Culture At Large

How to Be More Moral: Think Less, Go to Church More?

Nathan Bierma

I've been stewing on this column by David Brooks in the New York Times last month on the supposed irrelevance of moral reasoning in an age of neuroscience. Brooks quotes Michael Gazzaniga's book Human:
"[I]t has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”
Brooks continues:
Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.
Moral judgments are so intuitive to us that psychologist Jonathan Haidt states: "The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest."

That's strong but overstated. Of course, the furious words of fulminating TV preachers (think John Hagee) and fulminating left wing so-called intellectuals (think Christopher Hitchens) are indeed more reflexive emotional venting than moral reasoning. And many of our own moral judgments are probably based more on aesthetic intuitions than philosophical discourse and rational analysis. But there's a risk in overcompensating for an overly cognitive view of morality with an overly affective view. (Both Brooks and Haidt clarify that reason does play a role, just that it's not flying solo.)

I was about to skim the rest of Brooks' column when, about two-thirds of the way through, he added this fascinating footnote: in the emerging view of neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists, moral judgments are formed in social groups. Our "moral intuition," Brooks summarizes, has a "social nature," as we acquire additional or overriding intuitions from others with whom we feel a mutual sense of belonging.

This new view of "moral intuition" superseding "moral reasoning" is an obvious blow to the Enlightenment, which dreamed of liberating human beings from their tribes and traditions so that they could live and function fully independently, under the sovereign power of human reason alone.

But is it a blow to religion? At first I thought so, since religious teaching often tries to change the behavior of people through explanation and instruction, making rational rather than intuitive appeals.

But then I thought of two books: first, Mere Christianity, in which C.S. Lewis begins by saying that all human beings have an intuitive sense of moral goodness (though he probably overstated how similar that sense was across cultures, and how directly that sense alone points specifically to the Christian God); and second, Proverbs, which used to strike me as trite and fortune-cookie-ish but which I'm learning to appreciate as nuggets of wisdom rooted in thoughtful observation and experience.

The book of Proverbs isn't rational argument about moral behavior as much as it is an accumulation of moral intuitions formed and refined in social community among a covenant people as they live before God. That last part is key, and it shows why scientific research will never explain away morality (as Brooks himself suggests in the last sentence of his column). For religious groups, the ultimate source of moral judgments is not just an evolving blend of collective intuitions (and if it were, there would be no moral authority, just an endless struggle among groups over whose moral code currently had the population or weapons to validate it), but divine will and divine command. We do indeed work out in community how specifically to make the connection between divine will and human behavior, but in the end we are answerable not just to social norms, but to divine authority. As Christians we should add that God is not just the source and judge but also the agent of moral change, bringing revelation and breathing transformation into his people, without which we would never get anywhere.

I can't take the leap of faith that evolutionary scientists ask of us and say that moral beliefs are purely socially conditioned intuitions. But I can cheer on the dents they make in the Enlightenment, and I can pluck their observations about the necessity of community for forming morality. I can even take them as an unintended advertisement for the Church, the body of Christ.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, News & Politics, Justice