From Darwin to Eternity

Evolutionary moral psychology.

Can Morality Be Based on Reason? My Response to Sam Harris

'New Atheist' Sam Harris recently offered $20,000 to anybody who could convince him, in a 1,000-word essay, to change his mind about how morality can be based on scientific reasoning. Here's the essay I submitted. Read More

The question perhaps should

The question perhaps should be, can we be more moral about rationality?
Can it ever be moral to be irrational? I don’t know.
My biggest issue with Harris’ view is his assumption that well being and rationality always go hand in hand, I’m not sure that is the case.
Let’s take free will.
Maybe free will is a delusion, a delusion easily dispel with science. But maybe it is a useful delusion. Perhaps individuals deluded with the idea of free will behave better (or try harder) than those who know the truth of things. So rationality may, in some cases, work against well being.

The Harris argument and yours are flawed, Michael.

The hidden premise in both arguments is that moral judgments are the product of reason. They are not. They are intuitive. Aquinas made that mistake in about the year 1250 and a legion of theologians and moral philosophers have continued the tradition -- all trying without success to use Reason to improve upon that evolved, natural moral guidance system we commonly refer to as Conscience.

Reason is probably involved in moral dilemmas of the sort that psychologists favor when testing people. People will feel the wrongness of both choices A and B intuitively, but when weighing the least harm, the reasoning part of the brain is most likely involved. That is why fMRI showed two parts of the brain active in solving moral dilemmas.

Our brains have evolved pain and pleasure signals to guide us. Altruistic acts feel good. When we treat others badly, we feel guilt or remorse. When we hear of cases involving unfairness, injustice or immorality, we feel moral outrage.

Science can help by confirming that moral judgments are intuitive and by identifying the causes of the biases that move us to ignore the guidance of conscience.

Yes, even our closest relatives . . .

. . . in the animal kingdom have some of the same reactions. -

But For Simplicity's Sake...

…let's keep the focus on humans. And therein lies the problem...

All that you say is true of how morality developed in humans over the course of our evolution, but it doesn't tell us what lessons we can now learn from stepping back and observing the big picture goal of morality. The goal is, as you say, to further coalitional interests, but step back and look at the bigger picture and the longer term to understand the coalition we all belong to. E.O. Wilson's consilient view of biology (the study of life) looked at living beings on the spectrum from biochemistry to molecular biology to cellular biology to organismal biology to sociology to ecology to evolutionary studies. Your coalitions stopped at the sociological level (though you hinted at its expansion to the ecological level). If the ultimate goal of all of life is to remain alive (what other goal would outlast this goal?), then don't our rules have to eventually evolve to provide for this goal over evolutionary timescales and concern itself with the web of life we are all enmeshed in?

Anyway, interesting essay. My own response to Harris is on my Evolutionary Philosophy website at I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. I'm a big fan of Evolution This View of Life.

Groups provide a fitness advantage?

From the article: Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past. An important way in which they do so is by cooperating in groups of people with whom they share common interests.

I doubt that conclusion since I think we know that we know intuitively that the man who would be extremely proud of being Irish and Catholic would be equally proud had he, by some twist of fate, been raised to think of himself as German and Lutheran. It isn't his groups that he thinks of as wonderful. Those groups are wonderful because they are HIS groups. The only common interest the group members share is that they all agree they are superior to non-members. Group pride is disguised self-pride. I don't think arrogance provides a fitness advantage for the individual.

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Michael Price, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the psychology department at Brunel University, West London. He is also the co-director at the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology.


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