Saturday, November 11, 2006

On being good

Marc Hauser is a psychology professor and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University. His new book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong is a useful response to those who argue that only divinely revealed moral codes -- with hope of heaven and fear of hell -- keep us on the straight and narrow. Hauser knows his book is only a prologue to what will surely be an ongoing study, and he is not dogmatic in his conclusions, but he offers ample evidence that biological and cultural evolution can satisfactorily account for moral behavior, without invoking revelation.

The Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal offers another more empirical take on the question in his new book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. He observes and describes empathetic behaviors among apes and monkeys.

This is an old debate. More than a century ago, for example, the British statesman Arthur Balfour addressed the problem in a book called The Foundations of Belief. With Kant, he compared the God-given Moral Law to the starry heavens and found them both sublime. But if one accepts the "naturalistic hypothesis," he wrote -- thinking, of course, of Darwin and his successors -- then the Moral Law becomes as mundane as "the protective blotches on the beetle's back," an ingenious contrivance of nature, perhaps, but hardly worthy of our affinity to angels.

But Balfour misses the point. The Darwinian synthesis does not reduce the sublimity of the starry sky to the lowly beetle's spots; rather it shows the beetle's spots to be as sublime as any starry sky. Naturalism spins a web of enchantment that equally embraces the beetle and the distant galaxy. No more Great Chain of Being with the Moral Law descending from above and the flames of hell licking our feet from below -- a hierarchy of subservience and domination. Henceforth, we are part of an endlessly fructifying tapestry of mutual relationship and self-imposed responsibility.