Theologians have always understood that the body and community play formative roles in the development of moral conduct.
Is it possible that morality can be reduced to hormones and peer pressure?
If your worldview holds that nothing exists beyond what we can see, feel, hear, taste, or touch, then you have to conclude this. And if you conclude it, then you’ll go on a quest to confirm your beliefs.
So we’re not surprised to learn, as Michael Shermer reported at the Wall Street Journal online, that researchers are claiming to have identified naturalistic explanations for the origins of trust, altruism, and morality. A combination of hormones and peer pressure are offered as the likely sources of moral behavior.
In a review of two new books on this subject, Mr. Shermer explains, on the one hand, that scientists are at last beginning “to identify the precise biological pathways through which this behavior system evolved and operates today.”
The hormone oxytocin is the hero in this drama. Levels of the hormone are shown to be higher among those who are more trusting of others. One scientist claims to have identified “a causal chain from oxytocin to empathy to morality to economic flourishing.” This same scientist has been able to demonstrate that if you increase the level of oxytocin (nose spray being the preferred means), a person’s feelings of generosity and cooperativeness tend to increase.
On the other hand, peer pressure – in the form of shaming and threats – also appears to have had a role in the development of trust and altruism. Citing another researcher, Mr. Shermer reports that “communal approval” taught our ancestors “to control their impulses to do the wrong thing” since “doing the right thing felt good”.
Mr. Shermer feels confident that these researchers “have now made provocative scientific contributions to the millennia-long discussion about the nature of morality.” And while he doesn’t expect theologians and philosophers to “retire from the field”, he is at least persuaded that “thinkers everywhere will be forced – as they are in many arenas – to consider biology in realms that once seemed strictly matters of the heart and soul.”
I wonder if Mr. Shermer would be surprised to learn that theologians, at least, have always understood that the body and community play formative roles in the development of moral conduct. I have no doubt that the reports Mr. Shermer summarized provide helpful and true information about the way moral behavior develops within individuals and among members of a community. But I see no reason to conclude, as he seems eager to do, that these naturalistic explanations now render it unnecessary to search for any other sources of morality, such as in the unseen realm of the soul and spiritual beings.
It’s that phrase, “as they are in many arenas”, that has the ring of smugness and triumphalism. Science, Mr. Shermer seems to believe, continues to pull aside the curtain where the shamans and hucksters of religion are plying their deceitful trade. The onward march of science will soon enough, “in many arenas”, capture the flag of religion and drive it from the epistemological field.
Such a conclusion, however, is neither warranted nor necessary. Christianity, among the religions of the world, believes in the material world and is committed to understanding as much as possible about it, yet not so that, by uncovering the mysteries of science we make it possible to do away with God.
According to the Christian worldview, morality has its origins in the image of God and the works of the Law of God inscribed on the hearts of all people (Gen. 1:26-28; Rom. 2:14, 15). Given that starting-point, all humans develop moral behavior, and all human societies share ideas of right and wrong, indicating a universal sense of moral value and direction – what C. S. Lewis referred to as the tao (The Abolition of Man).
I have no doubt that community pressure can encourage moral behavior or that oxytocin levels may be more active among the trusting and altruistic than those who are not. But that’s not the same as locating the cause or explanation of all moral behavior in such things alone.
The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, Jeremiah reminds us (Jer. 17:9). If we ignore the reality of the soul and deny the validity of the Law of God, it is not likely that peer pressure and nose spray will suffice to make us moral. Human beings are more than molecules and more than kin groups. It is folly to believe that naturalistic explanations alone can account for the many, varied, and complex forms of behavior that make up human morality, or for anything else human “in many arenas.”
But it’s also not likely that the secular scientific community will welcome the idea of there being a spiritual aspect to human life. So if that aspect is going to receive its due consideration, then theologians – and those who believe as they do – are going to have to work hard to keep the Biblical view of man on the table and within the framework of research and discussion concerning morality – and of the ways we consider promoting moral behavior.