What social science tells us about the possibility of morality without God



Moving from revelation to evolution as the basis of one’s understanding of the human world makes ambiguous the place of morality. Consequently, morality’s grounding and terms often seem to rest upon no more than the need for cooperation in order to sustain society, which is not morality at all but rather necessity and self-interest. Naturally we wish to survive and wish for some others to survive with us—the two being linked—but what moral valence does this wish have in a non-religious universe? If we admit utilitarianism and pluralism, does it make impossible any absolute terms with which to construct conceptions of good and evil?

These, of course, are questions that guided much of the Western humanist philosophical tradition, as thinkers sought to either deduce or construct natural law from the realities of the world around them. When the Western world came into contact with the peoples of the Americas, it engendered in the West a sense of extreme loss of certainty and exposed the glaring epistemological and legal gaps in the world that the high humanists of the Renaissance period had constructed. They came into contact with peoples who were not “heathens” in the same way that to their eyes the subjects of the Ottoman Empire were.

Unlike the Ottomans, the Amerindians had not turned away from the Christian God; they had had no contact with Christianity at all, no knowledge of it upon which to base a rejection. In fact, the Amerindians had lived all this time without any contact with the Christian God, and, importantly, it caused Western thinkers to ask themselves: how could their God simply ignore or neglect such vast lands and leave ignorant such numbers of peoples? How could the true God rescind sovereignty over half of his putative creations?

Thoughtful Western observers had to concede that these Amerindians were indeed human and comparable (in at least the broadest, most general terms) to themselves. The Amerindians had civilizational structures, customs, and governments, and writers such as Michel de Montaigne were forced into a position of cultural relativism, from which they then reevaluated the possibility of knowable universal truths, universal laws, and universal morality.

Immanuel Kant’s genius philosophical innovation was his ‘categorical imperative’ by which he moved out of a position of cultural relativism and of utilitarianism. The first formulation of his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals is best known: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

As my friend Jonathan Liebembuk recently recapitulated for me, Kant ultimately rests his objective, universal morality on his account of the rational will, on the reasoning subject who can create his/her own laws; Kant’s moral precepts, meanwhile, seek to treat humanity not as a means, but as an end. So if we accept that we can do this, why would we choose to do this? There is no universal societal contract to which we commonly accede, so is there anything in our human nature (our humanness being the facet we all share) that could move us to do so?

In a talk at Yale University on this subject, David Bryce Yaden, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in the Positive Psychology Center, quoted Paul Bloom who reminds us that origins do not dictate ‘oughts.’ No matter where we come from, we can choose how we want to be with each other; but, after excising divine injunction and scriptural formulations from our conceptions of morality, what is our basis for so doing? Yaden reviewed the body of work that explains morality in light of Darwinian theories of evolution and self-preservation, as well as the work of social scientists such as Peter Singer who argue against merely biological explanations to human ethics.

In his book The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer argues that our capacity for reasoning is what makes moral progress possible and what helps to explain the persistence of altruism. “Peter Singer argues that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one’s kin and community members but has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern,” the Princeton University Press summarizes.

Relatedly, recent research at Yale University has used meditation to help pinpoint the neurological difference between two types of love. It is well established that romantic love and cocaine stimulate the same reward networks in the human brain, but studies by Judson Brewer and Kathleen Garrison have recently shown that selfless love (‘a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others without expectation of reward’) actually turns off those reward areas in the brain that light up when you see the face of the one you love. These findings substantiate the existing research on well-being theory, which posits a difference between hedonic happiness and something like ‘meaningful’ happiness, and it is in the latter that one finds a biological component to altruism that moves beyond utilitarianism and self-interested drives for survival.

Studies have shown altruism to be highly correlated with well-being (see Martin E. P. Seligman’s work on well-being theory for deeper information on this topic), and it seems there is an intrinsic, physiological reward gained from social connection. Of course, a vast component of our human evolutionary history lies in cooperation, but it seems not just to be about survival—it seems that we also just enjoy it. Perhaps there is an evolutionary origin to this feeling, but the fact is that it is not merely self-interest. It turns out we enjoy being together, just to be together. The ‘homo duplex’ exists on two levels: the purely selfish, survival-driven entity; and the entity as part of a greater whole—and both levels have their own separate reward networks in our brains.

The fact that I may wish to know you and to talk to you, simply to know you and to talk to you, dictates no optimal, universal moral precepts upon which to base our interaction, but it does signal the existence of a plane of human engagement that is devoid of self-interest. And, barring the intercession of a God or of shared understandings of good and evil, I think that that is the first requirement for something like morality to exist between us, in a godless world. Perhaps this only authorizes a relational morality, thus making it impossible to be a moral individual alone, outside of social relations and interaction; and perhaps it does not provide firm basis for something like universal morality. Yet, even if limited, confined to merely two people at a point in time, there perhaps exists too a possibility that confined, limited moral engagement could build to a cumulatively, maybe unwittingly, more moral world—with ‘moral’ defined here as what we do to one another when we act from selfless altruism. For, as George Eliot writes in Middlemarch: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University


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  1. Well, that’s what they say…

    Definitely, among humans, there’s a movement, a movement of people ‘reasoning out’, flying free away from dependence on religious institutions. Time will probably come when a portion of humanity will speak of ‘christianity’ in the same fashion we now talk of greek mythology.

  2. Roy The Infidel on

    The arrogance of religion claiming monopoly on morality is a big fallacy.

    The other fallacy is that of everlasting life offered by an imaginary skydaddy. It will be laid to rest when the science of embryonic cloning is perfected give and take less than ten human lifetimes.

    God did not create man in his image. It is man who “invented” god in his image.

    It is all about control.

  3. “The fact that I may wish to know you and to talk to you, simply to know you and to talk to you, dictates no optimal, universal moral precepts upon which to base our interaction, but it does signal the existence of a plane of human engagement that is devoid of self-interest.”
    What is not considered in this hypothesis standard of morality is the process of getting there, and people do not get there all at the same time. These variations of development to get there make it arduous to happen. Government is a good proof of the difficulty of getting it right. Of course we can try, try as we must, is like a defective computer trying to fix or program to create a perfect program. Sounds circuitous loop running to start from where it begun.

  4. A model of clarity in an area of great confusion and complexity.I tend to the utilitarian view that morality is what futhers the survival and development of the species, but this is probably not enough, and the concept of mental well being adds some colour to this position. Well done