On Morality and Martyrdom

A debate has been cooking amongst various bloggers who are atheists about whether there is such a thing as objective morality. I was interested in the observations that animals behave in a ‘moral’ way–elephants grieve their dead herd members, dogs stand loyally beside the grave of their dead master, monkeys share and gorillas are tender toward their young. Is nature red in tooth and claw? I wrote about it here. It’s an interesting question. If animals are ‘moral’ then does that prove that morality is just a natural evolutionary development or does it prove that ‘morality’ runs through the warp and woof of everything and therefore is an objective part of the created order?

Then it occurred to me today while celebrating Mass for the memorial of St Isaac Jogues and St Jean deBrebeuf and their companions that the morality we observe in natural circumstances (monkeys being kind or gorillas protecting their babies, or elephants grieving) has it’s developed form in the morality we expect within our social and familial structures. We expect people not to steal or step on someone’s toes on purpose. We expect people not to kill and wound one another intentionally. OK. That is reasonable enough and one might see how it could have evolved, but what the matryrs teach us by their example, and what Jesus Christ demands is something far greater than mere morality. He does not demand morality he demands martyrdom. (If you are not familiar with the heroic story of St Isaac Jogues you can read about it here.)

He points out that everyone loves their own. So what. He commands us to love our enemies. He demands that we turn the other cheek and to the one who asks for our coat we should give our shirt as well. He demands more: “Unless you take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.” Not, if you like that sort of thing and feel called you may take up your cross if you wish. It’s a mandate. It’s not an option. What he demands is total service and self sacrifice. One might argue that mere morality evolves as a tribe of people figured out that it was a better way to live and a better way to survive. I personally doubt it because the moral tribe would always be the weaker tribe and their neighbors would attack and have them for supper, so the moral and nice tribe would always end up in the cooking pot. Nevertheless, we might say, for the sake of argument that social morality evolved.

But where on earth did this idea of self sacrifice and total service to others come from? Where on earth did it come from? That’s the point. It didn’t come from anywhere on earth. That is to say, the idea of martyrdom and total self service is so radical and counter cultural and against all human instincts that it could not have come about from a human instinct. The human instinct to survive and thrive could not have produced the motivation for martyrdom–even if they did kill you quick.

What I am suggesting here is not only that an objective morality exists, and therefore an objective source of that morality, but that this supernatural source of morality does more than provide a sensible source for morality–a kind of book of etiquette for respectable people. Instead that source of morality reveals something which is far more radical than morality–and that is martyrdom. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and seen in every age in the lives and deaths of the holy martyrs indicates the existence of a ‘morality’ so radical that it could only have come about through an infusion of another some strange and bizarre (from a human point of view) intelligence.

Of course, the Catholic faith says this radically unusual intelligence is revealing through the mystery of the cross and the martyrdom of the saints the essence of his own nature. We believe that God himself is not only ‘moral’ but a martyr. That is he is constantly in a multitude of mysterious and marvelous ways pouring out his life for the life of the world. That’s not only what he does. That’s what he IS.


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  • Peter Brown

    You write: “If animals are ‘moral’ then does that prove that morality is just a natural evolutionary development or does it prove that ‘morality’ runs through the warp and woof of everything and therefore is an objective part of the created order?”
    I must be being dense, because I can’t make sense of the claims in this whole thing. First, on a basic philosophical level, I can’t see how, if morality *were* selected for by evolution (repeatedly, too, since we see it in animals), that would mean that morality isn’t objective–if anything, it would seem to me to argue the reverse, since evolution itself is held (on the naturalistic account, anyway) to be an objective process. So if evolution repeatedly and consistently selects for a given set of moral principles, it would seem pretty clear to me that those principles must have real, objective adaptive value. Of course, having adaptive value doesn’t imply that those principles are truly morally binding in the usual sense, just that they’re adaptive–but that’s not evidence that the principles *lack* real moral weight, just that the language of evolution is unable to address real moral weight one way or the other.
    Second, and still on a (reasonably) basic philosophical level, I don’t see how morality “running through the warp and woof of everything” (nice phrase, Father!) implies that it wouldn’t emerge from evolutionary processes. In fact, if morality *is* woven into the fabric of existence as you suggest, I’d pretty much expect that it *would* turn out to have some kind of adaptive value in evolutionary terms (at least for highly social animals like us). This, by the way, is even (conceivably) true of martyrdom, as a natural outgrowth of the total identification of self with community that we see across cultures in (for example) military contexts. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was not written by a Christian, after all, and across history we see that the armies whose soldiers are willing to sacrifice their lives for their mission are more likely to win than the armies whose soldiers are less committed.
    Third, though, I really don’t care much whether Christian morality can be or can’t be explained by evolution, because I don’t see Christian moral principles primarily as a phenomenon to be explained. (Nor do you, Father, of course–your writing above makes that clear.) While particular precepts (“thou shalt not kill”) can certainly be explained in sociological or biological terms–even up to the point of self-sacrifice–still the totality of a life given over to Jesus cannot be reduced to a set of principles, and indeed makes no sense apart from Christ himself. Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf were motivated, not by moral principle *as* moral principle, but by passionate personal devotion to the Savior who had died for them.

  • A.C.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.bigbluewave.ca SUZANNE

    The so-called moral behaviour of animals is bunk. Do they ever have a moral dilemma? Behaving from feeling is not the same as behaving from an established code of conduct that is meant to honor one’s dignity as a human being.

  • Rob B.

    Thank you for this post. Personally, I think this is the Achilles heel of the “New Atheism” movement. They want to accept most of Judeo-Christian morality while eliminating its Source. At least Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx admitted that if God was dead, man needs an entirely new moral code.

  • Mr. Patton

    Ah, those silly atheist! I can only speak for myself as an Atheist, that scripture has strengthened my views against your particular theism. Thank you…:)

  • Mark

    I see your point Father L, but self sacrifice is easily explainable once you come to terms with the concept of megalomania: “Megalomania is a psycho-pathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of power, relevance, or omnipotence. ‘Megalomania is characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation by persons of their powers and beliefs.” In other words, Megalomania is the most profound longings of the flesh actualized.

    In order to make your argument work, I think you must modify self sacrifice as “self sacrifice as atonement for another’s transgressions.” Throwing yourself on a sword for some delusional cause is easy, but doing so to save someone else’s life, let alone an entire race of people’s lives, is quote another thing all together

  • Korou

    The priest finds it so easy to raise interesting questions, and is so quick to decide that they can’t be answered.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The problem with your theory is that a saintly martyr exhibits no signs of mental illness or megalomania

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy
  • Proteios1

    Glad to hear it. Keep reading and keep studying. I think you can learn even more…. :D

  • http://CatholicNews Thomas Lynch

    I believe In God The father almighty creator of heaven and earth and I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son. I believe All The teachings of Holy Mother Church and I sleep well at night

  • Korou

    That’s nice.
    I sleep well at night knowing that nobody is going to hell.

  • Brian

    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

    There are no atheists. There are those who believe in the true God, and then there are those, like you and your spiritual ancestors, the Greeks, who reject the true God for some other “god” and call it science or philosophy or evolution or some other such thing.

  • Paul Susac

    The errors in this post are many, but one in particular stood out for me:

    “If animals are ‘moral’ then does that prove that morality is just a natural evolutionary development or does it prove that ‘morality’ runs through the warp and woof of everything and therefore is an objective part of the created order?”

    This is just sloppy language. PROOF implies certainty of knowledge. Animals engage in behaviors which are consistent with human behaviors that we associate with morality. Animals have been seen to engage in behaviors such as nurturing, self-sacrifice, keeping score, retribution etc. that are very evocative of moral behavior. This is not PROOF of animal morality, this is EVIDENCE that behaviors that humans process in moral terms have evolutionary payoffs. This is different than PROOF of animal morality. This fact is also EVIDENCE that morality serves a powerful social function: It creates what social scientists refer to as social capital – a set of norms that allow us to live in trust and harmony, and thereby increase our wellbeing and chances for survival and reproduction.

    We all tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior, and calling it moral is just such an error. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, we don’t know the thought processes of the animals in question. Dwight puts quotes around morality, so he appears clear on this point, but he then proceeds as if he’s not.

    A more egregious error is his use of the word proof. Theism in general (and the clergy in particular) get a LOT of traction out of pretending to know things that they don’t. So the use of the word PROOF here is significant. Dwight is a highly educated man who has probably studied epistemology, yet he applies this sloppy language in this text. This practice supports a worldview that confuses evidence as proof. This is what theism BANKS ON.

    Consider: The bible is PROOF that various people wrote a series of books. The bible is (extremely weak) EVIDENCE that Jesus died for our sins.

    Get it? A theistic practice of confusing proof with evidence is a standard (and probably unconscious) practice for theologians, since if they actually used precise language in describing their worldview, people would start entertaining doubts about what they “know,” and start considering that there is a difference between knowledge and belief. In fact they MIGHT start figuring out that faith is an un-reliable process for arriving at truth, (and Dwight would need a career change).

    I have more to say on this but Dwight doesn’t like it when I got too long, so I’ll come back later in the thread (assuming I’m allowed on at all). In the mean time, if you want to learn more about animal behavior, check out David Sloan Wilson:

    Or if your’ up for a REAL intellectual challenge try:
    Robert Sapolski:
    This is the start of a series of lectures that’s just awesome.