Despite his professed atheism, Sam Harris might be surprised to learn that a theist agrees with many aspects of his proposal for a science of morality, has been thinking about the issue for longer, and perhaps only wishes to extend/deflect it in scope. Thomas Jay Oord, professor at Northwest Nazarene University, is known for his work on love research and its intersection with a relational form of theism. He now refers to the “love, science, and theology symbiosis” to indicate that both disciplines can be brought to bear on a full understanding of love. Thus, he rejects, along with Harris, the assumed absolute split between facts and value that prevails in much of popular culture.
As a reminder, a common assumption is that science deals with facts and morality with values and feelings. However, the perspective a scientist takes to data impacts her interpretation of that data. Interpretation is how facts become known as relevant facts. In other words, value already colors science so studying value need not mean a new kind of science. However, while Harris would agree with this statement to subject religious moral codes to scientific criticism, Oord notes that the converse is also true. Genuine altruism, sacrificial love, cannot be rejected as impossible outright. It is an empirical matter whether cases of it can be found. If so, they may require God as their explanation.
“Wait,” you may be thinking, “Harris is currently arguing for a science of morality while Oord is talking about love. Those are not the same.” Well, not exactly.
Oord rejects the narrow association of love with romantic feelings for another, a move which again brings him close to Harris’ concerns. Oord ends up sharing with Harris a focus on well-being. Oord defines love as follows: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being” (Defining Love, 15). A loving action is influenced by previous actions of others, oneself, and God, with the action performed in hope of future flourishing. This definition has three parts which Oord clarifies as follows.
1. Intentionally: An act is not loving if greater good is accidentally achieved. This aspect of Oord’s definition pushes against Harris’ consequentialist focus. At the very least it problematizes his exclusive focus on ends without mention of motivation. A moral person would presumably want to see well-being achieved after calculating how to bring it about, otherwise nothing would get done. Conversely, John Dewey made it clear that intention without reflection on effects of that intention is irresponsible. If one is motivated to value a certain end-state, it is one’s responsibility to perform a valuation in which the necessary steps, possible problems, and likely consequences of achieving that goal are understood. Otherwise, haphazardly trying to bring about good, though the intention, might result in disastrous consequences. Valuing a result and intentionally going about taking the right steps to achieve it go together. This is perhaps the other extreme for Harris. Forcing people against their will to bring about the scientifically calculated best result might turn a science of morality into an immoral activity. You might have thought of the Nazi regime as you read that last sentence.
2. Sympathetic Response: Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead often spoke of prehensions. Feeling feels feeling, or reaction is always to an object which is itself reactive. The notion of objects has to do with social relations and reacting to them as objects. This “feeling with” is usually called empathy in scientific studies. Oord means sympathy to indicate being internally influenced by another so one’s experience is due in part to that other. For example, past conditions deflect my identity to be what it is at the moment while that identity will then influence other creatures just as the past influenced me. Compared to intentionality, this is usually the automatic internal reaction involved in love. We must deal with such circumstances that influence us.
3. Well-being: If a focus on intentionality pushes against Harris, a focus on well-being is a bridge between their approaches. Intentionality and sympathetic response are the conditions for the possibility of love, not love itself. But we can determine what is required to call an intentional act love or not: well-being, or promoting the common good. Not all intentional acts are loving, only those which promote good in the world. Again, with Harris, Oord would say it is not a loving act to save a few at expense of many. However, Harris is more optimistic that we can gather data to determine the varied worth of individuals so one person who will, in turn, lead to the flourishing of hundreds should be saved over five people who will influence no others. Oord, by accepting Whitehead’s notion of prehensions, rejects this atomistic view of reality in favor of a relational view in which people always have value for others.
This approach focusing on overall well-being has most often been associated with utilitarian ethics, as evidenced by the crucial role that theory plays in the proposal being made by Harris. However, that association is not exactly correct in Oord’s view. “Strict utilitarianism is not possible for finite creatures. If the world is characterized by interrelatedness, precise calculation by localized individuals of the greatest good for the greatest number is inherently impossible. Despite the impossibility of precise calculations, however, we use measurements, both intuitive and scientific, to gauge the relative enhancement or undermining of overall well-being” (Defining Love, 61). Basically, Harris needs to temper his expectations while remaining confident that morality can become more scientific.
With this definition in place, Oord sees two dominant research questions for the “love, science, and theology symbiosis.” First, can humans act lovingly on their own, without any inspiration from a deity? Second, is every act of human love actually an act of God without any human contributions? If one answers yes to the first question, as Paul Zak did in the first week on this series, God seems to be on the sideline and superfluous for major moral questions. If one answers yes to the second question, all human good would not really be human good as its source would be wholly beyond humanity. As noted, Oord does not want to answer either question before looking at the data. So, as an empirical matter, what data does he find on well-being to help determine what actions promote and whose well-being should be considered in a given case?
Most sciences focus on what they call empathy and altruism in trying to understand what Oord is defining as love. In social-psychology altruism is usually defined so as to necessitate no benefit whatsoever comes to the actor, making altruism basically impossible. However, intention/motivation, a key component of Oord’s theological argument, is left out a priori for no apparent reason. This definition eliminates altruistic actions that might motivate similar actions in the future or bring self-satisfaction from a deep well done.
Charles Darwin located altruism within parent-child relationships. Giving sacrificially for the good of a child is an action that can then be extended to community life when faced with external obstacles such as other hostile communities. Faithful members ready to give aid will ensure their community survives over one without such cohesion. But this explanation still relates to individual survival. Individuals survive when their community flourishes. Even in the case of parents, Richard Dawkins has made it known that the genetic lineage survives in the sacrifices of parents for children. This has come to be known as “kin selection.” In either case, experience can teach that helping others reaps a gain. Such acts have come to be known as reciprocal altruism in scientific literature.
Cooperative acts proliferate when creatures discover giving benefits the giver. Take vampire bats, for example. Female vampire bats give blood meals to nest mates who would starve otherwise. This increases the probability of future interaction, the blood is necessary for survival so there can be such interaction, and the giver is more likely to receive in future interactions. Besides material gain, an often hidden aspect of reciprocity is reputational gain.
Actions are often influenced by the wishes of others or selfish desire. Darwin already knew in his time that working for the good of a group can be strengthened or deflected by public opinion. Members of a group would approve of actions that seemed to be for their overall good and chastise the opposite. Others are helped for the sake of reputational gain, which carries the assumption that benefits will be returned now or in the future.
So is anything missing in the way scientists are beginning to understand love/morality?
Oord adopts a critical realist stance to all this data. This position holds that it is impossible to know whether descriptive language ever corresponds perfectly with reality. Nonetheless, language is probably partially correct as far as its continued use is justified by its adequacy to new data and predictive power. The same is true theologically, Ooord says, with love.
Intentional acts for the benefit of others with no expectation of benefits in return remain unaccounted for currently. And since he defends genuine altruism as something currently unexplained in scientific theories, such unbounded love in need of explanation is a bridge to an affirmation of God’s real influence on the world. Once affirmed, as a critical realist, this surplus creaturely love will be at least something like divine love.
Unbounded love requires God’s activity. Only then can we account for limited and unlimited accounts of love. The fact that individuals and religious groups have often fought outsiders for the sake of self-preservation should not be neglected. It is only to be noted that the well-being of others has been promoted to individual or group detriment. Turning this into a negative statement for Harris, he has simply neglected to include among his data set for a science of morality the fact that individuals and groups have sometimes chosen to act in ways that show love to all others, and not only the statistically preferred group.
Oord’s theological hypothesis is that if God acts voluntarily in noninterventionist ways, then created entities are never prevented from being what they are. That God loves will always be the case. How God loves is case-dependent. He calls this “full-orbed” love, meaning God cannot force anyone to follow a certain course but instead offers different kinds of love as needed in different situations. In other words, God is relational and affected by the creatures relating to God. “Because God is present to all creatures and because God loves perfectly, all creatures are directly loved.” (Defining Love, 192). Presumably this thesis cuts both ways. Oord would need to accept the freedom to try and create a science of morality, even if that science builds in ways contrary to religion as Harris believes it will. It is at least an experiment in creaturely response to God’s loving offering that Oord seems committed to tolerate. But on the positive theological side, the same loving God is the being creatures respond when instantiating an overall increase in well-being for others. Creatures can choose ill over good while God’s love will never fail. Love is natural, requiring human choice, as well as needing divine persuasion without which altruistic love would be impossible. In terms of his definition of love, it is a matter of sympathetic response to God and a natural human choice to take or leave God’s loving gift. Thus, Oord believes he has given an answer to the either/or dilemma of whether morality is only natural or only supernatural.
It is interesting to note some commonalities that one may not expect between this theological proposal and Harris’ science of morality. The possible actions that God offers to the world arise from an understanding of past actions on the part of God and creatures in the world. Harris’ science is also situation-specific, based on considering past data that promoted well-being. In each theory, the best possibility differs in concrete situations people face. However, a stronger question for Oord arises due to Paul Zak’s work on oxcytocin.
Oord believes that our ability to love in any case requires God’s inspirational call to love, but Zak has shown that love can be natural without ruling out the God hypothesis. God is not unnecessary, but does not appear to be necessary, at least in some cases, either. Rather than responding to God, we sometimes respond to our neurochemistry. And, as has already been noted, Oord’s God is not one which interrupts natural causal relations involved in love. Take Oord’s definition of the classic Greek love philia. “Philia is intentional sympathetic response to promote overall –well-being by cooperation with others.” (Defining Love, 50). Zak clearly explained how he has discovered the role of oxcytocin in such cooperative relations. The molecule increases from and in turn increases cooperative relations. Zak’s lab is still producing great research, so the story is not complete yet, and there currently remains room for Oord’s claim that genuine altruism is to be explained by God’s love. But a differentiation between God’s role in finite and infinite acts of love may be need in Oord’s proposal. Rather than explaining the former in terms of a creature’s imperfect response to God, it may be explained naturalistically. The latter, though, may still have great theological import as it enables the transcending of finite limitations through the love of others and enemies. To paraphrase Paul Tillich, God has to do with our ultimate, not finite, concerns. It has been said that we love because God first loved us. In dialogue between Oord’s process theology and the current science of morality, maybe this should now read we love infinitely (or unselfishly) because God first loved us infinitely.
In the end Harris gets at least part of what he wants as well. As noted at the end of last week’s post, rigid religious morality codes have no role in this conversation. Love between creatures and God is relational and dynamic based on circumstances for Oord. Religious understandings of love must remain open to critique for Harris. A theology in which creatures respond to loving offerings tailored to each situation would surely join a critique of rigid laws as well as its own situational affirmations, lest the theological answers lose touch.
One obvious question remains: is this proposal a two-way street? Oord has done his best to form his hypothesis based on current research on love/morality, but what could a scientific research project take away from his proposal other than knowledge of its limitations and humility toward theological claims in turn? Maybe that is enough.