Skip to content

Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2

In my previous post I looked at how Richard Dawkins argues that experimental evidence shows that we have a universal moral grammar hardwired into our brains.  At simple face value this is easily explained as a result of a moral agent doing the hardwiring of our brains.  But this is a metaphysical explanation, and not being able to accept such an explanation because of his materialistic worldview, Richard Dawkins instead attributes our moral grammar (or Tao as per the post on it) to natural selection.  In his view, emerging humans in the distant past actually did have subjective and random morality but the process of selection across all peoples over time has weeded out all other moral alignments so that only this current one remains.  Our Tao today is just due to the selective advantages that this Tao had over other past ones.  Thus (in his view) it appears to us today to be an absolute Tao (both in terms of how it operates in us, and that people all share a similar Tao) but in the emerging primitive tribes there were some Taos that extolled lying, greed, cheating, dishonesty, cowardice etc. as virtues but these were selected out because these tribal societies could not compete with those who had the Tao that we have today.

Dawkins:  Natural Selection as the cause of our Moral Tao

Dawkins puts forward explanations of why our modern Tao rather than other ‘selfish’ ones have greater survival value and thus would be selected for.   Let’s read his explanation:

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship [a gene that programs individual organisms to favour or be ‘moral’ to related kin].  Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback [‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’].  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising”[1]

In other words, according to Dawkins, there are four reasons why natural selection could cause the Moral grammar or Tao that we have today.  First because this Tao allowed us to better cooperate with kin, and close kin would carry more or less the same genes and this cooperation allowed this gene expression to be selected for.  Secondly, again within a group of emerging humans, our current Tao increased a symbiotic cooperation of helping and being helped (‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’) and thus increased survival.  Third, with enough cooperation in the group there would then be a reputation for generosity and the reputation, in and of itself, would enhance survivability and thus selection.  Finally, again within a group, extraordinary generosity would be a sign of dominance, and since they could afford to pay for this generosity they would have higher fitness.

None of these reasons that Dawkins gives are moral reasons, they are solely utilitarian and survival-based.  If these are the reasons that brought about our current Tao it would only prove that morals are indeed ‘an illusion’ (as Provine calls them in Session Two).  They only exist and are ‘moral’ because they selected for certain survival traits.

Dawkins:  Why Biblical Morality is Deficient

Unfortunately for Dawkins, we know from the rest of his book that he himself does not believe his own reasons.  For these reasons to be even conceivably plausible they must operate within a social and kin-based group where individuals can help their blood relatives, gain reputation, help each other out, and be conspicuously generous.  Now just a few pages further on in his book Dawkins attacks Biblical morality and Jesus’ maxim to ‘love thy neighbour’.  The point of his attack is to show that these moral teachings were ‘only’ meant to apply solely within Jewish society.  Referring to Hartung who wrote about this he says:

“Hartung clearly shows that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was never intended to mean what we now think it means.  It meant, very specifically, that thou shalt not kill Jews.  And all those commandments that make reference to ‘thy neighbour’ are equally exclusive.  ‘Neighbour’ means fellow Jew. …  For me, this demonstrated that our morals, whether we are religious or not, come from another source; and that source, whatever it is, is available to all of us, regardless of religion or lack of it”[2]

Dawkins: Contradicting himself

OK.  But he just argued that supposedly our morality was forged because people were within a blood-related social ‘in-group’ which favoured the selection of ‘altruistic’ genes in that society, and hence favoured that society.  The Jews of the Bible precisely formed such a blood-related social in-group.  If he really believed that selection in such a group brought about what we now know as ‘morality’ then he would be showcasing the Jewish Old Testament as proof positive of this process.  But he does the opposite – saying their morality was deficient.  So he gives us a deeper insight into our Tao by criticizing Biblical morality as fake or deficient precisely because (he thinks) in their case it was only to be applied among kin and not universally.  He makes us ask, in effect, “Which is a better morality – one where I am good only to my blood relative, or where I am good to all people?” And we instinctively agree with him that an ‘in-group’ morality is in fact deficient, that it does not measure with our Tao.  But he cannot have it both ways.  Kin-based natural selection cannot both be the cause that forged our moral Tao while this same Tao tells us that kin-based morals are deficient or immoral.  He really believes morals are ‘good’ when they are universal, and we agree with him on this point.  But this contradicts his Darwinian speculations about their ‘in-group’ basis.  In his zeal to discredit the Bible, to show its deficiency, he helps us see that our Tao cannot have such an ‘in-group’ root.

Our Moral Tao – from where?

Thus we are left with his statement that ‘our morals … come from another source…’.  Now Dawkins is absolutely correct in saying that since all people have a similar Moral Tao (this universal moral grammar) that religion is not the source.  The cause is deeper than religion.  And that is why we have a moral Tao whether we are religious or not.  And since natural selection is not the cause of our morals we are once again back to ultimate metaphysical causes – the Moral Lawgiver – who hardwired this into us regardless of our culture, our religion, or our lack of religion.

Biblical view of Morals

So what is this other source?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the morals that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

[1] The God Delusion.  P.219-220

[2] The God Delusion p.254-255

5 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2”

  1. I’m not a big fan of Dawkins myself, but I don’t think you’ve beaten him here. You’ve obviously drawn from two different sections of his book, where he was making two different points:

    1. The four reasons why natural selection would promote the basic moral values shared by most people today

    2. The fact that the Ten Commandments were meant to apply not universally, but to Jewish society only

    In the first section he says nothing about the universality of moral values. He’s just talking about how those values came about in the first place. If you asked him why we now tend to think of these values as applying universally (e.g. it is wrong to steal not only from the corner store, but also from a tribesman on Easter Island), he’d probably attribute it to globalization paradigm that has set in over the past several decades. “Othering,” i.e. one’s perception of another person as “different” from oneself and one’s own society and implicitly “less than human,” is not nearly as common nowadays, especially in Canada where we have a multiplicity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Society’s mindset has shifted, from “We are one country and one people, and everyone else is a potential enemy” to “We are one country but other people groups are just as human” (for the most part; you can still find people, especially in the States, who maintain the “Other” concept out of extreme patriotism).

    The second part is just Dawkins arguing that the Bible is no better than the status quo: rather than being a shining light in a world of moralities that cared only about their own societies, the Ten Commandments did indeed only advocate moral treatment of one’s fellow Jews. How else could they have been allowed (and in fact, commanded by God) to sack and pillage and conquer?

    So Dawkins doesn’t contradict himself, at least not here. It’s just that he didn’t mention one key idea (globalization) because he didn’t expect the reader to take two separate sections of the book and link them together like that — which, to be frank, I don’t think is very fair to an author, much like quoting out of context (and yes, I said that while being a moral subjectivist, but a moral objectivist cannot disregard it if he’s going to be true to his own morality).

    That being said, I do find fault with Dawkins’ line of reasoning regarding Biblical morality. He is right about the Ten Commandments, but it’s another thing to say that “Biblical morality” as a whole is non-universal, because the Commandments come from the Old Testament. It is really easy to find evidence that the New Testament advocates a universal moral code: Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the spread of the Gospel to Gentiles, etc. So then the question for atheists and their ilk to answer is, what was in it for Christianity to promote universal morality? I’m not sure, but if I had to guess I would say that it had to do, again, with the diversity of people groups which were then living under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Your product will sell better if you can broaden the target consumer pool without sacrificing quality.

    1. Hadn’t actually nietcod Darwin’s manner as a problem previously (only heard him talk once). BUT, I have read some of his books incl. The God Delusion and they are awesome! Clearly argued, logical, coherent and convincing. If he comes across as smug, I think it is just part of his strategy to behave in a similar but opposite way to those who have pushed religion down our throats for centuries. Also, he is rightly angry that we give special treatment handle with kid gloves matters of religious belief. He rightly takes the view that ANY belief should be open to scrutiny, whereas traditionally we have taken the view that we shouldn’t insult religious belief no matter how harmful for society. I’m with him all the way.

    2. Hi Justin. I think one can slice and dice this various ways. But the fundamental problem for Dawkins is to reconcile the ‘universal moral grammar` (his words) that reside within us with a mindless, chance-based origins explanation. One or the other eventually breaks down. I don’t think Dawkins would attribute anything in morality to globalization for the simple reason that globalization is a very recent phenomenon while morality has been part of the human experience, like that of language, as far back as we know. In fact Dawkins goes back to his love – chance. So to use his own words: “what natural selection favours is rules of thumb … rules of thumb, by their nature sometimes misfire… Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo [bird of another species]… I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity … it is just like sexual desire… Both are misfiring: blessed, precious mistakes” (The God Delusion p 220-221). That can only be understood that in the final analysis morality is a mistake (a ‘nice’ one). So if morality is inherently based on mistakes why criticize deficient (in his mind) biblical morality? Would you criticize someone for having genetic ‘misfirings’ (Parkinsons, MS etc.)? He does so because he opposes (i.e. this is an issue of the will not the mind) the Bible. So he attacks it because he thinks he can paint its morals as ‘wrong’. But it can only be morally ‘wrong’ if in principle morals are true and real, not random mistakes. How can what is inherently a mistake ever be wrong? That would be like accusing a random number generator of producing ‘wrong’ numbers. How can something randomly produced ever be wrong? So I am not quoting him out of context. These are the two overriding passions in his life: 1) Oppose God and everything associated with him (and thus attack biblical morality because it seems vulnerable there 2) explain everything by mindless chance because the origins of things need explaining and Chance is all he has got. It is just that these two positions cannot both be held at the same time. One or the other must give way.

      1. The way I understand him, Dawkins is not trying to say that Old Testament morality is “wrong” in an absolute sense — as you pointed out, that would conflict with his contention that there is no absolute right/wrong. Instead, I think he is saying that Old Testament morality is nothing special for its time, and therefore deficient when measured against the standards we currently have. If that’s what he’s saying, he can keep both positions.

        As for my thing about globalization…your objection is that morality is old while globalization is new, right? But certain ASPECTS of morality are new, such as universal equality. Back in the classical ages it was rare for members of two warring nations to to consider each other of equal worth. Even in WWII, the Japanese were often portrayed in the media as less than human. And of course there has been slavery.

        Before globalization, hardly anyone felt moral values should be applied universally, giving rise to your Vikings who rape and pillage while respecting each other’s wives and property. Moral universality in this sense is not very old at all.

  2. I came across an interesting site a couple days ago called

    There is a lot of good reading there, including a tackling of the site’s central question (“Why won’t God heal amputees?”), but there is one section (Section 2 – The Bible) that is particularly relevant to this discussion. In this section, the author points out that what we see as our “universal moral grammar” is not always consistent with the morality of the Bible, specifically regarding slavery, sexism, and animal/human sacrifice. From there, he concludes that the Bible came not from a loving, all-powerful God, but rather from primitive men with outdated ideas.

    This, I believe, is the approach that Dawkins was taking. He just wants to say, “Look! The Bible’s morality isn’t so great. Therefore the Christian God cannot account for our universal moral grammar.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *