Because life is a series of edits

Morally Dumbfounded

In Education, Humanity, Thought on September 19, 2007 at 5:18 am

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.

The article, “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes” documents the research of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. Reporter Nicholas Wade writes:

“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.

  1. First, thanks for seating me at the wedding so I am no longer a complete stranger commenting on your blog. Still mostly a stranger, but at least we met once.

    Second, the biblical doctrine of common grace is not taught often enough from the pulpit (that is a massive understatement). You are correct, but almost no one will know what you are talking about b/c people don’t know what common grace is. I really can’t remember a good sermon on it in the PCA churches I have attended in the last ten years, except for in RUF. RUF ministers preach it constantly b/c it is so BEAUTIFUL and so USEFUL. Why haven’t I heard about it since graduation 10 yrs ago? Really, it solves a bunch of problems, as you say…

    Great lesson for high schoolers–they are fortunate to have such a competent ethics teacher!

  2. Thanks for the reminder to better clarify my terms. Wikipedia has a decent basic summary of the doctrine; however, I find Louis Berkhof most helpful on the doctrine, and his Systematic Theology is more readable than one might think. I found a link to the content here (it’s ugly, but accessible), and would suggest that even a cursory glance will glean much for those wanting to learn more about common grace.

  3. wow, where does one begin to respond to this? a few thoughts:
    1) it seems to me that if morality is a matter of genetic coding then one can no longer talk about morality. what we have is amorality whether nothing is either good or bad how can it be judged either moral or immoral? some folks would be just fine with this but i contend that they should have to have different categories.
    2) this theory effectively removes motive which leads to the amorality i just mentioned. at best, the only motive that could truly exist in this system would be self-preservation. even if it’s drive is the preservation/progation of a species or community, the ultimate reason for individual action becomes self-focused on the preservation of one’s own kind. it seems to me that a person like hitler would have been very comfortable with this approach to ethics.
    3) within this worldview what is the standard by which a person can determine whether the ethics and morality of a species or group of beings is more highly evolved? by placing ethics in the genes and making all moral decisions amoral this theory has no basis on which to determine where something is at in the evolutionary chain of morality. everything is really equal because, again, if every moral decision has the same motive (survival) then every decision is equally moral, immoral or amoral. that is unless we want to subscribe to wholesale utilitarianism.
    4) as a calvinist i’ve often been accused of denying that people possess free will. i believe in a free will, though i define it differently than many people. i wonder how many people in our freedom obsessed culture would respond to this theory if they took the time to think about it. this view of human activity destroys freedom of choice and makes every decision a biological imperative.

    okay, i’m done. i apologize if this comment has come across as jumbled, confused, or simply as pure rambling. i’m just finishing my first cup of coffee for the day. :-)

  4. The deterministic nature of the discussion is an interesting one. I always wonder what makes the idea of a sovereign primordial soup so much more attractive than a sovereign God? Maybe it’s because we think we have a better chance of outsmarting our own gene pool than a transcendent and omnipotent Creator.

  5. I wasn’t bugging you on clarifying terms, I was more bemoaning that pastors don’t teach the doctrine, so the average layperson could not have come to the same assessment of the article that you did.

    I should have qualified my first comment by saying that most everyone who reads your blog will know what you are talking about. But imagine trying to have this “conversation” with others in your church (or mine). You gave a good example re: a kid in the middle of the street. Here’s another one–how is it that my unbelieving neighbor and I share the same outrage at say, middle schoolers being exposed to sex-saturated media? Common grace. Exact reason you gave. Here’s the hard part–I had that conversation with someone recently. They didn’t understand common grace, so their reasoning was more along the lines of, “your neighbor has NO BASIS AT ALL for her outrage.” My reasoning was along the lines of “the BASIS of her outrage is the same as mine, she just doesn’t understand WHY she feels as she does.” I’m taking my reasoning there to be the same as yours in your third from bottom paragraph. So you are thinking, what’s hard about that conversation? Here it is–the person I was speaking with was a RE in our denomination. To me, that is a problem, albeit a problem for discussion on a different day.

    I’ll reiterate my other (and less depressing) point. It is SO GREAT that you would teach high schoolers directly from a NY Times article and make them think through that on the fly. Being able to apply doctrine when you read the newspaper is a vitally important parenting skill, so if they think it’s boring now, tell them they’ll thank you in 15 yrs (when they are old like we are).

  6. Craig, this is some good stuff. Yesterday, I was involved in a lively discussion in one of my classes at school about abortion. Everyone was getting pretty heated talking about abortion but all I could hear is there worldview coming out in this particular issue. It has taken me a long time to get to a place to discern my own and other worldviews and the theology that backs it up. I would have loved to have learned this stuff in high school and not wait until graduate school.

    I agree with the above comment about using articles in the NY times. One of my former professors (who happened to have strong theology and worldview) did a similar thing regularly in class and it made a big impact on me.

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