Moral Darwinism

This is a synthesis essay I wrote for my English class drawing upon some of the works we’d read up to that point in class. The prompt was to take one of a source’s claims and agree with, disagree with, or qualify it using other sources from class and our own research and information. I took Mitt Romney’s claim that religion and morality are synonymous and rebutted it.

Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” Speech: Delivered in 2007 at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas to address the question of Romney’s Faith and his own views on religious liberty and religion’s place in America.

John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” Speech: Delivered in 1630 to explain his religious beliefs and reasons for coming to America to the Puritans who came with him to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So, here it is:

Moral Darwinism

As the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey.” But who knew that generations of mothers playfully scolding their daughters for sour behavior were really making a deeply psychological observation of morality? Studies of morality have, for a long while, pointed towards something perhaps a bit unexpected. Morality is not religion, nor is it law. Laws are not morals—they are merely a codification of them. A construction invented by humans to explain why it is wrong to commit certain acts. And religion is no different. In his 2007 speech, “Faith in America,” Mitt Romney claimed that complete separation of the church and state is impossible because state decisions are moral decisions and moral decisions, of course, require morality, which is synonymous with religion (Romney 2-3). He is incorrect. Complete separation of the Church and state is possible, and not least because religion and morality are not the same thing.

Religion is a human construct imposed upon morality as an attempt by humans to systemize something that they do not understand. Why is it wrong to do certain things? That God decreed it to be wrong is a much simpler answer than the one a psychologist might give. With religion, there is no gray area: things are simply right or wrong, done or not done and one needs no further understanding than that to be “moral.” Religion creates the idea of a mysterious higher power with all the answers so that we don’t have to worry about finding them for ourselves. “God” knows the answer, God forbids immoral behavior, no more thought is needed on our part. And so religion is ranked very low on the ladder of moral reasoning simply because it eliminates any need for moral reasoning at all; our moral reasoning is all performed for us by a conveniently unreachable God.

Morality cannot be religion, nor can religion be morality just as the Dewey Decimal System is not a library, nor books, nor information, but a set of numbers with assigned and accepted meanings. Religion only avoids the issue by simplifying something infinitely complex. Morality is not a human construct as religion is; it is a survival instinct. The most basics “laws” of morality encompass the things we take for granted: do not murder, do not steal, do not employ violence, do not commit adultery, etc. And as Romney graciously reminds us: “we share a common creed of moral convictions. … [morals] are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common” (Romney 2-3). But why, if religions are some complex and different, would these ideas have appeared in the same form across so many religions? Because they are survival instinct. Whether or not your society is Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Taoist, it will not survive if every member of the community goes around killing people. So it is better not to kill one another, for the preservation of the species.

And so out of this instinct developed the great “Do’s” and “Do nots.” The Ten Commandments existed not to prove what nice people the Jews were, but to ensure the survival of their society, to prevent it from collapsing in upon itself and vanishing. The case is the same in John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” in which Winthrop describes how a community must function as a single unit in order to survive and prosper through a metaphor of the body for a community. Winthrop claims that “all true Christians are of one body in Christ” and thus “all the partes of this body being thus united are made soe contiguous in a speciall relacion as they must needes partake of each others strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrowe, weale and woe. If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honour, all rejoyce with it,” (Winthrop 7). Winthrop presents his strictly religious audience with a general moral code which will appeal to their sensibilities: it is necessary that every member of the community work together for then the perfection of the “body” joined by the “ligaments” of love may be attained. He justifies this argument with a Bible quote, underlining the religious reasoning for operating as a community,holding moral responsibility to one another.

However, what Winthrop is proposing is really driven by a much deeper impulse than religion: survival. These are seven hundred people (in the whole fleet, according to Winthrop in a letter to his wife) traveling to the unknown of the New World, where they will have to build their “city on a hill” from scratch, entirely on their own, with whatever moral codes they please in the face of difficulties they can’t even imagine. What would be at the forefront of their minds? Survival. They would have heard the stories of the savage natives, the unforgiving land, the unfamiliar flora, and the abysmal failure of Roanoke colony. They knew, John Winthrop knew, instinctively that in order to survive and to prove themselves to England they would have to support one another. If each man, woman, and child had attempted to make his or her own way in the New World all alone, each and every one of Winthrop’s seven hundred would have died, and died alone. But together, they had a chance. Together they could build and farm and defend and mourn and rejoice and support one another. And it was for this reason that Winthrop called upon each and every one of them to follow his lesson about society whose “sensiblenes and Sympathy of each others Condicions will necessarily infuse into each parte a native desire and endeavour, to strengthen, defend, preserve, and comfort the other” (Winthrop 7).

From this, his last point, it looks as if Winthrop himself understands some of the complexities of morality. Whether his audience recognized as much is doubtful and so the tie to religion is understandable, even if Winthrop did completely understand that morality was not religion but a means for a community, a society, a species to avoid extinction and to thrive. The simple idea that a higher being somewhere had decreed that they, the Puritans, should work together to build a perfect body joined together by love because this was Jesus’s body and God’s work is a much easier one to grasp than the highly complex moral implications of survival. But this does not change what Winthrop’s moral code was accomplishing; it ensured the survival of the whole community by promoting working together and prohibiting acts performed for purely selfish purposes.

Three hundred and nine years after John Winthrop delivered his “A Modell of Christian Charity,” John Steinbeck published his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and proved that in those three hundred and nine years, humans’ instincts hadn’t changed, though perhaps their understanding of psychology had. The Grapes of Wrath was an explosive book, stirring up a great deal of debate and causing many Americans to question their country and the extent to which she lived up to her ideals. In the novel, Tom Joad, having been influenced by the teachings and subsequent martyrdom of Jim Casy, decides to devote the rest of his life to fighting the unfair treatment of the poor in America and championing American ideals. In explaining this choice to his mother, Tom describes the responsibility he feels to his fellow man saying, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one” and “a little piece of a soul [ain’t] no good ‘less it [is] with the rest, an’ [is] whole” (Steinbeck 418-419).

Through this speech (and earlier ones made by Casy himself) Steinbeck proposes the very same argument that Winthrop did: each person has a responsibility to every other person and only when all fulfill this responsibility will the community become “perfect.” The Grapes of Wrath paints a picture of a crumbling America in which people have stopped caring for one another, stopped fulfilling their responsibility to one another, and, in short, forsaken their morals, resulting in a deterioration of American society. Steinbeck proposes that the solution for the preservation of America and the American people is a moral obligation to one’s fellow man which will serve to further the whole.

Recently, scientific proof was found that morality is survival-linked. Studies by Stanford professor Robert M. Sapolsky conducted on alpha males of baboon troops demonstrate that being “nice” is really a survival instinct. Alpha males among baboon troops are known for their cruel treatment of other baboons in the troop—both male and female.

Up until recently, it was believed that when an alpha male became too old to continue to assert his rights as alpha male, he was usually killed by a younger member of the the troop or, more often, attempted to move into another troop, where he would continue his cruel and abusive habits and become alienated and eventually die alone. However, researchers tracked these deposed alpha males and found that upon entering other troops, instead of keeping up their brutish behavior, one-time alpha males were friendly and charming, becoming friends with the females of the troops. Through DNA sampling, Sapolsky found that more children were born of these “friendly” baboons than the domineering alphas, proving that good behavior preserves one’s own line as well as, more importantly, ensuring the survival of one’s entire species. Applying this to humans, the message becomes almost painfully obvious. After all, nobody wants children with a serial killer.

Sapolsky’s study is interesting because it allows the argument that morality is necessary to a community, species, or society for survival to be taken a step further to say that morality benefits the individual as well. The alpha baboons in the study benefited through their good behavior because they managed to live longer themselves and have more offspring; it was not just their species which benefited. This extension of the claim, however, is not absolute, unlike it’s former part, that morality benefits a society, which is inarguably true. On one side, there is that morality benefits the self because it allows one to be accepted by a community, safe from exclusion and a lonely death, which also increases one’s chances of finding a sexual partner and extending one’s line. On the other there is a situation of self preservation wherein the self reaches a point of desperation when faced with a choice between survival and death. In this situation, all the self cares about is staying alive; the survival of the species no longer matters, one’s number of children is forgotten, and public opinion is thrown to the winds.

It is for this reason that Freud so vehemently believed that the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was completely against human nature. For certainly, no one starving in a desert, faced with death, would hesitate to steal a chicken, even if it meant violence or murder, in order to survive. But of course no one would want this done to him. Freud contended that “Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together … the power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’. … The essence of it lies in the fact that the members of the community restrict themselves in their possibilities of satisfaction, whereas the individual knew no such restrictions” (Freud 42). What Freud describes as a restriction of the “possibilities of satisfaction” by members of a community is morality. No one ever claimed that morality was always easy or satisfying, but it certainly does restrict, and it does so for the betterment of the whole society, echoing back to Winthrop’s claim that communal rights take precedence over individual ones.

Taken together, the reasoning for the moral codes expressed by both Steinbeck and Winthrop, backed up by Sapolsky’s baboon studies and Freud’s extensive work in psychology, is, without a shred of doubt, survival of the species, the community, or the society. Though morality may be codified by religion in order to make its complexities more easily understood, morality is not in any way religion and, in making the claim that the separation of church and state is impossible because the two are interchangeable, Romney is wrong.

Even without extensive proof that morality is a means for survival, Romney’s argument that religion and morality are the same falls apart with one simple question: Has he forgotten atheists? Granted, many staunchly conservative Republicans hardly recognize the existence of atheists, but this does not excuse them from addressing the unreligious in their arguments. “Faith in America” is clearly directed at a religious audience, but it makes not one mention of those who have no religion. He refers to Americans as religious people, and yes, for the most part we are, but what about those six percent who aren’t? (Gallup) Who don’t believe in a God or any higher power? Are they not American? Romney’s speech seems to imply it. But that is not the issue. Romney’s assertion that religion is morality denies atheists morality. According to him, atheists are not immoral, they are amoral. Six percent of America has no sense of morality and might very well wake up every morning and calmly contemplate murder. It is hardly necessary to say that this is grossly inaccurate. Six percent of America is atheist and perfectly moral. Some might even argue that atheists are more moral than those who are religious—why would an atheist ever support something so horrible as a crusade? They have no reason to do so.

There are hundreds of names that could be listed as counter-examples to Romney’s claim, but one well-chosen one shall suffice: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was a feminist and an atheist and she advocated for both in a time in which neither was acceptable—particularly in a lady. Romney makes the claim that “no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people” (Romney 2) and so what, exactly, does he think of Stanton? Feminism was based on the tenet that women deserved equal rights with men—a conviction with a thoroughly moral basis and one undeniably driven by “conscience.” So then, according to Romney’s argument, how is it that Stanton was a proponent of both? An advocate for a literally godless movement and for one founded on a deep moral basis? A moral- less champion of morals? Only because atheists posses morals and morality the same as anyone else.

Under scrutiny, Romney’s assertion that morality and religion are one and the same crumbles. Morality is the word for a set of instincts designed for the preservation of a species, a society, a community. It is not reliant on any human-imposed construct; it comes with being sentient. Religion, however, is a system which codifies these instincts and gives people an easy explanation for them. To claim that they are the same is grossly inaccurate. Nor can religion be morality because of the thousands of people who have no religion and are yet moral. Romney’s argument is full of loopholes and so, his conclusion that the separation of church and state is impossible because of the impossibility of separating morals from religion also falls. Morality is the biological acknowledgement of the precedence of the group over the individual in order for the community to survive, function, and thrive. Or as Freud put it: “The replacement of the power of the individual by the power of the community constitutes the decisive step of civilization” (Freud 42).


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