Morality: Religion and Science

My mind has been focused on morality as of recent.  I’ve been trying to understand morality in terms of the attitude of righteousness (i.e., the sense of moral certainty; also, the superiority complex of zealous believers) and the ideal of truth (i.e., authenticity and honesty; also, being well informed by maintaining a sense of curiosity and intellectual humility).

Part of the problem is terminology.  When speaking about morality, people have different understandings.  Morality ia a very general and ambiguous term.  The most evil behaviors that people commit often are justified by a sense of morality, whether based on emotional or logical arguments.  Almost everyone has a “good” reason for what they do.

So, this brings me back to ignorance.  It’s not simply that it’s common for people to have a sense of morality based on ignorance.  Most people are ignorant of even what morality means beyond some vague notion of goodness.  People often confuse morality with some particular ideology such as the 10 commandments.  But few people know about the historical development of morality.  For example, few Christians understand Natural Law despite it being the basis of Christian morality and few Christians know that the version of Natural Law that took hold within Christianity originally came from the Stoics.  Natural Law is a very advanced understanding of morality, but few Christians live up to it or even try to live up to it (see my previous post, Morality: Christians vs. Jesus).

The reason I wrote this isn’t to analyze morality.  I’m mostly interested in what science can determine about morality because otherwise it’s just a matter of ideological declarations.  If morality is true in any fundamental sense, then it should have objectively measurable results.

There has been much psychological and neurological research done on behaviors related to crime, self-control, empathy and social adaptation/conformity.  People’s behavior can be largely predicted in many ways and much of it relates to inheritable personality traits.  Freewill is impossible to prove because every thought and action has a physical correlate in the brain and the vast majority of brain activity isn’t conscious.  However, research also shows that behavior can be altered, but it’s hard to distinguish between cause and correlation.  Research also shows people are easily influenced and manipulated.

Whatever morality may be, it certainly is far more complex than how most people think about it and how most moral systems portray it.  Also, most moral debates often get simplified and polarized.

Take as an example the pro-choice/pro-life debate.  When you look at the details, most pro-lifers aren’t against abortion in all cases and most pro-choicers aren’t for abortion in all cases.  Very few people are philosophically against such notions as “life” and “choice”.  So, people end up getting hurt and killed over misuderstandings.  Although, there is one interesting aspect to this debate which is relevant to morality.  From research I’ve done, more violent crimes have been committed by so-called pro-lifers than by pro-choicers.  I don’t know if this shows that the personality of conservatives is more prone to violence or if it’s simply a result of various social factors.  Either way, it demonstrates the strange and unclear relationship between moral arguments and moral behavior.

There seems to be two main ways of looking at morality.  For many (especially those of traditional religions), morality is about ideological rules.  There is the assumption that the rules work.  And if the rules don’t work, it’s either the fault of the individual or the society.  The convenience of this argument is that it divorces morality from having to prove itself.  It’s true because it’s true even if it shows no tangible, practical results.  Believers know it is true because it was taught as true for centuries.  Even if this were the case, the modern world has changed greatly even if human nature has remained mostly constant.

To return to the example of abortion, women have been getting abortions for a very long time.  Moral rules and laws don’t stop women from getting abortions.  They might decrease the numbers of abortions, but they also increase the number of deaths from botched abortion attempts.  To the strictly ideological moralist, this is an acceptable loss.  The women who died deserved to die or else their deaths are simply irrelevant to the larger moral issue.  This same type of person will also argue for abstinence sex education in schools even though research shows it increases pregnancies and STDs.  Morality against sex and abortion are worthy even when ineffective because there purpose to set a standard humans are supposed to strive towards.  Human failure to meet these standards is expected.

Universal laws of morality could only be true if human nature were unchanging.  However, science shows that human nature evolves along with human biology and neuroanatomy.  And science shows that humans are still evolving even as we speak.  Some even see evidence that the modern world has speeded up the evolutionary process and so it could be that we are becoming markedly different in certain ways than humans were when these ancient moral laws were first written (as a similar example see the massive shift in religious morality and the human mind during the Axial Age or see Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism).  There is research that shows nutrition, chemicals, drugs, and social factors have altered or influenced aspects of human nature.

Related to sexual morality, children sexually mature many years ahead of children a few decades ago (possibly because of chemicals in plastics, hormones in food, or else psycho-pharmaceuticals) and children a few decades ago sexually mature many years ahead of children in hunter-gatherer societies (because an agricultural diet causes people to mature more quickly).  Combined with the fact that the modern world necessitates people to delay marriage for years, this causes traditional morality about sexual behavior to be not as applicable to the facts of modern life.  In traditional societies, someone got married when they became sexually mature.  However, when a child today becomes sexually mature at age 10 or 14, it isn’t even legal for them to get married.  To teach them abstinence is to embrace ignorance.

 A further issue that traditional morality often doesn’t take into account is that development occurs both in society and the individual (heck, even religions develop).  Numerous models have been developed.  There are models developed by Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, EganKegan, Loevinger, and Erikson.  There is also Cowan and Beck’s Spiral Dynamics which is popular and has been applied to religion (and which has been further developed by Wilber).  The only model that has gained some popularity in traditional religion are Fowler’s stages of faith development.

My main point is that the static view of morality isn’t helpful.  Some would counter my argument with the question, “So what?”  And that is a good question.  Why does theory matter?  Isn’t it important that peple simply do good?  Yes, but as I pointed out good intentions don’t always lead to good results.  If we don’t understand why people do good, we can’t understand how to help people do good.

Also, I wonder about this concept of “doing good.”  Does doing good prove someone is good?  Does it matter if one is good as long as one does good?  And who measures the good of each individual.  For example, consider someone who has gained much power and wealth through immoral (or at least morally questionable) means.  If they use their power and wealth towards moral ends, does that lead to an overall moral outcome?  When research shows that wealth and power is unevenly distributed in the world, what is the great moral merit of those born of privilege sacrificing a small percentage of the benefits from their unearned privilege?  Basically, can moral outcomes come from an immoral or amoral socio-politcal system?

Interestingly, this relates to Spiral Dynamics which correlates the moral development of individuals with the moral development of society.  Spiral Dynamics seems like a rather hopeful vision.  I don’t know if it’s absolutely true, but I do think it provides one of the more helpful models.

Anyways, in this post, I’m not so much arguing for what morality but instead am trying to clarify what morality isn’t.  To think of it another way, I’m trying to understand the most inclusive view of morality and hence the view that is applicable to the most situations.  My conclusion is that traditional morality fails in this regards.  My motivation for coming to this conclusion is that moral righeousness annoys me.

 – – –

Here are some previous posts of mine about these or related topics: