National Catholic Register


Atheism, Meaning & God, Part 3

BY Steven D. Greydanus

| Posted 2/17/12 at 9:56 AM


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Continuing (very slowly!) my discussion of the empirical advantages of moral behavior:

Any accounting of human success or failure must note that a great deal of human behavior is organized around efforts to achieve certain basic goals or goods, including safety, comfort, pleasure and satiation of appetites. Indeed, these goods are basic goals not only for human beings but for animals in general, especially higher animals. Access to these goods is thus at least part of any reasonable measure of human well-being and success.

Among humans, as among other socially organized animals, some individuals enjoy greater social status, authority or power than others, and consequently tend to be privileged beyond their fellows with respect to access to basic goods. Because of the advantages that come with privileged status or authority, there is often competition for these privileges. Those individuals who compete more successfully than others, who acquire or maintain advantages in status and authority, may be said to be, in some meaningful way, more successful than others.

In most human societies, wealth is an important corollary and instrument of status, privilege and the obtaining of basic goals. With money comes greater access to safety, comfort, pleasure and satiation of appetites. In developed societies, wealth offers greater access to education, healthcare and other important resources. Money also correlates with power and status; rich people tend to acquire power and status, and power and status tends to yield wealth.

The aphorism that “Money can’t buy happiness,” like many proverbs, is only half true. It’s true that there are plenty of unhappy rich people and happy poor people. But wealth does correlate with happiness in two ways. First, not having enough money to make ends meet does correlate with unhappiness—and, on average, the poorer people are, the more unhappy they are. Second, people tend to be happier when they enjoy relative wealth—that is, when they are better off than others (i.e., neighbors, peers, the national average, etc.). This suggests, of course, that what people really enjoy is not money itself but success, that is, competing successfully with others, including economic competing.

Finally, successful sexual strategies are almost the definition of Darwinian success. Among both humans and animals, those who attract partners more easily than others, those who attract more desirable partners, those who compete more successfully for partners, and those who succeed with a greater variety of partners can, by a very primal measure, be accounted more successful than others.

It’s true that, in the grand scheme of life on earth, this measure of success is tied to reproductive potential. It’s also true that the measure of succeeding with many partners has been mitigated in human society by monogamy—a high-investment strategy that, from an evolutionary perspective, offers the male a trade-off by limiting the number of his potential offspring but ensuring that the children he does beget are advantaged over those raised without the benefit of an involved father.

But, in the first place, in human society today, contraception and reproductive technologies have gone a long way to decoupling sex from reproduction. Those who wish to reproduce don’t need sex to do it, and those who wish to enjoy the emotional and physiological rewards of sex can do so without bringing reproduction into the picture. I suppose in theory some ardent Darwinian might still insist that reproductive success is a necessary criterion of human success, but in practice nearly everyone today would agree that human success is entirely compatible with childlessness. In fact, in the most irreligious circles childlessness is often viewed as preferable, even morally superior.

In the second place, even for earlier times when the connection between sex and reproduction was more important, it can easily be argued that the rewards of monogamy were always balanced against the rewards of covert promiscuity. Monogamous relationships may have reliably produced many successful offspring, but infidelity and playing the field have always been with us, as well with many supposedly monogamous animal species, as I argued in the combox of Part 2. Darwinian defenders of the value of such behavior, for individuals and for species, are not hard to find.

To sum up: It can credibly be argued that access to money, power and sex is one reasonable rough-and-ready measure of human success.

By this measure, can it be said that life generally rewards the virtuous and punishes the selfish?

To a point, certainly. Sufficiently antisocial or self-destructive behavior will tend to limit or destoy one’s chances for success in these areas.

On the other hand, many who achieve notable success by these measures do so precisely by behavior that is generally regarded as immoral—not necessarily to a stupid or self-destructive degree, but to a greater degree than is socially approved.

Anyone who has been a part of any organization, or who has paid any attention to government at any level, knows that it is often not the most talented or deserving who rise to positions of power and authority, but the biggest jerks, the most egotistical and self-centered. This aren’t mere flukes, or a matter of the law of averages. There’s a real element of cause and effect, though it cuts both ways.

Lord Acton famously noted that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” The last line I find even more suggestive than the first, since it gets at the tendency of corruption to come to power as well as power to corrupt. The very qualities that make a person arrogant, domineering, self-interested and not above cheating to get ahead are often assets in—getting ahead.

Achieving power is hard. It takes doing. Those that achieve it tend to be the most driven, the most dedicated, the ones who want it the most. What kind of person wants power so badly? If not always, at least very often it’s someone who is eminently corruptible—who wants to exploit his power to his own advantage. Power is addictive, but it’s the potential addict who is likeliest to want it in the first place. Those most driven to achieve power also include those who lack balancing impulses and desires in their lives that tend to produce healthy, moral behavior.

Likewise, if you’ve always secretly suspected that rich people are jerks, don’t feel bad: Science is on your side (crude language caution). Here, again, causality is complex; poor people have extra incentive to be nice because it helps them get ahead, whereas rich people are less nice because they don’t have to be. But it’s also true that lack of principles can help you make more money. For instance, companies willing to exploit third-world labor can enjoy economic advantages over companies that don’t.

Finally, regarding sex, there’s a lot of commentary out there on why bad boys are attractive to women and tend to enjoy more sexual partners than their nicer counterparts. Again, it’s not just a matter of risk-taking behavior, or of otherwise attractive guys getting away with bad-boy behavior. Bad behavior itself can be an asset; ignoring and even insulting women have been shown to be useful strategies in winning over women.

Again, none of this is to deny that altruism and moral behavior are important strategies for individual and social success. Insofar as we limit ourselves to the empirically verifiable, though, I don’t think it can be maintained that a consistent attachment to what is widely considered moral behavior is the most reliable guide to human success. Conversely, if we define moral behavior, as Sam Harris and others have tried to do, in terms of “what works,” I think it becomes hard to maintain that behavior widely regarded as immoral is actually as objectionable as our hearts tells us it is.

More to come.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3