In Defense of Optimism

Among the writers who oppose the New Atheists, one common theme in their criticism is that we’re too optimistic about the possibility of human progress. For example, take this essay by Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins, in which the sneering condescension drips from every word:

It thus comes as no surprise that Dawkins turns out to be an old-fashioned Hegelian when it comes to global politics, believing in a zeitgeist (his own term) involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional ‘reversal’. ‘The whole wave,’ he rhapsodises in the finest Whiggish manner, ‘keeps moving.’ There are, he generously concedes, ‘local and temporary setbacks’ like the present US government – as though that regime were an electoral aberration, rather than the harbinger of a drastic transformation of the world order that we will probably have to live with for as long as we can foresee [ed.note: this was written during the Bush administration]. Dawkins, by contrast, believes, in his Herbert Spencerish way, that ‘the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.’ So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.

The venom is even more apparent in another essay by Chris Hedges, which fulminates against atheists for not all being nihilists like himself:

There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.

…the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientifically legitimate than alchemy.

Despite the flippancy and the anger of those who issue it, this is a challenge worth meeting on its own ground. Are we New Atheists unjustifiably optimistic? Do we too readily discount the potential for evil in mankind? Have we, as some of these critics would surely charge, replaced the unfounded faith in Heaven with an equally unfounded faith in human progress?

These are legitimate questions. To answer them, I’ll begin by citing a few statistics.

If you lived in a hunter-gatherer society prior to the advent of modern civilization, what were your chances of dying by violence? The anthropologist Steven LeBlanc, in his book Constant Battles, estimates that in some primitive societies it was as high as fifty percent. And that’s solely from deliberately waged warfare between competing tribes, without counting additional deaths from disease, accident, or starvation. As Steven Pinker puts it in What Are You Optimistic About?:

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries… has shown that the overall trend is downward [p.4].

The wars of the 20th century caused untold devastation and suffering, but part of the reason for the great loss of life was simply that, due to industrialization and population growth, there were more people around to kill. Yet as a percentage of the total population, the number of people who lose their lives to violence has been declining for centuries. The 17th century’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, may have killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas, whereas in World War II, even the countries that suffered the most generally lost no more than about 5% of their population.

John Horgan, in another chapter from the same book, puts the comparison vividly:

In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women and children died from war-related causes… The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society. [p.7]

By Keeley’s numbers, violence in primitive societies was twenty times as high as in ours. And the trend of decreasing violence is on a path to continue. It’s widely agreed that the wars of the future, rather than conventional conflicts between great powers, will be what Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart call “the remnants of war”, asymmetric conflicts between states and non-state actors like terrorist and guerrilla groups. For all their power to grab the headlines with lurid acts of violence, these types of conflicts will incur still lower death tolls than the wars of eras past.

In areas aside from warfare, the statistics still paint an optimistic picture. Over the last few decades, global poverty rates, infant mortality and other negative indicators have steadily fallen, while literacy, life expectancy, per capita income, and other positive indicators continue to rise. One of the more underappreciated factors contributing to this trend may be the ongoing urbanization of the world’s population. As Stewart Brand puts it, “cities cure poverty” – consistently producing a drop in birthrate and a rise in economic prosperity among those who migrate to urban centers.

We have completely cured smallpox, and stand on the brink of wiping out several other contagious diseases, like polio, through worldwide campaigns of vaccination. “Soft” indicators of progress, like democracy, transparency in government and protection for human rights, are harder to measure, but in these areas as well, there are significant signs of progress globally (with, of course, many exceptions and local reversals).

None of this, of course, is to say that the world is on a smooth and inevitable trajectory towards utopia. A terrible, genocidal war might begin tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade. There will still be natural disasters, crime and terrorism for the foreseeable future. Human rights, in all places and times, must be vigilantly defended against those who try to take them away. The looming crisis of global climate change still demands swift and decisive action if we are to avert the worst of its effects. And there will most likely be new challenges we must face in the future that we have not yet thought of or foreseen.

But these events, terrible as they are for those who experience them, should still be viewed against the appropriate background: as frustratingly slow as it is, as halting and zigzag as it is, progress is happening. The world is becoming a better place. The world we live in today is a far better place than the world a hundred years ago, and the world a hundred years from now will in all likelihood be better still. If your eyes are always riveted on the latest sensationalistic news report, moral progress is easy to miss – but it’s happening regardless. On the grand scale of history, the human species is rising. (And as an atheist, I might add one more hopeful sign: the ongoing rise in the numbers of nonbelievers throughout the industrialized world!)

One wonders at the motivation of those who insist that moral progress is impossible. There’s one causal factor that can’t be overlooked. Namely, the evidence is unequivocal that happy, contented, economically secure people see less need for religion. Religion always flourishes among the poor, the downtrodden, the underclass – people who console themselves over their lack of power and prosperity in this world by believing that they’ll get their just desserts in the next – and understandably so.

But the corollary is that the evangelists of religion have something to lose from moral progress. In a very real sense, they need the world to contain its measure of pain and misery, because the promise of relief from same is one of their selling points. The more peaceful, the more prosperous human society becomes, the less receptive people will be to their message. Small wonder, then, that they insist progress is a fool’s dream. Their worldview depends on people believing this to be true!

Granted, it would be too harsh to attribute these sinister motives to every religious apologist. Some of them may just be irrefragable pessimists. But whether their pessimism is a personality trait or whether it’s strategic, in either case, there are good reasons to think it’s unfounded.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://jetson.wordpress.com/ Kenny

    Interesting article. I find myself wondering if we are gradually getting better, how does it always appear on the surface that we are not? I think it is a function of our immediate connection to the entire world via the media, the internet, cell phones, etc., along with our insatiable need for negative information – perhaps to qualify our own personal separation from it. I’m no psychologist, but I often wonder why humans seem to thrive on bad news, and how bad news is the major story on every major channel. Perhaps it is just a manifestation of our need to sympathize wiht those who are suffering?

    Great post.

  • jack

    …the evangelists of religion have something to lose from moral progress. In a very real sense, they need the world to contain its measure of pain and misery, because the promise of relief from same is one of their selling points.

    A good example of this is the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Almost every issue of their magazines laments about some terrible aspect of the human condition (crime, poverty, war, pollution, global warming, etc.) and tells us how hopeless the situation is. But, not to worry! Jesus will fix everything when he returns to rule the Paradise Earth, which he will be establishing any day now. The magazines usually gloss over some the less palatable aspects of their eschatology, like the fact that Jesus will first have to exterminate everyone who is not a good Jehovah’s Witness, but maybe they see that as a minor detail. By the way, for an eye-opening account of life among JWs, I strongly recommend Joy Castro’s 2005 memoir, The Truth Book.

    None of this, of course, is to say that the world is on a smooth and inevitable trajectory towards utopia. A terrible, genocidal war might begin tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade. There will still be natural disasters, crime and terrorism for the foreseeable future.

    I agree that human morality is progressing through cultural evolution and education. My greatest concern is the coming crunch as our population growth collides with global ecological limits. I fear that we will continue our present trend of expropriating land and resources from wilderness, which includes the oceans, pushing a great many species into extinction and leaving a catastrophically degraded planet to future generations. About that I am not so optimistic.

  • TEP

    I think a lot of the reason why people deny the fact that society is becoming more moral over time is because they are ignorant of just how immoral society once was. Just a few hundred years ago, slavery was perfectly acceptable, women were treated as little more than property, and it was considered great entertainment for everybody in the village to watch somebody being publicly hung, drawn and quartered. Most countries were ruled by hereditary totalitarian dictatorships (aka monarchies), people would face harsh sentences for trivial crimes, employers could get away with subjecting their employees to dangerous conditions and minescule wages, and it was perfectly normal for them to use children as effective slave labour. If it were possible to travel back 400, 500 years into the past, it’d be pretty damn obvious that society is one heck of a lot better now than it was then – what was considered ‘normal’ back then would make many a 20th century tyranny appear to be a paradise in comparison.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “I find myself wondering if we are gradually getting better, how does it always appear on the surface that we are not?”

    Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, wrote: “The idle chatterer is the sort who says that people nowadays are much more wicked than they used to be.”

    “We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally.”

    Just the other day I had this discussion with a co-worker, lamenting the collapse of our society and the corruption of our financial markets. I asked him, “What is the oldest standing government on the planet?”

    He didn’t know.

    It’s the USA, of course. Apparently we must be doing something right.

    Then I asked him, “What is the cleanest securities market in the world?”

    He knew the answer to that one: the USA’s.

    So I said, “How is it you’re living in the best society the planet can provide, and you’re still complaining? Maybe we’re operating at the limit of efficiency; maybe things can’t ever be perfect, but only good enough.”

    That stumped him, as it always does. The minute you start making relative judgments, their arguments fall apart. They depend on absolute judgments without any context. Because context, like any other form of reality, is poisonous to certainty.

    I suspect that all of these moral nihilists are white men, because the non-whites and women I know are fully aware of how much better life for them now.

  • Chad

    Perhaps there is a more benign explanation. Most of us, in our early childhood, are protected by our parents and by most of society, to the point where we aren’t even aware of all the bad things that might happen to people. We have no knowledge of death or sickness or unfairness as infants. It’s only later that we gradually discover all the nasty things that can happen to us, or that we do to each other.

    Our awareness of evil grows as we live, so it feels like the world is growing darker. Even if we learn enough about history to see otherwise, it’s difficult to shake that feeling.

    Religion, of course, thrives on the confusion between how things feel and how things are, so it’s no surprise to see Eagleton and Hedges making this mistake.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Given that Christianity is misanthropic, religious disdain for optimism seems perfectly in character. What good can ever come of man and his works?

  • http://commonsenseatheism.com luke

    Great post!

  • Leum

    @Kenny: every generation believes it was the last to be worthwhile, and that things are going downhill. Granny Weatherwax said it best in Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad:

    “Of course, that was before all this”–she made a face–”making your own entertainment. There’s far too much of this making your own entertainment these days. We never made our own entertainment we I was a girl. We never had time!”

  • Alex Weaver

    Interesting article. I find myself wondering if we are gradually getting better, how does it always appear on the surface that we are not? I think it is a function of our immediate connection to the entire world via the media, the internet, cell phones, etc., along with our insatiable need for negative information – perhaps to qualify our own personal separation from it. I’m no psychologist, but I often wonder why humans seem to thrive on bad news, and how bad news is the major story on every major channel. Perhaps it is just a manifestation of our need to sympathize wiht those who are suffering?

    Great post.

    Horrifying events have become rare enough in the general experience of most first-worlders for them to be individually worthy of notice, and the amount of information about what’s going on in the world that’s transmitted to humanity at large has increased dramatically.

  • Johan

    It might be worth adding that in spite of the world getting better by most standards, at least most people here in Sweden (according to surveys) think that the world has gotten worse of. I think bad stories sell better than good ones in media, so that might be the reason.

    As Dawkins pointed out, Hitler was not significantly more evil than certain ancient and medieval figures, but he did have 20th century weapons at his disposal.

    Though I think there are indeed clouds on the sky. It seems to me that people are hardly concerned about civil liberties. The EU has a democratic deficit, nobody cares. Autocratic leaders like Putin and Jintao are well liked in their respective countries. People in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Palestinians vote for theocrats.

    Btw, how can you guys (apparently) believe in human rights? It always perplexes me. Same thing about the belief that humanity “progresses” in a predetermined way towards a given end (what does that end look like?). Individuals have goals – different goals at that – a society (an open one, at least) doesn’t.

  • Lynet

    Btw, how can you guys (apparently) believe in human rights? It always perplexes me. Same thing about the belief that humanity “progresses” in a predetermined way towards a given end (what does that end look like?). Individuals have goals – different goals at that – a society (an open one, at least) doesn’t.

    You’ll get different answers on that one — but I would say I believe in human rights inasmuch as I believe that supporting the notion of human rights supports happiness, stability and the search for truth, which are all things I care about.

    I wouldn’t say that humanity progresses in a predetermined way, but I guess the argument of this post is that we are gradually getting better at treating each other well and helping more people to survive and, you know, not killing each other. The current trajectory is perhaps clearer than the end result.

  • jemand

    I think bad things loom larger on popular consciousness because they generally happen quickly, without as much warning, and have larger impact for their duration.

    i.e. Jane Doe was raped today is news but John Doe spent another day not getting mugged and planning for his wedding in 4 months isn’t news.

  • Pingback: Progress « PowerUp

  • Neal O

    Brilliant post. Thanks for a great site.

  • valhar2000

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is a biological component to this pessimism: in other words, that older people become pessimistic in part because humans are made that way. Rare is the senior citizen who does not believe that things were better back then, even though you can find any and all sorts of corruption, injustice and plain stupidity in that time, if you put a little effort into it.

    Thumpalumpacus wrote:

    Given that Christianity is misanthropic, religious disdain for optimism seems perfectly in character. What good can ever come of man and his works?

    You may be right. There are plenty of people who really do believe that good things come from god, and therefore the world, alone and by itself, will go to heel in a hand-basket. This is probably so obvious to them that they cannot even articulate the thought, and hence feel no need to justify it when berating us for our manifest silliness in believing otherwise.

  • other scott

    It’s a propoganda battle. The churches like to promote the idea that the way we are living now is wrong/sinful/dangerous/bad or however you want to say it. They put forward the idea that our lives are so shit so that people start to think we should go back to ‘the good old days’. But it just so happens that the churches had a lot more power back then, or at least more influence. All the church believes it has to do is point back 50-60 years and say, look how safe the world was back then! Kids were innocent longer, there was lower crime rates, less unemployment, etc. They then infer from this that the reason why the world is going down the crapper is because people have stopped being religious. Which of course is a big fat steaming load. Not only were ‘the good old days’ not that great but there has never been any true correlation between crime and religion, other than the majority of criminals are religious.(This could be due to the simple fact that there are more religious people out there however)

  • Eric

    I was never raised to believe in an idyllic past. Both my parents grew up on the oil patch. I grew up in the restless and troubed 70s and 80s, and my childhood was far from anything I could view as a golden age, nor has my life been easy as an adult.

    My parents were steeped in the New South progressivism of the 30′s-50s, even though they lived in a “Sundown Town” enclave in a majority black county. The rest of the county had never been racially segregated. The county had a large Mafia winter beach resort and I have to say they knew that everyones money was the same color.

    Things are better now. “The Strange Demise of Jim Crow” is a great example of how the Houston area became desegregated without any protests or marches. Get the documentary from Netflix. It’s an inspiring story. Now if only Big Business would take on the Texas fundies the way they took on the segregationists, we could oust the fundies and send Bill White to the US Senate.

    If you’re any kind of Green at all, you gotta support Bill White. The Houston Government is the biggest consumer of renewable energy in the entire US. Texas has got to blast the fundies and return to its progressive roots. Bill White is making some headway at getting support from Big oil and local heavy industry. Early grassroots support will allow him to to show the big boys he can win. If Bill White can win and KBH can oust fundie-pandering Perry. It’s all over. Progressive Texas will be back!

    If Texas can be won, the nation can be won.

    http://www.billwhitefortexas.com/welcome/

  • Johan

    “You’ll get different answers on that one — but I would say I believe in human rights inasmuch as I believe that supporting the notion of human rights supports happiness, stability and the search for truth, which are all things I care about.”

    Yes, that is sensible. What I’m turning against in the widespread belief that there are objective rights that ought to be respected. There are no objective rights. Rights should be established to promote human happiness and well-being, not because of mythology.

  • Johan

    “Progressive Texas will be back!”

    When Texas was a part of the Democratic Solid South, wasn’t that because of the racist policies promoted by the Democrats at that time?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Personally, I am very dissatisfied with the current human rights paradigm (especially its reliance on international agreements), but I employ that language in order to work from a common point of reference. I am intent on changing what we mean when we talk about human rights. It still relies far too much on notions of “natural law” and “morality”, not to mention group and cultural rights, as if those concepts possessed any kind of objective meaning.

  • paradoctor

    There exists something I call the Perversity of Political Perception: namely, the problems that people complain most loudly about are precisely those which we are in the process of solving. When the problem is persistent and intractable, it seems normal, and complain pointless; but when the problem is fading away, for it to exist at all seems intolerable. So I see complaint as a sign of health. Perfectionism is praiseworthy when perfection is in reach.

    The flip side is that the problems that we _don’t_ whinge about fester unattended.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Johan: Yes, that is sensible. What I’m turning against in the widespread belief that there are objective rights that ought to be respected. There are no objective rights. Rights should be established to promote human happiness and well-being, not because of mythology.”

    But that just begs the question, “Why should we promote human happiness?”

    The answer to both of those questions is that objective morality is derived from an objective study of the human animal, and what kind of environment it thrives best in. Morality is how we solve the problem of social living, given our biological constraints.

    And why do we need to thrive? Because that is what we are biologically programmed to do.

    So we don’t need to look for any pie-from-the-sky meta-reasons. We just have to accept plain old biological reality. If raising everyone as a mindless slave to the Leader and killing people with different last names actually made humans happier, healthier, and more likely to survive, then it would the morally right thing to do. But it doesn’t.

    Turns out “being moral” is the same as “doing whats best for the human animal.” Who would have guessed? Well, other than the evolutionary biologists who pointed out that morality was an evolved response to environmental pressures. :D

  • prase

    whereas in World War II, even the countries that suffered the most generally lost no more than about 5% of their population

    The link says: Soviet union 14.18%, Poland 16.1% to 16.7%. It is probably nitpicking, but not excessively so, since both Soviet union and Poland were fairly large countries and the death tolls are big in absolute numbers too. Not so big as 75% in the Thirty years war, however.

  • Siamang

    Yahzi..

    Great points, but I’m pretty sure the United Kingdom predates the US, and is still in existence.

  • keddaw

    You miss the key point that morality is subjective. Anyone claiming otherwise may as well sit with the pope as he speaks of the immorality of birth control while condeming millions in Africa tto die from AIDS.

    The fact is while I see moral progress in the world (and most people reading this do) some conservative Christians see the adoption of gay marriage, access to abortion et al. as signs that we are going backwards morally.

    This is a fact we have to address otherwise we completely miss the point of the argument and any meaningful dialogue is impossible.

  • Carlos

    Religion always flourishes among the poor, the downtrodden, the underclass – people who console themselves over their lack of power and prosperity in this world by believing that they’ll get their just desserts in the next – and understandably so.”

    I have to agree 100% with this. You just have to go to one of the many “churches” in any favela in Rio de Janeiro to see it happen live. They’re allways shouting how their “victory” is comming right around the corner and how, if it doesn’t, it’s all their fault really (because they didn’t prey enough or fast enough or whatever).

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    You miss the key point that morality is subjective..[...]..Christians see the adoption of gay marriage, access to abortion et al. as signs that we are going backwards morally.

    The problem with the fundie position on gay marriage (it is not fair to say it is a universally xian sentiment BTW)is that it is about enforcing their moral position on others, despite the fact that it does not affect them in anyway. Although I agree there are no moral absolutes, the golden rule and the quest for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people make a fair overiding principle that I suspect even the most fundementally inclined theist would claim to agree with. The trick is pursuading them not to moralise on behalf of people who live their lives harmlessly but differently to them.

  • Alex, FCD

    Great points, but I’m pretty sure the United Kingdom predates the US, and is still in existence.

    The English parliament has been sitting in one form or another since 1215 (although at that time it was unelected and wasn’t called a parliament). The Parliament of Great Britain is a bit newer, having been established in 1707.

    In addition, I’m not sure its clear that the elderliness of the government and the cleanliness of the securities market makes the United States the ‘best society that the planet can provide’. In fact, I’m far from convinced that the US contains the best society currently in existence on the planet, never mind the theoretical optimum.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The trick is pursuading them not to moralise on behalf of people who live their lives harmlessly but differently to them.

    Steve, the problem with that, from my experience, is that many of the true believers don’t care that it personally does not affect them. In their minds, tolerating such conduct stirs the wrath of their god and risks bringing that god’s punishment on the society that permits such behavior.

    When you get right down to it, these people do not care about advancing human progress and increasing happiness, prosperity and security. Their priority is establishing what they believe to be the laws of their god, and if it causes misery and suffering, then that is just too bad.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Steve Bowen “The problem with the fundie position on gay marriage (it is not fair to say it is a universally xian sentiment BTW)is that it is about enforcing their moral position on others, despite the fact that it does not affect them in anyway.”
    Oh, but it does. The Bible is riddled with instances of God punishing the collective for the sins of the few. In the modern age, God let 9/11 happen (“He lifted His protection”) because He was enraged at our lack of perfectness. I know. I was shocked to be told this as well. Shocked, I say!

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Wups. Tommykey stole my comment. And before I even said it, too.

  • Brian

    Well-written, Ebon.

    Valhar2000, if a biological component exists that tends to make older people pessimistic then I’d be surprised to find it. The majority of science I’ve seen seems to suggest that on average people get happier as they get older. That’s not to say that you can’t be happy and pessimistic, but I don’t recall reading about strong positive correlations between happiness and pessimism.

    I’m a bit wary of saying that all morality is subjective. I think it’s curious that cross-culturally people seem to agree on the same moral tenets. Morality may not be available (like an objective list of commandments) but there is no doubt that morality evolved in our species. Claiming morality is either objective of subjective seems too harsh of a dichotomy. Granted, you can’t say “killing is always wrong because this or that says so” but I think it’s acceptable to claim that “killing is generally wrong” by virtue of what we are—evolved human beings (both culturally and biologically).

    So I agree that because there is no solid, unchanging set of rules that morality is philosophically subjective. However, I don’t think that gives our evolutionary past enough credit. We have indeed come a long way by converging on many moral principles, and I think it would be wrong to say that “killing is acceptable because culture X disagrees with culture Y.”

  • Scotlyn

    Brian:

    I’m a bit wary of saying that all morality is subjective.

    Yes, me too – this always makes me uncomfortable – and thanks for saying it. But I haven’t found the way to argue against a subjective morality that doesn’t elicit the question – “where does your objective morality live.” I suspect this (objective vs subjective) is as false a dichotomy as Pascal’s Wager, but I haven’t successfully got there yet. I agree there can be no “objective” set of commandments written somewhere in the configuration of atoms in the universe, but I strongly feel that morality is also more than just a matter of personal convenience, as the only logical alternative. True moral judgments are often greatly inconvenient, and yet, feel “right” in all senses of that word. I suspect a good starting point would be that sense of “fairness” that comes so easily to chimps and small children – an almost instintive recognition that a rule for one must be a rule for all, a reward for one should match a reward for another similar effort, a pusishment for one should match a punishment for another similar infraction. Where does that come from?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I suspect a good starting point would be that sense of “fairness” that comes so easily to chimps and small children – an almost instintive recognition that a rule for one must be a rule for all,

    Yes absolutely. I think moral concepts like the golden rule and fairness become hard wired into social animals and it is easily demonstrated in primates. In humans language and cultural development has built complexity upon these foundations, but the basic instincts that allow individuals evolved to live socially to “rub along” and avoid life threatening conflicts still inform our gut reactions to ethical dilemma.

  • Wedge

    One of the problems with this argument is that while the various theist debaters call what they are discussing objective morality, what they usually mean is absolute morality. And that animal really doesn’t exist…

  • Peter N

    Tommykey and Modusoperendi…

    Christian fundamentalists (for example) may say their hatred of gays (for example) is based on the studious reading of their holy books, and humble obedience to their god, but I for one don’t believe it for a minute. You don’t see them seizing the church organist and stoning her to death for working on the Sabbath, even though that “crime” is supposed to be just as heinous as homosexuality.

    The religious, and all ideologues, cherry-pick those teachings and admonitions that they already agree with. Yes, by an amazing coincidence, God thinks exactly like they do!

  • Brian

    Scotlyn,

    I agree that it’s a false dichotomy. I think what evolution does so well is illustrate how complex some of our basic ideas really are. Simple ideas such as love and friendship are not ideas that came about “randomly” or occurred just because we are human beings. Rather, they are (probably) refined concepts over a countless number of years. I see no reason why morality should be exempt from evolutionary explanations.

    If what is right or wrong is totally subjective, then it seems strange that there is so much convergence on moral issues.

    Even if we demonstrated, however, that evolution undoubtedly refined moral values within us, can we use nature to justify our actions? Can we say, “we evolved to do X, Y, or Z,” “killing is antithetical of what we evolved to do” therefore “killing is generally wrong”?

    I think people generally search for hard and fast rules (or commandments) to tell them what is right/wrong and to help them with the difficult decisions they need to make. Morality is more complicated than black or white; kill or don’t kill; steal or don’t steal.

    I think the more effort we put into understanding why people think and behave the way they do, the more data we will have to help us make decisions.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Great post, as always! I want to slap those Eagleton & Hedges guys who don’t see moral progress in the world. What on Earth is their standard of value? That’s like saying, “Well, since we still get sick, we haven’t really dealt with the problem of disease – sure, we’ve handled specific diseases here and there, but in terms of eradicating disease full stop, we haven’t made any real progress.” Argh.

    @ Johan: Answers will vary, but for my part, I go with Bentham and say that human rights is nonsense on stilts. I think it’s nonsense that we can all agree to, and we like this kind of nonsense, so let’s go ahead and do it. I mean, if we decide to legislate rights into existence (the only existence they can have – people consistently acting as if they’re real), then they still exist as concepts and cultural constructs in our world. That’s all that human rights can ever be; we need to accept that and live with it.

    @ Yahzi: What happens when the biological facts that form the basis of your morality come into conflict with the biological facts of some other species? Suppose that one group of sentient critters has such-and-such ethical needs that are in direct conflict with those of another group of sentient critters. How can you decide who “wins” in that situation? In other words, what happens when your system “breaks,” for example if reality presents an insoluble dilemma for the categories you have superimposed upon it?

    Alternatively, please clarify exactly what you mean by “thrive,” and try to come up with something that everyone would agree is thriving – especially for people like myself, who get meaning out of paying the bills and having fun with whatever’s left over, and people like my father, who take their paper trails very seriously and get meaning out of continuous career development. I suspect that you’ll be unable to come up with any account of thriving that is both specific and universal, because some people have different ideas of “thriving” and these ideas can be incompatible with one another.

    @ Brian: Are you sure you’re not counting hits and ignoring misses? I mean, sure, the Golden Rule has popped up pretty much everywhere, but there really isn’t any widespread agreement in ethics, either formally (between philosophers) or informally (between cultures). What rules we do in fact agree on are explained much more parsimoniously by the idea that these rules, or close variants to them, are necessary for social cohesion and stability. You simply can’t live next to someone if they’re just as likely to kill you as not, and you can’t form a trade relationship if your business partners are significantly likely to take your money and run.

    Scotlyn and I are dead-set on arguing about this until the Sun goes out. It’s been wonderful discussion thus far, but I think our fundamentally different perspectives on the matter prevent us from coming to agreement.

  • Brian

    D,

    I never said that there was unquestioning agreement cross-culturally ABOUT ETHICS, but there is a noticeable amount about basic moral tenets (like the golden rule). The agreement is not enough to show that there are objective morals, but enough to support the idea that “they [morals] are (probably) refined concepts over a countless number of years.”

    Thus, I agree with what you said 100%.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Brian,
    Thanks for the clarification! See, when you wrote, “I think it’s curious that cross-culturally people seem to agree on the same moral tenets,” my first reaction was, “Which tenets?!” I was working from the idea that there are more disagreements than agreements – count up the number of things like the Golden Rule, where a clear majority of cultures agree, but then count up the number of times they disagree (there’s one for just about every single rule in the Bible; the Hebrews had a truly huge collective hard-on for procedure) and you’ll see that the latter pile is much larger than the former. Even the matter of whether rules of worship count as moral ideas is a matter of ethical disagreement. When cultures happen to agree, it’s the exception rather than the rule, and it appears to me that this agreement overlaps almost exclusively in areas of direct interest to social cohesion. In short, I was trying to show how it makes sense that things would be as they are, and so it’s not curious at all once the issue is examined. My point on ethical disagreement was intended as support to that point, not as the point itself. I agree with you, also, that our ideas about morality have been refined during the course of our history – indeed, we see them being refined even today.

    Anyway, hooray for talking past each other, and hooray for agreement!

  • Von

    Yes, society is certainly advancing and we should be optimistic. But let us never lay idle, we still have a long way to go. Eg- I saw my mother die painfully of cancer. Why the hell wasn’t she allowed to die peacefully (aka- euthanasia)? Why do religious zealots pick on a fellow Australian, Portia De Rossi? Leave her the hell alone. What has it got to do with them anyway?

    Even if a person does believe in God, don’t we have the right to choose?

    Von

  • Thumpalumpacus

    My sympathies for you, Von.

    Your point is well-put. It always baffled me why apologists for the Problem of Evil cite Free Will as its cause, and yet they would deny us the Free Will they allege God gave us.


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