Tag Archives: The Righteous Mind

How does C.S. Lewis’s moral argument stand up against evolutionary explanations of moral development?

My online book club (The Bookcaneers) is reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis as our first book. In the first part of the book Lewis presents the Moral Argument as a clue to the existence of God. Briefly stated, his argument is that the universality of a moral sense of Right and Wrong points us to a Lawgiver.

One question presented in the Book Club discussion was this one: How would Lewis respond to modern the arguments from evolutionary biology that say that our moral senses are the result of an evolutionary process – and thus do not point to something “outside” the system, like a personal God? 

Here was my take on the question:

First, our questions are not unique to our time, nor were they foreign to Lewis. During Lewis’s time, the idea that morality was the result of an evolutionary process was pretty common. In fact, he addresses this when he describes the “herd instinct” in book 1, chapter 2. The idea was that evolutionary development which helped the “herd” would be passed on and these evolutionary developments are what are identified as “morality.”

For a time, though, this idea fell out of favor among evolutionary biologists because of what is called the “free rider” problem. “Free riders” in the herd (the selfish, amoral ones) would take advantage of the goodwill of the herd it it would be those free riders that passed on their genes, not the “kinder” individuals. For biologists who argued that evolution was strictly individualistic, “morality” doesn’t arise because of an evolutionary process, but as result of social structures within society. As far as I am aware (via The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt) a significant number of evolutionary biologists, including atheist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), still hold to this view.

However, with the advent of “moral psychology” the “herd” theory is making comeback, and Jonathan Haidt presents a more complex version of this view in The Righteous Mind. He refers to it as the “hive” mind and contrasts it with the “primate” mind. The “hive” mind causes us to be more kind and compassionate, to care about fairness and freedom, to believe in the “sanctity” of things, etc. This “hive” mind wars against the “primate” mind which just wants us to be selfish.

First, I’m unconvinced by Haidt’s conclusions. He presents plausible explanations, but he in no way proves them. And he acknowledges that his view is a minority position.

But how would Lewis respond? Lewis acknowledges the possibility of “herd instincts” which arise out of some natural process, but he argues that these instincts are not what he is referring to when he talks about the Moral Law. He observes that we sometimes have multiple competing moral instincts, but that we do not blindly follow those moral instincts. Instead, we judge between those instincts. The Moral Law is not any one of those instincts, but is the judge between those instincts saying, “follow this instinct here” or “that instinct there.” In the language of Haidt, the Moral Law is what judges between the “hive” mind and the “primate” mind, or between the different “intuitions” of the hive mind (freedom, compassion, authority, sanctity, etc.)

In fact, this is exactly what we see Haidt do. He makes moral judgments between the instincts, but he isn’t able to justify his choice. He believes the moral sense to be disconnected from any true Right and Wrong, but he makes plenty of moral judgments. I see the Moral Law at work in his book, even though he would deny it. A description of our moral instincts can provide a plausible explanation for what is, but the Moral Law allows us to judge what ought, and this inescapable sense of the ought is what Lewis refers to as the Moral Law and points us to God.

Two more notes on the topic:

1) If we see Moral Law as only social convention, or the product of instinct, then at a minimum we have no way to really say that Nazi Germany was evil, at least in some objective sense. At a minimum, we could only say that we don’t like it, or that it causes suffering. But again, we can’t say that suffering itself is evil (for the simple reason that evil doesn’t exist).

2) Eminent biologist/geneticist Francis Collins (led the human genome project) discusses this in his book “The Language of God”. He himself was an atheist who came to faith in large part because of Mere Christianity. He argues that while evolution could account for some moral traits like “reciprocal altruism” (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) he doesn’t believe it can ever account for true altruism – such as Jesus’s commands to love your enemy, or to help those who have no possible way of helping you in return, etc.

What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

I saw an article headline recently that said something along the lines of “Atheists are smarter because they overcome religious instincts.” I confess I didn’t read the article, but it did get me thinking, What should we do with our moral and religious instincts?

First, it’s worth noting that we do, indeed, have moral and religious instincts. Sociologist/Moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, talks in The Righteous Mind of people having moral “taste buds” which we use to intuitively make moral judgments. He describes his own journey of discovering this principle and  his surprise at how universal those moral senses are. Some cultures consciously ignore or downplay certain senses, but according to Haidt we’re all basically pre-wired to make moral judgments, to distinguish between right and wrong.

Along the same lines, we all have a religious sense, a sense of the transcendent, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense that there is a God (or are gods). Even the article mentioned above (which I presume to be anti-religion) concedes that people are pre-wired with a “religious instinct.”

The question, then, is how do we interpret that instinct and what should we do with it?

Haidt interprets both morality and religion as products of evolution processes. Unlike other atheists he sees them as good things which help us work together and therefore accomplish more overall good in the world. But for Haidt they don’t correspond to any reality outside of themselves. We have a “moral sense” but there is not “objective morality.” Morality is merely a product of brains and our civilization. We have an intuition that things are right and wrong, but there are no corresponding abstract “rights” and “wrongs” which could ultimately act as judges.

Haidt doesn’t indicate that we should therefore jettison/overcome either the religious or moral instincts (even though he has, so to speak, seen through them.) But other’s do.

But there’s another way to interpret these religious instincts and moral senses, that they correspond to an objective morality. Haidt’s metaphor of “senses” is apt. Our senses do provide us with an “evolutionary advantage” in the sense that they help us to survive in a hostile world. But they also correspond to the world outside of ourselves. In fact, the two are interrelated. The fact that I can taste spoiled food helps me survive, because it corresponds to the reality of spoiled food. Likewise, moral instincts that have both helped us accomplish great things and correspond to a moral reality outside ourselves, to real categories of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. The same with religion. Perhaps we should understand the universality of religion as evidence that there is a corresponding religious and spiritual reality, that we have a sense of God because there is a God.

This is in fact what the Bible says. The Bible says that all of us have a sense that God exists and that there is a moral law (to which we fall short.) We have religious and moral senses. The Bible also says that those senses and instincts have been dulled and twisted by sin. We all can see that there is a God and that there is a moral law, but we do not see those things clearly.

So what do we do with those instincts? Should we “overcome” them? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of being “too clever by half.” The Bible also has a name for that, it’s called “suppressing the truth.” Or, should we seek greater clarity? Let’s not try to see “through” religion and morality. Let’s try to see their reality more clearly.

Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind_I finished this book about a week ago and would have liked to have a more thorough review. Time doesn’t permit, so instead, I want to share a few brief thoughts. I suspect several of the themes of this book will work their way into my regular thinking on a few topics.

1) Haidt is a brilliant psychologist. He does a great job of explaining the way people think. I found myself fully convinced by his first two points which were that (a) our moral intuitions drive our moral reasoning most of the time and (b) that our moral intuitions are based on six moral “taste buds”.

2) Related: Everyone should familiarize themselves with Moral Foundation Theory and how/why it divides conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. This by itself is worth the price of the book.

3) My deepest critique of the book is not of Haidt as a moral psychologist, but Haidt as a philosopher. He offers an account of the origin of morality and religion that is purely evolutionary. For Haidt, both arose out of natural group selection because they helped groups outperform other groups. He is, therefore, relatively friendly towards religion. It’s helpful, for Haidt, it (along with morality) is an illusion.

4) This leaves Haidt’s “oughts” hollow. He ultimately argues for a sort of utilitarianism that is less individualistic, but does not (cannot) explain how he got to that conclusion. He makes many moral judgments throughout the book, but doesn’t have any of the tools to back them up. He just assumes that they will be self-evident to the reader.

5) The end result is that a lot of the descriptive parts of the book are very helpful for understanding individuals, politics, and culture. And a lot of his main points coincide very well with a biblical point of view. For instance, the Bible also teaches that we have “innate” moral intuitions. The Bible also bases its moral laws on various moral foundations (harm/care, fairness, proportionality, liberty, sanctity, etc.). The Bible also teaches that those intuitions can be trained through culture, law, parents, etc. The Bible also teaches that we operate as both individuals and as groups, etc. And these principles can be helpful in how we relate with people in different groups, even how believers share the gospel, etc. And yet, chunks of the book will nevertheless be frustrating.

6) One final thought: Haidt’s description of moral intuition as taste buds is apt. The problem is that for Haidt these don’t correspond to objective reality. I think they do. I think that these taste buds are more than just helpful tools to allow us to work together as groups to accomplish amazing things. I think they correspond to an objective moral reality. Good really is good. Evil really is evil. And the fact that we have the sense to see that, is evidence of that reality, and evidence of an ultimate law giver to his given us moral minds to see it.