Why innate morality trumps the Ten Commandments

Watching Ann Widdecombe stomp around Mount Sinai on Channel 4 last Sunday, demanding a return to the Ten Commandments, I was reminded of the old woman who died recently in the Andaman Islands, taking her ancient language with her. She may not be quite the last of her kind, but Widdecombe's version of Old Testament morality has never seemed quite as anachronistic as it did in her strident presentation.

Expressing her admiration of the Puritans of the 17th century, she appeared to belong not merely to their moral but even to their mental world. It was "disturbing", she opined, that modern (i.e. 19th century) scholarship had cast doubt on the traditional belief that the whole Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and written down there and then (including, I assume, the bit at the end of Deuteronomy where Moses dies). This paleo-Fundamentalism, which might be expected from the Rev Ian Paisley but sounded rather strange coming from a Roman Catholic, was largely beside the point, however. The nub of her argument was that, without the certainty provided by the Ten Commandments, society would fall apart. Drunkenness, sexual immorality, anti-social behaviour, disrespect, state-sanctioned killing of the infirm: in short, a ghastly mess.

The Ten Commandments, Widdecombe asserted, "taught me right from wrong." Ah yes, that old chestnut again. You need religion in order to be moral - or at any rate, as Cherie Blair told the man in the dock, if you're "a religious man" you ought to know better than to punch someone in the mouth at Lloyds Bank, and are thus unlikely to act in the same way again. Mrs Blair and Miss Widdecombe don't have much in common but they share this view of the social utility of religion. In Mrs Blair's case, the belief was sufficiently strong to override the fact that the man standing before her - who committed the assault on the way back from a mosque - had evidently not been restrained from punching his victim by any religious considerations. If religion didn't work on that occasion, why should it again?

Commenting on the case in The Times, Hugo Rifkind wrote that while "his instincts" were with the National Secular Society's complaint about this apparent privileging of religion, "as my philosophy degree taught me in week one, it’s only Cherie’s lot that make conceptual sense." What, without God, can morality be based on? he wondered. There is "no such thing as abstract morality", a concept which "doesn't even make any sense." Non-believers were "annoying" for pretending that their understanding of morality was based on anything other than human convenience. Absolutes come only from God; anything else can only be relative.

There are two answers to this. The first, from the perspective of philosophy, was supplied by A.C. Grayling writing the other day on the Richard Dawkins website. He thinks Rifkind's argument "an awful advertisement for wherever Mr Rifkind studied philosophy" (it was Emmanuel College, Cambridge, apparently) and points out that for most of history's great moral philosophers "ethics are not premised on divine command or the existence of supernatural agencies, but proceed from consideration of what human beings, in this life in this world, owe each other in the way of respect, concern, trust, fairness and honesty." There is nothing abstract or relativist about humanist morality, for the basic facts of human nature and the needs of social organisation don't really change.

If anything - Grayling doesn't go this far, but I will - it is religion-derived morality that has a tendency to be contingent. No purely humanist system of ethics has ever taught the imperative of human sacrifice, for example, or the sinfulness of eating shellfish (but not beef; or vice versa). To impute a moral good to something arbitrary, and for no better reason that it is the will of God, is the hallmark of religious ethics. One sees it even in the Ten Commandments, which mix the kind of injunctions found in any moral system - "Thou shalt not kill", and so on - with utterly pointless obsessions to do with graven images and not being rude about God.

Moral philosophy, of course, is largely concerned with creating a coherent rationale for, and explaining, right and wrong without confusing the issue by bringing in God. If the be-all and end-all of morality were to be found in the Bible, taking the form "this is what God says", then there would be no need for philosophy at all. So A.C.Grayling has a professional interest in dismissing the notion that morality might have religious roots. And there is a counter-argument. Some evolutionary theorists suggest that religion evolved as a means of spreading and inculcating moral norms that have survival value for the group. Philosophers might be able to think their way towards a morally correct solution to any problem (though the number of disputes that arise among ethicists around issues such as euthanasia, abortion, punishment and so on suggests that such solutions might be hard to discern). For those without the time or the inclination to tease out all the issues, however, the clear answers provided by a religious code provide an acceptable substitute. (At least in theory; in practice theologians argue about morality just as much as philosophers do.)

Add to this what might be termed the Santa Claus theory of religious morality. God is an omniscient being who knows if you've been good or bad, and will reward or punish accordingly. Fear of Hell, even more than the (frankly unenticing, to many) promise of eternal bliss, promotes good behaviour. Such a theory seems to be contained within the Ten Commandments themselves. The second commandment - the one about images - is explained on the grounds that Yahweh is "a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, even unto the third and fourth generation". By contrast, those who honour their father and mother are promised that their "days will be long in the land".

On this view, a secular society such as ours may be living on borrowed time. People still obey religiously-derived norms, even though not themselves religious, because they form part of the cultural legacy of society. But this won't last forever; and the way into the abyss is already visible in the chaotic mess of a typical Saturday night in Nottingham. Only a religious revival can save us. It's an incredibly pessimistic view of human nature. It also impedes moral progress. As Stephen Fry pointed out on Widdecombe's programme, the Ten Commandments have nothing to say about slavery. He might also have noted that the last commandment lists women alongside livestock and real estate as property that ought not to be coveted.

As recent debates over women priests and gay partnerships show plainly, the churches are still engaged in a game of moral catch-up with secular ethics. Come to think of it, there's not even a specific commandment against punching someone in the face.

Science provides the second, and perhaps most compelling, retort to those who believe that morality somehow needs God. A recent paper by Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser looked at the evidence and concluded that there was no significant difference between the moral intuitions of religious and non-religious people, or between the members of various religious groups. They concluded that "moral intuitions operate independently of religious background and, more importantly, do not require religious input. In fact, a considerable amount of work in this area shows that moral judgments are relatively immune to the explicit moral dictates of both religious and legal institutions."

The authors argue from such findings that religion "cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation". Moral judgments depend on underlying mental mechanisms which "appear to operate independently of one's religious background." This doesn't mean religion can't serve the purpose of moral inculcation; but it does show that there is no basis for the notion that religious believers have a higher or more consistent moral sense. Morality doesn't come from religion, but seems to be innate and universal. It doesn't appear to have much to do with the threat of punishment, either: views of euthanasia, for example, are unaffected by whether or not it is legal in the country in which you happen to live.

These findings ought to put paid to utilitarian arguments for religion as a necessary instrument of social cohesion. Oddly, it's also good news for religious believers: their moral behaviour is not, after all, the result of their fear of divine displeasure. Ann Widdecombe is mistaken: the Ten Commandments didn't teach her right from wrong. It was her knowledge of right and wrong that first attracted her to the Ten Commandments.

The fallacy is to confuse correlation with causation. Because religion and morality traditionally go together, one is imagined to produce the other. "In many cultures," write Pyysiainen and Hauser, "religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions... many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence."

It also makes "a religious man" seem like an appropriate candidate for lenient treatment in court.


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