[NOTE: This essay is rough and incomplete, but it will be at least three days before I have another chance to work on it. Rather than keep my adoring fans waiting (both of you) I've decided to go ahead and post this draft and make updates later.]
Denis Prager and Joseph Talushkin sum the issue up nicely in their book, "The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism":
If there is no God, there are no rights and wrongs that transcend personal preference ... Moral judgements [are] purely subjective. It is self-evident and acknowledged by the foremost atheist philosophers that if a moral God does not exist, neither does a universal morality. Without God all we can have are opinions about morality...
And indeed they are correct. No less a secular luminary than Bertrand Russell wrote:
I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.
Prager and Talushkin wrote in 1986 (which is why their book is called what it is and not "The Judaism FAQ" :-) and Russell wrote in 1960. These dates turn out to be significant. The problem of how to define an objective morality without God was in fact solved in 1980 by a fellow named Robert Axelrod. As far as I'm concerned, Axelrod's name IMHO ought to be numbered alongside Darwin, Einstein and Newton as one of the greatest contributors to human knowledge of all time. Instead his work has gone virtually ignored by almost everyone, religious and secular alike. But as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.
It should be noted that defining morality with God is no slam-dunk. First you have to decide which God to follow because there are so many to choose from. Even the God of Abraham, who has pretty much cornered the market of modern theology, comes in three major versions (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and countless minor ones. The putative Word of God includes such guidance as:
When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them... (The Q'uran, sura 47:4)
Put away your sword, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
So which is it? How can we decide which version of God's Word to follow without some standard that transcends God?
The question of whether God sets the moral standard or follows a moral standard was first raised by Socrates in 380BC. The dilemma can be summed up thusly: if God says what he says because He is moral then morality transcends God. On the other hand, if what is moral is defined by the Word of God, then in what sense can morality thus defined be considered "good"? Is it moral to kill unbelievers because Allah says so? What if God said it was OK to kill innocent children? Would that in fact make it moral? (And if your response is: God would never say that, then my response is: 1) he already has said it on a number of occasions, and 2) who are you, mere mortal, to say what God would and would not say?
Even putting aside the metaphysical question of the moral status of God, there are practical issues involved with how to interpret God's word. For example, Leviticus 24:16 says, "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death..." Does that mean we should institute the death penalty for blasphemy? Or take the second commandment. This is commonly taken as a prohibition against idol worship (though the sight of Catholics bowing down before statues of saints really makes me wonder sometimes) but the actual text says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth." Does that mean that photographs, statues, and portraits are immoral? Muslims think so. How do we decide? These kinds of conundrums are legion, and have kept theologians occupied for millennia.
To these questions I would add one more: why aren't all the atheists raping and pillaging? In Norway, for example, the overwhelming majority of the population is non-religious, and yet you do not see uncontrolled outbreaks of selfish behavior. To the contrary, Norway is socialist, and has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Sweden and Japan are similar. By way of contrast, the United States, with one of the highest concentrations of avowed Christians in the world, has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and is notorious for its ever-increasing socio-economic disparities.
The mere fact that this observation appears to require explanation is also indicative of the answer: people have a moral intuition, a subconscious sense of right and wrong, a conscience. And although they differ in detail, there are remarkable consistencies in moral intuition across all the world's religions and cultures. For example, there is an overwhelming consensus that killing innocents without provocation is wrong. There is not a single culture in the world that does not consider killing, lying and stealing to be evil. Conversely, there is not a single culture in the world that does not consider justice (including punishment for transgressions), honesty and charity to be virtues. To be sure, moral intuition is not uniform. For example, some people's moral intuition tells them that abortion is evil, while others' do not. My point is not to say (at this point) that moral intuition is a reliable guide to morality, merely that moral intuition exists. This should be non-controversial except among the most extreme pedants.
If we accept that moral intuition exists two questions naturally arise. First, is moral intuition a reliable guide to morality? Even the most cursory examination reveals that it cannot be absolutely reliable because it is not absolutely uniform. Some people think abortion is acceptable, some people think it isn't. They can't both be right.
The second question, which I believe will shed some light on the first, is: where did this moral intuition come from? There are three possibilities. The first is that it came from God, that it is one aspect of being created in His image. This is an attractive possibility, but alas not supported by the Bible. According to the Bible, moral intuition arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good an evil. (To the contrary, the Bible is quite clear that man was not created with the capacity to tell good from evil, which has always led me to wonder how God expected Eve to know that she was supposed to obey God and not the serpent. But that is a matter for another time.)
The third possibility is that moral intuition evolved. This has always seemed intuitively improbable. After all, evolution is all about survival of the fittest, the ends justify the means, red in tooth and claw, and all that, while our moral intuitions tell us things like that we ought to take precious resources and give them to the poor and the weak, which would seem to be exactly the opposite of what Darwinian evolution would lead us to expect. But Darwin is subtle, and evolution produces a lot of things that one might not expect at first glance, like peacock's tails. The puzzle of how Darwinian evolution could lead to non-selfish behavior was solved by Robert Axelrod in 1980.
Axelrod explored a famous mathematical model of moral choices called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). PD is a game played with two players. Each player has only two possible moves: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Points are awarded according to the following schedule:
* If both players cooperate each one gets 3 points.
* If both players defect, each one gets 1 point.
* If one player cooperates and the other defects then the cooperating player gets 0 points and the defecting player gets 5 points.
(The Prisoner's Dilemma is called that because it is usually framed as a story about two prisoners who each have to decide whether to testify against the other. But the model applies to a wide variety of social interactions.)
The main thing to notice about the scoring system is that no matter what your opponent does you always do better for yourself by defecting than by cooperating. So on its face there should never be any reason to cooperate. Intuitively, the best Darwinian strategy is to always defect. And indeed, defection is the best strategy for a single round of PD. It is even the best strategy for multiple rounds of PD if the number of rounds is known in advance. (This is because defecting is the best strategy on the last round, so it must be the best strategy on the round before, etc.)
*HOWEVER* (and this quite possibly the single most under-appreciated insight in all of human history) if the number of rounds is not known in advance then it turns out that there is no one best strategy! Which strategy is best for you depends on which strategy your opponent is using.
For example, suppose that you opponent is using a TIT-FOR-TAT strategy (which in this context we may call an-eye-for-an-eye), where they cooperate on the first move and then respond on the next move with whatever you did on the previous move. In that case your best strategy is to alway cooperate. By way of contrast, if your opponent is using a strategy of ABSOLUTE ALTRUISM (always cooperate) then your best strategy (as in the non-iterated PD) is to always defect.
The Prisoner's Dilemma has been around for a long time, but only relatively recently has computing power become cheap enough to really allow an exploration into its dynamics. This is what Robert Axelrod did starting in 1980. And what he discovered is truly astonishing.
Axelrod performed a series of experiments pitting little computer programs to play PD against each other. I won't bore you with the details here. Instead I'll just cut to the chase. Here are the major results.
1. In nearly all circumstances, the "best" strategy (in the sense that it was the strategy that accumulated the most points when playing against a selection of other strategies) was TIT-FOR-TAT. This included tournaments among programs generated by humans as well as programs that were generated automatically and "evolved" according to Darwinian natural selection.
2. No human-generated program ever beat TIT-FOR-TAT. However, automatically generated programs did occasionally (about 25% of the time) evolve that were able to beat it. All of these program were very complex.
3. Nearly all of the programs that were able to "survive" for any length of time in the Darwinian simulations had a number of features in common. They were nice, which is to say, they were never the first to defect. They were easily provoked, that is, it didn't take very many defections before they defected. And they were forgiving, that is, once the opponent started to cooperate again they would quickly start to cooperate in return.
These results are proof that the naive intuition about Darwinian morality, that moral behavior cannot evolve, is wrong. Purely selfish behavior does not reproduce well. Neither does purely altruistic behavior. What reproduces best is a set of behaviors that very closely track the major features of human moral intuition: niceness, retribution, and forgiveness.
Now, of course this does not prove that moral intuition evolved, but it does show pretty convincingly that it could have. The burden is no longer on the atheist to justify their belief in morality. They can now say: my morality comes from a moral intuition wired into my brain by evolution according to Axelrod's model. If a religious person wants to claim that God is necessary for morality the burden is now on them to show why this is not possible. And that would be a heavy burden indeed. It is indeed a shame that Bertrand Russell did not live to see Axelrod's results.
Now, of course this far from the last word on morality. Moral intuition doesn't speak with absolute clarity about what is right and wrong. It requires deliberation and interpretation, just like the Word of God. But (and this is the crucial point) it provides common ground for a discussion about morality between the religious and the secular. For the purposes of achieving a consensus on what moral behavior is it is not necessary to achieve consensus about what the source is. Some people will say God, some will say Allah, and some with say evolved moral intuition. As long as they arrive at the same conclusions that's good enough. If everyone agrees that it's wrong to kill, it doesn't matter that people disagree about the narrative that led them to that conclusion. Of course, it would be nice to get everyone to agree on the narrative also, but that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon. So failing that, arriving at the same conclusions by different routes seems to me to be the next best thing.
There are three features of an evolved intuition as a basis for moral behavior that make it particularly attractive as an account of how human being ought to behave. First, it allows for a morality that changes over time. Religious people recoil at this because they are fond of believing that moral behavior is revealed by God and is unchanging. But this is not reflective of reality. There was a time when slavery and stoning people to death for blasphemy really was considered moral. Now it's not. Darwinian morality allows us to excuse our forbears on the grounds that their moral intuitions might have been different from ours, and may have even been more appropriate to their circumstances. (For example, early societies lived much closer to the edge of survival than modern ones. Dissent is a luxury they may not have been able to afford.)
A second attractive feature of evolved moral intuition that makes it attractive is that it actually embraces religion, or at least predicts its emergence. If moral behavior has survival value, then beliefs that enforce moral behavior also have survival value, and so we would expect those to evolve as well. Surprisingly perhaps, the answer to the question: "is morality possible without God?" turns out to be "no", but not because God is a prerequisite for morality, but rather a necessary consequence of the mechanism by which moral behavior is produced (at least in an environment that includes creatures with sufficiently large brains).
The third feature that makes evolved intuition attractive as a basis for morality is that it can account for behaviors that transcend the short-term needs of our bodies. We mostly think of evolutionary theory as applying to DNA, but evolutionary theory can be applied to any information-carrying entity that is capable of reproducing itself. In the case of humans, there are two different replicators in play: our DNA, and the thoughts and ideas resident in our brains (what Dawkins calls memes). These two replicators are symbionts. Ideas cannot (yet) reproduce without brains, and brains reproduce much better in the presence of ideas like agriculture and antibiotics. But sometimes the needs of these two replicators are in conflict. But a discussion of that will have to wait for a few more days.