Morally bankrupt, my good man?

Occasionally someone will post a comment on a blog entry that deserves a more prominent response than simply adding a further comment. A few hours ago, Alec commented on my criticism of Thomas Friedman:

“Morally bankrupt” – that’s one of the phrases that even scientifically hip biology-teaching evangelical Christians use on me when I deny the existence of God and generally toast their tootsies with atheist rejection of their belief.

Does it actually mean anything to you, or have you too succumbed to subjective mudslinging as a means of argument, however odious the target, my good man?

The belief that morality is impossible without a belief in God, and that to be an atheist “shows a recklessness of moral character and utter want of moral sensibility” [1] is widespread; indeed it used to be the law of the land. One would expect those theists for whom the existence of [some kind of] God is an “objective fact” to argue from this that morality has an objective basis. What is curious is that some atheist philosophers have historically conceded the consequent of the argument, and have argued that, in the absence of a God, morality is necessarily “subjective” or “invented”. (See, for instance, Mackie [2].)

Yet the notion that morality and ethics are God-given is hard to sustain these days. Indeed it is under attack from both science and theistic philosophy! For philosophers and theologians such as Swinburne, the notion of “goodness” must be independent of God, otherwise the assertion that “God is good” is simply a tautology. On the scientific front, we are developing better and better models of how creatures develop social behaviours, including cooperation and altruism: Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue [4] provides an excellent high-level account of this work, though geeks should also dive into Axelrod’s fundamental work. [5] The key insight of researchers such as Kagen, Wilson, and Frank is that morality derives not from reason, but from instinct:

Wilson chides philosophers for not taking seriously the notion that morality resides in the senses as a purposive set of instincts. They mostly view morality as merely a set of utilitarian or arbitrary preferences and conventions laid upon people by society. Wilson argues that morality is no more a convention than other sentiments such as lust or greed. When a person is disgusted by injustice or cruelty he is drawing upon an instinct, not rationally considering the utility of the sentiment, let alone simply regurgitating a fashionable convention.
[4, p.143]

So to return to Alec’s charge: when I refer to Thomas Friedman as being “morally bankrupt”, I am inviting the reader to join me in an instinctually-based reaction, which derives from our shared heritage as social animals. These instincts are perfectly objective: the behaviours to which they give rise can, and have, been measured and modelled in a variety of ways. And the source of these instincts is, quite simply, our old friend natural selection. No theistic hypothesis is required.

[1] Odell v. Koppee, 5 Heisk. (Tenn) 91. Quoted in [3].
[2] John L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1979)
[3] Michael Martin, Atheism, Morality and Meaning (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002)
[4] Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue (London: Penguin Books, 1997)
[5] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984)

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