Thursday, August 17, 2006

On being good

The current issue of Science & Spirit has a long section on the origins of morality, a topic of some interest to readers of Science Musings.

Harvard professor of psychology and biology Marc Hauser argues that ethical judgments are based on unconscious, involuntary intuitions that have evolved over millions of years. He is the author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

Philosopher Paul Kurtz sees morality as a set of evolved biological and social principles common to all humans. Integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence and fairness are "moral decencies" accepted by religious and non-religious people alike. He writes: "There is no easy road to moral truth, and it is presumptuous of theists to claim that they have a monopoly on moral virtue -- particularly in light of a history littered with religious war of violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of God."

Keith Ward is an Anglican priest and professor of divinity agrees that morality is a matter of reflection and analysis. But the fundamental rules of right and wrong come through religion, he says. Secular humanism rests on sandy soil. A sound ethics cannot exist without a bedrock faith in a supremely personal God who objectifies moral goodness.

Biological, social, religious? Can objective data decide which is the basis for moral decency? What studies I have seen suggest that secularists are no more or less moral than theists. And peoples who have never heard of the great monotheistic religions have moral codes that are not all that different from the rest of us. If I were a betting man, I would put my money somewhere between Hauser and Kurtz: i.e., universal moral principles based on bio-cultural evolution.

Commenting in a Science & Spirit sidebar, the Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal sees the roots of moral decencies even among our primate cousins. Biology and morality are not at odds, he writes. "Human nature is not all selfish and nasty, and we do not need religion to tame us into becoming moral beings."