It did not take the Hitchens-Dawkins suggestion that the Pope should be clapped in irons on his arrival in Britain to remind us that the secular humanist contingent should be treated as a group of eccentrics whom we should welcome as adding to the general variety of life. Their intellectual basis is, as Jeremy Bentham said in another context, such “nonsense on stilts”that we would assume that they were indulging in some arch sport were it not for their evident earnestness.
In any dialogue I like to open up with the suggestion that they have no sense of morality. This of course is a feint: they tend to have a very strong sense of morality – which they use fulsomely to praise their own virtues and to condemn the vices introduced by religion. So the next question is to ask them to explain the basis of their moral sense. Naturally they have a ready answer: evolution.
This approach takes the general form that human beings, like a number of lower species, can only prosper through a willingness to co-operate. While the basis is to ensure the survival of genes in the close and extended family it also applies in a general way to our whole community. And the rivalry between competing communities (war) is a negative support for this whole concept of evolved altruism.
The argument is attractive if only because we have good reason to judge it to be broadly true. Its only drawback is that is does not address the question of moral sense. To behave “virtuously” at the behest of our evolved genes is no more a matter of morality than any other genetic effect. If it so happens that I have inherited a gene which leads me to slaughter everyone with red hair, I can hardly be blamed for that. And the same can be said for other influences – perhaps poor upbringing or peer pressure – which I have received. While a myriad of external factors may contribute causally to my behaviour (and does), these cannot be the whole story if it is to explain moral sense.
An extension of this thinking is often proposed as the reason for the evolution of religion. Historically and currently (see Northern Ireland) religion has identified the group to which we owe altruism versus the groups we are right to oppose. But, at least as importantly, religion is a way of codifying societal values and enforcing them with sanctions which transcend the secular.
But recent work (Pyysiainen and Hauser, Cell Press 2010, February 9) suggests that “we evolved moral intuitions about norm-consistent, and inconsistent actions, and thus, intuitive judgments of right and wrong”. Religion would then be a by-product of this, enabling codifying and enforcement. Since Catholics have always held that the sense that the good ought to be done and the evil avoided is natural to rational man, who also possesses a native ability to recognise the fundamental content of morality (natural law), this does not come as a surprise.
The concept of a “moral intuition”, or as it is put elsewhere “pre-existing cognitive function”, has no useful meaning. So, in the interests of charity, we must offer what help we can. And to do so we must work in terms to which the scientific mind can relate.
My starting assumption is that we all share a moral sense, and so are able to approve or disapprove of actions either of ours or of others. Those who do not claim this are not our concern. (It would save confusion if, having denied its existence, they dropped any claim to moral judgment.)
We must then ask what characteristics would be necessary provide a rational basis for moral sense. In this I follow, as an example, a subatomic physicist whose equation tells him that a hitherto unknown particle is required. His first task is to designate what characteristics it must have to solve the equation.
In the case of moral judgment the first requirement is freedom of will. Without freedom, approval or otherwise is otiose. This does not mean that we are not strongly influenced, and in some cases psychologically compelled, to choose a course of action but that we are in at least some cases free to make a choice, and therefore to take responsibility. Freedom is a difficult concept for the scientific secularist because it denotes uncaused activity; and science has no interstice to fit that.
And if there is a choice there must be a chooser. While this might seem obvious, many senior neurologists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. The term “self” is just a convenient way of expressing how our wholly natural brains think. It is not quite clear to me who or what it is which is able to make a judgment that there is no self, since there is presumably no self to do so. But we can safely leave our humanist friends to explain that.
The remaining characteristic is the provision of a reason why we should follow our sense of moral obligation in those cases when to do so is clearly against our own interests. Since this cannot be wholly caused, directly or indirectly, without losing the character of being moral, our recognition of the good, and our obligation to follow it, must originate from outside ourselves.
While a further analysis would lead one towards the concept of love and a transcendent God whose nature is goodness, it is usually enough to leave the secular humanist with the simple realisation that his fundamental position contains an inherent contradiction. His claimed devotion to truth should lead him towards revision. But don’t hold your breath.