An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
I recently saw a CS Lewis quote with regard to human sexuality that had me digging out his book "Mere Christianity" to try and find the exact passage. While doing so, I fell upon reading it from the beginning which I've not done in probably over a decade or more. Lewis divides his relatively small work into "books" and the first one shares the title I've given to this post. I've made it no secret that a huge portion of my conversion to Theism arose from an internal conflict with the issue of "right and wrong" and this entire section in the book demonstrates that Lewis clearly sees the issue as paramount as well. I'd like to elaborate later (perhaps in a different post) the details of this "internal conflict", for while it certainly was in part a conflict of logic and reason, it was far more a conflict involving something deeper that is not easily explained in such terms. But, first, back to Lewis.
He begins by referring to an imaginary argument between two people in which they both clearly agree upon and accept a certain set of external premises about right and wrong and it is really only this mutual assent to some "standard of behavior" that allows them to argue (intellectually) at all. That failing, or one party rejecting the "standard of behavior" (usually rarely done - depending on the issue), then the argument becomes either an exercise in absurdity or an issue of physical domination. In Lewis' example two men are arguing over a seat and who gets to sit in it, which every child knows mysteriously hinges on the notion of whip was sitting there first, but if the intellect fails to resolve the issue then brute force will decide who gets the chair...or the food...or the sex - a highly Darwinian solution that certainly does happen, though we like it little.
But the main issue is with regards to the "standards of behavior" and where it originates. No one can possibly deny that morals, values, and ethics exist, but what is less considered by most people is whether these "standards of behavior" have a subjective or objective reality. We live our lives with a sort of default belief that they are in fact objective: e.g. killing someone is wrong PERIOD...no need to explain why...and any person or society that says otherwise is WRONG. And though we largely live this way (it's what allows us to feel good about ideas of justice or more importantly argue on the internet), we rarely stop to think about the reality of these values. Do they have an ontological existence in and of themselves or are they solely a social or personal construct? There are huge implications to our answer here.
Most secularists would argue for a subjective origin of morality and that it is actually a sort of
genetic deception played upon us, that allows us to debate moral issues as if they actually had an objective existence in and of themselves. In fact, they would say, by way of a million years or more of natural selection people who shared certain moral inclinations were favored such that
in some way it allowed for their genes to be propagated at the expense of others. In other
words, we the inheritors of this evolutionarily successful genetic line are molecularly programmed to "feel" that murder is wrong -
at least most of us. Let me offer a few thoughts (and Lewis' as well) to this idea.
First, the belief that this "scientifically" explains the origin of morality is simply wrong. I do not mean to imply that it is necessarily untrue, however. What I am suggesting here is that there is hardly a shred of hard data to suggest we know that morality is genetically hard-wired in us. Rather we assume it because we have no other means of understanding it as secularists. We cannot begin to offer up a molecular level theory to explain why we largely tend to think - on a very deep level - murder is wrong. No gene to point to, no protein to act on our neurological cell receptors. This explanation is really only an idea solely based on two massive assumptions about the universe: 1) That it is wholly material and thus only material explanations as discerned by human senses can account for everything that exists and 2) Evolution and genetics can explain every aspect of our being. These two assumptions made (quite incorrectly by the way), then one MUST find a rational argument to explain why we feel the way we do about morality. And they have done so - in both a logical and reasonable way. However, there is no hard science to be found in this argument (by which I mean that no means of properly executing the scientific method to verify a hypothesis can be conducted here). I think that point is critical because too often this particular explanation for the origin of morality is billed as being the rational and intelligent man's explanation as opposed to the superstitious nonsense of the religious man. So, my point is simply that one must exercise no small degree of FAITH to affirm this explanation, and like my own faith, it is not made blindly.
A second point with regards to this explanation for the origin of morality: it opens up some very uncomfortable cans of worms. Lewis explains when referring to the world's recent (to him at the time of writing) experience with World War II:
What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at the bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed for that then for the colour of their hair.
I think it very interesting that Lewis references hair color, because in this time we really had no notion at all that a theory espousing a genetic origin for morality would come into being - at least not to the extent that it has today, and yet he rather addresses it here, albeit somewhat accidentally. What could we say were we to find a racial group who have a less well developed or perhaps even have lost the "thou shall not murder" genetic inclination? As a side, no such race has been found that I know of and to suggest any racial group which might have a slightly different genetic lineage might be more violent than others because of their genetics could get one charged with hate speech crimes! And yet, does not a genetic understanding for the origin of morality lead us precisely to this point of...well...I would say intellectual/moral distress for most of us who are horrified by ideas of eugenics or genetic superiority?
But for the sake of argument, lets us assume that the "thou shall not murder" genetic inclination is universal, but that it perhaps ebbs and flows based upon many complex factors we find in our biological makeup. I think this is an exceptionally reasonable explanation and is certainly utilized by proponents of the theory. Thus, these other factors (none of which - even though unnamed - are any less "scientific"...or so we are told) would allow a person to temporarily ignore the moral genetic inclinations in order to commit atrocities. And yet, Lewis' point stands: how can we call the act of Nazis murdering Jews wrong, if their genetic ebb and flow simply allowed them to do it...surely we cannot say they acted against their own genetic moral code and therefore are WRONG, can we? Indeed not reasonably, for how could one act against their own biological determinism? Where on earth could such a thing originate? It almost sounds like one may next appeal to a "soul", this is of course nonsense, but to call the Nazis "wrong" we must show that somehow they have acted out of alignment with humanity's genetic moral code - an impossibility for the materialist to do. We are forced to limit our argument to: "You did what your genetic make up allowed you to do and I just don't like what you did because mine forbids it." There is no weight to be wielded to notions of right and wrong when we are all biological machines.
But hair color still is not the closest that Lewis gets to addressing a genetic notion, for further on he comments at length in regards to what a questioner asks of him about "herd instinct" (which we would of course now understand 60 years later as an evolutionary genetic development). And so Lewis goes in depth to show the difference between herd instinct and what he calls "Moral Law" and he principally does so by examining our own curious internal debate over strangely contradictory instincts:
If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature's mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably WANT to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same. And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as if to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you "your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up," cannot itself BE the herd instinct. The thing which tells you which note on the piano needs playing louder cannot itself be that note.
In a sense, he is effectively arguing against what I have termed biological determinism. He is suggesting that we, as humans - perhaps unique in a universe of matter that has very VERY strangely becoming self-aware (please consider this for some length of time) - are not slaves to our instincts (or at least we'd like to think we are not) and then questions how this could be possible (if it is possible). One could argue that the immense complexity of the human genome might possibly have evolved to the point of giving us a wide range of moral choices, but it still leaves the question unanswered as to how exactly a DECISION is ultimately arrived at. If we have some number of moral freedom genes and additionally something or some process that chooses between which genetic inclination, then we must also assume that that "choosing mechanism" has a genetic origin. And then we are back to biological determinism and left reeling because of our desire to blame and hold accountable as IF people have a real choice as opposed to simply following genetic "herd instinct."
The very essence of the idea of morality hinges upon an absolute affirmation of human freedom. Biological determinism demolishes this notion and changes what is right and what is wrong into the moral void of simply what is and what isn't. Biological morality or Darwinistic Evolutionary morality really can only say this: the strong survive and thrive; the weak either die or serve the former. THIS is the process by which a herd is strengthened, survives, and evolves to loftier manifestations. If evolution were to select for a gene that somehow convinces the strong to serve the weak, then the whole system is ruined and the evolutionary viability of the heard is undone and thus it cannot be so that such a gene would ever be "selected." And yet, I know of no human who fails to see beauty in the idea of the strong protecting the weak, though it makes no evolutionary sense, if the secularist is right we should see it as nothing less than evolutionary stupidity.
Lewis points to ideas of right and wrong as signposts within us that direct us to a deeper meaning for which science can offer no justification and no reasoning - not at least any that will not themselves render what we FEEL as being ultimately illusion because what we feel, what we believe, how we behave and how we expect others to behave assumes we are freely acting agents and NOT biological agents acting upon genetic programming.Our understanding of right and wrong is dependent on some degree of belief in our autonomy. However, the idea of morality existing as a set of external rules that through our autonomy we need to chose to follow is something not largely affirmed in the Eastern Christian tradition. In Eastern Christian thought, morality (like salvation itself) is hinged ontologically to personhood and the fact that we do not simply struggle to eventually have the ability to follow rules, but rather we are transformed in our personhood into a state of being that is united with Christ. We become who and what we are supposed to be. It's not about the law, it's about ACTUAL change and transformation of our personhood. It's about personhood fulfilled. This begs more explanation later, but draws a critical difference between eastern and western understanding of sin and soteriology. But, whether one adheres to an Eastern or Western Christian understanding of morality, they both stand in stark contrast to what the secularist understanding of reality offers in terms of rationalizing why we tend to think there is a right and a wrong and I would suggest our affinity...or our yearning for morality's absolute existence is a sign that Carl Sagan was wrong: we are made up of FAR more than "star-stuff."
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 10:29 AM [+] +++
Enjoyed reading your post. Just one thought: Where do cannibals fall on the innate sense of "murder is wrong" scale?
That's a good point...clearly there are some societies that have or had very different moral values which I think personally suggests that there is more to it than genetics - because these values evolve at a speed for which genetic evolution simply cannot account. Consider the Spartans who practiced infanticide on children who were malformed or weak...something that makes a great deal of evolutionary sense.
I think each culture, despite sometimes extreme variations, would still retain some degree of morality in association with even abhorrent practices such as cannibalism. In other words, they had means of justifying or putting constraints around the act of killing not unlike we do with capital punishment or war. But what is interesting is the ease with which cultures are convinced to abandon particularly ugly practices - generally. Often they were abandoned in combination with conversion to Christianity. While that involves a change, it certainly isn't a genetic one. And yes, obviously we still find means of practicing war and capital punishment...but that'll take us off topic.
Overall, I guess the point should have been that the general belief in right behavior and wrong behavior actually existing beyond personal preference is the clue and not necessarily specific to any one behavior. So, humans have an innate sense of right and wrong - even if it varies. We intuitively know that we ought to be something we tend not to be. fdj