How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

Do human beings have a true moral sense or is their altruism merely the outcome of natural selection through the genes? This is a key question because we hold that a true moral sense is a faculty unique to human beings, a characteristic of the soul directly created by God.

First, some definitions. Altruism is our tendency to do good to each other, even when this is at a cost to ourselves. True moral sense is a recognition that the good ought to be done and that evil ought to be avoided, and, since we exercise true morality through free will, we may hold ourselves or others responsible for moral or immoral behaviour.

In practice articulate sceptics demonstrate a full-blown true moral sense because they expend a great deal of energy in condemning the Church, in its current or historical actions, for immoral behaviour. But in their theory they hold that altruism is simply an outcome of natural selection and therefore has no true moral content. This is of course a major inconsistency. While I have asked in many forums for an explanation of this inconsistency I find that the usual defence employed is to change the subject.

 Perhaps this was most frankly epitomised by Bertrand Russell: “I find myself in a dilemma. On the one hand I certainly want to condemn the Nazis’ behaviour towards the Jews as wrong in itself. On the other hand, my ethical theory does not allow me to say this.”

 There are a number of natural reasons for altruism. First is the “selfish gene” theory which argues that in many groupings from the primitive up to the human animal altruistic behaviour is beneficial to the welfare and continued success of the group. Thus the inheritance of genes for altruism is evolutionarily adaptive. Some theorists relate this to closeness of kin. Thus we care more for those who are closer to us genetically, and less for those who are more remote. So we are acting to preserve our genes. And a “halo” effect may include those with whom we have enough in common.

A second is self-protection: if I am altruistic towards you, you are likely to be altruistic towards me. Related to this is the fear that we may be punished by society for breaching its own code of altruism. Third, we get scientifically measurable pleasure from altruistic behaviour. When I had a full leg plaster cast I was aware of the sense of self satisfaction and the boost to self-image I was giving to people who helped me at very little cost to themselves; I was a walking (limping?) social service.

None of these causes for altruism produce true morality because they are all ultimately founded on self-preservation or personal benefit. We should of course be glad that altruism is well rooted in our evolved human nature, because it’s is hard to imagine living in a society without it. On the other hand it has a disadvantage: the more closely we are bonded to our own group, the more we are susceptible to opposing other groups whose interest differs from ours. Altruism and xenophobia are two sides of the same coin. Machiavelli recommended in The Prince that a powerful way of unifying your subjects was to create an external enemy. We have seen this at work in the Middle East and Northern Ireland in our own time, and in countless historical examples. Loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you has no currency here.

 So what constitutes true morality? The first requirement is a rational intelligence capable of dealing with abstract thought. We do not require morality from those without this capacity either through youth or mental disability. We also need free will: we cannot be held responsible if we cannot make choices.

 These requirements are outside the sphere of science. It is impossible to demonstrate abstract thought scientifically without the use of abstract thought thus obliging us to assume what we are setting out to prove. Second, free will is by definition uncaused, and science is only equipped to deal with causes. Of course many factors, such as evolved altruism, innate characteristics and experience will play a part in choices and can be examined scientifically, but, unless we are ultimately free to make a choice for the good or the evil, true morality is not involved.

Since recognition that the good should be done and the evil avoided is innate in anyone who has the use of reason, it would be an error to suggest that an atheistic scientist, for instance, has no such sense. As St Paul puts it, those who do not have the law of God have what the law requires written in their hearts, to which their consciences bear witness. But they, and we, have a regrettable capacity to blunt our innate moral sense through bad habits, intellectual arrogance and self-indulgence. And often, ironically, we use conscience as our justification while forgetting the fundamental basis on which conscience rests.

The application of law in the detailed circumstances of our choices is a subject which I have often addressed in this column, and will do so again. But for now I will merely summarise, as Jesus did, with the love of God, and the love of neighbour. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

So if you hear, read or see on television, in this Year of Darwin, the claim that our moral sense is no more than an altruism which has developed through genetic natural selection, just bear in mind that the author, however virtuous he may be, is talking bunkum.

But you may want to disagree, or add some extra points. Open for comment!

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

  1. Iona says:

    Of course, altruism is not the only way in which a “true moral sense” can be demonstrated. Standing up for what one believes in, no matter what the consequences, is certainly a moral act but not (at least, not necessarily) an altruistic one (might even be counter-altruistic, if for example one’s family were to suffer as a result of one’s stand).

  2. Daisy says:

    Quentin asks us for extra points. This is just a small one but I think it’s important. I agree that our tendency to do good arises through genes and self-serving reasons. But does it not become true morality when we choose to repond to it or reject it?
    A rather strong example is mother-love. We had to have that powerful force for the human race (and many animal species of course) to survive. But that doesn’t stop a mother welcoming it and – as cheerfully as possible – welcoming that feed at 2am.
    I am a bit out of touch here, but I remember the Apostleship of Prayer having the habit of offering up every action during the day to God.
    Does anyone know the wording of the prayer for this, I should like to start using it again.

  3. Thanks, Tim. That’s a splendid selection.

    While I am logged on I want to mention another thought – which probably should have been in my original column.

    I spoke about one factor in altruism being related to kin. A useful adaptation to preserve our genes. But another element may be playing a part.

    In one sense we owe a duty of charity to everyone, even at the far ends of the earth. But in practice we have to exercise priorities, or we would end up getting nothing done.

    Our emotions play a large part here, and it seems quite natural that we reserve our major altruism for our family and friends. We have personal feelings about them.

    No wonder the pro-abortionists object to the use of scans showing what are clearly babies moving in the womb. They are really fearful that people’s emotions will come into play.

    None of this, of course, precludes altruism to the disadvantaged within our own country or overseas. And indeed much charity advertising is directed towards involving our emotions.

    Of course emotions can never be the final guide. We might wonder why, as I understand it, people are more generous to the RSPCA than to the NSPCC. Or why charities devoted to the mentally handicapped have such an uphill task.

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