That Humanist

Morality – From Altruism through Religion to Neurobiology and Beyond
January 22, 2008, 2:53 pm
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Panda’s Thumb has an interesting post on Evolution of altruistic cooperation and communication in robot societies. Here we have dumb robots exhibiting behaviour many would think is exclusively in the domain of humanity. This goes some way to “increases our understanding of how cooperation, cheating and altruism arose.” Obviously this in turn sheds some light on morality.

There appears to be a tremendous amount of science uncovering aspects of our moral intuitions. Here’s some of the stuff I’m reading about right now:

  • The theory of reciprocal altruism (introduce by Robert Trivers) shows how we can evolve mechanisms of guilt, altruism, cheating, trust, reputation and cheat detection.
  • Kin selection explains how “some organisms tend to exhibit strategies that favor the reproductive success of their relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.” In other words, why I would give my life for that of my sister.
  • Inclusive fitness is a generalisation of kin selection, looking at how social behaviours rather than simply kin. For example, how the monkey will scream to warn its troop of an approaching leopard, but at the same time give away its own location.
  • Moral Psychology/Evolutionary Psychology/Neurobiology and more are uncovering fascinating details about how we think and make moral judgements. This includes the role of emotion in making a moral decision, and a set of moral foundations common to all of man, and a weighted universal moral grammar. Here I’m looking at some of the works by Jonathon Haidt, Marc Hauser and others.
  • Anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer theorise about how some of these innate human instincts guide our predilections towards religious belief, as does some of the work by moral psychologists. For example, how our feeling of disgust (in food) is captured by moral notions of disgust (“How could you perform that immoral act? It’s disgusting!”) and how religions (and other social systems) play on this .

Here we have a rich vein of science, spanning everything from philosophy, anthropology and psychology to social sciences, neurobiology and evolution. Yes, we even have robots displaying altruistic cooperation. How much more rewarding than the flat deistic notion of morality—”it is written!” Now we have real insights into how we rationally decide what is right or wrong, and how we evolved to have some innate notion of what is right and wrong, how these sometimes conflict, making us the humans that we are.


The Root of All Morality?
January 20, 2008, 9:33 pm
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After admitting that I’m an atheist (and humanist), I’m often asked “but what about morals?”  Morals are very important to all of us, and many believe that throwing out their religious-book-of-choice will throw out morality as well. 

A little reflection should rule this out.  There are many secular countries where the absence of a god does not result in a culture of chaos and iniquity—obviously a justice system, cultural norms and instincts can do the job just as well. The result may be different to what you may wish, but still stable.

I wonder why these people ask about morality in the absence of religion. The Edinburgh University Humanist Society has
an upcoming event on “Humanist Ethics for 21st century” in February, so I thought I’d start exploring this and other aspects of morality in a series of blog posts. In starting out, I’m left with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer one day:

  • Does removing religion from a society leave a gap that needs to be filled? Do we naturally feel the need to have a visible authority on the matter, traditionally handled by the priesthood? In promoting humanism, do we need to assuage any concerns about morality, and if so, how do we do this most effectively?
  • Do we understand enough about our natural moral instincts? For example, here’s what the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist principles says about morality:
    Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. If morality is intrinsic, I’d like to know more about it. What are our natural inclinations, and how do they differ across cultures? What are the evolutionary drivers for morality and what can science tell us?

In starting this quest, it’s probably worth defining just what morality is. My dictionary defines moral as:

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character
concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society

Of course, the right and wrong leads me immediately to think about good and evil as portrayed in religious texts. Religious folk would leave the ultimate arbiter to an imagined god. Right and wrong, demands more. Who is the arbiter? This is why that second clause in the definition is so important to me: “considered right or acceptable in a particular society.” But then, is “good” simply relative?

Darn, another question to add to the list…