If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals. Or at least good ones. The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take. In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics. And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time. If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science. I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science. The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.
The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong. Imagine a godless world. One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are. Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us. Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder. Thou shalt not commit it. Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody. Randomly. Without provocation. Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.
Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard. Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there. They’ve chatted a few times. Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim. There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.” She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.
The scientists watch in amazement. Suddenly Jim’s front door opens. His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding. Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done. Deprived his two boys of their father. She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself. Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door. She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done. Susan’s anger though is understandable. Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father. She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger. The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this. A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan. One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan. He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end. They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly. Both of them end up having addiction problems.
As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold. They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans. They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.
They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris. In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder. Now they find murder is happening more often. Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime. This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.
The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea. There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody. The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong. Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him. Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard. The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them. They are also in grief at the loss of the victims. The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well. The loss will be felt. They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own. To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time. The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him. Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.
As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too. Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own. The scientists conclude:
- there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
- people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
- PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
- murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed. The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
- a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur. In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental
The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad. Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.
Thus concludes my little thought experiment. I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart. Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good. There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way. The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.
The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment. We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years. The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed. Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices. And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats. Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.
Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are. Mammal – primate – human. We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs. And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.