“A Moral Compass:” Thoughts on the Subject by Joe Erwin
by Andy Hanson
Edited by Andy Hanson
I was fascinated by Joe Erwin’s carefully crafted comments on Chris Barrett’s blog, “Sin: The Dirty Little Word that Trivializes Morality and Warps Ethics.” Consequently, I strung some of them together, did a little editing, and was happy with the result. So was Joe.
I was also captivated by Joe’s biography in which he chronicles growing up Adventist—check it out if you missed it—and the open minded and thoughtful way he discussed a possible evolutionary etiology of moral reasoning. In addition, I was impressed by his ability to present his point of view with the kind of authority that bespoke gentleness and integrity.
Dr. Erwin may no longer be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but I want to go on record as saying that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” I’d be happy to be standing next to him. Andy
All we really need to do is treat others as we would like to be treated. Due consideration of others is a fine basis for ethics and morality. One can accept and implement this standard of respect and conduct whether or not he believes it is God-given.
I can understand why people would wish to foster the illusion in themselves and others that we live in a world in which absolute laws are always the same and always in effect. But, if you really believe the message of Jesus, it seems you would have to ease up on that—especially since he advocated the golden rule.
For the golden rule to work as an ethical guide or moral compass there must be adequate self-knowledge and awareness of one's own feelings and motivations, and some empathy for the feelings and motivations of others.
There does not need to be a threat of eternal torment as a punishment for failure or a promise of paradise as a reward or bribe for doing the right thing. Doing the "right thing" is its own reward. We get to use our own brains to decide how to behave.
This is not to say that one must be an intellectual giant to exercise due consideration or some degree of empathy. To the contrary, people like Frans deWaal make a strong case for such abilities even in nonhumans.
One of the cool things about committing to treat others as one wishes to be treated is that the principle promotes knowledge of self and understanding of others. The better one knows one's self and others, the more accurately considerate (and moral and ethical) one can be. If one's faith in God reinforces the commitment or ability treat others with due consideration, that is just great, as far as I'm concerned.
For those who don't get the point of treating others as they would like to be treated, parental, institutional, governmental, or other authoritarian guidance may be essential. However, those whose inclination is toward oppositional and defiant behavior, the Golden Rule is not likely to operate as a guide to their behavior.
We also see plenty of examples in nature of interactions that do not work out so well for some of the interactors. When the wild chimpanzee mother goes crazy and eats her own infant or that of another mother, that is pretty unfortunate for the victims, and it really does not provide real benefits to anyone.
For whatever reason, many humans are able to look at other people and at nature in general and see that some patterns of behavior are disruptive and harmful, even painful, and that others are pleasant, nurturing and sustaining. We have labeled our ability to sense the pain and pleasure in others as "empathy."
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you pinch a monkey he will probably bite you. Being gentle to cats or dogs tends to get them to stay around and be gentle back to you. It works the same with people. If you are cruel to them the chances increase that they will hurt you back. We see these dynamics when people or other animals fight. Now, if fighting and hurting others gives you enough pleasure that you are willing to endure the consequences of pain or injury inflicted on you in return, you may well develop a combative lifestyle. However, even those whose lifestyle is combative can't always afford the luxury of fighting. Sometimes cooperating, even with someone you feel like hitting, turns out to be critical to the survival of both you and your adversary.
When you are able to sense the different consequences of how you interact with others, when you are able to predict what actions are most likely to minimize your own pain and maximize your own pleasure, you are beginning to distinguish between negative and destructive behavior and positive and constructive behavior. Even this self-serving "reciprocal altruism" leads to "due consideration" and treating others as you wish to be treated.
Whether one wishes to believe the Creator God designed us this way or not, it seems to me that we are equipped with at least some rudimentary talent for exercising value judgments that amount to bases of ethical or moral choices. Beyond that, we can discuss—and likely will, endlessly—what it means to make decisions and have preferences for some values over others. The ability to consider options, assign relative values, sense and anticipate responses of others, make choices and act on them, are neurobiologically based and have had sufficient adaptive value to contribute to survival. But it seems to me that the mechanism is extremely complicated, and enables choice among all sorts of options—some of which might be considered moral, immoral or amoral.
Disagreement among people who claim expertise in evolutionary biology is quite common, because the extent of their knowledge and understanding differs, and also because what they have written may well be opinion or be variously speculative or a mixture. I'm suggesting that there is probably a choice mechanism involving neurological circuitry (probably in cingulate and insular cortex) that enables consideration and choice of options. My guess is that individual differences in the neural substrates of this mechanism are far more variable than is the morphology of hands, feet and teeth. A wide range of potential options remains within the repertoire. Utterly selfish and exploitive choices have not been selected out. Neither have empathetic or "moral" options.
So part of the question evolutionary psychologists might ask is why both "moral" and "immoral" patterns of behavior persist, and what have been the positive and negative survival values of each? Given the array of behavioral possibilities and contexts, coming up with simple answers that are also satisfyingly comprehensive is not so easy, but that doesn't keep people from trying. When they do, the explanations are often pretty speculative and need to be held very gently.