I recently had cause to research some of Richard Dawkins' views on morality. One of the sources I analysed was a section of his two-part anti-religious TV production, "Root of All Evil?". The section in question comes from part two, "The Virus of Faith", starting at around the forty minute mark. I was able to find the complete episode
on Google Video, but I'll transcribe the relevant part here for the purposes of commentary.
Dawkins (VO): Religious believers like to claim that their God and ancient texts provide them with an inside track in defining what is good, and what is bad. But it is surely far more moral to do good things for their own sake, rather than as a way of sucking up to God. Our true sense of right and wrong has nothing to do with religion. I believe there is kindness, charity, and generosity in human nature, and I think there is a Darwinian explanation for this. Through much of our pre-history, humans lived under conditions that favoured altruistic genes. Gene survival depended on nurturing our family, and on doing deals with our peers: the "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" principle.
Oliver Curry: I don't think we need religion to explain morality, and if anything it just gets in the way. Morality's a lot older than religion -- humans have an innate moral sense or a range of moral senses that you can think of as sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts you see in chimps and other social species.
Dawkins: What sort of morality or proto-morality would you expect to find in a chimpanzee troupe?
Curry: We find that they live in family groups, their mothers look after their kids, they work in teams, and also chimps are particularly good at competing for status through what's been called "public service" -- so they compete for status not just through brute force, but by being good leaders, by intervening to settle disputes.
Dawkins: What are the main evolutionary reasons for cooperating and being altruistic?
Curry: Working together often produces mutual benefits for those that are involved, so you can often do better by working as a team than you can by working by yourself.
Dawkins (VO): Perhaps it is our genetic inheritance that explains why those of us with no allegiance to a holy book, or a pope, or an ayatollah to tell us what is good, still manage to ground ourselves in a moral consensus which is surprisingly widely agreed. As social animals, we've worked out that we wouldn't want to live in a society where it was acceptable to rape, murder or steal. We have a moral conscience, and a mutual empathy, and it is constantly evolving. Religious or not, we have changed in unison, and continue to change in our attitude to what is right and what is wrong.
Dawkins: Fifty years ago, just about everybody in Britain was somewhat racist; now only a few people are. Fifty years ago, it was impossible for gay people to walk along the street, hand-in-hand; now it's easy.
Dawkins (VO): Some of us lag behind the advancing wave of moral standards, and some of us are ahead. But all of us in the twenty-first century are ahead of our counterparts from the time of Abraham, Mohammed, or St Paul. The progressive shift often emerges in opposition to religion. It's driven by improved education and then expressed by newspaper editorials, television soap operas, parliamentary speeches, judicial rulings, and novels.
Dawkins presents a muddled view of morality here. There is a severe lack of distinction between different aspects of the problem of morality, and there is no explicitly defined philosophical framework for any of his claims relating to morality. In particular, the discussion lacks an explanation of how he measures morality. An action can only be judged good or evil in a frame of reference, and Dawkins neither mentions what his frame of reference is, nor argues that we ought to accept his frame of reference as true and proper.
What can we say about Dawkins' frame of reference, given these comments? It includes such concepts as "doing the right thing for the wrong reason" (ref: "it is surely far more moral to do good things for their own sake, rather than as a way of sucking up to God"), the goodness of nurturing family and cooperation, and the badness of rape, murder, theft, racism, and homophobia. These have no particular defining characteristic other than the fact that they are either nearly-universal moral positions, or slightly controversial ones which are generally favoured in secular or liberal circles. In short, Dawkins' morality is "popular morality" with a liberal slant. You'd have no difficulty in finding people on the street who agree with his assessment about what's good and what's bad.
A collection of popular views like that does not suggest an underlying theory of morality. Dawkins asserts that modern popular morality is superior to its historical antecedents (ref: "all of us in the twenty-first century are ahead of our counterparts from the time of Abraham, Mohammed, or St Paul"), but there is no justification for this claim: he simply lays claim to the moral high ground on behalf of present-day popular morality, and that is that. However, the very act of comparison strongly suggests that Dawkins has an absolute frame of reference for morality, as opposed to a relative one. He certainly seems to be presenting it as an absolute truth, rather than a relative one: that is, he's not just saying that modern popular morality is better than its historical counterparts from our perspective
; rather, he's saying that it is
better, full stop.
This is a form of "moral realism" -- a very widely held position, which incorporates the view that statements about morality can be properly classified as true or false. After all, if statements about morality can not
be classified as true or false, then what is Dawkins saying when he grants modern popular morality higher status than past popular moralities? The claim makes sense if it means, "modern popular morality contains more true moral claims than its historical counterparts", and an appeal to greater truth-content is appropriate to his rationalism, but such an interpretation raises many problems, particularly for an atheist.
For one, how does he know
that one set of moral statements contains more truths than the other? Worse still, what is it that makes
a moral claim true or false, exactly? If this world is all there is, as Dawkins likes to tell us, then moral statements are either statements about the physical world (like "the sky is blue"), or relations of abstract ideas (like logic and mathematics). If moral statements are of the former kind, then "good" and "bad" should be properties that we can measure, like colour, temperature, or mass -- but we have no such measurements; if they are of the latter kind, then we require formal methods for proving or disproving any claim on the subject -- but we have no such methods.
Thus, Dawkins' claims about morality have no basis in science or reason. They are based entirely in intuition, yet he asserts them as though they were unquestionable. This is pure dogma, but few will challenge him on that point, because he is acting as an advocate for popular morality, and popular morality is popular
. He can assert that current popular morality is superior to its historical counterparts and not back it up with any hard evidence -- or even an explicit theory of morality -- simply because it's a position that few would question. Has there ever been an era or society in which most people did not think highly of their own wisdom and moral standards?
What of his claim that good behaviour has a Darwinian explanation? I have no doubt that good behaviour can be reasonably explained in terms of Natural Selection, but there are two problems with this fact. First, it is just as easy -- if not easier -- to explain common forms of bad
behaviour (stealing, rape, etc.) in terms of Natural Selection. Natural Selection works purely on the basis of a survival
advantage: any moral aspect is purely coincidental. In that sense, Natural Selection doesn't really explain
the moral aspect of behaviour at all: it just happens to be coincidentally compatible with various kinds of good and bad behaviour.
Even if Natural Selection qualifies as an explanation of good and bad behaviour in a weak sense, it is completely unable to explain morality in general as anything but a mental phenomenon -- something on a par with our emotions. We can describe certain kinds of good and bad behaviour in terms of survival advantage, and we can suggest that our sense
of morality is good for survival with exactly the same ease, but we run into difficulty if we try to suggest that our sense of morality is a real
sense, like sight or hearing. After all, our "real" senses detect physical phenomena, like light and sound, whereas "good" and "bad" are not physical phenomena (as mentioned earlier). In the absence of an external physical subject to which the sense relates, we must
suppose that it is all in the mind -- or abandon atheism and resort to some sort of supernatural explanation.
Unfortunately for Dawkins, the bulk of his argument is based on the implicit assumption that morality is something real, and not merely an illusion (or delusion, even) which happens to convey survival advantage. For starters, if morality is an illusion, then there are no moral truths. All talk of things being "good" or "bad" in any real
sense is quite simply an error, because there is no moral reality. Moral statements such as "rape is bad" are merely descriptions of a mental illusion -- a widely-shared or even "normal" one, perhaps, but a figment of the mind nonetheless. This being so, Dawkins has no basis for claiming that anything is actually any more or less moral than anything else -- he is merely describing an illusion as it appears to him.
Note that some
of what Dawkins says is entirely compatible with this "useful illusion" view of morality -- he's just not consistently
compatible with it. Take, for example, the sentence, "Perhaps it is our genetic inheritance that explains why those of us with no allegiance to a holy book, or a pope, or an ayatollah to tell us what is good, still manage to ground ourselves in a moral consensus which is surprisingly widely agreed." This is eminently compatible with the idea that morality is an illusion embedded in our genes: the widespread agreement (and limited differences) can be expressed in terms of genetic similarity (although as a scientific theory, we should subject this explanation to experiment, rather than simply assume that it's true). Dawkins' claim that our morality is "constantly evolving" is also in perfect harmony with the "useful illusion" interpretation, because the survival value of the illusion is apt to change with changes in the environment.
Immediately following these comments, however, he talks about "advancing moral standards", and claims that our current morality is "ahead of our counterparts from the time of Abraham, Mohammed, or St Paul." This makes no sense at all in the context of morality as "useful illusion". In what possible sense is our contemporary illusion of morality "ahead" of its historical predecessors? There is no sane way to describe one illusion as being intrinsically "better than" or "ahead of" another. One might be better for survival
than another, but this is entirely dependent on circumstances: we can not reasonably expect any given set of moral standards to be best for survival under all possible conditions. If Natural Selection is as powerful an influence as Dawkins suggests, then the best that we can say about any given popular morality is that it must be quite well suited to survival in its environment -- or that if it isn't, it won't be popular much longer.
If our sense of morality is merely a product of evolution -- springing up unintentionally and perpetuated only for its survival value -- then there can be no "moral high ground" on which anyone may stand. In fact, there is no moral ground at all: our perception that there is
a moral ground is simply an illusion -- a mirage.
It should be clear by now that Dawkins is vacillating between two fundamentally different models of morality in his discussion. On the one hand he makes statements about morality which treat "good" and "bad" as genuine phenomena, as real as the law of gravity. In this mode, he asserts the moral superiority of one thing over another, speaks of moral advancement, and credits secular influences as being the primary driving forces behind that advancement. On the other hand, he explains morality in terms of evolution -- a mode which strips morality of all substance except survival value, and in which it is not possible to make coherent claims about any kind of superiority except survival value.
The first formulation allows him to make assertions about the superiority of popular secular morality over its historical counterparts, but lacks any scientific or rational basis for those claims, relying instead on simple popularity to win support -- a game of politics. The second formulation allows him to express morality in purely natural, evolutionary terms, but turns the very discussion of morality into the discussion of an illusion.
In closing, let us consider another of his television appearances in which he addresses the same subject. This is a simple question and answer extract from an Australian TV show called, appropriately enough, "Q&A", which I found on YouTube
. I've transcribed it here as faithfully as I can (without reproducing every stammer and slip).
Audience member: My question is for Professor Dawkins. Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith -- which atheists themselves so harshly condemn -- for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?
Dawkins: Absolute morality... the absolute morality that a religious person might profess would include what -- stoning people for adultery? Death for apostasy? Uh, punishment for breaking the Sabbath? These are all things which are religiously-based absolute moralities. I don't think I want an absolute morality. I think that I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and... (audience applause) based upon -- you could almost say intelligent design. (audience laughter) Can we not design our society which has the sort of morality -- the sort of society that we want to live in. If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people -- among twenty-first century people -- we don't believe in slavery any more, we believe in equality of women, um, we believe in being gentle, we believe in being kind to animals -- these are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in Biblical or Koranic scripture, they are things that have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion -- to the extent that you can find good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry-pick. You search your way through the Bible or the Koran, and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality -- you say "look at that -- that's religion". And you leave out all the horrible bits. And you say, "oh, we don't believe that any more -- we've grown out of it." Well of course we've grown out of it. We've grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.
The question is a perfectly valid one, although phrased somewhat belligerently as an invitation to admit an "irrational leap of faith" -- but belligerently-phrased questions are par for the course on this show. The valid point is that if Dawkins does not employ an absolute morality, then what basis does he have for describing anything as "right" or "wrong" in an absolute sense? The question goes unanswered. Nowhere in his reply does Dawkins address this charge of rational inconsistency. Instead, he uses "absolute morality" as some kind of synonym for "scripturally-based morality" or "fixed morality". This misses the point. An absolute morality does not imply a fixed view
of morality: analogously, most scientists believe that the laws of physics are universal and immutable, but this does not imply that their understanding
of physics never changes.
Instead of addressing the question, the answer degenerates into a "my morality is better than your morality" rant -- a grab for the high moral ground. In doing so, he starts with populism: he selects a list of popularly distasteful religious moral imperatives, and puts them up against a list of popularly accepted moral attitudes which he then credits as secular in origin. Dawkins makes passing appeal to moral ideas being produced "through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy." This all sounds very rational, of course, but the only support actually in evidence here is popular opinion.
More to the point, it doesn't matter how much reasoning has been put into the subject if the subject itself is not amenable to rational analysis. This is exactly the problem that Dawkins has with Theology as a discipline: he claims that it lacks a subject. Morality is in a similar position: we can not reason about it scientifically
, because there are no measurable physical properties of morality (outside our brains); and we can not reason about it formally
because nobody has produced a formal model that is generally compatible with our moral sense.
In fact, if we agree that our moral sense is a product of evolution, then we have good reason to deny that morality is anything more than a genetic predisposition to hold certain attitudes towards certain things -- specifically, to classify activities as "good" or "bad". It's similar in character to religion, which atheists have described as an argument over who has the best imaginary friend. In the case of morality, it's an argument over who has the best classification of imaginary properties. In that sense, Dawkins' reasoning about morality is on a par with that of theologians who reason about God, yet he's dogmatically certain that his morality is enlightened, and just as dogmatically certain that theology is bunk.
As far as the study of morality goes, the best we can do is discuss our moral intuitions
, and perhaps try to put them in a coherent theoretical framework which imposes some semblance of order on them. This is what moral philosophy is about, and Dawkins would do well to actually put it into practice, instead of using the term "moral philosophy" as a missile in his arsenal of "my secular morality is better than your religious one" rhetoric, which is all he's done here.