstance, survival of the species.  But these were also the two Lot had offered to the mob in Sodom.  The question is: is incest immoral or not?  In point of fact, it’s not listed in the Ten Commandments.  Adultery is a question of marital priority.  The ten commandments hold forth on covetousness, but actually don’t actually say a lot about premarital sex.  All the prohibitions about that come from the long, long list of proscriptions and rules in Leviticus, and as discussed elsewhere in the Distal Muse, we pick and choose among them as suits our circumstance.  But if incest does represent a moral proscription, why the exception here?  In fact, it seems that the ban on  incest is a biologically determined behavioral pattern which does not necessarily apply to blood relations.  There is something called the Westermarck Effect (Edward Alexander Westermarck), which showed that the sharing of living quarters from birth to a certain age seemed to establish a later psychological barrier to sexual interest.  This applied to adopted children as well as family members and, in the instance of those separated at birth, showed no barrier later in life.  It is, apparently, an Evolved  psychobiological condition, which brings me to one of the main points of this essay.)
     The tangle over what constitutes a moral principle, as opposed to ethical standards and practice, may well be a problem of language.  How to describe an effect that cannot be universally codified.  Law is, on one level, all about this problem.  Something occurs which we know is wrong, but attempts to define why it is wrong--and wrong in all instances--fail.  Does that failure mean the thing done is not wrong?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s just the circumstances around it that conspire to make it wrong.  (For instance, speculation.  In times of prosperity, no one sees this as particularly heinous, but when economic conditions are constrained, speculation becomes a matter of condemnation.)
     But if that’s the case, then is it fair to say that there are not moral standards?
     No.  Because we know better.  We just can’t quite describe it.
     As in the case of the Westermarck Effect, however, it may be that moral standards are what might be called deep programming.  Psychobiological structures which have become part of our operating systems over time.
     In other words, they are standards which have evolved.
     Clearly, we can see this in terms of sociology.  What was once morally acceptable is not now, and perhaps vice versa.  Why?  If a standard is a god-given, absolute imprint, then there would be no shift, no reassessment.
     In some ways, there hasn’t been.  We’re still arguing over some of the same issues now as we were four thousand years ago.  This makes sense because societies have to have standards just to survive.  People have to get along with each other, especially when shoved into close proximity in cities.  It is the effects of human interaction that must be managed, and we rely on the idea of a moral code to underpin the surface rules.  We do these things because they are good, we do not do these other things because they are bad.
     Being reasonable about this doesn’t seem sufficient inducement for many people.  So we bring in a threat.  Do this or else.  The or else, to be truly effective, needs something that transcends the day to day.  So, god.
     Not a new argument, but I haven’t heard a sound counter argument yet--except this debate over the provenance of morality.
     So we return to the assertion made by the far right that if Evolution is true, then there is no basis for morality.
     In fact, I suspect that the reverse is true.  Yahweh--our example here in the West--has a history of playing fast and loose with his own moral codes.  Unreliable basis for our own behavior.  If it’s okay for god, why shouldn’t I?  The old “do as I say not as I do” idea that backfires on parents all the time.  The Greeks understood that the gods were a fickle bunch of unruly, all-powerful, self-indulgent forces that had to be appeased.  Law had to come from Man.
     There’s some suggestion that this was the original idea in the Torah.  Christian editors re-ordered the Old Testament Books so that the prophetic books appear right before the birth of Yeshua, but the traditional arrangement has the prophets disappearing about when people start fending for themselves.  Yahweh appears less and less as the books progress.
     Okay, I’ve danced around this for a while so I could lay the groundwork for my main point.
     A moral standard is not a set of rules.  The rules, rather, measure themselves according to the standard, which is an inbred compass that allows us to make judgments from one situation to the next.  It is just that--a compass.  A compass points--it doesn’t tell what will be there when you follow it to a destination.  It says “This Way Is North” but it doesn’t tell you what North means or what to expect from North.  It doesn’t even say how to get to North.  But it will tell you when you’re not going North.  It doesn’t say to us that “this is what is always wrong” and “this is what is always right”.  Instead, it says there is a wrong and there is a right, but you won’t know it until you come into a situation and assess it.  You can’t say killing is always wrong.  You can’t say sex outside marriage is always wrong.  You can’t say working on a certain day is always wrong.  Life doesn’t hand us conditions in which we can make those sorts of absolute proscriptions.  Rather, it’s a case by case process, which means we have to think it through.
     But the standard has apparently been brought with us, wired into our deep psyches by ages and ages of experience, which has changed and modified over time.
     It has evolved.
     So it seems that if evolution is true, it is demonstrated by the fact that we have a moral standard.  Morality is the result of long processes of learning and incorporating that learning into a mechanism whereby we can make decisions for the well-being of the species and the individual as circumstance requires.  Quite the reverse of the Right’s assertion would appear to be the case--that if evolution is wrong, then we have no basis for morality.
     So by teaching evolution--combined with, say, cultural anthropology--we can discuss and disseminate a sound moral standard, one with an actual basis in nature.  Not something dependent on a supernatural force that, if the stories are to be believed, breaks its own rules regularly.
     It kinda makes you wonder.
     I hope.

    * You may ask why I keep picking on the Bible here.  Are there not other holy writs wherein these examples might be found and pounced upon?  Sure.  But we here in this country, for the time being, base our haggling over this issue on the so-called Judeo-Christian Ethic.  People who would tell me how to live rely on the Bible as their source of authority.  So, that’s what I’ll pick on here.

copyright © 2005 by Mark W. Tiedemann