The Essence of Morality
by Dr. Edgar Andrews
[An excerpt from Chapter 17 of Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything]
Human beings are not only endowed with mind but also with morality. As we saw in Chapter 9, we have consciences that monitor and judge our thoughts and actions. In short, man appears to be the only creature that can distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. In this chapter I shall use the term ‘morality’ to cover all moral attitudes and actions, whether they are judged ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘neutral’. Just how we judge anything will, of course, depend entirely on they way it compares with some standard. For the theist that standard is the law of God. For the consistent atheist it can only be evolution — moral quality must be assessed in terms of evolutionary benefit or failure. But either way, morality really exists. Let me tell you a true story.
A family were standing in the large kitchen of their home talking to friends while their three-year-old daughter pushed her doll’s pram to and fro with some vigour. In doing so, she ran the pram into her father’s leg, inflicting (as I remember) a degree of pain. The child’s older sister immediately issued a stern rebuke: ‘Alison, say sorry to daddy!’ The younger child continued her perambulations without response but we could see her mind was working overtime. ‘Say sorry to daddy!’, came the repeated command. No reply. A further interval elapsed and the older sister’s voice rang out again: ‘Say sorry!’ There was a prolonged pause and then the worried frown on the toddler’s face was suddenly replaced by a seraphic smile: ‘Me can’t talk’, she said.
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The adults dissolved in laughter but I have never forgotten the incident because its implications are really quite profound, illuminating the whole question of human morality. Clearly, Alison knew she had done ‘wrong’ in hurting her father. Her stubborn refusal to admit guilt is evidence enough of that. If she had no sense of right and wrong she would have experienced no moral dilemma.
We could, of course, explain the episode away. It wasn’t that the child had some innate moral awareness, we might say, but that her sense of guilt was a conditioned reflex. She recognised her sister’s tone of voice and knew from past experience that it meant trouble. No doubt children do have conditioned reflexes, but the appropriate reflex in my story would have been one of two things — either a simple denial of responsibility (‘it wasn’t me it was my doll’) or a quick apology (knowing that an apology defuses such situations). It was the devious guilt-reaction that revealed the toddler’s moral awareness — her silent inward struggle spoke volumes. She knew she was guilty and should apologise, but exercised considerable ingenuity to bypass conscience and evade moral responsibility. And you can’t evade what you don’t have.
Such behaviour is typically and uniquely human. We can only experience such problems if we have a genuine moral sense in the first place. If, at that moment, the family’s pet dog had walked into the kitchen leaving muddy paw-prints, it too might have been scolded. It might have cringed and put its tail between its legs, recognising disapproval in its master’s voice. But this would be a genuine conditioned reflex, a response to an external signal. There would be no corresponding inner awareness of wrong-doing — otherwise, next time, it would have wiped its feet on the doormat…
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