Rod Dreher

I keep pointing my readers to the Templeton symposium on the question of what reason has to do with morality because it raises so many questions in my mind. From Antonio Damasio’s essay:

The mechanisms behind such behaviors [that we identify as moral — RD] can be traced to specific brain systems, neuromodulator molecules, and even genes. An illustrative set of examples pertains to behaviors associated with the neuropeptide oxytocin. In one species of rodent (prairie voles), mating induces the pronounced release of oxytocin in affect-related brain regions. This, in turn, is associated with a life-long monogamous attachment between male and female; close bonding and attachment of the mother to her infants; and involvement of the male in the care of the progeny. Experimental suppression of the gene responsible for the production of oxytocin preempts the entire behavioral repertoire.
Obviously, no one will confuse the attachment and concern for others, as exhibited by these intriguing animals, with the moral actions that humans carry out in similar circumstances. And yet, the general resemblance is both undeniable and suggestive. The presence of such complex and sharply targeted animal behaviors serves notice that human behaviors occurring in comparable circumstances are not being created entirely de novo by human reason. They are probably complex variations on antecedents. These antecedents emerged in biological evolution without the guidance of reason, but they have resulted in an optimized regulation of life. Interestingly, the better regulation of life is precisely what reason-based moral systems are meant to achieve.
But let us come closer to human behavior. Several of our emotions, in particular those that are commonly classified as social (compassion, admiration, shame, guilt, contempt, pride, gratitude) embody moral values. Take the deployment of admiration or compassion. Each includes specific behaviors aimed at others, which deliver rewards of varied kinds and grades for actions that those others have performed. The behaviors imply some level of moral judgment. Likewise for the deployment of shame or guilt, which imply judgments regarding oneself, as well as self-punishing actions and thoughts.
The deep-rooted mechanisms for the execution and experience of these emotions recruit human brain structures involved in life regulation. Taken together with the fact that there are forerunners to such emotions in non-human species, this suggests an early evolutionary vintage for the assembling of the necessary brain machinery. I am persuaded that these emotions were selected in evolution because of their contributions to the better management of life via their ability to solve social problems. In general, the behavioral programs that we call emotions prevailed in evolution because they improved the odds of survival prior to the emergence of conscious minds and reasoning. The “moral emotions” are not an exception.

He goes on to say that we should not reduce moral behavior to mere biological processes, because there’s a great deal of refining and social conditioning going on there as well. This sheds light on a question that occurred to me out of our discussion of Nietzsche and nihilism earlier (one of the most thoughtful comments thread discussions we’ve had in ages emerged out of that — check it out if you haven’t already). The displacement of the cruelties of the classical world with a radically different ethic based in Christianity — check out classicist Sarah Ruden’s work here and here for more on the kind of harsh world Christianity overturned — would on first glance count as evidence against the idea that there is any such thing as a universal morality. Right? Because how could people have kept slaves, killed babies (via exposure), and done all the other awful things the people of the ancient world accepted as part of the moral life, if moral precepts are universal?
For that matter, the irruption of blood-and-soil paganism in Nazi Germany, after centuries of Christian civilization and modernization, suggests that the values of Christianity are not natural to us. Also, see Christian Rwanda, ca. 1994.
But it can’t be that easy, can it? Someone once said that few people do conscious evil; rather, they redefine evil as good. The Nazis weren’t mass-murdering Jews, they were protecting the racial hygiene of their nation (goes this kind of thinking). Christian slave-owners in the antebellum South must have been able to justify their wickedness to themselves by reducing the black men and women to subhumans (as the Nazis did to the Jews and other conquered peoples). Could it be, then, that we all have a deep, biologically-based instinct to respect and preserve human life, one that switches off when we draw the line at tribal boundaries? I mean, is it the case that we are all universally respectful of human life, but the values systems we have may tell us that some people aren’t really human, in the sense of possessing moral personhood?
This is the only way I can understand what religious believers call “the law written on the human heart” — which is to say, the moral instincts common across cultures and religions — with undeniable evidence that many cultures have in the past, and even today, have social traditions and institutions that are beastly.

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