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Seated next to me at dinner was a man about my age. Like me, he’d retired to Maine. We hit it off, and after our dinner, we began an email correspondence.

At the dinner, my friend said he admired a book I didn’t like, so I sent him a copy of a review of the book I’d written. The review tipped my friend off that I was a Christian.

His response made clear that he wasn’t. He wrote, “No metaphysics are needed in my cosmos, thanks.” Although he respected his religious friends, his own views were “close to the occasionally strident and at times rude Brother Dawkins [Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion].” He noted, “We shall have some heavy lifting as workout buddies, you and I.”

I replied that a discussion of our religious differences probably would work better in a barroom than in an email exchange. “We could pretend to be college freshmen again, and it could be fun.” But my friend was not to be put off. He insisted that he had no need to “Godify the unknown or alleged unknowable.”

My new pen pal had sent me some of his writing about Acadia National Park. It spoke of “the profound responsibility of our consciousness: to use our understanding of nature to guide our conduct within nature,” and it added, “In this bloom of space-time, human reason can try to understand the development of all matter, from stars and galaxies to our own planet, fellow creatures, home island, and selves. It is our nature and duty to do so.”

I told him I agreed with these sentiments, but I wondered just why we had a duty to use our capacities for the various purposes he mentioned or, indeed, for any purpose at all.

I made it a multiple-choice question:

A) I made these duties up. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t exist.

B) My culture made them up. I’m just a product of my culture.

C) These duties proceed from a source outside myself and my culture.

Some weeks after I posed my question, my friend apologized for not answering it. He asked me to stay tuned and promised, “I’ll give you a fair if not satisfying (for you) response to your multiple choice question—re-posed as I wish.”

But he never did. There could be other reasons for his failure of course, but I like to think I confounded him.

What might my friend have said?

Answer A (subjectivism—each of us a small godlet of values) fails badly. An ethical duty that you’ve made up is no duty at all. It’s a “just pretend” duty. Willing yourself into an ethical void can’t fill it. If the only duties you have are those you’ve made up, the other guy’s only duties are presumably the ones he’s made up, and he wants to make Acadia into a theme park. Moreover, answer A leaves you with no reason to ponder or reconsider your ethical views and no reason to try to make them consistent. Your judgments can’t be mistaken, because they’re not about anything.

Answer B (conventionalism—culture as the god of values) isn’t any better. Some of your convictions differ from those of other members of your culture; all of your ethical views don’t proceed from toadying up to other people. Moreover, like answer A, answer B leaves you with nothing to say to the other guy, who now tells you that his culture has taught him to value building a master race.

Which leaves you with answer C.

One possible source of values other than self and culture is biology. Some biologists maintain that natural selection has programed us with the values that furthered our distant ancestors’ reproductive success. The biologists’ arguments transform moral values into something else—a reproductive strategy, an unconscious one—and these arguments leave us with no reason to prefer our nobler impulses to our baser ones. Rape in fact furthers reproductive success more directly than altruism does.

The remaining alternative is a source of values beyond self, culture, and biology. What name would you give this source of values if it existed? Proving the existence of an external source of values may be tough, but many of the people who pounce on the difficulty of making this case seem not to notice the difficulty of making an affirmative case for any of the alternative positions. They appear oblivious to the ethical soup in which they swim. They typically insist that there’s no relationship at all between morality and religious belief.

Certainly people who call themselves nonbelievers can be as moral as believers. How many of them, however, truly believe that they have made up their deepest moral convictions themselves, or that their culture has made up these moral convictions, or that their biology has programed them with self-serving intuitions disguised as moral values?

Even E. O. Wilson, the “father of sociobiology,” once wrote that he favors a “scientific humanism”—one that “imposes the heavy burden of individual choice that goes with intellectual freedom.” Of course the “heavy burden of individual choice” and “intellectual freedom” are inconsistent with Wilson’s insistence that free will is an illusion. Moreover, Wilson once declared, “Life has diversified on Earth autonomously without any kind of external guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next.”

Wilson’s contradictions led me to email him some questions too: What choices did he make as a humanist—those that furthered his own genes’ reproductive success? How could he or anyone else have evolved the capacity to do anything else? Was there a magic moment in the evolutionary process when natural selection gave way to culture and free will?

Like my recent dinner companion, Wilson didn’t reply. We hadn’t corresponded before, and there was no particular reason why he should. In his case, I don’t fantasize that my questions confounded him, but I’m curious what his answers would have been.

Examine the way people who describe themselves as nonbelievers talk about values, and you may discover an operational, everyday trust in a transcendent source of values beyond self, culture, and biology. Except when folks are in a funk, drunk, in France, or at a university, almost all of them seem to believe that some things are really right and wrong and not just right and wrong because they happen to think so today or because natural selection has programmed them with the illusion that some of their choices are more virtuous than others.

Albert W. Alschuler is the Julius Kreeger Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology, Emeritus, at the University of Chicago.  

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