I am often perplexed by other’s perplexity. In this particular case, it’s the oft-repeated, “I can’t see how science can explain where goodness comes from,” or “Evolution just can’t account for morality.”
Well, first, several good books explain the connection between evolutionary theory and morality (the last one I read was The Moral Sense, by James Q. Wilson), but even at an intuitive level, morality just makes sense when you consider humans are social by nature.
To ask the question, “Why be moral if there is no god?” Is to misunderstand that we don’t have a choice in whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” be moral — we are moral, and we are moral because we have had to be moral, otherwise we would not be here. Now there are clearly some folks who are “more moral” than others, but how do we judge what is more or less of a moral act?
Here’s a list. On the top is really bad stuff, and on the bottom is the not so bad…
The farther you get from the bottom the more clear-cut the “moral value” of the action (or inaction). So what is (at bottom) our “moral standard?” What is it that the farther we get from, the less moral our actions potentially become… it is life within a social structure. Yup, a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Mill, a dash of “categorical imperative” and a sprinkle of “utilitarianism.” More simply, if the action would totally muck up our social structure, the worse it is. If the action is less harmful, then the less “evil” the action is judged to be. Now, if it was God at bottom, what would be the determining factors as to “how evil” something is — I guess the level to which it angers Him?
Based on our evolution as social beings, this is exactly what one would expect. Those among us who were not (to some degree) moral just didn’t make it through the hundreds of thousands of years of our species’ evolution. One can easily see rudimentary moralities in other social species. In dog packs there is an Alpha Male at the head and an agreement among the pack to respect that authority—because what is good for the pack is good for the individual, and the pack functions best with a single “decider” (o, that GW!). In primates we see further developed social structures, leadership roles, resource pooling, and examples of sharing. Humans have developed even higher senses of “right and wrong” because we have had to live in social groups of ever-increasing complexity.
By giving up my seat to an old woman on the bus, I am, in a small way, helping to create a society that cares for its own, one that is more stable, and it increases the chance of survival of my children to grow up in that kind of society. And my children are, after all, a little bit of me. How does nature get me to act in this way? Well the same way it gets me to do anything, it makes me feel good when I do it. Perhaps not in the short term, but it rewards me with a sense of well-being for having done the “right” thing… o, nature, you are crafty! You really know how to push my buttons…
Finally, to ask what is moral is to ask in context of what. The members of a wolf pack will gang-up against a female that attempts to attack the Alpha’s pups, they will try to bring order back to the pack, but should a spider attack another spider’s hatchlings, it will likely be left alone to snack. And should a child be attacked in a human society, we will chase down and jail the offender even long after the attack has occurred.
We cannot choose morality anymore than we can choose hemoglobin, it is part of us. Maybe someone else’s blood is redder than mine — that’s to be expected, but for any of this social business to work, that is the way it had to be, and that is the way it is… probably.