Genes and Morality

Has science replaced religion as a guide to morality? Are our genes a better guide to right and wrong than revelation from a divine being? Can science lead us to a new morality?

A recent study, by Abigail Marsh and her team at Georgetown, might imply that science is replacing religion when it comes to our moral beliefs. Their study offers some initial insights into a potential link between our genes and our moral judgments. As Georgetown’s website summarizes,

Marsh and her team found that people with a long allele of a particular gene (a serotonin transporter) rated unintentionally harming someone as more acceptable than did people with short allele carriers of the same gene.

“What this study showed is that one variable that predicts how people’s moral judgments diverge when confronted with this kind of scenario is a gene,” says Marsh.

Marsh is very careful to specify the implications of the study, noting,

I think this study is useful in helping to point out that maybe the way people arrive at their moral intuitions is just different for different people, in ways that are very deeply rooted. It helps to understand why maybe people can’t agree on what the right answer to certain moral problems is.

However, I suspect that many others will be tempted to leap to a far more radical conclusion: that morality is determined by our genes.

Here’s one way that conclusion fits within an atheistic worldview:

  1. All that exists is matter, energy, and space-time.
  2. Everything within the world is explainable in terms of science.
  3. Science has discovered an initial link between moral perception and genetic differences.
  4. Therefore, human morality is determined by our genes.

The crucial point in evaluating this argument is the issue of equivocation. Equivocation occurs where the same term is repeated, but in ambiguous and misleading ways.

In this case, the word “morality” is being used in an equivocal, ambiguous manner. Why? Because “human morality” has such a wide range of meanings.

Therefore, specificity is absolutely essential. Compare these statements:

  1. What we believe to be moral is determined by our genes.
  2. What is actually right and wrong is determined by our genes.

Even if all of our moral perceptions were scientifically established to have direct genetic causes, that would not mean that “what is actually right and wrong” is determined by our genes. All that would be established is, “the entire content of our moral perception is explainable in terms of our genes.” But there could still be a large gap between our moral perception and moral reality. In more technical terms, this is the difference between moral epistemology and moral ontology.

To see the difference, compare these two statements:

  1. George’s genes fully predispose him to believe it is right to murder green people.
  2. It is always wrong to murder people based upon the color of their skin.

Is George’s morality determined by his genes? Yes – and no. Yes, his moral beliefs are determined by his genes. To admit this is only to restate premise 1.  But if George acts on these beliefs, and murders twenty green people, is George a good or moral person? No, George has done great evil, and has failed to uphold a basic moral principle that governs reality.

To summarize and conclude: the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology is crucial. Without distinguishing between the two, we may be tempted to misunderstand the implications of this very interesting study from Georgetown.

HT: Sam Harper.