Saturday, 12 January 2013

I’m a moral monkey (and so can you!)

I really find it interesting to discuss morality and how it relates to atheism. It’s a really important topic to me because, after all, what’s the point of getting so wrapped up in talking about this stuff if there isn’t some purpose at the end of it all? If asking these questions doesn’t somehow improve humanity?

I do believe that a secular society is a happier, more equal and more just society, but before I go there, I think I should first try to demonstrate that atheists can make moral claims in the first place.

Most often, people who would disagree with my position will argue that, if there’s no God telling us what’s right and wrong, then how can we ever argue that one behaviour is better or worse than any other? Aren’t all things permissible? A rapist, for example, might argue it’s morally right for him to rape his victim. On what objective moral grounds can an atheist challenge him?

It’s true that, from a purely materialistic perspective, there are no intrinsically evil or forbidden acts; however, I also believe there are still things we should not do – namely, harming others. Murdering someone may not be intrinsically evil in the universal sense, but it’s still a bad thing to do. A contemporary comedian, Jim Jeffries, explains the atheist moral code very simply: “try not to be a dick.” Technically, the words he used are even more crass than that, but I’ll stick with that paraphrase for now.

The point here is that atheists tend to have a fairly simple starting point when determining what’s moral – don’t harm others. But how do I know that not harming others is “good?” Don’t I have to appeal to some external source to say that not causing harm is better than causing harm?

Not really. In fact, I think I’m even biologically programmed to be empathetic in this way, at least on some basic level. Though, even if this weren’t the case, I’d still be able to make rational arguments that being kind to others is better than being unkind. Turns out, having friends rather than enemies is pretty swell.

Still, back to the biological case I made: let’s take a look at modern primates for some examples of how this might look.

There was a study done some 11 years ago or so that looked at morality in Capuchin monkeys (TED talk: In this study, they had 2 Capuchins from the same social group, and the monkeys had to give the researcher a small pebble to receive food. There were two types of food, cucumber and grapes, with grapes being the preferred choice.

To one of the monkeys, the researcher provided cucumbers, to the other, grapes. At first, the cucumber was perfectly fine for the one monkey. But as soon as he realized the other was receiving grapes, he threw the cucumber back at the researcher, got angry, and generally raised hell – the researcher was being unfair, and the Capuchin monkey knew it.

But it went even further. In some of the trials, the monkey that received the grapes actually started refusing to accept the grape until the other monkey likewise received one -- a form of altruism and self-sacrifice. He, too, recognized that it was unfair for him to receive grapes, and the other only cucumber.

In the link I provide above, there’s some other examples of pro-social behaviour, teamwork, and morality at play demonstrated in the animal kingdom, and it’s not even just with chimps, but also elephants and other intelligent animals.

We already know (or at least, I think I can make this claim – let me know if you disagree!) that most moral claims are not monopolized by any particular religion. Across the globe, groups of people have independently come to the same conclusions: killing and stealing is bad; justice and fairness is good.

The Capuchin monkey trial goes even further and suggests that these kinds of moral beliefs are not even specific to humans. Rather, it occurs throughout the animal kingdom (though, of course, not in all species and not consistently – evolution creates a wealth of diversity, even in this regard)!

Therefore, I reflect on my natural tendency to be empathetic towards other people, and I set that as the foundation for the rest of my moral reasoning. Whenever I ask myself if something is “good” or “evil,” I will first ask, “Will this harm anyone? Will it benefit anyone?” And I try to determine what I will do from there.

I even use this starting point to reason through more complex issues, like whether we should tax wealthier people in order to support the less wealthy among us, whether a woman should have control over her reproductive rights, or what, exactly, constitutes rape and how precisely we should deal with that.

These issues are difficult, but we need to understand that, if we agree that the goal is to improve life for everyone, then we have a shared understanding of what the finish line should look like. And it’s simply a fact that both theists and atheists come to this same conclusion, regardless of the philosophical or logical underpinnings that each use to explain *why* being kind is better than being unkind.

Ultimately, I do believe that the secular moral framework can be explained in terms of evolutionary adaptations. But I also think it doesn’t really matter. Until anyone seriously argues that it’s better to be mean than nice, there’s really no further reason to discuss the question “why?” It’s a premise that almost all of us accept, whether it has its roots in God, evolution, or something else entirely.

What really matters to me is who, theists or atheists, are *actually* better at creating a kinder, fairer and more just world. Which belief-system naturally lends itself better to the kinds of things that we all agree are, in fact, “good.”

That’s the question that I personally care about, because it’s the one capable of creating real impact in the world.

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