Friday, July 3, 2009

Naturalistic ethics

Morality defines the “ought” of our social relationships. Evolutionary biology shapes our morality, e.g., predisposing us toward cooperating with others, a characteristic labeled reciprocal altruism. Humans, many scientists believe, are hard-wired to help one another.

Ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce in their book, Wild Justice, contend that animals exhibit moral behavior. They recount the story of two baby mice trapped in a sink. One mouse is to weak to move to the water that the scientist who discovered the mice placed in the sink. The stronger mouse, after drinking, tries to nudge the weaker mouse toward the water. When that fails, the stronger mouse moves a piece of food the scientist placed in the sink close to the weaker mouse. The weaker mouse rallied and edged closer to the food. The stronger mouse nudged the food closer to the water, after allowing its weaker sibling to take a bite. Again, the weaker mouse edged up to the food. Again, the stronger mouse nudged the closer to the water, the weaker mouse following. The two mice repeated this process until the weaker had reached the water. This is but one of the many examples of animals helping other animals reported in Wild Justice.

Bekoff and Pierce and reasonably maintain that human ethics have their roots in animal behavior. The notion of helping others in the expectation that someone will aid the helper in his/her moment of need did not suddenly arise in humans.

In other words, from the perspective of naturalistic ethics the philosopher David Hume was wrong to sharply distinguish between what is and what ought to be. He argued that deriving ethics from nature is impossible. A person who misidentifies isness with oughtness commits what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy. The is of reciprocal altruism thus constitutes an important foundational element for the ought that humans should help one another.


Fr Craig said...

George - been reading and re-reading this... I don't buy it. I think within family units (perhaps small tribes bound together for self preservation) this works. I know I'd sacrifice myself for my children (or would have when young - now??). But my conviction is that basic human nature is that of the animal - self-preservation is paramount. Thus, original sin. This is why the Great Commandment is so radical - it calls us to deny our 'selves' and 'agape' others as much as ourselves. In my theology, it is only Jesus' human decision to trust God and through obedience and trust render death powerless, that we are given the genuine redemption from fear - thus enabling us to love others... love your blog!

George Clifford said...

Thanks for your comments. The hard-wiring at most sets a predisposition, not an inflexible orientation. Reciprocal altruism begins with the nuclear family. Over the millennia I think this has expanded first to extended family, then tribe, now to the nation (in some parts of the world), and is beginning to develop into a global concern (or at least I pray that is happening).

Anonymous said...

Hello my friends. I have no idea how I found myself in your blog, it is a beautiful and interesting posting. Fr Craig said "decision to trust God and through obedience and trust render death powerless...redemption of fear". I recall before the holly communion as a child the wordings "meta phobou Theou Lavete..." (With Fear of God Reveive...) can you ask someone to have "Fear" of God and at the same time claim that through our belief and obedience we are 'given the genuine redemption from fear?) Isn't this contradicting? It's like me, telling my children Don't be afraid of anything, except me. In the contrary,Fear is what is infused in all of us since our baptisis. Fear of Hell, Fear to sin, fear of devil, etc. I'll be checking back for a reply, thank you.

George Clifford said...

The word “fear” can denote fright or being afraid; “fear” can also denote being in awe. Humans are rightly in awe of God, i.e., mindful of the difference between the finite human condition and the infinite transcendent that is the ultimately real (what Christians call God). Unfortunately, you’re right in recognizing that too often Christians have felt, and their spiritual leaders even encouraged, the afraid of God. If God is truly loving, inviting people into a personal relationship as reflected in the Christian practice of following Jesus’ lead in addressing God as Father, then nobody should fear God.