In the essay below, the writer, Mr. Zindler, intends to show, not that religion theoretically is unnecessary for the support of a moral code, but that religious sentiment plays no role at all whatsoever in the formation of a moral code, which he credits entirely to instincts formed by natural selection.
It is a remarkably poor piece of reasoning, as it never overcomes these basic objections
(1) The argument indulges in the naturalistic fallacy. Merely because it happens to be a scientific fact that human beings have such-and-such an instinct or such-and-such a behavior, this creates no necessary moral obligation, in itself, to follow rather than fight that instinct. You cannot deduce an "ought" from an "is".
More to the point, even if altruistic behavior is favored by natural selection in the general case, no logical reason or pragmatic motive exists to justify acts of exceptional altruism that are called for in exceptional cases.
(2) It is a matter of common experience that there are simply opportunities to commit acts of evil that will not be detected nor punished by any human agency. Indeed, history frequently records cases where standing for the right results in painful death, whereas collaborating with the wrong will be rewarded, sometimes lavishly. There are evil men who die happily in bed.
Now, the Christians suppose there is a supernatural judge of human acts, who cannot be evaded or deceived. Whatever more abstract reasons one might have for being moral, or whatever one’s sense of personal honor, it is nonetheless true that the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient creature of perfect justice lends a powerful personal interest to resisting the temptation to commit undetectable and unpunishable crimes.
Removing fear of supernatural justice removes that powerful personal interest. Removing that powerful personal interest, we are left with a situation where only an abstract philosophical commitment or sense of personal honor prohibits a man from committing undiscoverable and unpunishable crimes.
In a purely naturalistic world-view, what is the foundation, if any, for an abstract philosophical commitment to morality or a sense of personal honor? This is the core of the argument: it is never addressed.
(3) If there is no foundation for an abstract philosophical commitment to morality or a sense of personal honor in a purely natural world view, then a purely naturalistic world view offers a pragmatic argument, based on self-interest, to be moral and just: hedonism or utilitarianism. This pragmatic argument cannot deal and does not deal with two exceptional cases. (a) Why avoid committing a crime that is undetectable and unpunishable, if, as a practical matter, the rewards outweigh the risks? (b) Contrariwise, why praise acts of self-sacrifice and heroism when, as a practical matter, self-sacrifice runs contrary to all pragmatic self-interest? The arguments never answers, or even addresses, this question.
The argument is so full of errors of fact and omissions of logic, almost one per line, that the only efficient way to rebut it, is to repeat the entire piece, and comment on each error or omission.
ETHICS WITHOUT GODS
by Frank R. Zindler
The Probing Mind, February 1985
One of the first questions Atheists are asked by true believers and doubters alike is, “If you don’t believe in God, there’s nothing to prevent you from committing crimes, is there? Without the fear of hell-fire and eternal damnation, you can do anything you like, can’t you?”
I am not sure if this counts as a straw man or not, but I must say this is a rather weak and confused way of expressing the question. A stronger and clearer way of asking the question is this: “We have frequently seen in life that some men benefit from committing evils for which they cannot or will not be punished in this life. Since atheism doubts or denies the possibility of supernatural punishment in an afterlife, what natural or pragmatic reasons can serve as a disincentive for committing these unpunishable evils?
If there is no supernatural ground for a morals, is there some ground aside from merely natural or pragmatic, for a code of behavior? If so, what is this ground? If not, then what is the moral obligation to abide by merely natural or pragmatic code of behavior?”
It is hard to believe that even intelligent and educated people could hold such an opinion, but they do!
Ad hominem. If an author expresses contempt for the opposing viewpoint at the beginning of an essay, he is writing an editorial, not a sincere philosophical engagement of the issues.
It seems never to have occurred to them that the Greeks and Romans, whose gods and goddesses were something less than paragons of virtue, nevertheless led lives not obviously worse than those of the Baptists of Alabama!
Ad Hominem again, and irrelevant. The topic is whether one needs a belief in gods to have a moral code. The pagans were theists. Hence, the observation that pagans have a moral code does not help the atheist position here.
The observation is also false. There are several practices of pagan times that civilized men recoil from, and which Christianity condemns, ranging from slavery to sodomy to infanticide to patria potestas (the legal power a husband had, in Roman law, to kill his disobedient child or wife). It is no argument to reply that modern pagans and atheists, communists and nihilists so on, do not see the evils in these things, for the statement was that the highly civilized Baptists in Alabama lived lives not obviously worse.
There is also a bit of bait and switch going on here. We are discussing what moral code (if any) can be erected on an atheist foundation. We might possibly also be discussing whether this moral code is inferior to one erected on an theist foundation. We are not discussing about how the pagans and the Baptists "lived their lives", but, rather, what was their moral code. If the Baptists of Alabama are relaxed and indifferent about living up to the strictures of their moral code, and the Spartans are strict and exact about living up to theirs, this does not necessarily tell us anything about the comparative superiority of one code over the other.
Moreover, pagans such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius - although their systems are not suitable for us today - managed to produce ethical treatises of great sophistication, a sophistication rarely if ever equaled by Christian moralists.
This statement is irrelevant, false and outrageous.
Irrelevant, because Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius were theists, men in our camp, not atheists, men in your camp, so they are not relevant to the argument. We are talking about the foundations of morality. Marcus Aurelius was a stoic, and the foundations of stoicism were a belief in Pronia, or the divine mind of the universe. Aristotle argued that the good was an objective truth that issued from an unmoved mover, a perfect creator and sustainer of the intellectual universe, a pure idea.
False, because the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and others equals or surpasses the moral writings of Aristotle (who, after all, believed in slavery, and did not list mercy as a virtue): the sophistication of European canon law or the Catholic Catechism is surpasses that of the pagan writers: they simply did not cover every topic in every detail, and were not as well organized.
Outrageous, because the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and the great-souled man of Aristotle is something we are sorely in want of these days. When we are living in a time of moral corruption, weakness, ignobility and shamelessness, is not the hour to dismiss the giant philosophers of antiquity as irrelevant. The writer of this article is not merely illogical, he lacks experience and wisdom.
The answer to the questions posed above is, of course, "Absolutely not!"
Yes, that is the answer to the question as posed. That question is not the real question under discussion. The question under discussion is what moral code of behavior can be erected on merely natural grounds. The answer to that is not so absolute: the best we can deduce from natural grounds is a pragmatic, hedonistic, or utilitarian code of behavior. Someone not interested in acting pragmatically, who is willing to suffer a loss to his self-interest, can, of course, under a merely pragmatic code of behavior, do anything he wants. A pragmatic code can tell him that practical consequences are likely to follow, and it can warn him such things might not be in his self-interest, but cannot tell him what he ought or ought not do: it can call a life of crime self-destructive, and it can call self-destructive behavior impractical, but not call it immoral.
The behavior of Atheists is subject to the same rules of sociology, psychology, and neurophysiology that govern the behavior of all members of our species, religionists included.
We can hope Mr. Zindler will somehow show us the connection between what he calls “rules of sociology, psychology, and neurophysiology” (which would be scientific facts if there were such rules) and moral imperatives. If be taken seriously, this essay would have to overcome what is called the “Naturalistic fallacy” that is, this essay will have to prove that one can deduce a moral imperative from a statement of fact. At least a serious essay would address the issue, and make a bold attempt to overcome this fatal objection. The essay never returns to this point.
Now, let us not give this writer too much credit. He has fallen into the common habit among intellectuals of assuming things not in evidence have been proved. I have studied both sociology and psychology. They are in such a primitive state that they can hardly be called sciences. Certainly no general facts or principles have emerged from their various studies and assertions that are worthy of universal assent. This is not physics. This is not even economics. He is making reference to an inchoate body of study as if from it we can deduce universal principles of any kind, much less universal moral principles. I doubt one can even deduce general principles. (A universal principle is always the case; a general principle is generally the case, but admits of exceptions. Newton's Third Law is a universal principle; the Law of Supply and Demand is a general law.)
In reality, the moral reasoning a man under the stress of a difficult moral decision never makes reference to any finding of sociology or psychology or neurobiology, except, perhaps, when he is looking for ground to excuse his crime on an insanity plea.
Moreover, despite protestations to the contrary, we may assert as a general rule that when religionists practice ethical behavior, it isn't really due to their fear of hell-fire and damnation, nor is it due to their hopes of heaven.
This is irrelevant, false, and arrogant.
It is irrelevant because we are discussing whether there is a moral obligation to abide by merely natural or pragmatic code of behavior: The author here wants to argue that a supernatural motive, fear of an eternal and almighty God, is an insufficient ground for an objective moral code. Instead he makes the assertion (a gratuitous assertion at this point: perhaps he will support it later) that the theists are not motivated by what they say their motivations are. But even granting that point, it would nonetheless be true that belief in a Godhead, just as belief in the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, or the Pronia of the Stoics, is a sufficient groundwork on which to base an objective moral code; for it supposes a legislator who would have the authority to make the eternal laws under discussion, and imbue them with moral gravity and force.
The statement is false and betrays that Mr. Zindler, like most intellectuals, does not know any real people. I used to be an atheist. I never gave to charity, never forgave, never sought to check my pride, never sought to practice chastity. My moral code, based in pragmatic reasoning, saw no reason for these things. As a Christian I am morally obligated to follow the commandments of God on these and other matters; and I do. So, I am an eyewitness: and I testify that my religious conversion altered my moral code and behavior.
Since I was and am the same person before and after, living in the same circumstance, all other factors are constant. I offer myself as an almost-perfect scientific test of the proposition. Only my “religiousity” changed. Surely the alleged rules of sociology, psychology, and neurophysiology did not change before and after November 23rd of 2003.
This writer is putting himself forward as an expert witness, asking you to dismiss the testimony of an eyewitness. I am inside my mind and he is not. He is not a mind-reader. On what grounds, then, does he make the extraordinary assertion that he knows better than do I what goes on in my own mind? Is it some deduction from the so-called sciences of sociology and psychology? I would say he needs to offer not merely clear proof, but overwhelming proof, to carry the point.
In general, it is arrogant for a remote stranger to tell an eyewitness not to believe his own eyes. If I say I saw a UFO, or a ghost, it requires some argument stronger than a mere gratuitous assertion to prove to me that I did not, especially coming from someone who as not there at the time, and does not know my reputation for truthfulness in the community.
Ethical behavior - regardless of who the practitioner may be - results always from the same causes and is regulated by the same forces, and has nothing to do with the presence or absence of religious belief. The nature of these causes and forces is the subject of this essay.
Always? It has nothing to do with the presence or absence of religious belief? This pronouncement is beyond extraordinary: it is ridiculous on its face. It would be like saying the Spanish Inquisition had nothing to do with religious belief.
If nothing else, belief in a god would influence the words, actions, priorities, and psychological comfort of the believer. If he thinks that Odin sees every unseen act, it will modify his behavior. If his thinks (rightly or wrongly) that Allah forbids drinking alcohol or fornicating with goats, this will alter his emotional attitude toward drunkenness and beastility, what laws he will obey or break, whether he feels ashamed or shameless, and what he teaches his children.
Since this assertion is so jaw-droppingly extraordinary, we should expect Mr. Zindler to produce extraordinary proof to support it. He not only produces no proof, he never returns to this point.
As human beings, we are social animals.
A classical Aristotelian observation. It is true for all of us but hermits.
Our sociality is the result of evolution, not choice.
An unsupported statement. I would speculate that there is an element of choice involved. You can choose to be a hermit. You chose to be antisocial rather than social. The aggregate choices of multitudes of mankind are limited by the aggregate choices of previous generations. This slow and mighty process can, perhaps, be called evolution, but only by analogy: for it consists of factors created by human choice, not by mindless natural processes in the ecology.
Natural selection has equipped us with nervous systems which are peculiarly sensitive to the emotional status of our fellows.
Among our kind, emotions are contagious, and it is only the rare psychopathic mutants among us who can be happy in the midst of a sad society.
This writer comes from a different planet than the one I live on. I would have been very sad, for example, when surrounded by the happy drug-intoxicated hippy throngs, blaring noise, and awful smells, at Woodstock, which is my personal vision of hell. I have also been particularly happy, even elated, when all those around me where long-faced and morose with concern.
I suppose, at best, we can admit that there is some tendency for most people to take their cues from their kith and kin. This is modified by a number of factors, and does not apply equally across all parts of life. We might take our religious emotions from our Church but our political emotions from our newspaper, and other emotions relating to other parts of life from other circles of friends. During witch hysteria, people accused their neighbors, and applauded when the witch was hanged.
The castaway schoolboys in LORD OF THE FLIES also took their emotional cues from their peers; an admirable moral code was not the result. There are sufficient examples from non-fiction, or even in personal experience, that I need not dwell on this point.
It is in our nature to be happy in the midst of happiness, sad in the midst of sadness. It is in our nature, fortunately, to seek happiness for our fellows at the same time as we seek it for ourselves. Our happiness is greater when it is shared.
This explanation overlooks that slavery, piracy, jealousy, and race-hatred are common among our species, goodwill and civility a rare exception.
Mr. Zindler is being simplistic and overbroad here. The most we can say is that there is some tendency among human being to seek a certain amount of group cohesion: like pack animals, we like to have friends and brothers-in-arms. This is counterbalanced by an opposite tendency to delight in the wounds and screams of our enemies, and the vaunt when we have despoiled them. That is also a pack animal tendency.
The pack animal tendency is counterbalanced by an opposite tendency to exclude and be excluded by foreigners and sojourners, or members of your own group who have been expelled.
This writer says it is our nature to be happy in the midst of happiness. Mr. Zindler talks as if he never met a glum Jew at Christmas, I suppose; or an angry Socialist sour in the midst of the unparalleled peace and plenty ushered in my the free market; or even a bitter Islamic fascist, a son of wealthy and privileged Oil Money, educated in the West, glaring up at the soaring skyscrapers of New York with hate slowly hardening into insanity in his heart. These are all cases where we do not share the happiness around us. Generally it is not shared if for any reason we think the happiness is not our own, or not legitimate.
Nature also has provided us with nervous systems which are, to a considerable degree, imprintable. To be sure, this phenomenon is not as pronounced or as ineluctable as it is, say, in geese - where a newly hatched gosling can be "imprinted" to a toy train and will follow it to exhaustion, as if it were its mother. Nevertheless, some degree of imprinting is exhibited by humans. The human nervous system appears to retain its capacity for imprinting well into old age, and it is highly likely that the phenomenon known as "love-at-first-sight" is a form of imprinting. Imprinting is a form of attachment behavior, and it helps us to form strong interpersonal bonds. It is a major force which helps us to break through the ego barrier to create "significant others" whom we can love as much as ourselves.
The statement is false and irrelevant. Ducks imprint and humans do not. There is no psychological evidence (none known to me, but I am not an expert) that says humans form imprints like this. Maybe certain babies below the age of reason can be observed clinging and grasping, or reacting to smiley faces.
If he goes on to say that atheism is an imprinted behavior, and that he is an atheist because it was imprinted on him by sociological, psychological and neurobiological rules, I will be impressed with his consistency.
If he does not say this, the statement is irrelevant. While it might interest a neurobiologist to notice a baby’s suckling behavior can imprint on a baby bottle or something, it is of no interest to a man making a difficult moral decision, or to a moralist investigating the logical connections between moral imperatives, to investigate how irrational animals form instinctive emotional attachments. A moral decision is not an irrational emotional attachment.
Mr. Zindler is off-topic here. As if he were making an analogy to human moral decisions to the way a watch works, and paused to tell us about the mechanics of watchmaking. To the degree that actions in our nervous system are automatic and animalistic, they have no bearing on human moral decisions, except, perhaps, as objects to avoid or overcome. Indeed, it is exactly the automatic neural processes, the things over which we have no control, that we excuse utterly from moral considerations: that is the meaning of an insanity plea. Whatever a man cannot help, for those things he cannot be blamed or applauded.
So far, this article has no offered even a hint of how to escape the Naturalist Fallacy. If someone tells me my desire to murder my rich uncle for the inheritance is an imprinted behavior, does that mean I should use my human free will to oppose and overcome the imprinting, or does that mean I should accede to it, as if it had some moral authority to obligate me to obey? Likewise, if someone tells me that love at first sight is a chemical condition only, does that mean I should use my human free will to oppose and overcome the imprinting, or does that mean I should accede to it, as if it had some moral authority to obligate me to obey? What about an addiction to morphine? Do I oppose it or do I accede to it? What about a curiosity about morphine before I am addicted?
It should be clear that the presence or absence of imprinted behaviors makes no difference to the moral choices I make or should make: it merely makes the enforcement of certain moral choices more difficult or less.
These two characteristics of our nervous system - emotional suggestibility and attachment imprintability - although they are the foundation of all altruistic behavior and art, are thoroughly compatible with the selfishness characteristic of all behaviors created by the process of natural selection.
Let us break this into two sentences:
(1) Emotional suggestibility and attachment imprintability are the foundation of all altruistic behavior and art.
An extraordinary statement demands extraordinary proof. A single contrary statement undermines a universal.
When Mr. Zindler says ALL altruistic art is founded on emotional suggestibility and imprinting, What evidence do we have for this dogmatic assertion? Suppose I said that Picasso was motivated by sheer hatred for mankind, or that Cervantes wrote DON QUIXOTE out of scorn for the knightly class, then I will have one example of art not prompted by altruism, or by emotional suggestibility and attachment imprintability.
I am an artist myself. Let me assure you, as an eyewitness, that my art does not take its cues from a ducklike imprinting behavior.
(2) Emotional suggestibility and attachment imprintability are thoroughly compatible with the selfishness characteristic of all behaviors created by the process of natural selection.
Again, this is a gratuitous assertion. Altruistic behaviors such as childrearing might be declared to be “compatible” with “the selfishness characteristic created by the process of natural selection” but altruistic behaviors such as anonymous charity to strangers, the pity of a good Samaritan, or the heroism of a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his squad, cannot so be explained by reference to selfishness, not if the word “selfishness” has any meaning whatever.
That is to say, to a large extent behaviors which satisfy ourselves will be found, simultaneously, to satisfy our fellows, and vice-versa.
It undermines the entire argument to admit of exceptions here. If human selfishness and human altruism can overlap only "to a large extent" then what about the cases where there is no overlap?
I am curious how this writer would deal with cases of unavoidable conflicts of interest, such as when there can only be one winner at a sports contest, or only one seat left on a lifeboat.
This should not surprise us when we consider that among the societies of our nearest primate cousins, the great apes, social behavior is not chaotic, even if gorillas do lack the Ten Commandments!
Another irrelevant statement. Someone who lacks the Ten Commandments is a gentile, not a creature of social chaos. Christian philosophy asserts that there is a natural morality, a natural law, which all men can see and follow through their reason.
It is again irrelevant because Mr. Zindel is here anthropomorphizing Ape behavior, talking as if an Ape obeyed its conscience when it mere is controlled by its instincts. If the behavior is instinctive, the organism has no choice in the matter: it is not an act of obedience to follow one's programming, but the reaction of a machine.
The young chimpanzee does not need an oracle to tell it to honor its mother and to refrain from killing its brothers and sisters.
Again, the alleged honor in which chimpanzees hold their parents is an instinctive behavior based on their natural animalistic passions and affections. A human separated from his mother at birth and reunited with her, if he followed the rule of honoring parents, would honor her, even if his natural inclinations prompted him to give his filial loyalty only to the woman who raised him. No chimpanzee would or could make that moral decision, since no one could explain to a chimp in words, or by showing him a birth certificate, who his natural birth mother was.
This statement is irrelevant to the point of folly. Chimps are not rational beings. They do not face what we would call moral conflicts: they follow their passions and instincts. They have no ability to question, oppose, or overcome their instincts and passions.
And, in any case, they do sometimes kill their brothers and sisters.
Of course, family squabbles and even murder have been observed in ape societies, but such behaviors are exceptions, not the norm.
This statement undermines this thread of the argument. If human behavior is based on natural selection, and natural selection has created primate societies where, by and large, we are conditioned to protect our kin and murder our rivals, then natural selection is also responsible for the rare cases where we murder our kin. The protective acts are not praiseworthy and the murderous acts not blameworthy.
The author here is perhaps conflating a statistical norm with a moral norm. Merely because a behavior is unusual or rare does not mean it was or was not is not created by natural selection.
So too it is in human societies, everywhere and at all times.
If the author means to show that the moral code of all groups of men is the same, he is talking utter rubbish. The murder rate among hunter-gatherers like the Bushmen in Africa is extraordinarily higher than among civilized men, even in wartime, even in our most lawless inner-city ghettos. Murdering captured foes was the norm among Aztecs: they staged elaborate ‘flower wars’ merely for the purpose of capturing enemies alive to sacrifice. For that matter, the murder rate among the Irish is not the same as the murder rate among the Swedes.
And, if we consider other behaviors aside from murder, such as polygamy or girl-infanticide, the rates are very different between Western and Eastern cultures, between Christian and Pagan eras in the West.
If Mr. Zindler here means to argue that natural selection imprints a natural form of moral code on human beings, he has also to make the additional argument that culture, laws, customs, and religion, have little or no effect, or else he cannot conclude that religion, the prime carrier of culture, has no effect.
The African apes - whose genes are ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent identical to ours - go about their lives as social animals, cooperating in the living of life, entirely without the benefit of clergy and without the commandments of Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy.
Again, irrelevant rubbish. No Christian argues that men without the Ten Commandments are utterly immoral. Indeed, as a matter of logic utter immorality is impossible to practice: even pirates must honor their bargains they make to divide the swag.
The whole point of moral philosophy, Christian or pagan, is to discover the moral obligations we human have not to act like apes.
Before we move on, notice the parenthetical comment at the beginning of that sentence:
The African apes - whose genes are ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent identical to ours--
Ho ho. A gratuitous little aside meant to put across the notion that humans are like apes. Well, Dr. Zaius and the other scientists of Gorilla City do not agree, and the Pope of the Ape Church recently decreed in the Apish Encyclical Simiae Vitae… wait! What was that? You tell me that Apes do not have scientists, Ape Church does not have a Pope, and that Gorilla City is from a superhero funny book? But, Mr. Zindler tells us Ape genes are ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent identical to ours! Of course, if that one or two percent controls the human capacity for moral reasoning, then analogies to Apes have no bearing on the discussion. One might as well talk about how dutifully my clock keeps time without the benefit of a religious imperative to be dutiful and prompt, and say my grandfather clock is ninety-eight percent as tall as my grandfather.
It is further cheering to learn that sociobiologists have even observed altruistic behavior among troops of baboons. More than once, in troops attacked by leopards, aged, post reproduction-age males have been observed to linger at the rear of the escaping troop and to engage the leopard in what often amounts to a suicidal fight. As the old male delays the leopard's pursuit by sacrificing his very life, the females and young escape and live to fulfill their several destinies.
Again, this whole line of argument is irrelevant to the issue raised at the beginning.
Eskimos also put out their old and weak on the ice to die when the tribe cannot support them. For that matter, the Spartans flung weak and unwanted children into a chasm called the Apothetae at the foot of mount Taygetos. The mere fact that tribes of baboons sacrifice the old and weak in suicidal combat with leopards does not tell us whether the laws and customs or the Eskimos or the Spartans is morally correct, and certainly does not give us a ground for discovering or enacting an objective moral code.
Among humans, it is the young men we send into combat, not the old and post-sexual. What difference would it make, let us say, to Ismay, when he decided to take a seat on the last lifeboat leaving the Titanic, that baboons act this way or that way. Should he have given his seat to a lady or a child if that gift means he must die in the cold north seas? If there is no life after death, then there is no personal reward for this self-sacrifice. If there is a life after death and a reward awaiting him, the action becomes not only moral, it becomes a matter of practical self-interest. That is what this discussion is about.
The heroism which we see acted out, from time to time, by our fellow men and women, is far older than their religions.
Since there is no evidence that homo sapiens ever existed without religion, this statement is not merely irrelevant, it is probably false. Again, no Christian argues that heroism does not exist among gentiles. That is not a point at issue. For that matter, no Christian should argue that heroism did not exist among the individual soldiers of the Soviet Union, an avowedly atheist empire: but to argue that the Soviet Union was not evil, and that the evil did not spring directly from its materialistic, naturalistic philosophy, that is a more difficult argument to make.
Long before the gods were created by the fear-filled minds of our less courageous ancestors, heroism and acts of self-sacrificing love existed. They did not require a supernatural excuse then, nor do they require one now.
Ad hominem. It is hard to convince a religion filled with martyrs that courage is lacking among the religious. And again, irrelevant. The Aztec warriors where bold and heroic, and, for that matter, the suicide of Cato of Utica was as heroic as any pagan can imagine. The question of whether human sacrifice or suicide is moral or immoral is not addressed by these facts. What Mr. Zindler here has to prove is that religious sentiment makes no difference to moral choices: in effect, he has to prove that Cato would have committed suicide even if his religion and culture taught suicide results in condemnation to eternal hell; and Mr. Zindel has to prove that their Aztec would have built elaborate temples and slain thousands of screaming human sacrifices even if their religion had held human life to be absolutely sacrosanct.
Just so we do not lose the thread of the argument: It is not whether or not baboons, gentiles, or atheists do or do not perform acts of self-sacrificing heroism at issue here. At issue are two closely related questions: (1) Does the Christian religion (the article is not really concerned with any other) provide a reason for such acts lacking in atheism? (2) In a purely naturalistic metaphysics, what is the ground of morality? If we say self-interest is the sole ground of morality, then self-sacrifice is excluded.
Given the general fact, then, that evolution has equipped us with nervous systems biased in favor of social, rather than antisocial, behaviors, is it not true, nevertheless, that antisocial behavior does exist, and it exists in amounts greater than a reasonable ethicist would find tolerable?
I am troubled that the article merely skips past the only interesting point raised so far. The question here is what does a reasonable ethicist find tolerable and on what grounds? How do we know right from wrong? If (as is here alleged) evolution instilled us with a conscience, why is there sin and evil in the world? How can man know what is right and do what is wrong? I wish at least one of these deep questions were addressed in an article allegedly about the foundations of ethics.
Alas, this is true. But it is true largely because we live in worlds far more complex than the Paleolithic world in which our nervous systems originated.
A false statement. The Paleolithic world is not simpler than ours: it takes just as much skill to nap a flint in the Stone Ages as to forge a horseshoe in the Iron Age or program a computer in the Information Age. The murder rate in the Paleolithic was higher than in more civilized ages: most of the skulls we dig up from those ages show death was by bludgeon or tomahawk. Also, the Paleolithic man were religious (as their burial customs and cave paintings imply), and I venture to guess that they knew right from wrong the way any rational creature does. None of this has anything to do with the complexities created by the Agrarian Revolution in the Neolithic, or any technical progress since then.
I am baffled that an atheist, in the midst of an anti-religious tract, would trot out the myth of the Garden of Eden as if it were proven by archeology that our ancestors lived long and happy lives with a low infant mortality rate. He could with more realism trot out the story of Cain and Abel if he wanted an accurate picture of those times.
In any case, even if our world is more complex than those of the Stone Age men, it is not because we live in a more complex world that there is sin and evil.
To understand the ethical significance of this fact, we must digress a bit and review the evolutionary history of human behavior.
Today, heredity can control our behavior in only the most general of ways, it cannot dictate precise behaviors appropriate for infinitely varied circumstances. In our world, heredity needs help.
In the world of a fruit fly, by contrast, the problems to be solved are few in number and highly predictable in nature. Consequently, a fruit fly's brain is largely "hard-wired" by heredity. That is to say, most behaviors result from environmental activation of nerve circuits which are formed automatically by the time of emergence of the adult fly. This is an extreme example of what is called instinctual behavior. Each behavior is coded for by a gene or genes which predispose the nervous system to develop certain types of circuits and not others, and where it is all but impossible to act contrary to the genetically predetermined script.
The world of a mammal - say a fox - is much more complex and unpredictable than that of the fruit fly. Consequently, the fox is born with only a portion of its neuronal circuitry hard-wired. Many of its neurons remain "plastic" throughout life. That is, they may or may not hook up with each other in functional circuits, depending upon environmental circumstances. Learned behavior is behavior which results from activation of these environmentally conditioned circuits. Learning allows the individual mammal to learn - by trial and error - greater numbers of adaptive behaviors than could be transmitted by heredity. A fox would be wall-to-wall genes if all its behaviors were specified genetically.
All this is irrelevant to this issue at hand.
With the evolution of humans, however, environmental complexity increased out of all proportion to the genetic and neuronal changes distinguishing us from our simian ancestors. This partly was due to the fact that our species evolved in a geologic period of great climatic flux - the Ice Ages - and partly was due to the fact that our behaviors themselves began to change our environment. The changed environment in turn created new problems to be solved. Their solutions further changed the environment, and so on. Thus, the discovery of fire led to the burning of trees and forests, which led to destruction of local water supplies and watersheds, which led to the development of architecture with which to build aqueducts, which led to laws concerning water-rights, which led to international strife, and on and on.
Next we discover that the elephant got his trunk because a crocodile pulled his nose.
I'm sorry, but the writer is indulging in a “just so” story. The discovery of fire did not “lead to” the burning of forests except in the general way that this tool made it possible for some Promethean thinker of the Stone Ages to deduce how to and then decide to burn the forest for the sake of crop production, an invention that neither you nor I, dropped into those ages and raised in those circumstances, would think of. The development of aqueducts was because of some unrecorded Edison from Ur or Eridu or Mohenjo-Daro. Laws concerning water rights are not something that simply happens: king and wise men in counsel decide and determine these things.
Mr. Zindler here is trying to ignore the gulf that separates fox behavior from human behavior. (As I mentioned above, the Pope of the Apes recently declared in this encyclical Vulpinae Vitae that foxes are not like human beings in their moral thinking.)