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A Question about Morality, and an update about our meeting tomorrow

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Hello everyone!

So, a quick update about our meeting tomorrow: As mentioned in my last post, there is an issue with the room scheduling, and we were unable to reserve a room big enough for our (growing!) group for our 5:30 Wednesday weekly meeting. So, we are doing something that we wanted to do at least once a semester anyway – GAME NIGHT! It’s a ton of fun; we did this last year and had such a great time chatting, getting to know each other, discussing whatever we felt like discussing, etc, that we decided we definitely wanted to do it again. This will be an informal meeting – no presentation, no preset topics of discussion – and please bring a board game (or card game) if you’d like! I will be bringing Scrabble and UNO, and Tony will be bringing a Boolean logic card game called “Ergo,” which is one of the best games for nerds ever invented, if you ask me.

We will meet at 5:30 in the Student Center Lobby. Just look for the big group with all the board games… and possibly a cake? 😉 If you need help finding us, text or call me at 573-424-0420 cell. Here is the Facebook event; please RSVP “maybe” or “yes” if you’re going to be there, so we have an idea how many chairs & tables to set up!

So, on to today’s topic… Where does morality come from, if not from gods?

This is quite specifically the question that led me to return to college after leaving my work as a worship musician, when I became an atheist in the first place. I became fascinated by the question, “If god is dead, everything is permitted?” A friend of mine, J, and I had an interesting discussion on my Facebook wall:

I started by posting this link from The Guardian, which was “liked” by 3 of my friends:

Pope accused of crimes against humanity by victims of sex abuse

and I commented on the link:

‘Bout time. I hope, finally, there will be 3rd-party investigation, oversight, and punishment for the moral monsters who abuse their positions of trust & authority to damage innocent, helpless children trapped in a system that protects their molesters and gets a tax break for it. (2 likes)

J responded:

‎”Moral monsters” you say? How can they be “moral” anything according to your view. And don’t quote me some regurgitated Sam Harris junk. Look at these quotes from him and other atheists on the subject of rape:

Irrational filth like this is the inevitable result of trying to explain non-scientific concepts in evolutionary terms. I do agree that such acts as child molestation are horrible and should face judgment. But from your evolutionary stand-point, you have no basis to assert such a statement.

I responded:

[J], there are excellent scientific answers to your question. Why don’t you want me to quote what a leading scientist in this specific subject area is writing about this? Do you just not want to know? You ask a question, and then in the same breath, tell me you don’t want me to give you the answer.

Sam Harris is not the only scientist studying the evolution of morality. If you don’t want me to quote him for whatever odd reason, I can still address your question.

The fact that god(s) are imaginary doesn’t change how morals evolved. The simply answer is, “Morals evolved in cooperative species because they maximize the number of grandchildren.” Some versions of morality do this more than others, and there’s more than one way a system of morality could do this, even contradictory ways depending on the total system. Hamilton’s Rule is quite sufficient to explain kin selection & the manner in which altruism was selected naturally; I’m happy to point you in the direction of additional reading if you’d like, and lend you some books. The book “The Origins of Virtue” by zoologist & author Matt Ridley answers your question in a nutshell, or if you’d like something more mathematical, the classic “The Evolution of Cooperation” (Axelrod) breaks it down using game theory.

Cooperation is often evolutionary advantageous. Some animals are solitary except when they are mating or rearing young, for example cats, spiders, etc. Other animals are social, for example bees, dogs, ants, chimps, humans, many fish species, many bird species, lions, buffalo, cattle, dolphins, etc. Here’s an incomplete list of species that work together in groups often enough that they’ve been assigned specific group names:

Many animals, even though they prefer solitude, will band together if they need to in order to survive, as far as food supplies, etc. Cats are a perfect example: They are instinctively drawn to hunting, and can have individual hunting ranges of miles. But if there is a ready supply of food, say a restaurant that dumps leftovers in an alley, they “colonize” and withstand one another in order to get an easier meal. There is a very specific etiquette that develops within cat colonies, and it’s fascinating to study. Game theory helps us understand how social rules develop in these situations, as far as what individuals are allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do. If you break “the rules,” the others kick you out, or gang up on you and kill you. The same happens with us (jail or the death penalty in modern society; exile or revenge-killings throughout history and in hunter-gatherer groups today).

Our ancestors, hunter-gatherers, lived/live in groups, because with cooperation you get all sorts of advantages: specialization & gains from trade (in the example of bees & ants & humans), better protection against predators and the elements (it’s not very easy to build an igloo, let alone a shabono or a 2-story house, by yourself!), etc. Why do humans live in cities instead of as recluses in caves or whatever? Because by working together, we can accomplish a lot more, and it’s to our advantage, both as a group, and as individuals, and most importantly, in our genes’ efforts to pass themselves along.

Rape has advantages as far as passing on genes, if conception is successful. But it has extremely costly social consequences for the perpetrator in intelligent animals that live in groups. It’s damaging physically & emotionally to the victims, and for all sorts of sound evolutionary reasons, we seek to protect our kin from that sort of damage, and we seek to punish those who have harmed them.

Like I said, if you are really interested in the science behind this, there *are* answers to your questions, if you really have a desire to understand the science behind this. I question your motives not out of malice but because you specifically said, “Don’t quote me some regurgitated… junk.” I’m not going to reinvent the wheel to explain this, even if I were able to do that, when there are plenty of qualified experts who have published hundreds of thousands of pages explaining exactly this already–and much better than I can!–some of them right here in Columbia. I noticed the link you posted included some information from Craig Palmer; I don’t know if you’re aware of this but he’s a Mizzou anthropologist & professor, and has written extensively about both the anthropology & evolution of religion, as well as the anthropology & evolution of sexual assault. If you really want to know, I’d suggest paying him a visit and asking him your questions. His office number is 573-882-0910, his email address is, and his physical office is at 107 Swallow Hall, off the Quad. He’s a very friendly, knowledgeable, and sincere guy, and an absolute expert in his field. I sincerely hope that you go and talk to him.

This (the evolution of morality in cooperative species) is specifically what I’m back in college to study, and I have an extensive home library of books on the subject, both textbooks and popular-science books. You are welcome to borrow any of them; just let me know.

It’s an unsubstantiated (and untrue) assertion that morality is a non-scientific concept. Morality (an unwritten, variable framework of pro-social versus anti-social behavior that plays out according to evolved rules in all sorts of cooperative species) is not unique to humans; in fact there’s a lot of great literature about naturally-selected systems of morality in computer simulations using game theory. Arguably, ethics (the philosophical, systematic codification of morality) is a non-scientific concept, and applies only to humans, since we use logic & language and we have taken morality and put it into formal terms.

Ethics and morality are not synonymous. Ethics is something philosophers study, and it’s prescriptive; morality is something that evolutionary psychologists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and economists (using game theory) study, and it’s descriptive. They are fundamentally different approaches to studying behavior. Put another way, the study of ethics is normative, and the study of morality is positive. When you study morality, you’re interested in what is: How do animals behave? Why do the patterns of interaction that emerge do so in this or that specific way? Where do these rules come from and what advantages or disadvantages to the genes, the individual organisms, the group, or the species do they offer? When you study ethics, you’re interested in what ought to be. How should we behave? How should we make decisions when our values are in conflict? How do we decide what obligations we have to others versus ourselves, as far as money, time, resources, etc? This is a very different set of questions than the questions investigated by scientists studying morality.

I didn’t post this for him in the thread, because J specifically asked me not to respond with something from Sam Harris, but this video is one of the best I’ve seen at addressing the question, “Can science answer moral questions?” Sam Harris says ‘yes.’

Until next time,

– Dave

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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One comment on “A Question about Morality, and an update about our meeting tomorrow

  1. Jared Caspari
    September 14, 2011

    You wrote: “Ethics and morality are not synonymous”

    I agree. There is definitely a distinction.

    You wrote: “When you study morality, you’re interested in what is…”

    Again, I agree. But from your evolutionary stand-point, why should something that just “IS” (i.e. rape, and other sexually oriented “crimes”) be labeled as “morally monstrous” and deserving of justice. Terms like “morally monstrous” and “justice” are words without meaning or validity in your view of morality. Why get uptight about what just “is”? You claim that science has successfully arrested morality out of the hands of an external, objective source (i.e. gods, Natural Law, The Tao) and given it into the hands of mankind to do whatever he wills with it, yet you can’t help but interject words like “justice”, “love”, and “morally monstrous”, words which only have meaning and validity within an external, objective source (i.e. gods, Natural Law, The Tao). You simply cannot have it both ways, Dave. You either must go all the way and debunk such sentiments as meaningless, or you must come to the reasonable conclusion that such sentiments as justice and love are rationality itself and therefore do not hang on the precarious thread of instinct. You claim science will give you the answers you seek, but it is not concerned with your atheist agenda, nor will it cater to it. It will always stay within its own limitations.

    From a purely scientific examination of human instincts, you could not derive any such judgment of value as what you stated about the Guardian article. As C.S. Lewis puts it,

    “If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive.”

    and again,

    “The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgement passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative”.

    At the very least, you are the one who has confused ethics and morality. Not I. In order to get the conclusions you are looking for about morality, you must inevitably leave the realm of science and move on to philosophy, which in fact you have done just now.

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, In The News, Web Links & Videos and tagged , , .
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