Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Science has a big appetite

A great article over at the NY Times about the biological basis for morality. It would seem much like our use of tools, sophisticated language and sociable nature, our primate cousins show the building blocks of what humans carried forth into a set of moral ideas.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

It's a central tenet of conventional wisdom that religion is the source of our moral code. It is the same wisdom people draw upon when they want to put a Ten Commandments shrine on State property or keep two men from kissing. What happens when science suggests that morality came before religion?

The idea that biology would continue to demand more and more territory from philosophy as it has been doing to religion for so many centuries is bound to be controversial. Clearly, the philosophers have a stake in this, but I do agree with one of their assessments:

and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”

You win this round, philosphers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Freud does not have such a high view of morality. Check out his recent comments on this and other things (like the Internet) in my "Exclusive Interview with Sigmund Freud" found on my blog - "Necessary Therapy"