November 1999

Morality and Community Values

When we find ourselves quite uncertain whether particular human institutions, practices or behavior are morally right or wrong, we have some reason to stand back from our moral convictions, whatever they may be, and ask deep philosophical questions about the strange things that moral belief and practice are. These questions arise also when we see how deep and pervasive moral disagreements can be.

Noting our own uncertainty or the conflicting views of others, we might wonder, for example, whether moral principles or convictions can be correct or mistaken in the way that, say, scientific claims can be. If someone maintains that there is liquid water on Mars, he’s either right or wrong. Does it make sense to think that her belief that homosexuality is morally prohibited is similarly either correct or incorrect? Or are what we call moral beliefs really more like matters or taste, to which the notions of truth or falsity, correctness or incorrectness are inapplicable? And if are to think of morality in terms of truth or falsity, how can we establish which moral principles are correct?

Historically many deep thinkers about morality have held that moral convictions are no more than deeply felt likings and dislikings. I think that I understand why they have come to this view, but it appears quite obvious to me that we cannot think of morality as being like matters of taste. If my neighbor likes pickles covered with hot chocolate sauce, I’ll think he’s odd, but not that he’s mistaken. But if he also thinks it is okay for him to have sex with his six-year-old daughter, and I think that his behavior is immoral, I can’t also think that we simply differ in what we like, different folks, different strokes.

Once we see, however, that moral convictions must be assessed in terms of correctness and truth, we come up against one of the most difficult philosophical questions about morality: how can we verify or justify any moral principle?

Many people in our culture think that there is an easy answer to this question, for the Bible tells us how we should behave. But this answer won’t do, because at best the Bible says both too little and too much about what is right or wrong in human behavior. Too little, because it says nothing or nothing determinate about many of the moral problems of contemporary life. Too much, because no reasonable person can accept all of the views that are relatively specifically expressed. So people who rely on the Bible-or on what others tell them comes from the Bible-are kidding themselves. The Bible is used very selectively and is interpreted in terms of moral convictions that can’t themselves be traced to the Bible.

In our community, these convictions are, of course, often widely held. But different communities often have different and even contradictory views about how people should behave. Twentieth century anthropology has extensively documented these differences. And, interestingly, it has frequently concluded from these differences that the beliefs of one’s community determine how one should behave. In Rome do as the Romans do, and in Utah county do as the Mormons do, not because this well keep you popular and out of trouble, but because the community is the source of moral values. (There is something similar to this view, for example, in the frequent assertion that there should be prayers in the schools because this is what most people want.)

Scholars advancing this view hold, first, that the empirical investigation of cultures establishes that people in different cultures have quite different beliefs about what is right or wrong in human behavior. This is taken to show that there are no standards on which people everywhere across time would agree. Next, this is taken to show that everyone’s beliefs about how people should behave are pretty much due to how he or she has been reared or “enculturated,” to use the academic term.

Finally it is held that since every culture must have standards of behavior, it follows from the above that the values of each culture determine in an empirically verifiable way what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong for the members of the culture.

Some of you may begin to wonder how all of this can apply to a society as diverse in its beliefs as our own. This is a problem that I can’t pursue here, as I want to note just a few features, pro and con, of this cultural relativism. The first is that some philosophers have argued that this view is mistaken in thinking that there are such differences in moral convictions. These philosophers have said that we must recognize that many of our moral disagreements are due to differing beliefs about nonmoral facts. Two individuals might disagree on the morality of the death penalty, for example, because one of them thinks that it is an effective deterrent to murder and the other does not. It seems to me that there is some truth to this but that even when we have taken disagreements of this sort into account, we shall have to concede that there are extensive and systematic differences in moral beliefs across space and time.

More basically, philosophers have pointed out that the view of the cultural relativist is self-contradictory. It uses the fact of differences in moral convictions to conclude that there are no moral principles that apply to everyone, and then it immediately turns around and says, “Oh, by the way there is a principle that applies to everyone, namely, act as your culture expects you to act”. We have to wonder what this principle was drawn from.

In more recent years some philosophers have come, correctly I think, to agree with the importance of enculturation and to hold that much of what is right or wrong for an individual is determined by the convictions of his or her culture. These philosophers maintain, however, that there are some principles that apply to everyone, everywhere. This would be an extremely interesting subject to pursue, but it quite obviously puts us back where we came into this discussion. At best, we are again faced with the question of how we are going to verify these principles.

–Mendel Cohen


The Two Hypotheses of Human Meaning

Physics has very little to say about the conjunction of science and religion, beyond what it has already said: namely, that the entire material universe is ultimately obedient to a small number of physical laws. The origin of those laws remains an open and possibly unanswerable question: whether or not energy and law were designed by a heavenly creator-in other words, a cosmological god or god-equivalent force, as conceived in the world view of deism. This line of reasoning leads back to the problem that interested the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists like Einstein, who said that what interested him most is whether God must obey his own laws. This is a fundamental problem, but it is far removed from the ordinary concerns of theology and the practice of religion and our everyday lives. On the other hand, biology and the social sciences have everything to say about the relation of science and religion, because they address with growing clarity the origin of mind and the relation of mind to culture, and thence the origin and meaning of religious belief itself.

It seems to follow that the central question-in the relation of science and religion is something else. It is as follows: are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental? In other words, do they exist apart from human contrivance awaiting discovery, in the way the laws of physics exist and await discovery?

Or, contrary to this transcendental metaphysics, which is the core of traditional theology, are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and ethical precepts instead contrivances of the human mind and culture arising from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution? This is the empiricist world view of the human condition, and to an increasing degree it is being addressed by biologists and social scientists, as well as some liberal theologians, whose attention has been newly focused on the study of mind and evolution by the advance of science.

There is no doubt that spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and, it appears, necessary parts of the human condition. We have a compelling instinct for religion and spirituality in some form or other, even if they assume an atheistic or deistic rationale. The inability of secular humanist thinkers to satisfy this instinct, even when evidence and reason are on their side, is surely part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But truth is not settled by a poll. Our attention is focused back on the important question: does the power and universality of the instinct necessarily mean that religious behavior and spirituality are transcendental-that is, exist outside of human contrivance, waiting to be discovered by human contemplation, grace, and revelation? Or, in contrast, does their strength merely mean that we cannot see the origins of religion and spirituality clearly and directly, just as we cannot understand the mind by introspection alone-that we have to rely on novel analytic methods to grasp how the whole system works? Of the study of mind, Charles Darwin said (and he could have been speaking most relevantly of the religious part of the mind) that the citadel cannot be taken by direct assault. We cannot know how the brain works, much less where it came from, by introspection and the sampling of our own emotions during visionary revelation.

If science-the most efficient means of acquiring and verifying objective knowledge ever devised-cannot take the citadel, if the empiricist worldview fails at this level, where will this failure leave theology and the traditions of the great world religions? Intact, with continued validation by means of authority through alleged divine authorship. But if science can take the citadel and plumb the organic function and origin of religious behavior to its evolutionary roots, as it seems set on doing, where does that leave theology? It leaves it still culturally astride one of the most important domains of human behavior but forced to base its authority more upon empirical evidence and reason than upon claims of divine guidance plainly contradicted by the evidence.

I’ve just mentioned physics and the cosmological god and the divine author conceived by deism. Now I will mention biology and its relation to the biological god, the author of theism, who has created humanity (or at least the human mind) and watches over our lives today-at least in the tradition of the great Abrahamic religions. What is happening, in my opinion, is that, as much as the great majority of people might wish otherwise, the evidence points increasingly to the correctness of the empiricist world view and away from the existence of a supreme designer who had anything to do with the origin of the human species-except, perhaps, as a bemused spectator of a grand experiment begun twelve billion to fifteen billion years ago when the physical laws of the universe were first manifested, a spectator who makes no response to our travail and prayers.

No doubt the empiricist worldview, taken to its logical conclusion, will be hotly disputed-and it should be. It is located in one of the eternally shifting, creative borderlands between science and religion-our intellectual ring of fire, so to speak, with volcanoes and tsunamis that episodically change the intellectual landscape. It would be foolish to deny its existence and say, as a few scientists have said, pandering to popular opinion it sometimes seems, that science has its domain and that all existence can be divided as the world was cleaved, on paper at least, by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 in his recommendation to the Castilian monarchs.

Meanwhile, as I have urged our many colleagues of different persuasions in the past, there are a number of moral issues on the near side of metaphysics, and we would do very well to bring into concert the most powerful voices in the world today-those of science and organized religion-to achieve what we can readily agree are morally compelling goals. One of the outstanding of these goals is the preservation of the natural environment, and most particularly the fauna and flora-the Creation, if you will, with a capital C. Religious traditionalists believe that the global biota were put here in one way or another by heavenly design, and secularists believe that it was self-assembled through evolution by natural selection. But both will agree, if at all informed, that the Creation is being destroyed by human action-for example, in the rain forests, which alone contain more than half the species on Earth-at the rate of about 0.25 percent per year. And the two sides will agree that, on this one issue at least, ultimate beliefs can be set aside in order to achieve a common goal that can be properly labeled, in one sense or another, as sacred. Whether from a God intimately concerned with the fall of each sparrow or the god of process theology immanent in all existence or a world that was exquisitely self-assembled by natural selection, the salvation of what we have been bequeathed deserves to be a primary precept.

Finally, how are we to assess the contest between the empiricist and transcendentalist views? As the century closes, what is new in our understanding of the world is that these two views are competing hypotheses, and testable hypotheses, and that it is within our power to prove one or the other to be correct but not both. Many thoughtful writers have said no, such an important issue as the meaning of God and of the spirit cannot be that simple. But the time has come to say yes, it can be that simple. Sometimes a seemingly impossible problem can be flanked, especially when it is composed mostly of metaphor, as this one is. That in essence is what science is doing in the case of spiritual and moral authority. This distinction, and the prospect it holds for clear thought, is the central intellectual question of humanism.

I believe that the clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses-transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the twenty-first century’s version of the struggle for human souls. I believe also that the winner of this struggle will be empiricism, with the recognition that, while throughout the genetic history of the human brain we evolved to believe one truth, in the end, with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth.

We can say to the transcendentalists that there is a thousand times more to the human condition-more history, more complexity, more nobility–than you thought. There is more to being human than dreamt in your philosophy. And having arrived at this position, humanity has opened the way to base spirituality and ethics on a more rational, benign foundation. As a biological species we got where we are alone, we will flourish or die as a species together alone, and our reverence is therefore better directed not to tribal gods and Iron Age mythologies-which were conceived in the brutal Darwinian past and still carry the stench of arrogance and oppression that made them possible-but to each other, our species, our intellect, our planet, and our future, together

Edward O. Wilson is a world authority on biodiversity and the evolution of social behavior A research professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University he is the author and editor of twenty books, two of which received Pulitzer Prizes. This article is adapted from his acceptance speech for the 1999 Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the American Humanist Association. The Humanist September/October 1999


Why Are We So Different?
-A Canadian View-

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

A recent survey by a leading Canadian pollster, Angus Reid, of 3,000 American and 3,000 Canadian adults shows the following percentages answered “yes” in these comparisons (Canadian percentages listed first, Americans second): religion an important part of one’s life 58% and 79%; pray weekly, 47% and 71%; attend church weekly, 21% and 40%; read the Bible weekly, 21% and 43%; the Bible is God’s word, 28% and 55%, religion important to your political thinking, 19% and 41%; would vote for an atheist as government leader, 72% and 43%; would vote for a Muslim as government leader, 74% and 62%.

Don Page, a Canadian and former editor of The Humanist, in his article with the same name as this one in Humanism Today, volume 11, 1997, claims that Canadians are profoundly different from Americans in their religious commitment and expression and that they are among the leading Western countries in progressing toward the tolerant, secular and open society espoused by humanists. Why has Canadian society developed in this way while the United States is the most overtly religious and the least secular of Western countries? Readers will probably, as Discussion Group members in this month’s meeting did, have differing views on Page’s suggested answers to this question.

He says Canadians and Americans have fundamentally different histories. Canada inherited from Britain an empirical (evolutionary) approach to government and emphatically rejected the American idealistic (revolutionary) approach. “Americans have as secular a constitution as can be found anywhere–on paper. But human nature is perverse where prohibitions are involved, so that the practical result can be very different from that which was intended.”

Canada’s more empirical approach to its social institutions has allowed its society to become profoundly secular in a practical sense that American society has not. Contrary to the American view of Canada, the French-speaking and English-speaking parts of Canada are two communities that have been joined historically by a very strong tie–their mutual rejection of American-style libertarianism. The people of Quebec will vote for separate sovereignty only when it can be achieved while maintaining a close association with the rest of Canada, following the model of the European union. They have much more in common with each other than with their American neighbor. Except for the six million “true Quebecois” who wish to form an ethnic nation, Canada is a modern, cosmopolitan, democratic, new world state made up of a bewildering array of ethnic groups, more or less integrated. Richard Gwyn concludes that Canada is emerging as a new kind of nation-state. It is becoming the first truly postmodern society, the most open, pluralistic, multiethnic, multicultural society on the world scene. It exists as an act of will–to build a more gentle and ordered society than that of its American neighbor.

“The difference in the understanding and practice of pluralism,” says Page, “is one of the reasons why Canadian and American religious norms differ–and in particular, why Canadian society is so much more secular in practice.” The Canadian political culture reflects a classic social democracy on the European model–a result of the fact that Canadians never accepted the philosophy of individualism espoused in the American Declaration of Independence. Over succeeding generations, Canadian society developed and democratized more gradually, through an evolutionary process. Canadian society retains that organic characteristic that distinguishes a social democracy from the liberal American model, where the individual is held to be supreme and independent. This fundamental difference explains the distinctive characteristics that Americans notice about Canada–the relative absence of crime, the higher respect for governmental authority, making possible the enforcement of gun-control laws and the like–and the expectation of a social role for government in aspects of life such as the health care system with Medicare for everyone. “This organic quality in a social democracy is due to the imbedded sense of being a collective–or extended family” he opines. There is a sense of government as “us,” in contrast to the “they” in the American attitude.

Page offers the explanation that the high incidence of conservative religious beliefs and narrow attitudes held by Americans that are disappearing elsewhere may be related to the American interpretation of separation of church and state. Statutory forms of prohibition usually lead to stubborn resistance by those affected and can only be effectively enforced if they have the support of an overwhelming majority of the population. It seems clear to an outside observer that the First Amendment is a constant spur that energizes the sizable minority of evangelical Christians. It is counterproductive to humanist objectives–leading to an endless social war and preventing real secularity in the U.S.

Why is success so elusive in the United States while pluralistic secularism is becoming the norm in the rest of the developed world? Page says the answer must be found in the structural differences between the United States and other countries. The U.S. is unique in being a libertarian democracy rather than a social democracy and in its rigid constitutional prohibitions regarding religion. In Canada taxes are used to support religious as well as secular schools. Its concern is with an end result using a different criterion. Canadians say, let humanists in each country do what is necessary to ensure that the system is fair to them. According to Page, “An idealistic mindset makes it difficult to see the other’s viewpoint–and in its pathological form it makes compromise impossible.” He charges that American idealism is the destructive factor in the American humanist movement.

Page’s views are provocative and deserve consideration, but in reading them, I found myself asking, would eliminating the First Amendment requirement for separation of church and state really change the minds of many American Christian Fundamentalists about their determination to make America a Christian state?