Letters to An Agnostic—#6

Letters to An Agnostic—#6

Morality cannot be simply part of our biology. It doesn’t deal with material reality. Morality has to do with people and relationships and fair treatment of each other. So if moral reality is all about people and their relationships, what should we conclude about where it came from? 

Dear J,

To take your objections to my last letter in order, they seem to be:

  1. What I am calling morality is just self-preservation, an instinct for survival.
  2. The so-called “Bigger Rule”, where we expect or demand certain behaviour from others is the same instinct, enlarged and modified for a group, or a herd. Our supposed primate ancestors travelled in troops, and this means we evolved instincts that protect the group, which in turn protects the individual. We “expect” behaviour from others because we evolved to expect protection from the herd.
  3. None of this proves a personal universe.

All right, let’s suppose that the morality of the Golden Rule is a kind of biological instinct. When we speak of instinct in animals, we mean an impulse in them which they always obey. Birds always migrate, they don’t need to be trained to do so. They do not freely choose their instincts; they merely follow them.

But this lack of freedom in instinct is very problematic for the theory that morality is a mere instinct. If right and wrong is really just a hard-wired, biological instinct, why do we need to be told to obey it? Why are we always exhorted to do the ‘right thing’, if, in fact, the right thing is a natural survival instinct?

Indeed, we are told we ought to obey this inner morality, which you call instinct. Being told we ought to do something is itself a value judgement. Why ought we to obey the survival instinct? It’s one thing to have the sense that drinking water is needful to stay alive. This is the instinct – you feel thirsty. But why I ought to obey that instinct, why I ought to want to listen to its promptings to keep me alive is something else. Being thirsty is one thing, wanting to keep living is another. Does blind instinct tell me it is better to live than to die? Does instinct give me the value of living?

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