Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Does the Death of God Mean the Death of Morality? A Darwinian Response to Nietzsche's Challenge

"As the will to truth thus gains self-consciousness--there can be no doubt of that--morality will gradually perish now: this is the great spectacle in a hundred acts reserved for the next two centuries in Europe--the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles." Thus declares Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals (third essay, sec. 27).

Nietzsche's prediction of the gradual disappearance of morality over the 20th and 21st centuries was based on his claim that this would follow from the decline in the belief that morality was founded in some eternal, divine order of the universe. Traditional morality could not survive once human beings saw the truth that all morality was only a human invention with no support in divine will or natural order.

This is what Jonathan Glover calls "Nietzsche's challenge" in his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2000). Glover's book is a disturbing history of the inhuman brutality of the twentieth century--from Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pol Pot, and so on. This might make us worry that Nietzsche's prediction was accurate--that the "death of God" really has brought on a nihilistic collapse of morality. And that's why we hear so much talk now about the need for a "return to religion." How else can we preserve our most cherished moral concepts based on the belief in the sacred dignity of human life if we have no belief in the sacred?

Glover tries to answer Nietzsche, however, by arguing that his moral history shows that despite the evil cruelty of that history, morality survives even without any necessary foundation in an eternal moral law. "The alternative is to keep ethics afloat without external support. If there is no eternal moral law, morality needs to be humanized: to be rooted in human needs and human values" (406). We can see a "humanized ethics" founded in human psychology that does not require any external metaphysics to support it.

Glover sketches a human moral psychology that has a number of elements. To a large degree, morality is a matter of self-interest. As social animals, we need the cooperation of others, and that cooperation is fostered by social trust based on reciprocity: human beings are naturally inclined to punish cheaters and reward the trustworthy. One can see the logic of reciprocal cooperation in the research of evolutionary game-theorists who show how cooperation can arise among egoists who discover that "tit-for-tat" is the best strategy for social behavior. These norms for social cooperation can then be enforced through social pressure and conventional moral rules.

Of course, Glover recognizes that narrow self-interest is not sufficient for morality, because clever cheaters often succeed. But there are other psychological propensities favorable to morality. Human beings do show natural inclinations for sympathy and respect for others: we feel disgust when people are mistreated, and we feel grateful to those who are generous and compassionate.

We also care about our moral identity. We want to have the character of a certain kind of person, and we feel shame and guilt when we fall short of the character to which we aspire. That's what we mean when we speak of "living at peace with oneself."

And yet even with all of these psychological propensities to morality, our moral history is replete with failure--as Glover indicates in his vivid and painful history of cruelty in the twentieth century. Human psychology includes propensities to evil as well as good. And some individuals in some circumstances give in to--even enjoy--those evil inclinations.

The most common problem for morality, Glover indicates, is the "moral gap" between "insiders" and "outsiders." We are inclined to cooperate with those who belong to our moral community--friends, relatives, fellow citizens, fellow believers, and so on. But we are inclined to be nasty to those outside our community. We seem to be naturally tribal animals. That's why so much of our moral history is about the difficulties of extending our circle of moral concern to wider groups.

A Darwinian science of morality would support all of these points about human moral psychology as a ground for morality that is independent of any religious or metaphysical conception of moral order.

The logic of cooperation through reciprocity is clearly Darwinian. In fact, the famous research of Robert Axelrod on the "tit-for-tat" strategy is explicitly presented as an evolutionary conception. Evolutionary game-theory is all about the Darwinian grounds for moral cooperation. The core ideas can be found in Darwin's Descent of Man, who recognizes the natural human propensity to reciprocal behavior--returning good for good and bad for bad.

Darwin also recognizes the importance of social pressure--praise and blame--and conventional moral rules in enforcing norms of good conduct. Darwin believes that human beings are uniquely moral because they have linguistic and cognitive capacities that allow them to formulate and enforce social standards of cooperative behavior.

Darwin also stresses the importance of sympathy or respect for others--the ability to imaginatively share the experiences of others--as a foundation for the moral sense. Here he follows the lead of Adam Smith, David Hume, and the Scottish moral philosophers in emphasizing the moral sentiments as sustaining social cooperation. Now, neuroscientists can investigate the neural bases of such social emotions--perhaps through systems of "mirror neurons," for example.

And just as Glover speaks about moral identity--our concern for having a certain kind of character--so does Darwin speak about how we use our cognitive capacities for self-reflection to organize our moral and intellectual lives into coherent patterns.

But also like Glover, Darwin recognizes our natural tribalism. If Darwin is right about the evolution of morality, then all morality is biopolitical. Morality does not arise as an imperative of cosmic order, divine will, or pure reason. Nor does morality arise as an arbitrary choice of individual whim or cultural artifice. Rather, morality arises from the emergent evolution of human nature. If Darwin is right about the evolution of human morality as a process of evolutionary group selection, then human morality is not absolutely disinterested or universalizable, because it is biased in favor of insiders and against outsiders.

This circle of group identity can be expanded. Darwin writes: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races." Eventually, this can become a "disinterested love for all living creatures." In fact, Robert Wright's book Nonzero is a history of the world understood as a progressive expansion of nonzero-sum cooperation as human beings discover ever wider and more complex ways to cooperate with others for mutual benefit.

But many moral philosophers (like Peter Singer, for example) make a mistake in interpreting this as meaning that morality strives for the abstract principle of complete impartiality or disinterestedness. For Singer, the fundamental moral principle is the impartial consideration of the interests of all sentient creatures. Moral reasoning does require that we generalize across our moral community in the service of the common good. But complete impartiality would make morality impossible. If we were completely impartial, we wouldn't care about anything--nothing would matter. Contrary to Singer's "animal liberation," it is impossible for a moral system to give equal consideration to all life on earth. We might well want to minimize animal suffering, but we will properly care more for our fellow human beings than we do for nonhuman animals. Moreover, even within the community of humanity, we will care more for those close to us than for those far away. So there will always be some tension between loyalty and moral inclusion. Our humanitarian sympathy will typically be weaker than our love for our own.

This explains the complex tension in our moral lives, including international political debates over the nature and enforcement of "human rights." We are naturally tribal animals. And while our tribalism inclines us to cruelty towards outsiders, it also sustains loyalty, which is a moral duty.

This Darwinian moral psychology can be judged by how well it accounts for our human moral history. Religious belief and metaphysical conceptions of eternal moral order have been part of that moral history. But even if we doubt the truth of religious or metaphysical conceptions of morality, we can still sustain morality based on our natural human psychology.


Chuck said...

Professor Arnhart:

I enjoy your blog. I've cited it a couple times on my own blog in my discussions with traditional theistic conservatives - mainly Larry Auster. They contend that conservatism is not compatible with Darwinism. They believe that Darwinism is relativistic and can't provide the universal morality that conservatism has to have in order to exist. Without universal morality, conservatism has no intellectual backbone.

I'm interested in your take on the matter. Can a person be both conservative and believe in Darwinism/evolution/Human Biodiversity? Thank you.

Chuck Ross

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is because I spent 30 years as a police officer, but it seems that the more I read and understand Darwinism, the more I am convinced that society is wrapped in a very thin veneer of civility.

I am also not convinced that reciprocal altruism (and game or non-zero sum) is really sufficient to establish any kind of real morality, since it seems to me to be more of a business ethic than a true morality. And then again I don't see how kin selection and tribalism can possible be recipes for universal brotherhood.

With God being dead and all, I think we are in dangerous times, and that naive liberalism is not going to save humanity from itself. That it why I'm a conservative, an atheist, and a person who sees value in religion and reasonable boundaries for human behavior.

Professor Arnhart, I really appreciate this blog. It focuses on so many important questions, and I learn so much.

leadpb said...

"But even if we doubt the truth of religious or metaphysical conceptions of morality, we can still sustain morality based on our natural human psychology."

Yes, but why should we? Where is there an overarching idea (such as belief in God or some higher organizing principle) that compels us to sustain it? Evolutionary advantage only goes so far as a reasoned argument and few are consciously aware of it. At the group level morality requires conscious acceptance as to source and justification.

How can a scientific-evolutionary explication of morality serve this vital function when it is itself in a state of constant progress? You provide a useful argument but the end product is no substitute for that which people know or believe exists beyond our normal awareness.

Atheistic human logic could well lead us to a Logan's Run type of future based on Darwinism and cold scientific reasoning. In a Darwinian sense, morality has no real constancy or sacred meaning-- perhaps therein lies its chief appeal for a post-modern world.

Tim said...

Dear Larry,

In this post you have elequently and almost successfully completely skirted the core question whenever we try to develop a coherent foundation for a 'good' system of morals. That question is simple: on what basis do we precribe what 'ought-to-be' relative to what we so easily can discribe simple as 'what is'?

You so easily decribe the 'good' and the 'bad' of our human history, and rightly admit the obvious: all humans have the ability to do what we in the west so easily judge as both 'good' and 'bad'. However, you have studiously ignored any attempt at providing a rational defence of why we can or should even judge any action of ourselves or others as 'good' or 'bad' in the first place.
I'm not splitting hairs here, merely asking for some rigourous epistomology on your part, so that you will be more successful going forward.

Good luck!

Larry Arnhart said...


Your talk about "rational defense" and "rigorous epistemology" suggests that you are looking for a purely rational proof for morality. My fundamental argument throughout my blog posts and in my various published writings is that this is impossible, because moral judgment is not a matter of pure logic, since it depends on moral sentiments. My claim is that Darwinian science supports a Smithian or Humean account of morality as based on a natural moral sense, which requires moral emotions and practical judgment.

You can see my reasoning for this position in many of my posts. In particular, I would suggest my posts on "Natural Right and Biology: Marc Hauser on The Moral Instinct," "So What's Wrong with Incest?," and "Kaebnick on Leon Kass's Humean Morality." Even more elaboration can be found in two books: DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

Unknown said...

What about HBD? Not the HBD of scientific racists, but the human bio-diversity of the Straussians. They believe great philosophers are exceptional human beings, who, following their own moral inclinations, have to lie to placate public opinion and keep themselves from being executed, in spite of the fact that they lead excellent lives.

Was Socrates really evil? Smith and Hume can give a good description of public sentiments, but are you really willing to go so far as to assert that popular public opinion is itself morality? If public opinion is only the product of our minds, and public opinion produces immoral, rights violating actions often enough, than what recourse do you have to argue that the act was immoral? At the final analysis all you have is one brain module or function in a struggle for power with another one. That is likely an accurate description of reality, but it is not the basis of a normative morality which is robust to the extant diversity among different human individuals.