Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Maybe not. But I weighed in on an on-line philosophy debate about the existence and nature of God a couple of days ago. And now this turns up:

Who Cares?: "Dinesh D'Souza explains the argument from morality to prove the existence of God. This is the one that really did it for me during my 'Ayn Rand phase.' Watching hardcore objectivists use tortured logic to explain why, to use D'Souza's examples, a gentleman vacates his seat for an old lady or a Franciscan gives his life for a stranger, led me to believe that the simpler explanation was the better one.

This entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, and at best it explains 'low altruism.' But humans also engage in 'high altruism' which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. A man stands up to give his seat on the bus to an older woman. She is nothing to him, and he is certainly not thinking that there may be a future occasion when she will give him her seat. He does it because he's a nice guy. There's no Darwinian rationale that can account for his behavior.

Consider the true story of the Catholic priest Maximilian Kolbe, who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. Each day the Nazis would choose one person from the group for execution. One of the first persons they selected was a man who pleaded for his life, saying he had a wife and children who were dependent on him and he needed to live in order to look after them. Just as the Nazis were about to drag him from the room, the priest stood up and said, 'Take me in his place.' The Nazis were baffled and refused, but the priest insisted. The man was equally uncomprehending, so the priest told him, 'I don't have a family, I am old and won't be missed like you will.' The Nazis finally agreed, and the priest went to his death. The man whose place he took survived the war and returned to his family.

Now what is the Darwinian explanation for Kolbe's behavior? It does not exist. Ernest Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist, admits that 'altruism toward strangers is behavior not supported by natural selection.' Richard Dawkins concedes that Darwinism cannot even explain why people donate blood, an action he puts down to 'pure disinterested altruism.' I enjoy reading Pinker, Trivers and the others, but I don't think that the Darwin Cleanup Crew is going to come up with a comprehensive account of morality. The simple reason is that the evolutionary project is necessarily confined to the domain of survival and reproductive advantage — in other words, to the domain of self-interest — while it is the essence of morality to operate against self-interest. The whole point of morality is to do what you ought to do, not what you are inclined to do or what it is in your interest to do.

(Via Ten Reasons.)

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