Chapter 6 – The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?

McCulloch’s question:
Does our morality have a Darwinian explanation?

An additional question:
What is meant by “good” and “moral sense”?

QED wrote:You name a moral (or lack thereof) and I’ll bet we can explain it within a Darwininan framework.

OK, I’ll name one example … Enron.

QED wrote:This implies an absolute moral reference for people to judge themselves by and the Darwinian explanation is quite simple: a “sum over histories” of successful behavioural strategies is built up in ancestral lines.
McCulloch wrote:Right and wrong are not revelations from some supposed god, but have been discovered through the experience and intelligence of man. There is nothing miraculous or supernatural about morality. Neither has morality anything to do with another world, or with an infinite being. It applies to conduct here, and the effect of that conduct on ourselves and others determines its nature.
Cathar1950 wrote:I am not sure how the story of Moses can show us any moral foundation.
It seems the real foundation of the stories is obedience to the divine command.
This hardly seems moral.

In this chapter, Dawkins presents the motivation for religious people to be good is either because God is a policeman or that by following the laws it makes them good. However, both of these are not consistent with Christian teaching. What the Bible says is that nobody is good. People cannot be good no matter how hard they try to follow any set of laws. So, though this chapter might address other religions, it does not address Christianity.

Nobody yet has defined what is is meant be “good” or “moral sense”. And I’m not too sure if we’ll be able to come to any consensus as to what these mean. But, let me give it a try.

Good – the “right” thing to do. (He is a good boy because he did the right thing.)
Moral sense – the ability to discern what is the right thing to do. (He knew what was the right thing to do, but he chose to do the wrong thing.)

I would also argue that good and moral sense have nothing to do with Darwinism. And I’ll expound on my thoughts on this later.

McCulloch wrote:

QED wrote:You name a moral (or lack thereof) and I’ll bet we can explain it within a Darwininan framework.
otseng wrote:OK, I’ll name one example … Enron.

What is it about Enron that you find difficult to explain within a Darwininian framework?

It’s not difficult to explain at all. But, QED asked me to name one, so I did. So, what is the explanation within a Darwinian framework?

McCulloch wrote:Enron is a complex legal, corporate and ethical situation not a particular moral. What particular moral wrt the Enron situation that you would have us explain. Lying, greed, failure to take responsibility, unfairly passing blame, sense of entitlement, failure to carry out expected duties, failure of fiduciary responsibility, failure of government oversight, … ?

I only bring up Enron because it is mentioned in the chapter. It says that Jeff Skilling’s favorite book is The Selfish Gene and that “he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist character from it.”

If you go on to read the misinterpretation made by Enron, listed on the website Dawkins provides in his foot notes

It’s not a misrepresentation at all.

Enron traders were commonly under the threat of being fired if they didn’t produce the desired results. Though the accounting scandals are most credited with the demise of the company, it has later come out that part downfall was attributed to employees inflating results in part to help protect their jobs.

Survival of the fittest was the philosophy applied to the traders. Management always fired at least 10% of the traders every year to get rid of the weakest, even if they did nothing wrong. This caused the traders to get more and more “creative” in trying not to get fired. One such creative method was causing artifical blackouts to raise electricity prices.

There were of course other major problems at Enron, but the survival of the fittest mentality was one factor in the lack of morality in Enron.

One general comment about this chapter. I find it interesting that Dawkins paints a picture of Darwinism as being “generous”, “kind”, “altruistic”, while at the same time denouncing any “bad” consequences (such as the case with Enron). Meanwhile, Dawkins paints religion as bad, evil, wrong and avoids mentioning any positive influence of religion. So, his bias is blatantly obvious.

I would admit that religion has its share of bad as well as good. But, I would state that in everything on Earth, if there’s good, there will also be bad. It might be good to win the $10 million lottery. But it also means all sorts of people (government, long lost relatives, con artists, ex-wives, etc) will be hounding me for money. In order for bad not to exist, good cannot exist either. It would then be neutral. A scientific theory is not by itself good or bad. It is neutral. But the application of atomic fusion could result in good or bad.

When a lion kills a deer, is that good or bad? Or is it simply just the way things are and would be neutral?

Good and bad is a consequence of freewill. If there is no choice in the matter, then there is no such thing as good or bad. A lion does not decide whether to kill or not to kill. It has no choice in the matter. So, it would be neutral.

Since good and bad is a result of the ability to choose, the question is not how Darwinism can explain good and bad, but how can it explain freewill? And why does it appear that man alone has this faculty?

Why it is also difficult for us to define what is meant by good? Yet why is it also at the same time universally agreed upon by what is good? We cannot articulate it, yet we all agree with it. As CS Lewis had pointed out, this is an indication that there is more to ourselves than our natural body. There is some transcendent nature that is beyond our natural body and yet common to all people.

I stated earlier that good and moral sense have nothing to do with Darwinism. The main reason is that good and moral sense is a consequence of freewill. And Darwinism is lacking in explaining the origin of freewill. Therefore good and moral sense cannot be explained by Darwinism.

Confused wrote:To use Dawkins example, on page 217, he shows how bees need nectar and flowers need to pollinate. One requires the other to survive. This is his reciprocal altruism.

When animals/plants cooperate, it would be called symbiosis (or probably more accurately mutualism). Animals and plants cannot be altruistic. Only if something is able to choose to do something would it be considered altruistic. Altruism requires a decision to give up one’s own interest for the benefit of someone else. If no such decision is made, then it’s not an act of altruism.

Confused wrote:Dawkins didn’t refer to Enron in terms of survival of the fittest. I thought his reference was in terms of the Darwinian framework of the altruistic gene.

Survival of the fittest is a key component of Darwinian theory. Altruism would only be a factor in Dawkinian theory.

Confused wrote:

otseng wrote:

Confused wrote:Dawkins didn’t refer to Enron in terms of survival of the fittest. I thought his reference was in terms of the Darwinian framework of the altruistic gene.

Survival of the fittest is a key component of Darwinian theory. Altruism would only be a factor in Dawkinian theory.

I am not sure I am following you. In terms of a Darwinian framework, reciprocal altruism could easily contribute to survival of the fittest.

I’m arguing that there is no such thing as altruism within the Darwinian framework. As I’ve argued above, being altruistic would mean that a conscious decision was made to put something else higher than oneself. No animals besides humans have this capability. Relationships might be called symbiotic, but certainly not altruistic.

The problem I have with this is that I can’t quite grasp the genetic component. Theoretically, yes. But it would seem that this trait would be more learned rather then inherited.

I think you’re right. It would not have anything to do with genetic evolution. At the best, it would only involve memetic evolution.

Once again, I am having a difficult time keeping his perspective in the scientific range.

Me too. And it applies to the entire book.

I see your point here. I am thinking more along the lines of the relationship between these in the abstract. I understand how it is to be an unselfish act for the better of the whole, but must it be a conscious choice? Do bees that give their own lives in protection of the “queen bee” do so consciously? Or is it instictive? Must one be able to consciously say “I am doing X for the better of Y”? Or can it simply be instinct or programmed?

I think in terms of this chapter in explaining good, it does need to mean more than something that is instinctive. If something will automatically do something, how can it be considered to be doing something good? It would simply be just how things are.

I am not sure animals cannot be altruistic:

altruism (al’tr-iz’?m) Pronunciation Key
Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental or without reproductive benefit to the individual but that contributes to the survival of the group to which the individual belongs. The willingness of a subordinate member of a wolf pack to forgo mating and help care for the dominant pair’s pups is an example of altruistic behavior. While the individual may not reproduce, or may reproduce less often, its behavior helps ensure that a close relative does successfully reproduce, thus passing on a large share of the altruistic individual’s genetic material.

According to these definitions, yes, animals can be altruistic. But, I would say these definitions are simply anthropomorphizing animals.

But, animals are not being “good” by these mutual relationships. If they are, then we should also classify animals that kill other plants/animals as “bad”. What I’m saying is that these relationships are neutral. There is nothing inherently good or bad about it. Animals operate on instincts and do not consciously make decisions to do something good or bad.

Confused wrote:You say Darwinism lacks explaining free will, does religion do a better job? I am not sure you are implying it does, but wanted to clarify it.

Religion doesn’t per se “explain” freewill.

Also, if good and moral sense are a consequence of free will, is this to say that those wo do good choose to do good and those who do bad choose to do bad?

Most of the time, yes. The major exceptions are those who do something out of repeated use and forms a habit and those who are not in full control of their faculties.

Can we honestly say that when even Dawkins has failed to define moral ( I read the chapter again and still can’t find where he identifies what is moral and what isn’t, perhaps because he can’t).

One problem is that if we don’t know what Dawkins means by “moral”, then how can he be clear on what its origin is?

QED wrote:That draws on a dubious logic, peculiar it seems, to religion — the notion of freewill. The ability to choose a course of action with the benefit of prior modelling is, I think, wholly responsible for (the possible illusion of) free-will.

I would not say that the concept of freewill is restricted to the area of religion.

bunyip wrote:First of all, the use of “Darwinian” in so many posts [including the one being replied to] is false and misleading. The term “Darwinian” or “Darwinism” implies a dogma that doesn’t exist. “Natural selection” is the proper term, and for those [like me] who aren’t comfortable typists, may i suggest “E/NS” [Evolution by natural selection]

I’m not sure what you mean by the use of “Darwinian” and “Darwinism” as misleading. Dawkins uses the terms throughout the book.

> “I would say these definitions are simply anthropomorphizing animals.”

This view has been challenged by Richard and many other zoologists in several works. The problem with “anthromorphising” animals isn’t a fault of science, but of language. When we describe behaviour we have only human terms to use. Making up new ones is difficult at best and confusing at worst.

However, there are already several words that more accurately describe the relationship – symbiosis, mutualism. Using the term “altruism” confuses the issue because it implies that animals can do something “good”.

bunyip wrote:Yes, he does, as do others. It’s a term of convenience because most people weary of typing “evolution by natural selection”. Nevertheless, the way i’ve been seeing it used here implies dogma. That’s hardly Richard’s usage.

I use the term Darwinism to mean evolution by natural selection.

I’m not certain what you mean by “mutualism”, but “symbiosis” isn’t considered a form of altruism unless you stretch the definition almost beyond reason.

About mutualism:

Altruism is generally accepted to be a single act – or several without regular continuity.

I agree. However, when Dawkins gives examples of reciprocal altruism, he cites symbiotic relationships. So, he does not give examples of single acts, but continuous acts.

page 217 wrote:The living kingdoms are rich in such mutualistic relationships: buffaloes and oxpeckers, red tubular flowers and hummingbirds, groupers and cleaner wrasses, cows and their gut micro-organisms. Reciprocal altruism works because of asymmetires in needs and in capacities to meet them.

In this chapter, Dawkins asks, “Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?”

First, he fails to define what is meant by “moral sense”. I don’t necessarily fault him for this since it is hard to define. But, if he does not define it, how can he then claim to have an explanation for its origin?

I’ve offered a definition of moral sense as “the ability to discern what is the right thing to do.” With this definition, it is clear that evolution cannot account for it. The ability to discern what is the right thing to do is only found in humans. No other animal possesses this. Dawkins cites reciprocal altruism as evidence of moral behavior. However, I argue that the relationships are simply symbiotic. The relationships are not a result of animals deciding to do anything good, but because it’s simply how things are. Animals are acting instinctively and have no choice in the matter. Further, if animals can be “good” by helping others, then they are also “bad” by hurting others. So if animals are to be described as altruistic, then they are also to be described as criminal.

So, our moral sense does not have a Darwinian origin.

Confused wrote:Does a mother bear not fight to the death to protect her cubs. Would she not die for it? Why would she not have a choice?

I would explain it as motherly instincts. However, if she fought to the death of protecting another bear’s cubs, then that could certainly be a case of altruism.

McCulloch wrote:

otseng wrote:I’ve offered a definition of moral sense as “the ability to discern what is the right thing to do.” With this definition, it is clear that evolution cannot account for it.

Perhaps you can expand on this thought. I is not clear to me that evolution cannot account for a moral sense.

I think it all hinges on my assertion that no animal has the capability to discern what is the right thing to do. If no animal has this capability and only man does, then evolution cannot explain it since it appeared only when mankind arrived.

otseng wrote:The ability to discern what is the right thing to do is only found in humans. No other animal possesses this.

Do you have any support for this assertion?

Dawkins mentions several tests starting on page 223 – the trolley test, pushing the fat man test, the waiting room organ donar test. Would there be any animals that could make the same type of judgements in any of these cases that humans do? I believe for any animals to decide what is the right thing in these cases would be much too complex and beyond their capabilities. Do I have any research to support this? No, but I believe it is a reasonable assumption.

Is our seemingly altruistic behaviour something other than symbiosis?

I would not classify the altruistic behavior of humans as symbiosis.