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Nietzsche, Dawkins, Morality and Religion

December 2, 2012

In section 40 of The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche suggests that absolute moral laws are merely useful customs whose utility has been forgotten or suppressed. Society hits upon a helpful form of behaviour and, over time, this condenses into a moral imperative: “stealing is wrong“, “thou shalt not kill”, etc. Subsequent generations have the law drilled into them from childhood onwards and as a result quite forget its origin in utility. Indeed, they carefully separate such laws from utility and place them above mere consequential reasoning, which is seen as somehow tainted or less worthy.

Is this correct? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it reminded me of a theory Richard Dawkins advances in The God Delusion concerning the roots of religion and its continued propagation. In Chapter 5 he suggests that the trusting nature of children (a feature which is useful from an evolutionary point of view) means they swallow pretty-much any old nonsense their parents tell them about the world and then go on to tell the same nonsense to their own children when they grow up. Thus ideas such as religion continue to be believed even though (for Dawkins) they prevent us from seeing the truth about the world around us. The evolutionary benefit of gullible children outweighs the evolutionary drawback of religion.

Now, in a sense Dawkins is neither blaming nor praising religion here; he’s simply trying to understand how it developed and why it continues to be such a widespread phenomenon (although his assumption that religion is a drawback to us as a species is a pretty heroic one; he really ought to hire someone to remind him daily that not everybody on earth lives like a successful fellow of New College, Oxford). All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that somewhere in the background lurks the following idea: religion shouldn’t be believed because it developed naturally rather than by godly fiat.

I think there’s a parallel with Nietzsche’s theory here, and one which should give Professor Dawkins pause for thought. Nietzsche, like Dawkins, is suggesting a natural, self-serving process by which we come to have something that’s frequently regarded as regally superior to the squalid bargaining of everyday life – in this case, absolute moral standards. And there’s no doubt that at the very least Nietzsche wants his argument to undermine our faith in the specialness of these standards. Moreover, even if he’s wrong in the details, surely there’s some correct naturalistic account of absolute morality’s development – especially for an evolutionary biologist like Professor Dawkins? Yes, indeed: Chapter 6 of The God Delusion is devoted entirely to such an account. So does Dawkins, like Nietzsche, want to undermine our faith in morality? On the contrary! His naturalistic account is intended to justify morality, not undermine it. Morality is good (for Dawkins) because it’s natural; it doesn’t need any religious hogwash to prop it up.

And so we get the following two positions:

  1. Morality is good because it is natural. 
  2. Religion is bad because it is natural.

A curious state of affairs.

Anyway, let’s end with a photo of Nietzsche, just because he had one of the great moustaches in the history of philosophy.

The Ubertache

The Ubertache

  1. Vanitas permalink

    Yup. This is weird. I think this illustrates how confused we all are about how the history of social practises bears on their justification. In Nietzsche’s story, religion develops via coercive power-relations. In Dawkins’, primitive people learn to co-operate because it promotes general social utilityand this produces morality. The bizarre kicker? It is our prior disapproval of coercion and approval of co-operation which generates the judgment about the normative implications of those histories. Dawkins’ story vindicates morality because it arises out of a nice process, Nietzsche’s undermines Religion because it arises out of a nasty one. But this means that moral ideas are already presupposed by the genealogical vindication or debunking of morality. A totally confused situation.

    • I agree. At the end of the day a causal explanation can neither justify nor condemn. Insofar as it’s connected to ethics it’s usually to remove the individual from the whole sphere of justification/condemnation. So to say “I couldn’t help it: I was drugged” might save you from condemnation, but it doesn’t justify you. It says that neither attitude is appropriate here.

      I think Dawkins runs together two distinct senses of “natural”: the scientific sense, which is value-neutral, and the judgemental sense in which “natural” is praise and “unnatural” is criticism.

      • I guess I’m not willing to go all the way to “At the end of the day a causal explanation can neither justify nor condemn.” I think Nietzsche’s genealogies have force because the system in question (i.e. religion) has an alternative story about its own origins which helps to support its normative status. Undermine that story, and you undermine the normative status.

        However, the parallel attempt to *ground* ethics in history is much more difficult, for the sorts of reasons you cite. Phil Kitcher makes similar kinds of errors in his recent book, so does Sam Harris, and so do the legions of evopsychics who think that a demonstration of how biological altruism could have evolved constitutes a defense of the ethical value of psychological altruism.

  2. Yes, if you claim that morality (or religion) could only stem from some transcendent or supernatural source, then showing that it could’ve evolved in an entirely natural way disproves that claim. And sometimes such things are indeed claimed both for morality and religion.

    Likewise, if you claim your values are eternal or a priori in some sense then a historical or anthropological approach can be a useful corrective. And that’s what Nietzsche provides – to good effect, I think. Of course, as you suggest, this then gives you the problem of how to ground or justify your own values – how to stop things sliding into complete ethical relativism. Nietzsche’s eventual solution was to ground them in Will to Power. I don’t think that works, but it at least confronts us with the important truth that our ethical impulses are not always as “pure” as we might wish to believe.

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