Atheist and religious Moral Minds / Dawkins on Hauser

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Dawkins has a section in his God Delusion (pp. 222-226) that discusses Marc Hauser‘s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.

Hauser conducted a study with Peter Singer to test whether atheists differ in their moral intuitions from religious believers. The expectation was that if people need religion to give them their moral values then there should be a significant difference between the moral values of atheists and the religious.

Three hypothetical dilemmas were the focus of the comparison:

1. Denise’s dilemma: A trolley is running down a railway line out of control threatening to kill 5 people trapped on the line ahead. Denise is standing by a set of points. If she pulls the lever she can redirect the trolley to a siding. But in so doing the trolley will kill one man trapped there. 90% of respondents agree that Denise should pull the lever thus killing the one man to save the 5. There is no significant difference between atheist and religious participants in the test. (The same dilemma was presented, with cultural modifications, to a Central American tribe with very little contact with Westerners. Crocodiles swimming towards canoes were substituted for trolleys on rail lines. This tribe, the Kuna, displayed the same moral values as the Westerners.)

2. A child is drowning in a pool and you are the only person around who can save her. But to do so means you will ruin your trousers in the attempt. 97% agree you should save the child. (As Dawkins notes, presumably 3% think one should prefer to save one’s trousers!) There is no significant difference between atheist and religious participants in the test.

3. Five patients are dying for want of organ transplants. Each needs a different organ. There are no donors. But the surgeons see a healthy man in a waiting room who has all 5 needed organs in perfect order. Are they justified in seizing that one healthy man to save the five? 97% of respondents believe they are not justified. There is no significant difference between atheist and religious participants in the test.

Our moral sense or “moral grammar” is as much a part of what it means to be human as is our faculty for language, our sexual instinct, our fear of heights, etc. (p.223)

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0 thoughts on “Atheist and religious Moral Minds / Dawkins on Hauser”

  1. Interesting test, although Paul came to the same conclusion in his letter to the Romans. He wrote”

    “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them,” Romans 2:14-15.

    Whether Hindu, Christian or atheist, we all have a conscience (i.e. a sense of right and wrong). Christ’s teachings aren’t merely about being moral, they are about extending mercy to others as the Father extends it to us through the Son. It’s about genuine love, rather than merely according one’s self to the principles of right and wrong. It’s about living every moment as an act of worship, rather than exercising morality exclusively in extreme situations.

  2. I don’t see how the scenario in #1 is so different from #3. Either is murder, deliberate act of killing a person (although with the lever, not so pre-meditated). Both seem like “playing god.” Why should it be the one trapped man’s fate to die — why should Denise be allowed the final say in that? How does she know this one man isn’t destined to save thousands of lives in the future?

    And then it comes to mind, numbers… What if there were a hundred or a thousand people about to die in a hospital, and some unique individual had something in his body that could save them all…but this one guy would have to be killed to save them with his body tissue or whatever. Would we, should we? What if that one unique person was your child, would you sacrifice him/her for a thousand people, a million?

    I would be in the 10% who wouldn’t pull the lever.

  3. Dawkins does point out that those hypothetical possibilities (that the one person on the siding might be Beethoven or a close friend) are ignored for this test (p.223). The test requires a decision on the facts as presented in the scenario alone — no more.

    Marc Hauser has a range of similar ethical dilemmas online — with the same proviso — ignore anything extraneous to the test such as one of the parties being your child etc — and just explain what is the principle at stake on the information as given, no more.

  4. Although I agree that the areligious are just as moral-minded as the religious, if not more sincerely since they have no external reason for such feelings (I think, I’m religious so I can’t put myself in such shoes), I think those survey questions are just as economical as they are moral. 5 people versus 1? Drowning child versus trousers? 5 patients versus 1 waiting man?

    A better question from my point of view, although an extremely simplified and idealistic one, would have been 1 versus 1. Would the survey participant sacrifice his life for someone else’s, considering that the someone else was in all ways their equal? I hypothesize the results would be similar, but it would be an interesting question nonetheless especially if the answers weren’t limited to “yes” or “no” but could be “yes/no, because…”

  5. Storbakken, thanks for the warning about Christ’s teachings. I’ll be careful to give them a wide berth. I have no wish to live in a state of mind in need of constant mercy, nor be in a position to have so many enemies under my power that I have to be constantly extending mercy to their fearful souls too. In my book genuine love means what it means in everyday language (I’m not impressed by the cold biblical definitions that it means “keeping commandments” etc.) and that normal meaning of love sounds a whole lot healthier than steering my focus away from my fellows and obsessing about worshiping some deity all day long.

  6. kd, no-one can be expected to love others more than themselves as a general rule (not denying our propensity for altruism and self-sacrifice in particular situations), yet so many believers suffer psychological confusion and torment and denial attempting to be what humans are simply not made to do.

  7. Well said, in both posts, Neil. They’re interpreting it in a control-freakish way…and yet giving their own power away. The “deity” is within us (it is us) and the hence the encouragement to “worship” it. It’s talking about self-love. And that’s the deal, and the only way one is ever going to love another. Their fear/hatred and judgment breeds nothing but more fear/hatred.

  8. Hi Neil,

    I apologize if I came off too pointed. My intent was not to give a “warning about Christ’s teachings,” but instead to show that his teachings extended well beyond the realm of morality. Christ taught transformation (i.e. how broken people might be made whole). I’ve always like the verse in Mark where Jesus says, “Those who are healthy don’t need a doctor, but those that are weak and sick: I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

    On another note, I think, perhaps mistakenly, that we are using the term “mercy” in different contexts. I use the term as a synonym with compassion. In that context, I hope people will be compassionate towards me and that I am able to be compassionate towards others, regardless of pretense or disposition.

    I’m not sure what you are referencing when you say that you are not “impressed by cold biblical definitions,” but I wholeheartedly agree that cold definitions of anything are simply that, cold. Lastly, relating to worship, I find that to hold every action, thought or deed as sacred is more rewarding than considering life mundane (or even profane, which some do). When welcoming every opportunity in life to be expressed as an act of worship, the value of life (not only mine, but that of those whom I come across) is increased exponentially.

    Every blessing!

  9. Just my opinion, but I don’t think the problem is the “holding of every action, thought or deed as sacred” but the harsh judgment of those things in others, when they don’t align with your religion’s rules. As in, do this, this and this…or else fry in hell.

    “When welcoming every opportunity in life to be expressed as an act of worship, the value of life (not only mine, but that of those whom I come across) is increased exponentially.”

    You have a right to your opinion, of course, but I must say, that statement literally makes me feel physically ill. Can you not see that if you put anything, “God” or otherwise, above yourself, that it makes you less (in your mind/heart), less valuable, less worthy, less…and in believing that, how can you deeply and truly love yourself, others?

    If your version of “worship” is such a phenomenally wonderful thing, why is there a need for the threat of hell? No one needs to threaten me with eternal damnation to get me to enjoy a delicious peach cobbler 😉

    If you know that you are a “child of God,” how can you believe that you are less than he/she? It is exponentially joyful knowing that I AM that which is “God” (“children of God”). There is no fear factor in what I believe. I do not believe where there is great fear, there is love, faith and true joy. Religion is rooted in fear. But “spirituality,” knowing that one is “Spirit,” (that which is “God”) separate from the religion (rules that spur judgment/hatred), now there I find a true sense of peace.

    Indeed this is far from a mundane life, although those who believe it to be, so it becomes…but those also who give away their power to anyone or anything are, at best, blind to the true joys of this life. It is my feeling that any “peace” that comes from religion is the misguided notion that if one follow’s those rules, they will not burn in hell…and yet how could they truly have peace knowing that so many others (neighbors, co-workers, relatives…not followers of these rules) will experience this horrible “hell” thing? Truly, how can one find “exponential” quality of life, (peace and joy?) in believing that?


  10. Dove,

    Thanks for sharing your views, although I must admit that I feel like you are attempting to damn me with your harsh criticism. I never made mention of hell, damnation or any such curse in either of my posts. I’m not a fundamentalist. I was merely trying to emphasize that Christ’s teaching can’t be confined to a singular box (whether it be moralism, legalism or any schism).

    You said: “Can you not see that if you put anything, ‘God’ or otherwise, above yourself, that it makes you less (in your mind/heart), less valuable, less worthy, less…and in believing that, how can you deeply and truly love yourself, others?”

    I do love myself and thank God everyday for the opportunity to exist in his creation. Yet my faith is not one of self-exaltation. Following Christ is about humility more than arrogance (i.e. pride). It’s about social justice, transformation and healing. Jesus, Rumi, Kebir, Yohannan or any Chrisitian (or Sufi or Bhakti) saint will readily admit that the highest goal is to submit to the will of God. A million dollars may be less valuable than a billion dollars, yet the million still has great value. Perhaps I’m only worth a million dollars (or maybe I’m even in debt) right now. When I enter the will of God my value increases a whole lot because I’m allowing his image (i.e. his value) to take shape in my life.

    I hope that this helps to clarify my reasoning.

    Peace & Grace!

  11. response to neil – agree 100% with your comment, but I hope to elaborate from my paradigm. Agreed, no one should be expected to love others more than themselves. Agreed, sometimes self-sacrifice and submission happens. Agreed, many believers feel guilt and confusion because they fail living up to their religion’s “rules” or “expectations.” (sorry if I misunderstood)

    I hope to add,

    1. These problems aren’t unique to religion, I think they are universals to group activity as a whole.

    2. If I were a religious leader, and I know some who I think would agree with me, I wouldn’t “expect” love or altruism. I would “foster” the little bit that is essential to our humanity. From a theological, NT perspective, there is that whole “love-fruit-of-the-Spirit” thing, which would be similar to I just said, but substitute clergy with divine.

    3. I admit to sometimes feeling guilt and confusion trying to live up to many spiritual ideals, but sometimes I feel humility (good connotation) and sometimes I am successful, occasionally more successful than in the past. I do not feel as if any standard I try to live up to is arbitrary, although many have felt that way when I initially put faith in them, and I am joyful that I have processed through feelings of inadequacy and continue to do so.

    I apologize for the wordy comment. There is a good conversation going on here. It is tempting to cover all bases, but I know time and space won’t allow it.

  12. Storbakken, my “warning about Christ’s teachings” was said in irony. (I’d use smileys more often if WordPress provided more sexy ones.)

    I know you meant “mercy” to cover something like “compassion”, but I was too subtly trying to suggest that this is really a condescending use of the term “mercy”. To think of oneself as extending mercy to others is to think of others as in some way at fault, and also as if one had a right to be judgmental but are patronizingly (like God) waiving that right. Sure there are times when being a good friend is like that, but it is not a healthy, wholesome nor even appreciated way to relate to others as a whole.

    The Sermon on the Mount does not go “beyond morality” but is an impoverishing dehumanizing set of moral principles (explained in a previous post on that topic) — Jesus threatens all who do not live up to his moral teachings with hell. (e.g. never ever lose your temper or God will lose his and throw you into hell — and if you do fail to observe perfectly this impossible command, keep praying to the Judge for mercy so he will forgive you. What a horrible tormented way to live. The only escape would be to live in the world of prayers and beliefs in the unseen.)

    If Jesus teaches transformation then what need is there for mercy? He commands you to become perfect, threatens you with hell if you don’t, because you can’t, then commands you to pray for forgiveness so you can find mercy.

    Paul speaks of “putting on” the new man (Eph.4:24) — so the transformation is a put on — a suppression and denial of what you are. The changes that come into the believer’s life are the changes from forced habits and attempts at mind control, denial and suppression, normal life changes and maturation. There is also the psychological change that comes from faith that you are appreciated and loved and of worth to a greater being — like a child finding courage and hope with an imaginary friend who loves them unconditionally.

    You say you like the verse about the weak and sick needing a doctor. Why? Do you think Christ likes you to identify with the weak and sick so you need him? Does he have no time for the healthy? Is that why you do not wish to identify with the healthy?

    A healthy person is one who can accept themselves as they are, warts and all, without any need for some suprahuman being to love them or continually extend them mercy. They don’t need the unconditional love of an invisible friend to have positive feelings about themselves.

    There is nothing wrong with being angry with someone who cheats you nor is it wrong to having sexual feelings for a woman (or man), even a married one. Those are quite normal healthy emotions. Without them the human race would never have got going in the first place. Healthy people know how to control (not deny) those feelings which is all we need to do to get along happily with each other.

    Nor does a healthy person need to live every moment in worship of something not of this world. My profane life is pretty good. I find lots of stuff to awe and thrill me in this world, and many things make me completely happy. I also hope I will continue to be able to accept the pain and bad, sometimes cruel and traumatic, with no need to run for escape in some mental opiate. Though an odd whisky might help. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the good the world offers, having the courage to face the bad, and living a meaningful life without a hereafter.

    A healthy person does not need Christ, as he himself said. What’s wrong with being healthy?

    P.S. —

    — after thinking about my latest bauckham post it occurred to me that transformation smacks of a dehumanizing process, brainwashing (even if self-inflicted), denial and suppression, living in a world of (make-)belief — not healthy at all. it’s what nazis, stalinists, maoists and khmer rouge tried to do — with people singing and smiling happily to be part of the grand vision — and what some brands of christianity still attempt to do. ever notice the similarity between the crude stalinist propaganda scenes of happy smiling faces and the crude religious pictures of happy faces on so many church tracts? but the damage is not usually clear until one “leaves the fold” — some who do leave suffer the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (normally associated with rape and war victims) before they can readjust to a normal healthy life.

  13. kd, yep, religion isn’t unique. I’ve found varying degrees of “these problems” across different religions, but also among ideologues of secular causes too. But it appears I’ve been more fortunate in some of my experiences than you since I do not find them “universals to group activity as a whole.”

  14. Hi Neil,

    It’s interesting that you compare Christianity with atheistic governments (i.e. nazis, stalinists, maoists, khmer rouge). Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were staunch atheists. They were very unhealthy paranoid megalomaniacs who thought they had the answers to the world’s ills.

    You wrote: “…transformation smacks of a dehumanizing process…”

    People (i.e. the ones who aren’t perfect) and societies are in a constant state of transformation (some might call it evolution, whether it be physical or spiritual). Some people and societies tranform into monsters, others are in the midst of transforming into something beautiful. A transformation may have a multitude of outcomes, although the transformation itself is often a point of contention (and even pain) regardless of the outcome. Yet we must keep moving forward.

    You wrote: “A healthy person is one who can accept themselves as they are, warts and all, without any need for some suprahuman being to love them or continually extend them mercy.”

    What about people who aren’t healthy? What about the ailing, the impoverished or the marginalized? What about people who want to see hurt people healed and corrupt systems rectified? Were the abolitionists or MLK unhealthy? Was Gandhi unhealthy? Living a life in the will of God is not merely about looking forward to the hereafter. It is working towards making it “on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s about the present moment.

    Continued grace…

  15. I should clarify, so I don’t sound like a people-hating hermit: remarkable people setting high expectations for others in the group, and then group authority demanding others meet those expectations is a problem all groups I believe are vulnerable (stress that last word) to, but that doesn’t mean it happens in all the time. Most group activity is a wonderful thing, in my opinion.

  16. storbakken, yes cultures and standards change — and there has been overall progress for the better over the centuries, despite the many setbacks along the way. and yes, too many people do suffer cruelly and we have a responsibility to do what we can to change that.

    but my points were at the individual level of a person’s basic psychology. people are the same as they were centuries ago, and whether they suffer or prosper today. then and now, we are the same homo sapiens. it is our knowledge and understanding of each other, the world and ourselves that has grown and that has led to different standards and values, not our human nature. our human nature has proved adaptable enough to respond to increased understanding, but the new understandings have not changed what we are or how we work — we can still relate to what we read of ancient peoples as well as we can to each other because we have not changed or “transformed” our basic nature. we are very social animals and the society we grow up in will shape how we direct and control our natures and what we believe, but the natures themselves remain the same across all cultures and centuries.

    listening recently to a series of interviews with germans who had lived through the nazi era and were involved as part of the hitler youth movement. they described their reasons and feelings at the time, and the “transformations” in their lives. the processes and feelings were stunningly so like the psychology of religious conversion — only substitute hitler for jesus.

    i have no angst against individuals or any believer at a personal level by the way. i’ve seen religion from both sides and believe it’s worth raising the issues among any interested in the discussion.

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