Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This week I’ve been listening to a debate between Matt Slick (Christian) and Dan Barker (atheist) on whether humans can be good without God.  Barker’s argument during the debate struck me as illogical, and here’s why.

Barker explained that moral values are merely natural inclinations that are built into human beings due to the long process of evolution.  These inclinations vary from person to person across a statistical distribution.  Some people feel a strong inclination to help the poor and some don’t.  Some people are strongly opposed to rape and some are not.

For every natural, moral inclination there is a statistical bell curve across humanity.  Evolution has bequeathed moral inclinations to humans, but to varying degrees.  At one point, Barker even said that it may be evolutionarily necessary for this bell curve to exist.  To give an example, it may be that if everyone was strongly opposed to murdering the innocent, this may not best advance the survival of the human race.  We can’t have everyone acting like Mother Theresa or else our species might die out.  The converse is also true: a world full of Hitler’s would also kill off the human race.

I agree with Barker that some people have stronger moral inclinations than others and that some of this variation may be genetic.  What I don’t understand is the next move he made in the debate.

He then offered his definition of behaving morally: do less harm.  For Barker, this phrase neatly encapsulates the diverse natural instincts that evolution has given us.  In essence, Barker is saying, “Nature has caused us to have these inclinations and if I had to come up with a phrase to describe what these inclinations are telling us to do, it is ‘do less harm.'”  Barker is acting as Nature’s ambassador and explaining to us in a command what she actually wants from us.  From then on, Barker repeatedly stated that humans ought to do less harm, with the situation determining how that plays out.

In the next post, I will explain why Dan Barker’s approach does not work.  See you then.

  • Boz

    do you know of any evidence for bell-curve population-wide moral inclinations? Maybe a survey or a study of behaviour?

  • Bill Pratt

    That was Dan Barker’s assertion and it seems right to me, based on my experience. There are clearly people whose conscience bothers them a lot more when they lie than other people, for example. I haven’t tried to find any research data on the topic.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “I haven’t tried to find any research data on the topic.”

    Simon Baron-Cohen’s well-reviewed new book ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy – A new theory of human cruelty’ digs into this question, and theorises about how some people carry out acts viewed as evil by the majority.

    Baron-Cohen argues that it mostly comes down to empathy, which he describes as being “like a universal solvent”. Without it, you will lack the Jiminy Cricket that holds you back from evil acts.

    (And yes, he is related to Sacha Baron-Cohen of Borat and Bruno fame.)