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‘It was Auguste Comte who identified morality with icily disinterested “altruism”, thereby rendering all interests selfish. This is incoherent’

Now that God is dead — or at least moribund — how can we establish the authority of a decent public morality in a plural society? Such is the question that post-Christian secularists have set themselves to answer. In their front rank stand celebrity authors such as Matt Ridley, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. But discernible some way further back, and a little to the side, is the profile of the Coalition government's Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts.

In his 2008 Oakeshott Lecture, "Renewing Civic Conservatism", Mr Willetts embarked in search of an effective social matrix of the non-market values upon which a healthy market depends — values such as community and compassion. Reckoning that Christianity in Britain no longer has the authority to provide a public rationale for such things, he turned instead to recent work in evolutionary biology and game theory. One of his main authorities was the UCL economist, Ken Binmore, who is contemptuous of appeals to metaphysical "skyhooks" and "injunctions from above". Another is the Harvard mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, who happens to be a practising Roman Catholic.

The ethical challenge taken up by evolutionary biology and game theory is how to conjure altruism out of genetic selfishness. It appears that evolution proceeds by way of a competition for survival, in which nature prefers the fittest. This implies that living beings, at their most basic level, are moved first and foremost by one thing only: the impulse or desire for the preservation of the self or its genes. If the basic nature of living things is thus, how can we get from fundamental selfishness to social co-operation?

Enter game theory, which theorises in mathematical terms the competitive strategies of (selfishly) rational individuals and the conditions of co-operation. According to Nowak's reading, under the social condition of sustained relationships enlightened self-interest can make co-operation rational — that is, it can make it rational to bear a cost in benefiting others in the reasonable expectation of reciprocity. It can even make forgiveness rational, insofar as it can pay an individual not to punish a non-co-operator or "defector", so as to build a reputation for co-operative intent, to elicit trust, and to achieve co-operation over time. The answer to the challenge taken up by secularists, then, lies in the discovery that selfishness is in fact the matrix of altruism via the "mechanisms" of direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity, whose "engine" is fuelled by the "money" of reputation (to use Nowak's tellingly mechanistic and monetary metaphors).

Or so it is claimed. The answer, however, generates problems of its own. To begin with, co-operation is, as such, amoral. We can't tell whether it's good or bad, right or wrong, until we know whether it's being performed by responsible agents and to what ends or purposes. The fact that ants co-operate doesn't tell us anything at all about ethics; and the fact that Nazis co-operate is nothing to celebrate.

Next, it is misleading to conceive of the problem as that of deriving altruism from selfishness. It was Auguste Comte who identified morality with icily disinterested "altruism", thereby rendering all interests selfish. But why take our cue from him? If we should sacrifice ourselves altruistically for the flourishing or well-being or good of other people, then presumably they should sacrifice themselves for ours. But if we have a good that obliges others, then surely it obliges us, too. Comtean altruism is incoherent. Thomas Aquinas makes better ethical sense: since creation is good in God's eyes, and since human beings are creatures, it follows that human beings have a moral duty to care for their own well-being. The pursuit of a morally legitimate interest in the good of self-preservation only becomes immoral — only becomes selfish — when it rides roughshod over other kinds of good, whether one's own or someone else's. Self-interest is not necessarily selfish.

Third, and most important, the tendency of many evolutionary stories about ethics is to assume that material self-interest — the bare preservation of one's life or one's genes — is not only the historical origin, but the continuing basis, of all other human interests. That is, they assume that all human interests are essentially extensions of the one basic and overriding desire for material self-preservation, and are therefore reducible to it. What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing, an altruism that is essentially a shrewder form of self-interestedness isn't really altruism at all.

But a further problem with this materialist assumption is that it's empirically untrue. I defer to the authority of evolutionary biologists, when they tell me that the behaviour of some living beings — and indeed their co-operation — is driven (I shall not say "motivated") by an interest in genetic reproduction. But I demur when they proceed to reduce the behaviour of living human beings to this. Thus J.B.S. Haldane tells me that "I will jump into the river to save two brothers, eight cousins, but not a stranger"; and he attributes this preference for kin to genetic relatedness. I am not persuaded, and I will not be persuaded until it has been shown that the cause of such a choice is the mysterious insistence of genes for reproduction, rather than the immediately felt obligations of gratitude and love. 

I have a friend who was adopted at birth. I once made the mistake of referring to his biological father, whom he had never met, as his "real father". Not so. As far as he is concerned, his real father is the one who cared to bring him up. There is no doubt that, faced with the choice of saving either the father to whom he is genetically related or the one who has loved him, my friend would choose the latter. Genes may be monomaniacal, and some beings may be in their thrall; human beings are evidently not. So we need to avoid the genetic fallacy in a double sense: in general, things do not reduce to their genesis — they are more than the sum of their original parts; and in particular, human motivation does not reduce to the blind drive of genes for self-replication.

Of course, appearances might deceive. Immediate perception tells us that the earth is flat and that the sun and moon circle around it; modern experimental science has revealed otherwise. So what appears to be action motivated by gratitude and love might in fact be determined by genes. That is indeed possible. But we need good reason to doubt the appearances. One reason could be that the genetically materialist story makes better sense of the data of behaviour and experience than rival accounts. Yet attempts to explain human acts of heroic self-sacrifice in terms of the long-term strategy of mindless and invisible genes are laughable in their contorted implausibility. Their claims are more dogmatic than demonstrated. 

So why does the materialist construal of the empirical and scientific data gain traction? Why is its dismally anti-humanist story so strangely (and dangerously) popular? The deepest reason probably lies in an anxious, wilful rejection of spiritual realities, made on the adolescent assumption that external claims constrain and suffocate human freedom. The fact that, without a given horizon of value, human freedom itself vanishes into horrifying insignificance is not permitted to speak.

A more proximate reason lies in the widespread authority of the tale about human being told by Thomas Hobbes. Writing in the light of growing political conflict and then terrible Civil War in England, Hobbes decided to take as his disillusioned starting point for thinking about social and political life a supposedly original "state of nature". Here human life is famously "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", because social relations comprise a war of all against all, since human beings are individualistic atoms, driven first and last by the fear of pain and death. On the simple ground of this desperately materialist reading of human motivation, Hobbes proposed to understand the construction of social and political co-operation. And his proposal has since been blithely taken up by many others, not least by secularists in search of a naturalistic basis for morality. Accounts of ethics that operate in terms of natural evolution usually owe quite as much to Hobbes's speculation as to Darwin's science. In fact, Daniel Dennett so conflates them as to label Hobbes "the first sociobiologist".

But Hobbes's anthropological realism is not so realistic. While he was indulging his speculative disillusion in penning Leviathan from the armchair safety of Paris, his friend Lucius Carey, 2nd Viscount Falkland and amateur theologian, was demonstrating that not even England's internecine bloodbath lived down to the mythical "state of nature". Toward the end of the battle of Edgehill in 1642, Falkland interposed himself between his own victorious royalist comrades on the one hand, and a sorry group of surrendered parliamentarians on the other, in order to stop the former from slaughtering the latter. He transcended his own fear of death to save others. These others were not his kin; they were not even members of his political group. And they were not just strangers; they were the enemy.

What the conciliatory Falkland demonstrated on the battlefield in the 1640s, the relentlessly reasonable moral philosopher and Anglican bishop, Joseph Butler, preached from the pulpit of the Rolls Chapel in the 1720s: Hobbes's cynical story about the human bottom line should not be mistaken for reality. Human beings are in fact motivated fundamentally by two basic principles, not just one — not just by self-interest, but also by benevolence. Indeed, the towering Calvinist international jurist, Hugo Grotius — another veteran of violent political conflict — had written as much in the 1620s.

Even better than Butler and Grotius, the natural law tradition stemming from Thomas Aquinas puts its finger more exactly on the button. The crucial point is not merely that human motivation isn't simply self-interested. It's also that human self-interest is not simply material. Rather, it reaches way beyond mere physical self-preservation and group loyalty to a wider range of goods — such as rational integrity, knowledge of the (often useless) truth, friendship, and justice. And these goods are as powerful in appeal as they are intangible in nature. 

Both personal experience and history confirm this. Monks, scholars, artists, and scientists — no doubt including even some evolutionary biologists — have been known to miss meals, lose sleep, risk their health, and forego reproduction in pursuit of non-material goods such as knowledge of the truth about the world and the manifestation of beauty; and martyrs have sacrificed themselves, jeopardised their kin, and even defied their own national group for the sake of justice — as did Jesus, to name but one. 

Dogmatic materialists have no choice but to deconstruct the noble appearances and to reduce the seeming authority of non-material goods to unflattering physical drives. Others less spellbound by Hobbes have an alternative option. They can read the data of experience and history — and indeed of evolutionary biology, zoology, and anthropology — in terms of the gradual emergence of beings with an ever-wider range of interests, capable of recognising and responding to an ever-wider range of goods. And they can recognise goods not at all concerned with the physical survival of the individual and his group, or with the avoidance of physical pain, for what they really are: spiritual. In a nutshell, they can do justice to the phenomena of human beings who are capable of conceiving their self-interest in such a way as to make it perfectly sensible to ask: "For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?"

Thomas Aquinas and Joseph Butler tell a better story than Hobbes. They can account for the various data of the springs of human motivation without having to force them onto a procrustean bed of materialism. What is more, their story gladly embraces the notions of human dignity and rights that most materialists strive to retain in schizophrenic defiance of all their premises. This is why Jürgen Habermas, the eminent (and atheist) German public intellectual, was moved to confess to Le Monde some years ago that religious traditions — not least the Christian one — "have the distinction of a superior capacity for articulating our [liberal, humanist] moral sensibility". 

There is considerably more mileage left in the Christian moral vision than Mr Willetts is wont to suppose. And there is evidence that it continues to attract more widespread public support than he thinks. In a BBC poll in 2009 those agreeing that "religion has an important role to play in public life" amounted to 62 per cent, a figure that rose, remarkably, to 77 per cent among 18-24-year-olds. For sure, "religion" in Britain no longer means Christianity only, but it persists in meaning it predominantly.

How long the Christian vision will continue to command social authority, however, depends on two things. It hangs, first, on the success of the Christian churches in raising their moral heads above the tired controversies over sexual ethics, and in persuading the national media to follow them. 

But second, it depends on whether or not our ruling elites — presently the counter-cultural children of the Sixties — manage to break the Hobbesian spell, trust the appearance of spiritual goods, and recognise that their authority is the very mother — and not the enemy — of significant human freedom. Certainly, moral authority does not bear down on us from arbitrary skyhooks. Rather, it emanates from goods given in the nature of things and recognised by beings that nature evolves. Evidently, some of these goods are non-material. In which case, curiously, it seems that nature contains the germ of spirit. Were this to be acknowledged by those with the power and responsibility to set the terms of common sense and public discourse, the ethical vitality that remains in (Christian) religion would become more readily visible to the rest of us. 

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