How does one describe the color gray, when black and white do not exist? This is the crux of the problem that Dawkins sets for himself in his consideration of morality and goodness. Having claimed to dispose of the idea that we do not ground our morality in holy texts, Dawkins is left with a vacuum. He poses the question: where does our morality come from? Enter The Moral Zeitgeist.
Before he embarks on his discussion of the said zeitgeist, Dawkins lays a little groundwork on the question of universal morality. He contends that there is a surprising consensus between what we consider right and wrong, a consensus that has no obvious connection to religion, although he argues it clearly extends to religious people. By way of example, he includes a list he found on an atheist website:
• Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.
• In all things, strive to cause no harm.
• Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
• Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
• Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
• Always seek to be learning something new.
• Test all things; Always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
• Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; Always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
• Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; Do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
• Question everything
Dawkins suggests adding:
• Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy their private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
• Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
• Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.
• Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.
It is difficult to argue with Dawkins’ list as such, except to say that much of it is irrelevant to morality. It is for the most part focused on mutual pleasure and enjoyment. Do not crab my sex life and I will not crab yours, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with such a perspective in itself, merely that we should be clear that we are talking about mutual self-interest and not principles of right and wrong. Given that Dawkins holds that morality does not exist except as a psychological deceit, perhaps it is not surprising to find his list focusing in such a way. However, a closer look at Dawkins’ tenets for life encounters difficulties when he strays into areas of morality. For example, such statements as ‘do not overlook evil’ require a clear definition and understanding of evil. In Dawkins’ world, where morality does not exist, then neither can evil. In fact, one wonders why Dawkins is concerned with the question of standards of behavior in moral terms. Presumably the idea of morality is a superior meme, replicating itself at the expense of less memes.
The question of how a value system can exist without an explicit understanding of good and evil is ignored by Dawkins but I would contend that such a value system is a road to tyranny. Consider once again Dawkins’ argument. Our sense of morality and goodness derives from evolution by natural selection (via evolutionary psychology). Therefore, this moral sense is not a moral sense with reference to an external standard of good, but a strategy to promote the long terms interests of the species. As such, it is unarguably grounded in self-interest. It is this perspective that gives rise to what Dawkins calls utilitarianism and consequentialism, (he tells us that he himself is a consequentialist) – according to the precepts of utilitarianism, right is defined as that which brings the most benefit to the most people. This is a dangerous philosophy. It validates the sacrifice of the individual to the interests of the group. According to this philosophy, when the world runs into food shortages we will be executing and eating the vulnerable minority in order to keep the major alive. Further examination of Dawkins’ ‘commands’ reveals the nature of this morality for what it is. Consider:
“Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.”
The qualification ‘as far as possible’ reveals this to be nothing more than a matter of convenience.
Let us move on. Having laid this groundwork, a sort of a Moses and the Ten Commandments for atheists scenario, Dawkins exposes on his idea of the Moral Zeitgeist. He argues that changing times reveal a changing morality; He cites slavery, women and child abuse as examples. He argues that in any society there exists a spirit of the times (zeitgeist) which is a “mysterious consensus” and which governs / reflects our morality. Examples cited including our attitudes to women and racism as well as wildlife and wartime casualty numbers. This zeitgeist shifts over time and this shift is in spite of religion not because of it. Furthermore:
“The shift is in a recognizable consistent direction, which most of us would call an improvement.”
Dawkins poses the question; From where do these changes come? But before we answer such a question we need to examine the assumption that Dawkins makes in the above statement, that most of us would call such a change an improvement. I think most of us would agree that this is the case, but before we ask ourselves from when, we should ask ourselves why. Putting aside for the moment the fact of the matter, why should we consider it an improvement? Dawkins does not address the issue, but the obvious answer is that there exists in the world an external standard (of goodwill or morality) to which we are all connected, and which is separate from our own and the universe’s existence. Dawkins does not bother himself with such difficulties. Instead he concentrates on the wh later question, and even here he has no clear answers other than “not from religion”. (Incidentally, Christians argument that morality comes from God, not religion). If pushed to advance a theory, he postulates the following approach:
• How is the change synchronized? By a change in the meme frequencies in the meme pool – the spread across communities by increasingly sophisticated interaction.
• What impels the consistent direction? Individual leaders, education and increased powers of understanding are cited as possible factors.
Readers should remind themselves of Chapter five and the section ‘Tread softly because you tread on my memes’ when evaluating the relevancy and likely validity of such views. To my mind, it is meaningless to speak of meme frequencies and meme pools, when no-one has a clue as to what constitutes a meme. Remember Susan Blackmore’s words:
“I am just a story about me who is writing a book.”
And what of the definition of the moral zeitgeist as a “mysterious consensus”? Such vagueness only confirms the inadequacy of Dawkins’ explanation. He would never tolerate such wooliness in his adversaries, yet he freely indulges in it himself. Frankly, his explanations lack authority and he seems to recognize this aspect to his argument when he says:
“It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral zeitgeist moves in its broadly criticized way. By religion – and certainly not by scripture.
Having said nothing of any merit, except that he is unqualified to make a judgment, he finally concludes that:
“The manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to assert the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.”
Is this the anthropic approach to morality? The moral zeitgeist exists because it exists and it progresses because it progresses? Hardly irrefutable logic. Faith, possibly, rhetoric, certainly. Even from a purely logical point of view, his claim is flawed. The shifting zeitgeist he discusses has occurred with religion present. Any conclusion drawn on an observable basis that excludes religion must there before be suspect. He has identified the shift but signally failed to demonstrate that God has had nothing to do with it. As he often does, he concludes what he wants to conclude.
The truth is that this changing zeitgeist is not morality itself. Morality exists independently of this zeitgeist, which is purely a reflection of our understanding of this morality. We progress politically, socially, technologically and economically and we become better educated and more civilized. Yet the fundamental natures of right and wrong remain constant. And as for the zeitgeist being in a recognizable consistent direction, this is not always so – by Dawkins’s own admission Hitler was as evil as Caligula or Genghis Khan.
To appreciate the distinction between zeitgeist and morality, let us consider Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Love / loving
Technological, social and political development moves us up this hierarchy of needs, particularly through education. Early civilizations would have been preoccupied with physiological needs and completely unconcerned with concepts such as morality. Western twentieth century civilizations, on the other hand, would have been implementing such concepts into their worldview. Effectively, we begin to implement more goodness in our lives. Having said that, of course, goodness itself has not changed and neither has it evolved. Witness the twentieth century, one of the bloodiest eras of mankind, two world wars, the decreasing of the atom bomb, the napalming of innocents, Stalinism, Nazism. (Incidentally, none of these atrocities was carried out in the name of religion.) Dawkins describes these as appalling reversals but those temporary temporary phenomena and consistent with a sawtooth improvement in the moral zeitgeist rather than a smooth improvement. He says:
“It is important to separate the evil intentions of men like Hitler and Stalin from the vast power that they wielded in achieving them.”
Important? Why is it important? History is littered with evil men wielding vast power and committing atrocities as a result. The question remains, how are Stalin and Hitler different from those who committed such atrocities in the name of religion? Clearly there is no difference. Dawkins argues as if Hitler and Stalin stand alone in their corruption and evil. The truth is that millions connived to some degree with both of them, and the truth is the same for atrocities carried out in the name of religion. The responsibility lies in the nature of man, not in his belief or disbelief in God.
The improving moral zeitgeist, therefore, is not a question of goodness evolving but a question of a deepening of our understanding of morality. In a nutshell, the improvement in our physical condition allows us to invest more in the physical manifestations of this goodness in our lives and less in the struggle for survival. Dawkins’ argument, on the other hand, simply reflects an increase in the sophistication of our application of principles of self-interest.