Morality Without God

Saying that without God, not everything is permitted, is not the same as saying that our complex ethical systems are possible without God. Such systems exist. Are they evidence of God? Or did they come about in some other way?

Darwin began by viewing God as the first cause, the force that set in motion all that he saw. Later, he came to understand that God was not required as part of the explanation.

Similarly, God is not required to explain moral systems. Yet the compassionate or just treatment of humans by their fellows who don't have to is one of the most compelling arguments ever offered for the existence of a just, compassionate God. To disagree with this, it is necessary to advance some alternative explanations.

The following is a brief survey of some other theories of the origin of morality, followed by one of my own. Just as biological, psychological and sociological influences conspire to influence any other human behavior, the following theories don't seem to be mutually exclusive; they may all hold true simultaneously.

Psychological Explanations. Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion that religion was nothing more than a self-deception in which man engages to deny his own loneliness and fear. God is nothing morer than a projection of the infant's loved, feared, all-potent father.

In Civilization and its Discontents, he went further, to trace the interesting relationship between the infant's inability to distinguish its body from the universe and the religious feeling of oneness with existence. Just as we must renounce infantile impulses, no matter how gratifying, to avoid living our lives soiled, helpless and ineffective, humans collectively renounce chaotic impulses so that they may co-exist in a stable society. Morality, then, is a reflection of the superego, while religion itself, the "oceanic feeling", is an echo of the infantile id.

Freud's two essays were the mature expression of decades of work with adults. He had not looked for morality or God; it merely occurred to him that what he had found might explain both.

An excellent way to study a thing is to look for it on the margins: you might study a country by examining its borders; an object by its boundaries; a thing by placing it in circumstances it wasn't intended to endure.

Jean Piaget engaged in such an exercise when he looked for morality in very young children, who had not had much time to be exposed to a complex moral system in their secular or religious education. Nor did they have the mental equipment yet to understand a complex, taught morality.

Just to make sure that what he found could have no overt relationship to serious moral teaching, he looked for morality in the game of marbles. The rules of marbles, after all, are exclusively the province of children, and are not a topic in which the state or the church have much interest.

He found several stages of development among small children. In the first phase, marbles were simply an object of motor skills, and infants engaged in standard behaviors of tasting them, burying them, piling them up, etc. Next, some of these behaviors became ritualized and repeated, as if associated with particular thoughts of the infants performing them.

Within two years, small children old enough to speak were making some effort to imitate the rules of the game as practiced by their elders. They did not have the mental equipment yet to remember or understand all these rules. Paradoxically, they considered the rules sacred, yet each child played only against himself even when with others, and there was no true competitive play under collective rules.

Later, children mastered the rules of marbles in competition with one another. A keen sense of fairness arose that influenced the creation and use of the rules. Finally, though fairness remained paramount, older children came to regard the rules as their collective creation, a contract they form to be able to play with one another.

Thus, the rules evolved to define the conditions for cooperation and the penalties for defection, and may be amended or replaced by other formulations serving the same purpose. To my mind, this research proves conclusively that humans are rules-creating animals and that God is not required as the explanation either of marbles or of morality.

The Prisoner's Dilemma. The importance of cooperation as a motivation for morality returns us the the world, which we dealt with in last month's issue, of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Cooperation evolves when people are involved in a series of contacts and transactions with one another, come to have some knowledge of one another, and therefore trust one another. A usual, if not necessary, condition is that there must be some negative consequences of defection; the other "player" must have the ability to punish a breach of trust. In other words, morality evolves as a set of conventions regulating our mutually beneficial dealings with trustworthy neighbors.

The Prisoner's Dilemma had not been defined yet when Piaget wrote, but in discussing the consensual basis of rules, he clearly understands them to be a means of promoting cooperation; the rules grow in importance as cooperation becomes more important to the child.

A Biological Explanation. Along come the evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists and argue that morality (along with everything else in life) has a biological and evolutionary basis.

Although not all scientists in the field are in apparent agreement as to the basic unit of evolutionary competition--the group, the individual or the gene--Richard Dawkins has persuasively argued that it is the gene. Any genetically induced behavior that propogates the gene causing it will succeed in the evolutionary arms race. We all learned at school, and most of us accept, that a gene which causes a leaf-eating species to have a longer neck, or a prey species to run faster, will make its "owner" live longer and have more offspring, eventually becoming general in the population. Dawkins, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and others argue that the root of morality also lies in the gene.

Dawkins gives the odd but enjoyable example of a gene that causes both green beards and altruism to green-bearded people. If the result is that green-bearded people intervene more often to rescue one another from danger, greenbeards will have more offspring than others who are not rescued and there will be more of them. Dawkins argues for a moral calculus that justifies risk: individuals rescue others who represent a significant enough investment in the same genes to justify the risk, much more often than they rescue strangers (we rescue our offspring from danger most of all, as they represent our greatest investment in the future of our genes). Altruistic behavior involving personal risk otherwise flies in the face of common sense and the doctrine of "survival of the fittest".

In fact, altruism exists in the animal kingdom in some unexpected places. Vampire bats, who must drink blood every night to survive, feed their peers who did not find prey and are in danger of starving to death. (This is also an illustration of a Prisoner's Dilemma in which reciprocity--the bat you fed last week feeds you this week--represents the maximum pay-off.) Cooperation builds up among bats the same way it does among humans: bats are more likely to feed bats they know, and especially bats that fed them before.

It is easy to imagine the genetic origin of this behavior. A gene that causes or encourages the feeding of other bats (coupled with the ability to refuse to feed bats who never reciprocate) will ensure the survival only of altruistic bats. The altruism gene then becomes widespread in the population--as it actually has among vampire bats.

Biological explanations falter when it comes to human behavior that has no clear link to increased success of reproduction. Human altruism, of course, does not stop at those bearing our genes; some humans take extreme risks, to save strangers or even animals. Homosexuality represents behavior with moral implications that clearly lessens the likelihood of reproduction. (Wilson argues that the gene, if there is one, for homosexuality survived because homosexuals helped family members survive.) Dawkins contents himself with a series of wise observations about genes and morality:

All three of the fields in which morality grows--the biological, psychological, social--coexist as layers of human reality, sharing responsibility for the existence of moral rules. An example of this--one of the few places where nature has left the framework exposed, so to speak-- is the taboo on incest.

Since incestuous relationships cause recessive genes to come to the fore in offspring, a gene encouraging a distaste for incest would prevail, by creating sounder offspring more likely to survive.

Psychologically, we renounce incestuous desires when we integrate the id in its proper relationship to ego and super-ego, preserving family structure and stability.

The social benefits of a ban on incest are obvious and help protect the family, society's basic building block.

Morality is a beautiful meme. I have one more theory, complementary to the others.

Dawkins ended his 1976 classic, The Selfish Gene, with a chapter called "Memes--The New Replicators?" He postulated that ideas, and groups of related ideas, all of which he called "memes", might behave like genes, replicating across human brains the way genes do across bodies. Memes are engaged in an arms race, the way genes are; the battle between Darwinism and creationism is one example. Some ideas, like God and morality, typically travel together in one meme, but need not; the question posed in this essay is whether morality, as a meme, can exist independently of the religious meme.

Ideas can be beautiful and all successful ideas--those which survive because replicated across many brains--are beautiful to those who hold and propagate them.

Although some memes serve biological ends, helping to assure the survival of those who hold them, many others appear to have nothing in particular to do with biological survival. These others succeed because of their beauty, not their genetic utility.

A beautiful meme could theoretically be invented by a single and unique human; had she not existed, perhaps it would never come into existence. We would have had the steam engine without Watt, but not Swann's Way without Proust. This makes memes different than genes, where the propagation of a gene does not depend on the existence or decisions of a single individual.

Because memes exist to propagate themselves, it is not their purpose, except sometimes incidentally, to cause the propagation of genes. A meme may satisfy another human need, such as the need for beauty, without being biologically pre-determined or having any biological effects. The idea of celibacy, forming part of the meme of Catholic religion, survives because of its appeal to certain people, and in spite of the fact that it almost certainly assures that its bearers will fail to reproduce.

The steam engine exists nowhere in nature. There was no biological template for its creation and no biological imperative that it be created. It would be hard to say that its invention promoted the success of particular genes, as opposed to contributing to the benefit of all humans. As a meme, however, the steam engine had a beauty, consistency and utility that caused it to be adopted, improved and distributed once it came into existence.

Monotheism is another meme that must have succeeded for other than direct biological reasons. People believing in a single God were not likely to have more successful offspring than polytheists. Polytheism was also adequate to serve psychological needs, protecting believers against the unknown and against their own darkest impulses. Monotheism has spread across so much of the world, and through so many cultures, simply because it is a beautiful meme.

Morality succeeds because it is a beautiful meme. Biology lays the groundwork for it, conditioning us to altruism in very limited situations, such as when we rescue our offspring from a danger. It took human intelligence, and a craving for beauty, to produce a meme of universal altruism, across all racial and even species boundaries, when it advances our genes not one whit to practice it.

Just as Piaget observed a rule-making activity in children-- the process itself more important and expressive than the rules it created--humans have an intense response to a beautiful meme. Here it is likely that biology is again implicated; I (and I am sure I am not alone) find an almost chemical satisfaction in doing the right thing.

A successful gene may drive out all its competition in the population; there are no short-necked giraffes. Perhaps because memes have existed for a much shorter time than genes, it is not clear if memes can triumph so completely. Creationism and Nazism are examples of memes which still exist despite significant set-backs.

Another reason that memes may never completely triumph over their rivals is because memes, unlike genes, can now be stored outside their original containers. A gene must be in a body somewhere to survive; but an otherwise dead meme, kept on paper or in electronic storage, can be re-acquired by a brain even when no other living brain contains it.

All this is by way of asking if morality can ever triumph and become universal. It would appear that the answer is no, if success means the complete elimination of contrary memes.

In fact, most people in the Western world pay at least lip service to a metameme, a meme about memes, which holds that ideas should never be destroyed. In the United States, our First Amendment holds that the cure for bad speech is good speech, not censorship. This is why the Nazis were permitted to march in Skokie, Illinois.

This metameme--which itself is a sort of moral rule for the governance of memes--also says that memes ought not to be engineered. Of course, there is a lot of memetic engineering in the world--advertising and propaganda are two examples. However, most people still regard education as the process of exposing young people to memes and indoctrinating them only in the process (contained in the metameme) of evaluating and managing memes. According to this metameme, the moral rules we communicate pertain to the process, not to the substance of what we should believe. By contrast, memetic engineering, taken to its extreme, would involve brainwashing our children, something we find distasteful, as the metameme suggests that we should want them to think for themselves.

The metameme therefore allows for the survival of memes contrary to everything we believe, either in the brains of people who disagree with us or in storage. And there will always be brains out there which, because of genetic predisposition, psychological problems, or social circumstances, are drawn to these contrary memes, even to the most evil ones, the memes of serial or mass murder, racism, and genocide. Therefore, our morality will always preserve immorality, even as it combats it.

There is another, related reason why morality may never become universal: it is not the only successful strategy. This point is illustrated by the bluegill, a small freshwater fish. The male fertilizes and supervises scores of nests, sometimes more than a hundred, while the female, once she has laid her eggs, is free. But a minority of male bluegills are free riders, surreptitiously fertilizing the eggs in a nest guarded by another male. We are probably not seeing bluegill society in a state of flux; after millions of years, the good fathers and the free riders are in a permanent and stable balance (Dawkins and his colleagues have illustrated that among animals, numerous "evolutionary stable strategies" stand in a mathematically consistent relationship to one another). Similarly, human society--which seems very much to be in a state of flux--will probably always have competing memes of altruism and selfishness, life's value and murder.

It seems fitting to return to the Galapagos to end this essay. On a beach on the island of Floreana is a barrel which for more than a century has served as a mailbox. Originally a gentle conspiracy of sailors to exchange mail, it is now used by tourists. Everyone who visits Floreana leaves an unstamped post card or letter in the barrel, and takes any mail addressed to anyone close to home.

God is not present and does not require this behavior. Floreana itself has a frightening legacy. For much of this century, it was inhabited by a handful of human beings, several of whom came to mysterious, suspicious ends. Others left the island; the sole survivor of those times still on the island is a woman who (until she became too old) was visited by many of the tours; her colorfulness rested on the fact that she could tell about murders, and that she was possibly the murderer herself. Neither God nor human justice was present on Floreana.

But the mailbox survived. There is no evolutionary explanation for it: no-one who takes home and mails a letter will have more offspring.

It is equally hard to say that Freud or Piaget participate in the success of the mailbox. The mailbox does not protect us against the unknown in the dark or the chaotic forces within ourselves. At most, one can say that it is a satisfying game, like marbles, where we rejoice in our cooperation; but, unlike marbles, it is a game played exactly once in the lives of most people who see it, and then it is almost certainly played with strangers. In fact, one will almost certainly never learn the identity of the person who mailed one's letter.

The mailbox represents a Prisoner's Dilemma, where mailing each others' letters represents the maximum payoff for cooperation. But the mailbox should not work under the strict rules of the Prisoner's Dilemma, because there are no consequences for defection. Most tourists will never return to the mailbox, and defections are impossible to detect anyway; therefore, someone who leaves a letter but does not mail one will never be known and cannot be punished. But the mailbox continues anyway, decade after decade, and almost everyone who visits leaves a letter and mails one.

The mailbox succeeds because it is a beautiful idea that appeals to everyone who learns about it. Everyone who visits wishes to participate in the success of the meme of the mailbox. It is the idea of the mailbox which causes the letters in it to be mailed.