Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the term ‘Tao’, borrowed from CS Lewis, to designate reality as having values of an essence that demands appropriate (moral) responses from us.  Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, cites experimental evidence supporting this view of the Tao.  I briefly mentioned this in the videos of Session Two.  In this post I want to explore it further.

Morals built into our brains – the tests of Marc Hauser

Dawkins references the work of biologist Marc Hauser where Hauser had developed experimental tests given to people posing a series of moral dilemmas.  The dilemmas involved hypothetical cases of people about to die in accidents, with possible ways to save them that sometimes involved risk to others.  The goal of the tests was not to determine the right course of action in each situation, but to see how and why people responded as they did.  As Dawkins reports:

“The interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.  This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, … as Hauser himself prefers to say like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal)”[1]

“In an intriguing venture into anthropology, Hauser and his colleagues adapted their moral experiments to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with westerners and no formal religions…the Kuna showed the same moral judgments as the rest of us”[2]

“Hauser … compared the verdicts of atheists with those of religious people… there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments”[3]

Hauser’s work is experimental corroboration of CS Lewis’s Tao.  When we reason morally we are not inventing morals, we perceive absolute moral truths.  And this ability flies beneath the radar of our awareness.  This is why sometimes it seems unnatural to even ask the question “why is dishonesty wrong?”  Our moral sense just tells us that it is though our ability to articulate why does not come as readily.

Mankind: Equipped with a universal moral grammar

Dawkins and Hauser conclude that:

“Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems.  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness”[4]

Dawkins and Hauser both attribute this moral grammar (i.e. ‘Tao’) to evolution, but there is nothing in the fact of its existence that requires an evolutionary explanation.  It is simply that their worldview requires that everything must be explained by naturalistic evolution.  But stand back and look at the big picture: the concept of innate moral laws hardwired into our brains fits readily with the idea of a Lawgiver who put them there.

Human Morals – Built into us like SciFi robots with Laws

Dawkins concludes from these experimental results that since non-westerners with no formal religion (the Kuna), as well as religious westerners, and atheists alike all have the same moral Tao, that therefore religion does not change or improve morality.  But this is to miss the point.  The important question is not whether religion improves our Tao; it is rather ‘Do we have a Tao grounded in absolutes outside of society’?  Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (in the first video of Session Two) themselves, using two distinct approaches, have shown us that we do.  Without intending to do so, they have actually helped us to see through our culture’s current widespread misconception that morals are relative.

Russell (in Session Two) has done so by showing how morals actually worked in him when he was ‘wronged’; in his indignation, when he forgot he was not trying to create a case for subjective morals, he showed us that in him they were absolute.  Dawkins showed that morality is a capacity within us that is like a ‘universal moral grammar’. We are morally aligned alike, with a moral ‘up’ and ‘down’, as if in reference to an absolute standard.  If this is the case, then morals are rooted outside of us and outside of society; they are absolute.  For us science fiction buffs, it is analogous to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in his books and the movie I Robot.  These were moral laws planted into the circuitry of robots to give them ‘robot morals’.  But they were hardwired in by the robot creators – humans!  If a moral circuitry is wired into us, in a similar way, it hearkens back to the Creator who made us – a Moral Creator.

So Dawkins does not want this moral basis because this raises the natural question: where does this absolute moral reference come from?  As Dawkins puts it.

“Not all absolutism [ie an objective moral Tao] is derived from religion.  Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” [5]

He knows he is flirting one step away from admitting that a Lawgiver stands behind this Moral Law.  So instead, he advances reasons why natural selection (ie physical rather than metaphysical reasons) can explain why we have an objective morality.  In our next post I want to examine these reasons.


[1] The God Delusion.  p. 223

[2] Ibid. p. 225

[3] Ibid. p. 225-226

[4] The God Delusion. p. 223

[5] Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” 2006 p. 232

2. Considering Truth: Glimpsing the Moral Law … and God behind it

When I was a student as I described in The Wisdom I learned from a Filthy-Rich, Hard-Drinking Playboy I read C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity.  It intrigued me because in a brilliant way he took examples from everyday life showing how our sense of fairness and right and wrong were deeply embedded in us.  He presented a lucid argument for a Moral Law – implying Reality was more than simply matter/energy materialism since this Law was non-material, and that there was a LawGiver standing behind this Law.

Though I felt, and accepted to some extent, the force of the reasons he presented, I struggled because the ‘data’ that he used was soft and intangible (after all it was ‘just’ human behaviour).  It was not concrete and absolute like more scientific data seemed to be.  I also knew that his arguments for a Moral Law stood in contrast to the academic spirit of our age.

But I re-read his book and as I entered into more life experience I just held his view tentatively out there asking if it made sense of my human situation and the situations of those around me.  And I kept finding that his view on right and wrong seemed to fit so well with what I saw around me.   It gave a shrewdly accurate assessment of human morals.  As I studied philosophy of ethics and world religions at university the Moral Law further established itself in my mind.  The data became less intangible to me than it had been at first.

These two videos summarize some of my journey looking at this fascinating question.  I argue that moral truth is absolute, not subjective.  You may find, as I first did, that this is a very different way of looking at moral truth than what you are accustomed to.  If so, I would simply urge you to, like I did, keep this view tentatively ‘out there’ in your mind and observe how you and those around you reason morally in real-life situations.  You may find it, in time, shrewdly fitting what you see.

In this first video I look at leading thinkers of ethics.  In particular I look at Bertrand Russell in his book Why I am Not a Christian.  Without intending or meaning to (they are trying to argue the opposite), both he and the other academics I cite convinced me that there was indeed a Moral Law.

In the second I then survey the data of human ethics in world religions to see if there is evidence of a uniform Moral Law.  Then I ask the very practical question if I am living up to the Law as advanced by any religion.

Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • October 8, 2013 - University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

  • January 16, 2013 - The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

  • December 23, 2012 - The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

  • September 15, 2012 - Corrupted (Part 2) … missing our target

  • September 4, 2012 - …But Corrupted (Part 1 – like orcs of Middle-earth)

  • August 27, 2012 - In the Image of God

  • March 11, 2012 - Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2

  • March 3, 2012 - Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

  • February 26, 2012 - Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

  • February 20, 2012 - An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth

  • February 6, 2012 - Origins: Evolution or Design – why touch it?

  • December 22, 2011 - Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-il: Is it really religion that poisons everything?