Is religion the only the source of morality? Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century divine and one of early America’s foremost moral thinkers, answered “yes” to this question in Nature of True Virtue. Mark D. Hauser, a professor of evolutionary psychology and biology at Harvard, says “no” in an article at the website of the Edge Foundation. In “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality,” Hauser begins by offering three reasons why religion does not equal morality:
First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.
Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fuelling altruism and fending off harms to others.
Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious “team”.
Hauser then describes a better source of morality:
Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.
It is not my intention here to decide whether or not Hauser’s thesis is right. As a historian, I am more interested in how Hauser’s argument reflects much of the Enlightenment-based moral philosophy of the eighteenth century. There is nothing new under the sun. Scottish moralists like Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid argued that morality stemmed from the “moral sense.” In the tradition of Enlightenment universalism, the moral sense was something that all human beings possessed. While Hauser says that this ethical compass was endowed by nature, many of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment argued that it came from God. In other words, like many of the deists of the day, these moralists believed that God created human beings with a moral sense that helped them to make right, rather than wrong, choices in their lives.
I am not an evolutionary psychologist, so perhaps I am oversimplifying all of this (I probably am), but as I read Hauser’s piece I could not help but think of these Scottish moral philosophers. In fact, I wrote extensively about this view of morality in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Philip Vickers Fithian, John Witherspoon, and most early American Presbyterians had all embraced a view of private and public virtue informed more by the universal moral sense than their deeply held religious beliefs.
The idea that morality does not come from religion has been around for a long time.