The Moral Instinct.


A recent issue of the New York Times Magazine carried a long piece by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker called “The Moral Instinct.”  Pinker’s article is part of the Darwinian Cleanup Project. This project is an attempt to plug the holes in Darwinism which has a very hard time accounting for–a) the origin of life, b) consciousness and c) morality. Pinker begins with an interesting comparison between Mother Teresa, Bill Gates and Norman Borlaug (the father of the Green Revolution in agriculture). Pinker argues that while Mother Teresa may have had the noblest intentions, Gates and Borlaug probably did more to help people than the saint of Calcutta. In other words, morality is not simply a matter of intention but also of what one actually does to help people. Excellent point, but what does it have to do with an evolutionary foundation for ethics? Not much.

For the past several decades, leading neo-Darwinists have labored hard to provide a Darwinian basis for morality. The basic idea here is that morality is a form of extended selfishness. The mother who leaps into the burning car to save her children is acting unselfishly from her point of view, but from her genes’ point of view, the action is entirely self-interested. The mother is simply trying to ensure that her genes make it into the next generation. Some evolutionists like Robert Trivers extend this logic to explain why we treat even strangers decently and fairly. This is called “reciprocal altruism,” which may be translated as “I’ll be nice to you, so that you can be nice to me.”

This entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, and at best it explains “low altruism.” But humans also engage in “high altruism” which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. A man stands up to give his seat on the bus to an older woman. She is nothing to him, and he is certainly not thinking that there may be a future occasion when she will give him her seat. He does it because he’s a nice guy. There’s no Darwinian rationale that can account for his behavior.

Consider the true story of the Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe, who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. Each day the Nazis would choose one person from the group for execution. One of the first persons they selected was a man who pleaded for his life, saying he had a wife and children who were dependent on him and he needed to live in order to look after them. Just as the Nazis were about to drag him from the room, the priest stood up and said, “Take me in his place.” The Nazis were baffled and refused, but the priest insisted. The man was equally uncomprehending, so the priest told him, “I don’t have a family, I am old and won’t be missed like you will.” The Nazis finally agreed, and the priest went to his death. The man whose place he took survived the war and returned to his family.

Now what is the Darwinian explanation for Kolbe’s behavior? It does not exist. Ernest Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist, admits that “altruism toward strangers is behavior not supported by natural selection.” Richard Dawkins concedes that Darwinism cannot even explain why people donate blood, an action he puts down to “pure disinterested altruism.” I enjoy reading Pinker, Trivers and the others, but I don’t think that the Darwin Cleanup Crew is going to come up with a comprehensive account of morality. The simple reason is that the evolutionary project is necessarily confined to the domain of survival and reproductive advantage–in other words, to the domain of self-interest–while it is the essence of morality to operate against self-interest. The whole point of morality is to do what you ought to do, not what you are inclined to do or what it is in your interest to do.

For Christians, morality is not merely a survival strategy; rather, morality refers to the laws of right and wrong which exist objectively or in nature.  These laws are ultimately the prescription of God, who created the moral law just as He created the physical laws of nature.   In the Christian view, morality is given by God but recognizable through moral reasoning and conscience; consequently, one does not have to be Christian or even religious to know the difference between right and wrong.

The Christian explanation for morality shares with the Darwinian view a skeptical or low view of human nature. Immanuel Kant put it very well when he wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”  Consequently it is very difficult to live a moral life without God’s help.  We appeal to God for grace or divine assistance to help us live better and more virtuous lives than we are capable of living on our own. Great sacrificial figures like Mother Teresa and Maximilian Kolbe have always recognized this, and attributed their actions to a divine force larger than themselves.