Discussion Group Report

Moral Values: Transcendental or Human?

August 1998

By Richard Layton

"Centuries of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: either ethical principles, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience, or they are human inventions," says biologist Edward O. Wilson in "The Biological Basis of Morality," in the April 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. "The choice between these two understandings makes all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species. It measures the authority of religion, and determines the conduct of moral reasoning."

Still, the split is not between religious believers and secularists, but rather between transcendalists, who think moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. "I believe," says Wilson, "in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists."

Transcendalists, secular or theological, tend to view natural law as a set of principles so powerful, whatever their origin, as to be self-evident to a rational person, but without a causal explanation. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence blended secular and religious presumptions in one transcendentalist sentence: "We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." That assertion became the cardinal principle in America's religion.

Such natural law theory has produced noble successes but also appalling failures. It has been used to argue for colonial conquest, slavery, and genocide. Every great war has been fought with each side thinking its cause transcendentally sacred in one manner or another.

"So perhaps we need to take empiricism more seriously." In this view, ethics is conduct favored consistently enough throughout a society to be expressed as a code of principles. These codes play an important role in determining which cultures flourish and which decline. The crux of this view is its emphasis on objective knowledge. Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, its framers should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops. Empiricists hold that, if we explore the biological roots of moral behavior, and explain their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion a wise and enduring ethical consensus.

"The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century's version of the struggle for men's souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in the idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct."

Wilson advocates the concept of "consilience," a "jumping together" of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He points out that the evidence favors a purely material origin of ethics. The idea of a biological God, who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs, is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences. The evidence also meets the criterion of consilience: causal explanations of brain activity and evolution already cover most facts known about behavior we term "moral." This conception can, if evolved carefully, lead more directly and safely to stable moral codes.

From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, ethical precepts are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates--the behavioral code that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.

Among traits with documented inheritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. Add to these traits the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring. Genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole. But moral sentiments evolved to be selective. People give trust to strangers with effort. They are quick to imagine themselves the victims of conspiracies by competing groups and are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.

The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth, the transcendental, and discovered another, the empirical. The assumptions underlying these world views are being tested with increasing severity by cumulative verifiable knowledge about how the universe works-from atom to brain to galaxy. Some cosmologies are factually less correct than others, and some ethical precepts are less workable.

"For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose...They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive." It will be taken from the natural history of the universe and the human species. That trend is in no way debasing. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined.