Natural Goodness

There is an organization, which I expect most of you have heard of by now, called “the The Brights“. It is dedicated to the promotion of what it calls a “naturalistic worldview”, which it defines as being free of “supernatural and mystical elements”. The name, I think, is exceedingly unfortunate; it seems smug and pollyanna-ish, and has probably put off a great many people who might otherwise have been inclined to join in.

I am, to be sure, a fair approximation of what most Brights would consider one of their own: I am certainly no believer in any sort of gods or teleological cosmic arrangements, and I think it overwhelmingly likely that we humans — along with our minds, consciousness, and consciences — are exclusively the product of a natural process of selection and evolution. In particular I resent the enormous role that religion plays in public affairs here in America. But there is something about the Brights that irritates me, even though many thinkers I admire, such as Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, have become prominent (“enthusiastic”, in typically gushy Bright locution) members.

Aside from the cocky arrogance of the name (which they defend here), and the organization’s breezy dismissal of mysticism (there are mystical systems the disciplined practice of which, I have every reason to believe, can have genuinely transformative effects, in ways that need not be assumed supernatural in any way), I think it is that the organization simply is not radical enough. I mean this not in the political sense that is usually associated with the word, but in a philosophical and cultural sense. The Brights seem to me nothing more than an attempt to found a new sort of church.

It may be that they would be the first to own up to this. Religion is, it seems — and I am sure the Brights’ brain-trust would agree — an evolved instrument of social cohesion, and provides quantifiable benefits for the groups it binds. As their website describes it:

The idea of materializing as Brights at the Internet hub of The Brights’ Net is to acquire visibility, fortify one another in what is a worthwhile outlook on the world, and grow a constituency that can join forces broadly to work on broad aims of social and civic action.

It seems that the goal here is to graft, onto our naturally pre-existing religious apparatus, a system that uses the same social mechanisms as traditional religions — we all want to be part of a group, and to pull together for our group’s advantage in relation to the Other — an enucleated “religion” which has at its conceptual core not God, but science, and not worship, but rational inquiry. (This sort of thing has been tried before, in the secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century, though of course I am not suggesting that any further comparison is warranted here; the focus in those systems was the State, blood, race, soil, etc. The point is that our innate knack for religion is fungible in this way.)

This is an enormous improvement on the traditional superstitions, to be sure, but there is an important difference: one that may, if sufficient attention is paid, lead to serious philosophical difficulties. As the patient inquiries of science dig deeper into the very underpinnings of such organizations and sentiments themselves — inquiries that the Brights themselves enthusiastically support (indeed, they seem to do everything enthusiastically, which is one of the things I find irritating about them) — they may find that some of their “oughts” threaten to become mere “is’s”.

In particular I am curious about the future of an effort they call Reality about Human Morality. It’s certainly an admirable project, by my lights: an attempt to make some very definite statements about the origins of human morality, and to back them up with solid scientific evidence. What I wonder about, though — as I have mentioned before — is what foundation will remain, after the “universal acid” of Darwinian naturalism has done its work, for whatever moral system the Brights may choose to endorse. It may be that they will simply accept our evolved moral framework “as is”, without feeling any need for radical re-evaluation: it is, after all, a natural optimization for the prosperity of human groups. In this case they will settle simply for showing that our moral architecture is an evolved human feature, one that needs no supernatural foundation, and leave it at that, which I think is an enormous cop-out. If this is, as I myself believe, all there is to our moral intuitions — an optimization for the thriving of groups — then we have more work to do: we must answer the question of why, and whether, we should continue to consider these intuitions as morally “correct” in the sense we are accustomed to.

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  1. JK says

    Not to be completely cynical here but, while not mentioned specifically, the name “Brights” might be apt, there are certain benefits institutions like the IRS offer to help with any expenses the Brights mights incur.

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  2. Reply from The Brights Net

    Re: “Aside from the cocky arrogance of the name (which they defend here), and the organization’s breezy dismissal of mysticism (there are mystical systems the disciplined practice of which, I have every reason to believe, can have genuinely transformative effects, in ways that need not be assumed supernatural in any way), I think it is that the organization simply is not radical enough.”

    It should be noted that each Bright makes an individual decision on whether or not the statement defines his/her condition. There are atheists who should not be Brights (for example, one who believes in ghosts). Each individual decides if s/he is a Bright or not. The Brights Net is a civic rights organization — that is radical enough.

    Re: “I think, is exceedingly unfortunate; it seems smug and pollyanna-ish, and has probably put off a great many people who might otherwise have been inclined to join in.”

    There are people who do not register as a Bright because of the name. However, over 41,000 individuals in 179 nations have registered as a Bright because of the movement’s aims. To judge the name, one must balance the negative aspects against the positive aspects. It is clear the name, backed by the three major aims of the organization, are a powerful attractor.

    The movement’s three major aims are:

    1. Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
    2. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
    3. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.

    Re: The Morality Project.

    Late next week I invite you to visit the website and locate the action arena regarding Morality. It and other projects have been revamped and will be posted later this week or the next.

    Paul Geisert, Ph.D.
    Associate Director for Constituency Services
    The Brights Net

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  3. I wonder what you mean by “morally ‘correct’ in the sense we are accustomed to.” As a former Christian, the sense I’m accustomed to hearing is based on God’s will. On what basis would you judge something as being morally “correct”? Do you have an objective criterion that most serious thinkers would agree on?

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    And, are the dimly lit invited?

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Dr. Geiser,

    Thanks very much for dropping by to comment. Even after spending two years as an engineer at PubSub, I still find the marvelous immediacy of the Web both amazing and delightful.

    I am sure that there are those for whom the name of your organization is attractive; for a diffident fellow like me, though, it seems brash and immodest. Perhaps it is just my upbringing: I can certainly imagine that it would have struck my Scottish mother as “putting on airs”.

    Let me assure you that as a naturalistic nontheist I wholeheartedly endorse the goals you have enumerated above. I also suspect that our difference on the issue of mysticism is merely terminological, though it would be nice to hear from your organization some clarification on this point, and perhaps some acknowledgement of the demonstrable effect of meditative practices, etc. — which need not be assumed to have any supernatural underpinning. (Were you to do this, you might also be able to add the formidable atheist Sam Harris to your ranks.)

    I will, as you suggest, have another look at the morality-project section of your website next week. I would welcome further conversation with you on this topic; it is one that fascinates me no end. I would also like to make clear that by “radical” I meant the philosophical, not the political, sense of the term: I would like to see your group follow its examination of morality all the way to its roots. To put it another way, I am curious to see what is left of morality after you have got through with it, and how you would answer the charge that the foundation you put forward (and I think correctly) as the real basis of morality is really, in a moral sense, no solid foundation at all. This is, I think, the end product of the “universal acid” of Darwinian naturalism. (I take the term “universal acid” by the way, from your own most prominent Bright, Daniel Dennett, who coined it in his excellent book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I admire Professor Dennett a great deal, but I have yet to see him address this issue, at least in print — the closest he has come, as far as I know, was to circle it warily in his book Freedom Evolves. I would be very grateful if he were to tackle it head-on.)

    As a practical matter regarding the advancement of your aims: if you wish to convince the faithful — for whom the bedrock of morality is nothing less than God Almighty — that we godless heathens can indeed claim to have a sturdy moral framework, you will need to explain to them why a “merely” evolved intuition should be seen as embodying moral truth: why what is adaptive is also right. (For that matter, I’d like to hear it too.)

    I am glad that you have added 41,000 people to your organization (I signed up myself a year or so ago, in order to get your newsletter). It is certainly a worthy cause. The Catholic Church alone, however, counts 1.1 billion faithful supplicants among its worldwide constituency, so there is, of course, still some catching up to do. But as we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks for joining us, and for asking that fair and pertinent question.

    As your own comment indicates, there is, I think, no single answer, and certainly no objective criterion that most serious thinkers would agree on (not nowadays, anyway). For you, and very many others, “morally correct” indicates, at least on reflection, congruence with God’s will (though my own suspicion is that God only enters the picture when an account must be given). I, on the other hand, was not raised in a religious household, and so my own sense of moral correctness has never had anything to do with any reference to any supernatural authority. Nevertheless, I’ll wager that I have as strong a sense of “right and wrong” as anyone.

    It is my opinion, as I have argued in a recent series of posts, that it has become clear over the past century and a half of investigation into human origins and human nature that our moral instincts are an evolved feature of our psychological architecture, a feature that has arisen as an optimization for the success of human groups.

    The question, then, is: if this model is correct (and it seems to be), then in what sense do our moral instincts and intuitions represent moral truths?

    I must point out also that even grounding one’s moral beliefs in an omnipotent God has, as I am sure you know, its philosophical difficulties. Something has to give, and I think that something is our confidence that there are indeed objective moral facts.

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Just fake it till you make it, JK.

    Posted September 2, 2008 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  8. David Brightly says

    Hello Malcolm,

    In this piece and in the comments you appear to be asking questions that seem to cast doubt on the possibility (or desirability?) of a naturalistic theory of morality. I paraphrase a bit:

    1. are naturalistically derived moral intuitions ‘correct’ in the customary sense?

    2. is what is adaptive also right?

    3. in what sense do our moral intuitions represent moral truths?

    4. can we maintain confidence that there are objective moral facts?

    5. can a naturalistic theory offer, in a moral sense, a solid foundation?

    I’m not sure I understand what you are worried about here. Can you be more explicit?

    Posted September 5, 2008 at 4:54 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    Just to be clear, I have no doubt that there is a naturalistic account to be made of the phenomenon of human morality. What I wish to investigate is the cognitive and philosophical effect of having such an account — as opposed to a non-naturalistic model that grounds moral “truths” in God or some abstract realm — on that moral framework itself.

    If our sense of what is morally “right” is rooted in advantageous selective adaptation only, does this undermine our confidence in our moral intuitions — our sense that they are “right” in some sense beyond contingency or convention? Does naturalism corrode ethics, and lead to moral nihilism? Is nihilism, as Dennett argues, really a “negligible” position?

    Posted September 5, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  10. David Brightly says

    Hello Malcolm,

    Are you using ‘right’ in the sense of ‘good’ here, or in the sense of ‘correct’? You used ‘correct’ in the main piece, and the phrase ‘confidence in our moral intuitions’ does suggest that you suspect people (you?) think moral intuitions are like beliefs and can approximate some fact of the matter.

    Is your worry really that a widespread belief in a naturalistic theory of morality might lead to less good and more harm being done?

    Posted September 6, 2008 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    I’m not sure that there is much of a distinction between “correct” and “good” when it comes to morality.

    I think most people proceed as if moral intuitions are like beliefs and correspond to some fact of the matter. I suppose that many folks don’t worry a lot about putting this assumption on solid philosophical ground, but those non-philosophers that do generally seem to say that moral “truths” are rooted in God, or that they simply exist as abstract facts. A naturalistic, evolutionary account needs neither of these hypotheses, of course.

    I do wonder if belief in a naturalistic theory of morality, when carried to its philosophical conclusions, might have a corrosive, nihilistic effect on some people. I think it is not unreasonable to think it might, though I don’t think it must.

    Posted September 6, 2008 at 12:48 pm | Permalink