The Practice of Morality

In a blog post, Richard Beck quotes Marc Hauser saying

Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.

You can read the Hauser essay Richard is referring to at Edge.

I guess this "universal moral grammar" might account for the often reasonable observation that “most people seem pretty decent,” which so gets up the nose of those who are strongly attached to ideas of original sin, and the general shortcomings of humanity. Clearly, when we come to Stalin or Hitler, and sometimes our own behaviour, that “biological code for living a moral life” has not played a controlling role!

In the same post Beck goes on to say

My main critique of this research is ... Hauser's research focuses solely on moral judgment, asking people to evaluate moral dilemmas. This is only a small part of the moral life... Many  ethicists are now arguing that we need to recover the virtue tradition in ethics. We need to spend less time researching how people make moral judgments and more time on issues of character formation, actually developing a science that helps us become better people. Morality isn't a calculus. It's hard work and sacrifice.

This is where, I think, religion can be helpful. If we grant that Hauser is correct, that due to our shared human nature we already know what is right and wrong, then we don't need to go to church to figure this out. We already know what to do. What we need is some assistance, training, support, encouragement, modeling, motivation and accountability in following through. Church should focus on character formation. And there is nothing biological, natural or easy about any of this. It's why Christians call it spiritual discipline and Buddhists call it practice.

On Beck’s site there are a series of articles called Purity and Defilement.

These 22 articles show very clearly how much of our response to life events is innate and emotional; we are nothing like the rational beings we often like to imagine. Even those "strong silent types," who scoff at emotional women, and whose partners despair of empathy or understanding, are driven by emotional needs and responses. In some respects we are not far removed from the animals we belittle for their instinctual responses to life.

I quoted Beck saying that church has a role in character formation, and that “there is nothing biological, natural or easy about any of this. It's why Christians call it spiritual discipline and Buddhists call it practice.” Reading his series of fascinating articles makes it clear why he believes this- so much of our response to life is still very instinctual.

If we feel suspicious of psychology, we could remember that what Beck is talking about is in the Bible.  The tradition is not unaware of the issue! Beck (and others) are simply using different language and techniques to approach the same subject.

In Romans 7 Paul says

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In 1 Corinthians 9

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

If we are honest, we already partially know this about ourselves.

Although a crack shot I deliberately sold my rifles, unhappy about the instinctual enjoyment and violence present even in hunting for food. (I used to get roo and rabbit etc for the old folk when I lived up north.) I had grown to abhor violence, and lost any pleasure in hunting. Increasingly, I struggle to eat meat. I didn’t need Richard Beck to discover this.

But early one morning last week, I found a blackbird caught inside the netting on my apricot tree. Maybe it was one of the ones here  come back for the nesting season.  Without a moment's thought, I corralled it at one end, and crushed it to death.    And went back to the house shocked at my pure emotional violence towards another animal stealing my food.

Ironically, I was reading Beck at the time, as part of my morning devotions. He, and this event, remind me how close we are to the animal from which we have evolved, “biological code for living a moral life” or not. Perhaps “close” is the wrong metaphor. Perhaps what has caught my attention in his articles,  is “how large a part of me” is still driven by the animal from whom I have come.

The world needs spiritual discipline and practice. These are what humanise.  Opposable thumbs, and problem solving, and language, are minor separators from the animal.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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