Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Moral Reasoning

I attended a lunch talk by a Christian doctor, Dr. John Patrick, who started talking about the "myth of moral neutrality." I'm confident he finished the talk, but I had to get to class so I couldn't stay for the whole thing. Nevertheless, during the time I was there, he made a few assertions with which I have to strongly disagree.

Chiefly among these is the idea that Darwinian evolution is somehow used as a basis for moral reasoning. I encountered something back in my first year of undergrad where another biomedical engineering student told me,

"I don't understand people who believe in evolution. I mean, if evolution were really true, why don't all of these evolutionists just let all the sick people die since it's all about the survival of the fittest?"

The speaker said something similar when he said that no one would want to live in a world where everyone was only concerned with propagating their own genes (as in letting sick people die, etc.), which he described as having morality based on Darwinian evolution.

(More after the jump)

Evolution is neither a religion nor a moral approach to life or medicine. It never has been, and I don't know of any atheist/agnostic scientists or doctors who have tried to use it as such. Evolution by natural selection is a mechanism for obtaining increasing complexity from small, simple changes in biological systems over the course of many years. Where in that do you see we should kill the sick people?

The above was something he mentioned at least twice and he seemed to automatically assume that he was correct in describing the moral opinions of atheists. The other point I would like to make was less clear because I wasn't able to stay for the entire talk (I had to get to my next class). The talk was co-sponsered by a Christian student group and an ethics student group at school, and the way he talked it was unclear to me whether or not he believed that moral reasoning and religion are inseparable. I won't get into this too much, because I can't be sure if that's what he was implying or not, but religiosity does not make a person more moral. In fact, I could probably even argue the opposite, that a religious person can use the Bible to make very immoral arguments regarding prejudice, violence against opposition, etc. I don't believe that all religious people do so, but it's hard to use the lack of a belief in a god as ammunition that it's "right" to do similar things.

Also, for what it's worth, there is a evolutionary advantage for morality in human beings. Considering humans were mostly tribal until only the more recent few thousand years, and this tribe would consist of individuals who were likely related, morality that helped the majority of the tribe would also help to propagate the gene pool of the tribe as a whole. The individual may or may not be sacrificed in doing so, but his relatives and his genes (especially if doing so saved his offspring) would still be around to carry on any genetic basis for his actions. On the other hand, pure selfishness would put the rest of the tribe at risk, and if it didn't kill the individual it would have reduced his reproductive options and had the same effect on the propagation of his genes.

So definitely some things to think about. The problem I have with moral and ethical arguments is that it's very subjective and prey to mis-characterizations of others' motives and opinions. A dishonest or inaccurate statement can put other viewpoints at a great disadvantage if it's not corrected. And speaking of which, if I find more information about Dr. Patrick or come to find that my characterizations of his opinions are inaccurate, I'll be sure to update. I wish I had been able to stay for his entire talk so I could comment more.

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