Friday, December 09, 2011

Altruistic Mice and God-Independent Morality

A person does not have to believe in God to have absurd and irrational beliefs that bypass reason.

One of the beliefs relevant here is the belief that evidence of altruism in animals helps to prove that morality does not come from God. In fact, it is quite easy to demonstrate that proof of altruism in animals has nothing to do with morality.

This discussion is being prompted by an article in Wired magazine on a scientific study in which Rats Free Trapped Friends, Hint at Universal Empathy.

This is a study of two rats in a cage. One is free to move around the cage, while the other is in a very confined space. In this research, the free rat (relatively speaking) routinely releases the confined rat - allegedly for no reason other than an act of kindness.

The article itself doesn't mention morality. The error I am pointing to does not appear in the article. It appears in blog posts and comments about the article in which authors point to the article as proof that Christians are wrong about the possibility of morality without God.

Those blog posts and comments are written by people demonstrating such an eagerness to embrace a "Christians are wrong" conclusion that they utterly blind themselves to reason in order to reach that conclusion. In this, their behavior is much like those who abandon reason to reach the conclusion that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old or that the story of Noah and the flood is literally true.

I am going to ask those people to pause for a moment and think. Here are some questions to answer.

Question 1: What makes altruism moral?

Maybe altruism is evil?

You cannot make the leap from, "X shows altruism" to "X shows morality" until you can make the leap from altruism to morality. So, how do you cover that ground? How do you leap the chasm from "mice behave altruistically" to "mice do that which they morally ought to do"?

Does the free rat have a moral obligation to free the confined rat? Does the confined rat have a right to be free? Do these applications of moral concepts even make sense?

Question 2: What is the moral quality of predatory and parasitic behavior?

Evolution may have created altruistic rats - at least in these circumstances. However, evolution also created predators and parasites.

Evolution created a situation where, when a pair of male lions takes over a pride, they will kill the offspring of the previous lions. Is this moral or immoral? Or do moral concepts not apply?

What about the lion killing the antelope for food - a rather bloody and pain-inducing activity on the part of the lion. Is it lion acting immorally, or virtuously? Or, again, is it simply the case that we cannot apply moral terms to this behavior? If it is the latter, then why are we attaching moral terms to the altruism demonstrated above?

A wasp lays its eggs inside the living and paralyzed body of a spider. Moral or immoral? Or neither?

A bird lays its eggs in the nest of another bird that will then raise this chick as its own. Is this a morally impermissible act of exploitation? Does it make sense to apply moral terms?

What about taking the eggs of a bird and eating them. Is that immoral?

Demonstrating that certain behavior can be found in nature is not enough to show that we have discovered some natural morality. What we need is a way of demonstrating that the classification itself as moral, immoral, or neither can be found in nature. None of that is demonstrated by these experiments.

Question 3: So, are you telling me that, because we have this innate altruism, that evil is not possible?

Are you saying that I don't have to worry about people raping me or those that I care about, taking my property, practicing slavery, showing passive indifference to those in desperate need, lying, cheating, breaking promises, taking advantage of the elderly, engaging in assaults or bullying, about brutal dictatorships and blood-thirsty warlords and the like because innate altruism simply will not allow this type of behavior?

Of course it would be foolish to make that claim, given that we are surrounded by these evils.

However, when Christians express a concern that atheism undermines morality, these are the evils they are concerned with. They are afraid that, without religion, that the evils that humans are very much capable of performing will become a lot more common. Pointing to a pair of altruistic facts does nothing to counter this concern. The Christian only needs to point to the history book. While we can show that religion has been the source and justification of many of these evils and has often done nothing to prevent them, altruistic rats does not prove that they will become less common without religion.

Christians concerned with atheism undermining morality look at this research into altruistic mice and the so-called moral proofs that atheists draw from it and say, "Are you frikken serious? I know atheists are stupid, but you really do not need to these extremes to prove it."

Question 4: Are you saying that the mouse who frees the confined companion deserves praise and the one who doesn't deserves condemnation?

Morality is about praise and condemnation. It is about deserving rewards or punishment. That rape is wrong justifies inflicting harm on rapists, not only as a way of deterring rape but because the rapist deserves to be punished.

You can hardly draw a valid inference from, "I have a genetic disposition to want to kill people like you; therefore, you DESERVE to die." Or "I am genetically disposed to free you from that confined place. Therefore, I deserve praise for releasing you."

These experiments involving altruistic rats tell us nothing about who DESERVES to be punished or rewarded. In fact, the very idea of praising people or condemning them on the basis of their DNA is nonsensical.

Question 5: How are you going to use this type of research to answer moral questions?

What particular DNA sequence are we looking for as proof that homosexual behavior is permissible and child rape is not? What strand of DNA do we read to discover whether, and to what degree, the rich are to be taxed or whether we should execute murderers? Moral philosophers trying to answer questions about our obligations to the environment should look at which chromosome?

The purpose of these questions are to point out the fact that these particular biological premises are not even relevant to trying to answer moral questions.

As it turns out, moral questions concern a different subject matter entirely. Specifically, they do not concern innate biological dispositions. They concern the dispositions that we ought or ought not to learn.

Conclusion

I want to repeat that last point because it actually applies to this whole post. Moral questions are questions about the dispositions we ought or ought not to learn, and about teaching those dispositions to each generation through the use of social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It is not about the things we do as a matter of biological necessity.

In addition, this line of questions demonstrates that atheists are just as adept at theists at abandoning reason and rushing to give a firm bear hug to conclusions that they like. This disposition is not a religious problem. It is a human problem. In this case, it results in atheists making claims and drawing inferences that are as absurd as anything you can get from religion.

Evidence of genetic or evolved altruism may be interesting. It may be good science and worthy of our attention and study. However, it does not prove that learned morality is effective or even possible without religious belief. It does not answer the question that theists are concerned with - and that we all have reason to concern with.

The moral questions are: What is the difference between good and evil? How do we know? And how do we cause people to perform those goods and refrain from committing those evils they are obviously capable of committing.

10 comments:

pin pin said...

Excellent post.

While I agree with pretty much everything written, I think you go too far when you say that "these particular biological premises are not even relevant to trying to answer moral questions."

While genetics may not be directly applicable to certain moral issues, like redistributive taxation, I would not say that it is irrelevant to moral questions in general. For example, evidence on the genetics of homosexuality would be highly relevant to the debate over same-sex marriage, especially under a desire utilitarian framework.

For example, if there are an equal number of homophobes and homosexuals, with equally strong desires to thwart one another's desires, then questions about the malleability of each side's desires are crucial in settling the dispute. If same-sex attraction is genetic and therefore not very malleable, and if homophobia is cultural and therefore pretty malleable, then the best course of action is to condemn homophobia, rather than homosexuality. On the other hand, if it turned out that homophobia were genetic, and homosexuality cultural, then the best course of action would be to condemn homosexuality. This is probably why both sides of the debate spend so much time arguing about whether or not homosexuality is a "choice." Of course, the evidence so far indicates that we should condemn homophobia rather than homosexuality, but this simply illustrates my point that questions about biology and genetics can be highly relevant to moral discussions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

pin pin

Well, yes, biological facts are relevant the same way that facts in the field of chemistry and physics are relevant. The physical effects of striking a person with a high-velocity projective are not moral claims, but they are relevant to the morality of firing a gun blindly down the street.

And it is also true that the malleability of different desires is relevant to the question of which to mold through social forces to reduce conflicts among desires.

seedster said...

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook comment regarding church youth groups. His quandary was regarding the sum experience that a youth group offers and he wanted to hear from people who had been part of one. I was surprised to read what was written concerning the peoples’ ideas of church. I guess the whole reason why I was caught off guard was because it was abundantly clear by the responses that nobody actually had experienced a healthy youth group. First, I must say that I understand that my post will receive little to no sympathy here, and that most likely, I appear to be an unreasonable person because of my faith in Jesus Christ, but I still am interested in offering the same question here which I myself have been mulling over during the past few days.
My question is “How effective is religious/metaphysical conversation outside of the confines of a meaningful friendship?” I ask this because It has become just more and more concerning to me to consider the actual fruitfulness of the majority of my conversations, especially over the internet. The problem is that both—proponents of intelligent design, as well as Darwinian evolutionists claim to base all of their findings and convictions upon empirical evidence, so as to be concerned with objective truth, but I find that this straining for objective truth in the arena of polemic or debate…or just conversation. So is the argument over the existence (or non-existence) of God and the implications thereof waged in the name of objective truth or personal opinion? Is there really any point in talking about empirical data after all? What do you think?

seedster said...

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook comment regarding church youth groups. His quandary was regarding the sum experience that a youth group offers and he wanted to hear from people who had been part of one. I was surprised to read what was written concerning the peoples’ ideas of church. I guess the whole reason why I was caught off guard was because it was abundantly clear by the responses that nobody actually had experienced a healthy youth group. First, I must say that I understand that my post will receive little to no sympathy here, and that most likely, I appear to be an unreasonable person because of my faith in Jesus Christ, but I still am interested in offering the same question here which I myself have been mulling over during the past few days.
My question is “How effective is religious/metaphysical conversation outside of the confines of a meaningful friendship?” I ask this because It has become just more and more concerning to me to consider the actual fruitfulness of the majority of my conversations, especially over the internet. The problem is that both—proponents of intelligent design, as well as Darwinian evolutionists claim to base all of their findings and convictions upon empirical evidence, so as to be concerned with objective truth, but I find that this straining for objective truth in the arena of polemic or debate…or just conversation. So is the argument over the existence (or non-existence) of God and the implications thereof waged in the name of objective truth or personal opinion? Is there really any point in talking about empirical data after all? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, your definition of morality seems to lack altruism. The idea that an animal such as a mouse may free another to relieve it's suffering does not prove that morality comes or does not come from anywhere. It only shows that unless a mouse also has knowledge of God or religious ideas about god it can act in way that may also be what we consider to be moral.

Why ask question 3? The answer is no.

Who said morality is about praise, condemnation and
punishment? I have not seen this as a part of any definition. What makes you think that it is moral to inflict harm on rapest or any other crime doer? It seems obvious to be moral to inflict harm if it is the only way prevent harm but it also seems easy to show it can be immoral to simply infect harm because of an immoral act.

Also why do you seem to blanket atheist With your conclusions? A theist simply has no claim to morality and thinking that our morality comes from some unknowable or god source does nothing to further our knowledge. Religion may support morality as much as they want the only claim atheists may make is that the idea of theism or religion has any right to claim morality lacks truth.

Anonymous said...

Seedster, it is always valuable to consider empirical evidence. Otherwise we are just making shitb up.

I can imagine many people have good genuine experiences within a church group setting. This event would not give any evidence of the existence of god nor does any positive utility of religion.

Intelligent design has no empirical evidence or any body of scientific evidence and evolution has mounds of both. That is why it is taught in science classes and ID is not.

Please don't take my comments to heart because I don't think you are unreasonable but if you have faith in something that you can find no truth in your faith may be.

I hope your conversations help you find truth or discover that which lacks it.

Kristopher said...

when you examine the mouse you examined it purely in by evolutionary morality... which is something you reject as a basis for morality in humans. why the double standard?

shouldn't you have wieghed the desires of the mice and found that a mouse that lets the trapped mouse out of the cage has acted in a way in which greater desires are fullfilled? why should we not praise that mouse (with cheese) and not condemn a mouse that does not release his fellow mouse? if they were humans in the experiment surely you would place blame and wish for the use of praise and condemnation. and you have said other places that there is nothing inherently superior about human beings. since there is nothing that is inherent.

you often bring in the case of the new male lion and the cubs, and yes, by your own code, we should condemn that lion, the same way we should condemn a human that did the same thing! you say it yourself that evolution does not create right and wrong, it merely creates what is. so if the lion has a genetic disposition to do something wrong that does not make it morally neutral. it is still morally wrong and should be treated in the same way as a (mentally handicapped)human performing the same action.

the lion very well could choose not to kill all the lion cubs not fathered by himself and the fact that he chooses not to is morally wrong.

however the lion does not have a legitimate choice for an alternative diet, thus when he runs down a gazelle on the prairy, while it is unfortunate, it is not entirely fair to blame the lion. that would be like blaming a man tied to a chair for not standing politely when the queen entered the room.

is the mouse behaving morally? yes
lions often behave immorally... irrelevant to the question of mice related actions.
if we assume that the mice are not religious we can say that their moral behavior was not founded in religous dogma. which undermines the proposition that all morality comes from religion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Christopher

I find the idea that the lion acted immorally but should not be blamed to be incoherent. It is like saying that the or ado acted immorally in tearing down a school, but cannot be blamed. "Cannot be blamed" (or praised) means that moral terms do not apply.

Kristopher said...

i am saying that the lion should be blamed in the instant of infantacide but cannot when he kills a gazelle.

becuase the infantacide is a moral choice and the gazelle killing is not

in the former he has many options to choose from and chooses the wrong choice in the latter the lion only has one option so it is nonsensical to say that morality applies. for morallity to apply the lion needs a minimum of 2 options to chose from.

kipkoan said...

"Alonzo> That rape is wrong justifies inflicting harm on rapists, not only as a way of deterring rape but because the rapist deserves to be punished."

If it were the case that punishing rapists did not deter rape (i.e. it wasn't possible to change any future behaviors, either by changing desires or beliefs), then I don't think it would be rational to inflict harm on rapists. I'm pretty sure you think the same as me on this, so I'm a bit confused as to what you meant by "not only as a way of deterring rape, but because the rapist deserves to be punished". Can you explain?