No predator ever survived by altruism. No lioness has ever fed her cubs by taking the feelings of the wildebeest into account–never stopped to think, “She may be a mother, too.”
We’re predators, by evolution. Our eyes are on the front of our faces and we can run long distances and throw things at whatever we can’t outrun. In some areas, we’ve become soft–our canines are almost useless for killing and serious tearing, but we’ve learned to chop and cook our food as a compromise. Still, we’re predators. We chase things that run, things that have brains, and we eat them. I say this with all respect to my vegetarian friends. And I fully agree, it’s nicer not to have to chase green beans and potatoes around the garden. This is just the way things have evolved. God did not make it this way.
Why that preface? Because one of the things we have stopped doing is eating each other. As far back as the time of Hobbes, social theorists reckoned that once upon a time when the food supply was short, we would settle for a member of the tribe across the river. Hobbes called it, without any special reference to cannibalism, “the war of all against all.”
Freud believed that the primal horde was engaged in ritual people-eating from the start, beginning with sons feasting on the father as soon as the patriarch showed signs of loosening his grip on the clan. Whether Freud (or any later theory) is right, we know that both early religion and early “social contracts” began as taboos against incest and cannibalism. And we know that the persistence of these ancient customs in the sacrificial systems of early religion and the rationalized forms–in the Christian Eucharist, for example–eating the body and blood of the Lord–is an inadvertent and symbolic admission of the vile things we used to do out of habit and custom. Every Catholic who takes the “Body of Christ” into his hands on Sunday is unwittingly confessing his cannibal past.
But unless we’re as far gone as Hannibal Lecter we are predators with a conscience. Predators who suppress the instinct to kill, except in certain ritualized situations like war. Even predators who ask questions like “Maybe she has children, too.” There is nothing especially Christian or religious about empathy or compassion. There is something specifically human about it.
That’s why when I read a story this morning about the Texas senate passing legislation to permit the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses–a right they’ll derive from the Second Amendment with salt from the First–my first thought was that Texas may be the first state to start the slow march of regression back to the primal horde.
What is irritating about RPR is not its express atheism but what its distinctive form of atheism expresses. For example after declaring that Christian morality is a slave ethic of subservience and empathy for others, the article proposes a better way:
Now, imagine a world where everyone is selfish. Each man wants to have the best life he can. He wants that in the long run, not just tomorrow. This would motivate everyone to be as productive and industrious as they could. They would go to school to learn valuable skills, they would invest and save for retirement. They wouldn’t violate the rights of anyone else, because they know it can only harm their own life in the long run. Such a world would ensure that everyone is working to maximize their own happiness. The overwhelming majority of them would get it too. If life on this Earth is all we have, then improving and enjoying our own lives can be our only moral purpose. Without a supernatural god keeping score, man must judge actions as good or evil by how they help him and the people he cares about. Actions must be evaluated on their actual impact. Good intentions do not suffice. There is no rational basis for altruism, and atheists should reject it. You abandoned god, don’t keep his moral commandments.
The seduction of this proposal is that it does something many “regular” atheists find worthwhile. The ethics of the Bible are based on rules and customs rooted in the Bronze age. Many of them are outmoded and some are offensive and illegal– speaking just of the Old Testament. Many of the “exhortations” of the New Testament are impractical; I will never love my enemies or (at least literally) agree to be insulted (turn my cheek) seventy times seven times–and I don’t see the value in it.
On the other hand, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving comfort to those who hunger for justice and peace strike me as pretty good ideas, no matter where they come from. I do not regard them as elements of a slave mentality. I regard them as expressions of the same stirrings of mind and conscience that caused us to crawl out of the mud, stand up straight, and make something of ourselves.
The Objectivists have been fond of identifying Christian ethics (why they don’t see other religious systems as equally problematical I don’t know) as “altruistic,” as exercises in self-denial.
If you buy this view, then rejecting altruism, as a vestige of Christan ethics, is logically entailed in not believing in God. It is immoral to try to embrace “logical and rational thought” and to hold on to the “moral indoctrination of childhood unquestioningly.”
“Why should atheists view altruism as the moral ideal? What scientific or theoretical evidence do you have to support it? Have you really examined the subject thoughtfully, or have you unintentionally kept Christian morality even after you rejected god?….There is a rational alternative. An alternative that actually improves human life on Earth. That alternative is rational self-interest. Selfishness. A word that is a smear to some and a badge of honor to others. Acting in rational self interest is the only morality that makes sense in the absence of a god to command you.”
For most atheists, the advantage of living without God is the freedom to love, choose and reflect without the constraints of rules thought to come from a higher power, a Divine Enforcer.
But unbelief does not logically lead to a new kind of determinism, an anthropology that puts individual self-interest above the social conditions that affect the happiness of others.
The glimmers of moral reflection that make sense in Christianity don’t make sense because they are biblical–since much of biblical morality is simply incomprehensible–but because we can see in the advocacy of love and forgiveness and generosity sentiments that are fully humanistic, even corrective of some of the bloodier and more violent passages of the Old Testament.
The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about God. It tells us what human beings think, or thought, about God. As a human book, it tells us mainly about us, and is also an important source for the development of the moral ideas of the species. Rejecting its “supernatural” authority, unfortunately, can’t diminish its significance as a moral archive. This is the basic fallacy underlying the Objectivist form of atheist thought.
In fact, Objectivism is strangely inconsistent on this point: it’s the New Testament it hates. The Old Testament history of Israel, which is largely the history of selfish, territorial schemes against its enemies and persecutors, can only be regarded as objectionable to an Objectivist because it’s related to God. It’s core premises are basically exemplary: What could be less altruistic than the story of the Chosen People pursuing their national self-interest without regard for the life and limb of the Unchosen? What is less altruistic than the events of the Middle Ages and the mid-Twentieth Century that sought to counter this assumption through the vigorous pursuit of national self interest? Empathy was not involved. Predation was.
The existence of altruism is a hot topic, almost as important to some people as the existence of God. As a soft altruist, I believe that empathy, compassion and generosity are important survival skills that we have arrived at over about 50,000 years or so of the “modern” development of our species, which is about 200,000 years old. Many anthropologists see the development of religion and law as a coordinate of this modern process–an acknowledgement that our distant ancestors could not usually be counted on to do the socially acceptable thing. The archaeological record supports the theory.
As religion declines, however, in terms of the principles of selection that still operate in the human community, it should be fairly evident that patterns of social adjustment that could once only be expressed religiously (or legally) continue to be expressed because they are socially advantageous. That is to say, some forms of altruism are rational because they work. They are conducive to happiness, the thing that both Aristotle and the American founding fathers who read him thought was ultimately important to human beings. They provide cohesion, structure, and a sense of wellbeing superior to their opposites.
An atheism that is rational in this latter sense will reject the temptation to be swayed by the suggestion that “real” atheism means that we have to be guided by our predator instincts. That isn’t what brought us out of the mud and made it possible for us to look each other in the eye.