The New York Times published a story yesterday that I happened to catch right off the digital press. Since it pertained to what we’ve been studying in Biblical Ethics this week (ethical systems and how they affect our understanding of morality), I scrapped the first half of what I had planned for the day, made copies, projected the article on screen, and taught right from it.
“Many people will say it is morally acceptable to pull a switch that diverts a train, killing just one person instead of the five on the other track. But if asked to save the same five lives by throwing a person in the train’s path, people will say the action is wrong. This may be evidence for an ancient subconscious morality that deters causing direct physical harm to someone else. An equally strong moral sanction has not yet evolved for harming someone indirectly.”
Evolving morality? From what? From whom? This could only get better (that is, worse):
“Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution. At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?”
Basically, Dr. Haidt proposes that, just as we physically evolved from the so-called primordial soup billions of years ago, so our morality has somehow evolved from same said soup over time.
Illustratively speaking, then, a school of fish that somehow developed a higher sense of morality than another school of fish most likely passed on their more-developed moral genes to future generations in order to survive longer. Just as these fish eventually somehow developed legs and lungs to walk on land, they also somehow developed an initial sense of right and wrong, which got passed down (or up) to us today.
This, explains Dr. Haidt, is the only legitimate answer to what he calls “moral dumbfounding – when people feel strongly that something is wrong (or right) but cannot explain why…this occurs when moral judgment fails to come up with a convincing explanation for what moral intuition has decided.”
Or, one could step back from the precipice of scientific ridiculousness and call it what theologians have for centuries: God’s common grace. Puritan John Owen put it this way:
“How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts, and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others?”
For instance, all people (regardless of their religious beliefs) who see a three-year-old playing in the middle of a busy road will make an attempt to save the child before the child is hit. Why? Is it only because they are trying to protect and prosper the species? No. It’s the image of God within them and the accompanying feelings of empathy, responsibility, and value for life – even in the face of possible danger to themselves, and even if they don’t acknowledge God’s image within them as the motivation for their actions.
The concept of moral evolution should be recognized as the classic humanist idea that it is. After all, if we can make nature the fall guy for both good and bad behavior, then we have every right from our place at the top of the evolutionary chain to engage or dismiss whichever “natural” behaviors we so desire (who’s going to argue – the primordial soup?). We can choose to do good when we want (and take credit for being so evolved in our morality), or we can do bad when we want (and blame our “natural” tendencies because, well, sorry, we’re still evolving).
Moral evolution would seem a win-win for humanists everywhere – we’re either conquerors over our genes (and deserving of praise), or we’re victims at their mercy (and should be pitied) – but either way, we’re not responsible. Unfortunately, the theory is just too silly to be taken seriously, especially when the biblical doctrine of common grace makes plenty of sense as to why people do good things they can’t explain, as well as how humanity is somehow even still around.