Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Morality and Religion

The Telegraph picked up yesterday on a US study into morality and religion, which concluded that there was no difference in the moral codes of believers and atheists: "The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments." It's worth looking at this article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Mark Hauser, author of the study, which explains it in his own words but without so much technical language.

The main bulk of the journal study is a summary of other pieces of work, arguing that morality is essentially about co-operation within societies, and has a basis independent of religion.

The major new research cited is a 'moral sense test' sponsored by a department at Harvard University. It's summarised thus: in dozens of dilemmas, and with thousands of subjects, the pattern of moral judgments delivered by subjects with a religious background do not differ from those who are atheists, and even in cases where we find statistically significant differences, the effect sizes are trivial. I.e. there's no ethical difference between atheists and religious people. However the article goes on to mention an area where there is a significant difference (the willingness to die for others) and explains it away as 'this is what you'd expect religious people to say'. Isn't that just explaining away evidence that doesn't fit the theory? Perhaps I didn't follow that bit of the argument so well.

Reading the Morning Herald article, it seems that most of the moral examples chosen were around life and death, and how far is it permissible to sacrifice the wellbeing of some for the benefit of others. I did wonder how many people found themselves administering organ donations in real life. Is it a weakness in the study that it doesn't seem to deal with everyday morality: helping the neighbours, giving to charity, honesty with money, humility, keeping promises etc. etc. ? And is there a difference between what box you'll tick on a website and what you'll do when the situation is for real?

law and ethics: the article also argues that the legal status of a moral question (the one they cite is euthanasia) makes no difference to how it's percieved: law, as a formal moral system, can only provide specific guidelines for specific actions, but such knowledge fails to penetrate or alter our folk moral intuitions. At one level this seems to cut across policies like the tax allowance for married couples proposed by the Conservatives, as it won't change attitudes. I must admit that intuitively I can't get my head around this conclusion, and it is only based on a comparison over 1 issue between 2 nations, so the evidence base isn't exactly formidable. Does, for example, reclassifying drugs create a different moral climate around them. Or legalising abortion? Or banning hunting?

- is the universality of moral norms evidence for the existence of a universal conscience? Romans 2:15 argues that certain moral laws are 'written on our hearts' whether or not we believe in God.

- this is quite hopeful, in the sense that it means that religion/atheism doesn't have to be a dividing line when it comes to agreeing on moral norms within a society.

- in some quarters there seems to be an argument that you 'can't be good without God', though I must admit the only people I've heard this from are atheists, so I must be reading the wrong Christian websites. Or perhaps the right ones. This argument is clearly nonsense. However there is a claim in the Christian faith that opening your life to Jesus will change you for the better - it's there repeatedly in the Bible. It's a claim which rings hollow at times, and any church member will be reminded on a regular basis that the only pre-requisite for being a Christian is to be a sinner first. Here's the challenge: does it actually make a difference?

- what headline to use: "Atheists are just as good as religious people" or "Religious people are just as good as atheists"? There's plenty of stuff around inferring that people of faith are morally inferior to people without it. Stephen Fry's recent address at a debate on whether the church is a force for good provides some persuasive ammo for this one. For every Chairman Mao there's a Bin Laden, and vice versa.

- The conclusion that biology = morality is the conclusion you'd expect from a centre with a strong basis in evolutionary biology. There can't really be any other explanation, if your presuppostions are that evolutionary biology explains all the significant stuff about human behaviour. That doesn't mean the research is wrong, but it's a reminder that science operates within paradigms, as does faith.

- The actual study results don't seem to be in the public domain yet. As such it's not clear if there are any significant differences for particular religious groups, or whether everyone is in the same ethical boat. Lumping all 'religious' people together, like lumping all 'atheists' together, might mask important details. Or it might not.....!!!

- If morality is simply a feature of evolution, a fancy way of saying 'agreed principles', then does any language of, for example, 'rights' make sense. To talk about rights implies objective morality, that certain things are innately due to us as persons. But if morality is principally the way our co-operation as a human society has evolved, then aren't 'rights' a myth, a construct built on a moral intuition which has evolved, but could just as easily evolve away again?

Lots of questions, not many answers!


  1. David, I think some of your caveats about this study are important. One thing I'm not clear on is how the web based moral sense test – which returns a page not found error for me – fits into the research. I assume it is an extra to it rather than a basis, otherwise the sample would be entirely self-seclecting from a sample biased towards computer literate people of a certain wealth and education.

    Re the "you can't be good without God" argument, I have heard various Christian versions of this, including, I think, one from George Carey. It exists in naff versions, such as the one you've quoted, but also reflects a slightly different argument that only if there is a God can there be the possibility of good and evil as absolutes, rather than cultural constructions, or natural instincts.

    That's a different argument which sometimes gets misread as the one you quote. It is, also, unfortunately a possible conclusion people could draw from e.g. the thirteenth of the 39 articles

  2. Interesting stuff.

    If we wish to answer the question regarding the origin of our (apparent) innate morality then we need to establish that same kind of morality in other similar species. If that link is established then the likelihood of a genetic and/or evolutionary basis for it is very strong. I would say that link has been established experimentally, for example altruism in higher primates, but there is more work to be done to solidify the mechanisms involved.

    Another way to establish the mechanism would be to try to change it by fiddling with genes, but the moral issues around that would be challenging; imagine debating the morality of an experiment to determine the nature of morality, I think my head just exploded!