As I discussed in my previous entry, when we’re talking about explanations as to what makes a person moral, the only currently credible alternative to supernatural monitoring (God watches you so you don’t do bad things) is what I call institutional monitoring (the government watches you so you don’t do bad things); both of these alternatives fail the test of reality and therefore are bad explanations.
The truth is that morality originates in the evolution of sociability. Studies of sociopaths have demonstrated that morality cannot exist without empathy and higher-level emotions, and studies of primates has demonstrated that moral principles exist natively in other species. Of course, the moral and ethical principles that we formulate are not mere translations of sociability instincts, any more than the fight-or-flight response can be translated into a modern treatise on hunting. Our principles are developed from the interaction of these instincts with other people and the world as a whole. We can call this “internal monitoring.” It is internal because it is developed from the individual’s values and principles, not from any external dogma.
The dichotomy between whether morality is externally-driven (either by God’s words or by the law) or internally-driven is most crucial to the atheist distrust issue. Positing that morality is driven by the law instead of God does not make atheists more trustworthy, because one is often in a situation where one is not monitored by an institution. Remember the scenario given in one of the studies:
Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.
Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody
was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then
threw the wallet in a trash can.
This scenario was designed to trigger belief in supernatural monitoring, and thus associate this behavior (which is incompatible with supernatural monitoring) with atheism. But we could also say the exact same thing about institutional monitoring. In the scenario, an atheist Richard would reasonably have felt no more threat from a government agent than from God. Truthfully no one is monitoring him in this scenario except himself.
You may also have already noted that there is an equivalent to being an atheist in the case of institutional monitoring: being an anarchist. While anarchists cannot simply ignore the threat of jail or murder in the same way that atheists can ignore the threat of Hell (once they have been sufficiently deprogrammed, anyway), they lack belief in the law as sufficient moral grounds in the same way that atheists lack belief in religious dogma as sufficient moral grounds.
The funny thing is that most anarchists are anarchists for moral reasons; anarchists are by and large people who have given great consideration to their moral principles and who have concluded that the State is the enemy of the good. Therefore accusing anarchists of being immoral is a dead end. Anarchists are subject to the same moral instincts that everyone else is, they’ve just decided to not be hypocrites about the fact that they are part of the workings of an evil society.
Institutional monitoring cannot be valid for the same basic reason that supernatural monitoring cannot be valid: because they concern themselves with the enforcement of dogmatic orders, not morality. Morality is based on logical reasoning applied to values, and orders are to be obeyed without reasoning or justification. In the case of religion, the supposed moral rules from God were written by humans to serve the interests of their religion. In the case of government, the supposed moral rules are written by the power elite to serve its interests. In both cases, the rules do not apply to those in power and their friends.
For the ruling class, “the rule of law” isn’t a means of protecting you or your liberty. It’s a means of enforcement, a critical way of protecting their own power and wealth.
There are further problems with institutional monitoring. For instance, most of us believe that there is such a thing as a bad law (although I have met some people who profess that such a thing does not exist, a position which I have a hard time calling anything nicer than clinically insane). Presumably this is why “the people” are allowed to approve or repel some laws within the limits imposed by the system. But how does one decide whether a law is bad? There must be a prior moral principle that lets one do this, and whatever this moral principle is, it must be more fundamental than the laws themselves (again in an analogous manner to the fact that there must be a prior justification for us to accept a religious text as valid). So the law cannot be the source of morality.
We also have an origin problem. If the law is the source of morality, then how did the law come to exist in the first place? Why would “bad” people decide to harness themselves to a “good” standard? I am not saying this is impossible, but there needs to be an explanation, and, as far as I know, none has been given.
Finally, as I pointed out in my previous entry, people who are altruistic out of a fear of punishment are being dishonest in their actions and don’t really feel compassion or empathy for those they help, otherwise they wouldn’t need the threat of punishment to be altruistic in the first place. People who act morally because it’s the right thing to do are morally superior to people who pretend to act morally under threat of punishment.
So we have to clearly put both supernatural and institutional monitoring in the same category, that of external motivation, and internal monitoring as being the opposite of both. We need to clearly point out that internal monitoring is primary, and the external ones are secondary, because we adopt them on the basis of some personal principle or value.
We also need to clearly point out that our beliefs about the moral or immoral nature of others is, to a large extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we think everyone around us is a criminal, and therefore rely on punishment and hatred to motivate morality, you end up with an incarceration society like North Korea, the US, China or Russia. Surely we can’t blame the population of these countries as being particularly evil, since most of the incarcerations are for political prisoners (and I count the War on Drugs in that category). We end up with societies where power is expressed through violence and coercion, instead of persuasion or reciprocity. Of course this is all tied together with capitalist power and government power; where punishment and hatred motivate morality, there must be an elite which tells people who to hate and how to punish.
Internal motivation is self-reinforcing; external motivation destroys interest and diversity. Internal motivation drives positive change; external motivation drags down positive change. Internal motivation drives our desire for fairness and freedom; external motivation drives authoritarian systems.
You may have noted that my analysis of the internal/external dichotomy is closely tied to the “humans are innately evil” premise, as well as the cooperation/competition dichotomy. It is clear to me that external motivation is closely linked to the “humans are innately evil” premise, because there would be no need for any external motivation for morality if man was innately moral. This is why all religions and political worldviews have some form of “original sin” or “natural flaw”; they have to sell you an imaginary disease before they can sell you the imaginary cure.
The link with cooperation/competition may seem less obvious, but cooperation is linked to the view that humans are not innately evil, and competition with the view that they are. You’d be more likely to promote cooperation as the way to accomplish tasks if you believe the people around you are basically good, competent, and so on, and you’d be more likely to set people against each other so they keep each other’s evil in check.
This all brings us back to evolution. Fundamentalist believers cannot understand morality because they deny evolution, so they bite their own cognitive tails and keep turning in endless fallacious circles. Without acceptance of evolution, there’s just no hope for anyone to understand how morality works, and we just have to forget about convincing those people to treat atheists like human beings. If they come to that position eventually, it’ll have to be for personal reasons.
Believers in supernatural monitoring have a pat answer not available to believers in institutional monitoring, that God “wrote” the laws of morality in our “hearts.” This argument is not very coherent and I have yet to hear any Christian explain what this means and how we can distinguish it from the result of the evolution of sociability (technically I believe it is impossible to deduce that anything is supernatural, but they should at least try to address the issue). In my opinion, this is just an ad hoc rationalization meant to preempt evolution.
Many believers of institutional monitoring, on the other hand, also believe in evolution, and mainly just ignore it when it comes to moral or ethical issues. They have to ignore it because it would otherwise clash with their fundamental belief that man is corrupt and must be controlled. They believe that crime is an issue of personal responsibility, when in fact we also have a shared responsibility for crime. Our actions are far more influenced by the social context than the social context is the result of our actions.
Liberals (a category that includes most atheists, especially those who use the institutional monitoring argument) especially are forced to believe in a kind of moral hodge-podge; people are basically trustworthy and good, but they’re stupid, short-sighted and selfish enough to do bad things unless they’re monitored by those better than them. The trouble is, it’s the institutions doing the monitoring that are making people stupid, short-sighted and selfish, but to admit that would mean to reconsider the very system that makes liberalism possible, so liberals can’t do that.
How can they be so insane as to posit that the very institutions which create evil are saving us from evil? Love of one’s oppressors and hatred of those who want to help seems to be a pretty common theme in human behavior: Stockholm Syndrome, battered wives, fascist populism as an economic position, the support for organized religion against secularism, pro-democracy movements, the love for cop shows, the constant striving for success in an evil society, and in general the mania of liberals for surrendering everything to corrupt bureaucrats and the mania of conservatives for surrendering everything to sociopathic corporations.