Wednesday, December 16, 2009

biology (not religion) equals morality

Edge | For many, living a moral life is synonymous with living a religious life. Just as educated students of mathematics, chemistry and politics know that 1=1, water=H2O, and Barack Obama=US president, so, too, do religiously educated people know that religion=morality.

As simple and pleasing as this relationship may seem, it has at least three possible interpretations.

First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.

Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fuelling altruism and fending off harms to others.

Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious "team".

None of my comments so far are meant to be divisive with respect to the meaning and sense of community that many derive from religion. Where I intend to be divisive is with respect to the argument that religion, and moral education more generally, represent the only — or perhaps even the ultimate — source of moral reasoning. If anything, moral education is often motivated by self-interest, to do what's best for those within a moral community, preaching singularity, not plurality. Blame nurture, not nature, for our moral atrocities against humanity. And blame educated partiality more generally, as this allows us to lump into one category all those who fail to acknowledge our shared humanity and fail to use secular reasoning to practise compassion.

If religion is not the source of our moral insights — and moral education has the demonstrated potential to teach partiality and, therefore, morally destructive behaviour — then what other sources of inspiration are on offer?

One answer to this question is emerging from an unsuspected corner of academia: the mind sciences. Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially. What's the evidence?