Intelligent Design

Moral judgments – by-product or by design?

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Two research psychologists have contributed an Opinion paper based on the empirical finding “that individuals presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas show no difference in their responses if they have a religious background or not”. The data used was obtained from an online web questionnaire which is open to any volunteer participants (including myself). Findings are reported elsewhere and in their Opinion paper the authors provide only a summary:

“These studies, carried out using the web-based Moral Sense Test (http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/), recruit thousands of male and female subjects, with educational levels that range from elementary school to graduate degrees, with political affiliations that range from liberal to conservative, and religious backgrounds that range from devout to atheist. In each of these studies, subjects read and judged the moral permissibility of an action on a 7pt-Likert scale [. . .]. Each scenario presented a contrast between a harmful action and a significant benefit in terms of lives saved.”

The hypothetical scenarios in the test present dilemmas where actions that are evidently harmful to human life considered in isolation result in significant benefits to other humans (whose lives are saved). The generalized results are as follows:

“More specifically, in dozens of dilemmas, and with thousands of subjects, the pattern of moral judgments delivered by subjects with a religious background do not differ from those who are atheists, and even in cases where we find statistically significant differences, the effect sizes are trivial.”

This conclusion is the anchor-point for the author’s wide-ranging discussion of the origin of morality and, as indicated in their title, the origin of religion. In evaluating their paper, we need to consider whether their empirical starting point is robust enough to carry such far-reaching conclusions.
[. . .]

The first thesis developed in the paper is that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background” and are therefore not explained by religion. The authors develop an analogy with linguistics, where the concept of innate ability for language acquisition is widely held, and this innate ability is independent of the cultural background. Ball describes this thesis in this way:

“The paper [ . . ] challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness. If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more likely to be moral than atheists.”

Whenever there is only one hypothesis on the table, there should be concern! Scholars should be cultivating multiple working hypotheses and looking for ways of testing them. To show the significance of an alternative conceptual framework, consider a perspective that understands mankind as made in the image of its Designer. Innate abilities are imparted by this Designer: we speak because the Designer speaks; we have a moral awareness because the Designer is the reference point for what is right and what is wrong. These innate abilities affect all people – whether they are atheists or religious, whether they are pantheists or theists, whether they are male or female, young or old. This is a hypothesis that explains the data and scholars who “tacitly adopt[] an atheistic framework” are excluding this alternative purely on ideological grounds.

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19 Replies to “Moral judgments – by-product or by design?

  1. 1
    EvilSnack says:

    The test cited did not, as claimed, reveal that religious ideas had little effect on individual responses to moral dilemmas. What actually happened is that a horribly constructed test yielded ambiguous results with little meaning at all.

    In order to measure a person’s moral reasoning, the yardstick must not only record whether a person approves or disapproves of a certain act, but record the reasons for this belief. The test fails on this count.

    The test is simply too flawed to yield any meaningful results.

    As one instance of this, the respondent is asked whether it is morally wrong for Casey to sacrifice one swimmer (currently safe) to save five other swimmers who are presently in danger from the shark. It does not ask why the respondent regards Casey’s action as right or wrong, which is the real meat that the test should be attempting to record.

    The typos and grammatical errors don’t help matters much.

  2. 2
    O'Leary says:

    Well, everything depends on the religious background, right?

    1. In Canada, most people who give to charities have a religious affiliation of some kind.

    2. No one, facing a water-related disaster (common enough in Canada, which holds a large share of the world’s fresh water), faces some mathematically constructed choice.

    Typically, you wake up in emerg, and discover what happened later.

    If you saved someone, great!

  3. 3
    absolutist says:

    It seems everyone has a moral compass regardless of whether they are religious or not. We know people in both camps (even though some on both sides don’t always point true North). The problem is that a compass is a navigational instrument for finding directions and instruments are objects of design. It’s still unclear to me how moral compasses obtain in a survival-of-the-fittest Grand Story.

    I can’t help but think about this Christian religious claim:

    “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

  4. 4

    David Tyler wrote in the OP:

    “To show the significance of an alternative conceptual framework, consider a perspective that understands mankind as made in the image of its Designer. Innate abilities are imparted by this Designer: we speak because the Designer speaks; we have a moral awareness because the Designer is the reference point for what is right and what is wrong. These innate abilities affect all people – whether they are atheists or religious, whether they are pantheists or theists, whether they are male or female, young or old. This is a hypothesis that explains the data and scholars who “tacitly adopt[] an atheistic framework” are excluding this alternative purely on ideological grounds.”

    To me there seems to be an immediate and necessary corollary to Tyler’s alternative hypothesis: that moral agents do not have to be aware of the source of their morality. Indeed, according to Tyler moral judgment might be “innate” and “imparted by [s] Designer”. but “innate” qualities are not learned and therefore do not depend on the moral agent either having been taught to be moral nor on having based her/his morality on a consciously chosen moral foundation.

    This interpretation of Tyler’s alternative hypothesis is further supported by his argument that “we speak because the Designer speaks”, not because we have learned to speak in certain ways, but because speaking in certain ways is innate, and therefore neither learned nor modifiable as the result of learning.

    Finally, Tyler states explicitly that morality does not involve individual moral choices, but rather is an “ability [that] affect[s] all people”. To me, this sounds virtually identical to Franz DeWaal’s argument that, rather than being the result of choices freely made (which, having been made, both define and reinforce a person’s moral “character”), morality is an evolved predisposition, which essentially removes moral behavior from the domain of behaviors that can be encouraged/discouraged or praised/blamed.

    If so, Tyler’s position is not only directly contradictory with the mainstream of western moral philosophy since at least the time of Socrates (not to mention Jesus), but also eliminates moral responsibility as a coherent concept. It also renders the concept of “free will” nonsensical, since if (according to Tyler) everyone is inculcated with an innate (i.e. “natural”) moral sense, then one need only “do what comes innately/naturally” and the greater moral good of both individuals and society will necessarily follow.

    Is Tyler a Calvinist, perchance?

  5. 5

    In line with my argument in comment #4, consider the following slight modification of his alternative hypothesis:

    “Mankind is made in the image of its Designer a product of evolution by natural selection. Innate abilities are imparted by this Designer natural selection: we speak because the Designer speaks our ancestors who spoke survived and reproduced more effectively than their contemporaries who did not speak; we have a moral awareness because the Designer is the reference point for what is right and what is wrong our ancestors who had such an awareness survived and reproduced more effectively than their contemporaries who did not. These innate abilities affect all people – whether they are atheists or religious, whether they are pantheists or theists, whether they are male or female, young or old.”

    Like Tyler’s alternative “Designer” hypothesis, the evolutionary hypothesis also explains the data and scholars who “tacitly adopt the [Design hypothesis]” are excluding this alternative purely on ideological grounds.”

    And, both Tyler’s “Design hypothesis” and the evolutionary hypothesis remove both moral choice and moral responsibility for actions based on such choices from the domain of morality.

  6. 6

    And, to once again clarify what many of those who comment here seem to be unable to grasp, I am an evolutionary biologist, I am not an atheist (see http://evolutionlist.blogspot......stion.html ), and have come to the conclusion that humans do indeed have free will, and therefore also necessarily must make moral choices and bear moral responsibility for those choices.

  7. 7
    Upright BiPed says:

    Allen if free will exist, then does that mean the being/unit thing/entity can choose between the impulses coming from one arrangement of chemical reaction/pathways in his/her brain as oppossed to another?

    If that is true, what is it that does the choosing? Is it a third or fourth chemical/pathway arrangement weighing the options?

    Is there a “head” chemical arrangement (so to speak) similar to Dawkin’s head monkey?

  8. 8

    Re O’Leary’s comment #2:

    “In Canada, most people who give to charities have a religious affiliation of some kind.”

    A completely irrelevant statement, as it is also the case that most people in Canada have a religious affiliation of some kind. What would make it relevant would be some estimate of the per capita rate of donations to charities by people with religious affiliations versus those without.

    However, people without religious affiliations are not necessarily without religious beliefs, nor are members of either group necessarily motivated to behave morally, especially if one agrees with Tyler’s argument (which I do not).

    “No one, facing a water-related disaster (common enough in Canada, which holds a large share of the world’s fresh water), faces some mathematically constructed choice.

    Typically, you wake up in emerg, and discover what happened later.

    If you saved someone, great!”

    By this I take it that O’Leary completely agrees with Tyler’s assertion that moral behavior is innate, not learned, and certainly not the result of a conscious, deliberate choice.

    Thanks, O’Leary, for clarifying where you stand on moral responsibility and, by extension, human free will. Now I am certain that I do not agree with you on any of your assertions vis-a-vis either the source of moral responsibility nor on the existence of free will.

    BTW, Ithaca is located on the shores of the second-largest (and deepest) bodies of fresh water south of Lake Ontario, which (like all of the Great Lakes) is evenly subdivided between the United States and Canada. I guess that makes us Ithaca residents just as likely to face some kind of fresh-water related emergency.

    Indeed, I saved someone from drowning in a fresh water pond when I was eight years old, and did so without thinking about it much. So, did I act morally when I did so, and (for that matter), why did I do what I did? Was it because some unidentified “Designer” made me do it, and if so should I be praised for having done so, or not?

    Just curious…

  9. 9

    Re upright biped in comment #7:

    Your question strongly implies that thoughts, ideas, concepts, and other cognitive entities are identical to the biological substrates within which they are encoded. I do not believe that this is the case, any more than the program that is running this computer is identical to the circuits, wires, resistors, etc. that provide the vehicle for that program.

    And so to answer your question, I would say that the empirical fact that thoughts, ideas, concepts, and other cognitive entities are encoded in the form of action potentials, neurochemicals, and so forth is irrelevant to the meaningful content of such thoughts, ideas, concepts, and cognitive entities, and therefore irrelevant to both the source(s) of and justification(s) for moral behavior.

  10. 10
    Upright BiPed says:

    Allen,

    Your question strongly implies that thoughts, ideas, concepts, and other cognitive entities are identical to the biological substrates within which they are encoded.

    You didn’t answer my question. My question implied that a choice can be made between impulses encoded in the arrangement of matter.

    What is doing the choosing, other arrangements of matter?

  11. 11
    Charlie says:

    Allen,
    To follow up with UB, does the choice emerge from matter via natural law … as do purpose and meaning?

    BTW, I’m certain you’ve seen that the per capita stats that you say O’Leary’s point would require do exist, right?

  12. 12
    CannuckianYankee says:

    It strikes me as somewhat incomplete to judge a person’s morality based solely on what a person states their belief to be. It seems to me that morality is less a belief, and more an action. The immoral person is often the one whose actions are inconsistent with his/her stated beliefs about morality.

  13. 13
    absolutist says:

    We all have an immaterial web of beliefs but I agree with CannuckianYankee, our true beliefs will become visible in our actions.

  14. 14
    Smidlee says:

    There are two kinds of people that claimed to be honest
    1) an honest person
    2) a liar

    Also there are two kind of people who wears a wedding band
    1) a faithful spouse
    2) an unfaithful spouse

    As CY noted it’s one thing to state your beliefs while it’s complete different to live by them.

  15. 15
    Seversky says:

    “Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them”

    One of the better lessons from the Bible.

  16. 16
    jasondulle says:

    I took the test. I agree EvilSnack that the test was horrible. With a few exceptions, every scenario was of two sorts:

    1. John sees an unavoidable catastrophe coming. He can either do nothing and allow X to kill 5 people, or He can spare the 5 by actively putting 1 person into harm’s way who would otherwise not have been killed.
    2. “If a lot of other people engage in some unpleasant behavior, is it ok for you to do the same?

    Answers to the first category of questions reveal whether one holds to a deontological form of ethics, or a utilitarian form of ethics. Answers to the second category of questions reveal whether one holds to moral objectivism, or moral relativism. The problem is that the questions didn’t really examine other moral philosophies. They just kept painting the same principled scenario over and over again, only swapping out the setting.

    And as EvilSnack said, they did not engage the motivations/rationale for choices, which is a major component of moral reasoning.

    Furtehrmore, they should have mixed up the scenarios a bit. Rather than requiring the observer of the impending catastrophe always have to act in order to kill the 1 rather than the 5, they should have included scenarios in which both the 1 and the 5 will die unless the observer acts, and then see who the observer will act to save and why.

    Even if the answers provided are basically the same for all people regardless of religion, education, or age, this would not go against the God hypothesis. If anything, I think it is in favor of it. Indeed, it is perfectly in line with Scripture which teaches that all men, in virtue of being made in God’s image, have an innate moral sense through our conscience.

    Finally, these researchers have confused moral epistemology for moral ontology. I agree with them that one need not be religious to know what is right and wrong (it’s part of the imago dei). But that is uninteresting. The real question is how we account for objective moral values in the first place. That is the ontological question, and it’s not one that non-theists have a good answer for.

  17. 17
    jasondulle says:

    I think two more variants could have been thrown into their scenarios that would make them more difficult, and more telling about a person’s moral reasoning.

    Rather than facing the dilemma of distracting one man so that he is hit by a boulder in order to save 5 other people who would have been crushed by it otherwise, they could have made the dilemma as follows:

    “Richard is hiking through the countryside with his wife one day. He sits down to rest while his wife continues to hike. Suddenly he sees a large boulder come loose on the hill above him, and watches while it starts to roll down the hill. He realizes it will tumble down and kill his wife unless he does something. His only option is to call and get the attention of five other hikers who are walking close to the path of the boulder and who have not noticed it yet. If he distracts them in this fashion, that hiker will stop in the path of the boulder and will be killed, but will thereby deflect the boulder from the path of his wife further below.”

    When relationships are involved, people’s judgment will be affected. Even the utilitarian will probably choose his wife over the 5 strangers.

  18. 18
    David Tyler says:

    EvilSnack @ 1
    In order to measure a person’s moral reasoning, the yardstick must not only record whether a person approves or disapproves of a certain act, but record the reasons for this belief. The test fails on this count.

    I think you are right about this – and agree with the others who have commented in similar vein. I found the test simplistic and was not impressed with the methodology. It is important to critique methodologies, especially as some consider that everything appearing in peerr-review publications infer that methodologies are sound. As an example, consider Michael Ruse’s comment here:
    Meanwhile evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists like Marc Hauser, at Harvard University, are studying moral behavior with such precision that they are able to pinpoint the parts of the brain involved in rational thinking, emotional reactions, and motivations. And, as always, the context is Darwinian.
    It is Darwinian but, as is often the case, that mindset makes scholars curiously blind to alternative hypotheses and this affects the way they construct their research instruments.

  19. 19
    David Tyler says:

    Allen_MacNeill @ 4
    To me there seems to be an immediate and necessary corollary to Tyler’s alternative hypothesis: that moral agents do not have to be aware of the source of their morality. Indeed, according to Tyler moral judgment might be “innate” and “imparted by [s] Designer”. but “innate” qualities are not learned and therefore do not depend on the moral agent either having been taught to be moral nor on having based her/his morality on a consciously chosen moral foundation.

    Thanks for your numerous comments. I agree that “moral agents do not have to be aware of the source of their morality” in the sense that they may not have a rational explanation of their moral values. However, a sense of accountability for their actions is part of their experience, even though they may not be able to say to who they are accountable.

    To me, this sounds virtually identical to Franz DeWaal’s argument that, rather than being the result of choices freely made (which, having been made, both define and reinforce a person’s moral “character”), morality is an evolved predisposition, which essentially removes moral behavior from the domain of behaviors that can be encouraged/discouraged or praised/blamed.

    It is fair to say that much contemporary research appears to be based on such an approach. The “genes for xxx” movement continues to be remarkably strong and still has the ear of the media. Such thinking leads to the view that behaviour is a biological phenomenon and has nothing to do with morality or what ‘ought’ to be done. I think the research paper of Pyysiäinen and Hauser brings a similar message because they think that religion and morality evolved from pre-existing cognitive functions. However, I am not arguing for a biological origin for our moral sense. The alternative hypothesis suggested is that causation for our moral awareness is provided by an Intelligent Designer. This means that we have accountability for our actions.

    If so, Tyler’s position is not only directly contradictory with the mainstream of western moral philosophy since at least the time of Socrates (not to mention Jesus), but also eliminates moral responsibility as a coherent concept. It also renders the concept of “free will” nonsensical [. . .]

    I suspect this involves a selective reading of moral philosophy. I am happy that my position deviates strongly from Socrates and from Enlightenment scholars. I have no intention of eliminating moral responsibility as a coherent concept. I am not defending “free will” but am an advocate of “free agency”. You will find the essence of my thinking in the writings of Francis Schaeffer.

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