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Selfish Morality

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In what is shaping up to be a very interesting debate, atheists and secular humanists are finally beginning to seriously grapple with the moral arguments that theists have been holding over their heads for years. Richard Dawkins’ theory of the “selfish gene” has been the default metaphysical answer for most college biology courses for the last 30 years. But that is beginning to change and atheists on both sides of the debate do not like what they see.

Most atheists are forced by the very nature of their core belief to accept that morals are derived from evolution. While they may disagree over what exactly constitutes “morality,” they are in basic agreement that whatever it is, it originates in the evolutionary process and is sustained by their divine rule of “natural selection.” Just as physical and mental traits that are thought to be beneficial to the survival of the species will be naturally kept and those that hinder progress will be naturally weeded out, so it goes with the “morality” of the species. Those behaviors which are thought to increase the survival of the individual and the species as a whole will be kept and deemed “socially acceptable,” while those that detriment the species will be tossed and deemed “socially unacceptable.” Such is the usual basic explanation of the evolution of morals.

But this view completely begs the question and atheistic evolutionists are finally beginning to see this. Although it has taken some time to sink into their evolved gray matter, atheists are recognizing the implications of the same questions that Ayn Rand was asking more than 50 years ago:

What is morality? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions—the choices which determine the purpose and the course of his life. It is a code by means of which he judges what is right or wrong, good or evil.

What is the morality of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to live for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value....

Now there is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it—and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.[1]

A committed atheist herself, Rand took her moral cues from the natural world—her “earthly reasons,” as it were. She believed that every person “must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”[2] Rand was often severely criticized, from both the left and the right, for her views and what she called the “virtue of selfishness.” But until Dawkins proposed his “selfish gene” theory, the criticisms were never based on evolution. According to Dawkins’ theory, “human altruism develops as a way of ensuring the survival of one’s genes. If I sacrifice my life for two or three of my brothers, I am ensuring the survival of my genes, since my brothers share half my genes.”[3] Selfishness for Dawkins was something of a look to the future survival of the family unit, not necessarily the species as a whole. For Rand however, selfishness was a bit more practical and rooted not so much in the future, but in the present. She believed that “the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.”[4] In other words, Dawkins tried to explain the evolutionary paradox of altruism by showing it to be the ultimate act of selfishness, while Rand was convinced that selfishness itself was the path to altruism. She reasoned that a society of selfish individuals, looking after their own well-being and success, would, in fact, create an environment where altruism is no longer needed. Their outlooks may differ, but the end result is the same; Rand and Dawkins are actually two sides of the same coin.

Enter Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist from the University of Virginia. His work in the area of evolutionary morality is beginning to rub the veneer off of the “selfish gene.” Haidt is a self-professed atheist, just like Dawkins, but unlike Dawkins he is not beholden to any one theory of morality. To the great dissatisfaction of the “new atheists,” Haidt has been proposing that religion actually has some evolutionary benefit.

Dr. Haidt believes that religion has played an important role in human evolution by strengthening and extending the cohesion provided by the moral systems. “If we didn’t have religious minds we would not have stepped through the transition to groupishness,” he said. “We’d still be just small bands roving around.” Religious behavior may be the result of natural selection, in his view, shaped at a time when early human groups were competing with one another. “Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful,” he said.[5]

One would expect that his atheistic and materialistic cohorts would welcome the news that religion is nothing more than a vestigial relic from the hunter/gatherer days of evolutionary history. But such is not the case among the “new atheist” elite of Dawkins and Sam Harris. They have staked their claim and their reputation on the fact that religion is, in fact, poison in the social well. They have nothing but disdain for religion of any sort, but particularly the monotheistic variety and especially the Trinitarian one. In a rather scathing rebuke to Dr. Haidt, atheistic golden-boy Sam Harris had this to say:

Finally, I should mention that Haidt fails to acknowledge the central point of "new atheist" criticism. The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith. Even if Haidt's reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe. It is time that atheist scientists, above all people on this infatuated planet, acted as if this were so.[6]

And here I thought it was the hayseed religionists that had the empirical problem. Harris and his ilk have been lambasting religious “nitwits” for believing in and living their lives in terms of something that they cannot see, touch, taste, hear, or smell. Since reality for the ‘new atheists” is defined as only that which is purely material and able to be empirically verified, religion is dismissed at the outset. But Harris cannot escape the very metaphysical nature of his own beliefs. His own concluding remarks betray his own religion: “Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe.” What empirical process or method is Harris using to arrive at this metaphysical conclusion? Harris is completely begging the question that he is trying to prove. Amazingly, Harris preceded this sentence with this one: “Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions?” Although this clever rhetorical question was meant to shame Dr. Haidt, Harris (and Dawkins with him), finds himself on the horns of the same dilemma. He is just hoping that none of his atheistic lemmings will notice.

Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” lecture delivered at Yale University. Online here.
[2] Ayn_Rand
Terrence L. Nichols, The Sacred Cosmos (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2003), 222.
Nicholas Wade, “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?” New York Times, Sept. 18, 2007. Online here.

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