‘Marking a true advance in the discussion of evolutionary explanations of morality, this book is highly recommended for all collections.’ David Gordon, Library Journal
How far is the idea of morality threatened by twentieth-century philosophical thinking? How far can evolutionary theory help us to understand our sense of right and wrong? Does the concept of absolute moral values have any validity, or is morality all relative – just a matter of custom, culture and upbringing? How does moral thinking relate to religious belief? Can we find common ground on moral issues between believers and non-believers?
These are some of the questions explored in The Moral Mind. The author reviews the ways in which our moral thinking engages with different aspects of the human personality: with our instincts, inherited from our pre-human primate ancestors; with the way we follow the customs of our own people; and with our sense of something transcending these instincts and customs. The results of this survey form a body of evidence against which current theories can be assessed.
The main conclusions that can be drawn from the book include:
- Moral thinking is an important part of the human personality; it cannot be dismissed as of no account. We have a definite sense that words like right, wrong, good, bad and fair mean something – even if their full significance remains elusive – and in using them we are seeking to engage with something outside ourselves, expressing more than just a personal opinion. The moral dimension is real, a part of the universe that we inhabit, and humans have a partially developed capacity (a much greater capacity than any other species) to recognise it and engage with it.
- This moral sense doesn’t, in practice, make a lot of difference to the way humans behave. We don’t necessarily live in accordance with our moral convictions. It is a common error to write about human behaviour and human moral values as if the former told us all we need to know about the latter.
- Our moral feelings cannot be explained, or explained away, in terms of anything else.
- They are not all a matter of upbringing or culture; it is true that we obtain many of our moral values from our parents and from the community in which we live, but our own moral sense may well lead us to reject some of these values as we seek to establish our own personal moral framework.
- Each of us forms our own individual moral framework, and to that extent moral thinking is personal and subjective. However, there is more to it than that. All the evidence suggests that in establishing our own moral values we are seeking to engage with something outside ourselves, something transcendent.
- Nor can our moral sense be explained by current evolutionary theory. Much of our behaviour, good and bad, can be understood in terms of our prehuman primate ancestry. Several authors have gone further, however, and suggested that the moral sense itself can be accounted for by the Darwinian theory of natural selection, but this hypothesis does not stand up to scrutiny.
- Finally, there is no simple correlation between the moral sense and religion. People with no religious belief can have just as strong a moral sense as religious believers, and believers often find that there is a conflict between the moral teaching of their religion and their own innate sense of right and wrong.
The book takes a scientific approach to a study of the human sense of right and wrong – and it reaches the point at which it becomes clear that that there is something beyond the reach of scientific enquiry. A scientific study leads us to conclude that there is something about morality that is transcendent.