Posted by: andreaheyse | February 10, 2009

Why Are We Good?

Chapter 6 of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion discussed the question of why are we good. I chose this chapter because I think that this was one of Dawkin’s strongest arguments throughout the book, though I did find many points to critique. So, why are we good? Is it because we believe in a God who guides us to do the right thing? Is it because Christian morality stems from the bible? Is it because there is something inside of us that goes deeper than what we learn from our environments? Is it because of genetics?

Looking at all of these questions and countless others, I began to wonder; what is it that makes us act the way we do towards other people? Was Dawkins correct in latching onto Darwin’s reasons for altruism? If that is all it takes, then what is the point of God, to whom so many turn to for morality?


I know plenty of atheists who lead very moral lives according to what society considers ‘good morality.’ On the opposite side, I also know some Christians who could take notes from those same atheists on how to be ‘good.’ The website I mentioned in the beginning of my presentation (www.ffrf.org) is a prime example of atheists, agnostics and skeptics who seem to lead very moral lives. The Freedom From Religion Foundation fights for the separation of church and state and seems to be made up of some very morally sound folks. Just from reading the short bios of some of the members, they are involved in women rights activism, community volunteer organizations, tutoring disadvantaged students, and a host of other activities that at least I would consider to be good. I did think it was interesting to find that one of the current co-presidents of the foundation, Dan Barker, is a former minister and evangelist. He has written some books like Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children, and How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. These might give an interesting perspective on the transition one might make from theist to atheist. Thinking about this lens also made me question where Barker developed his own sense of what is good or bad. Though he may be an atheist now, at one point during his childhood he probably identified with Christianity and in that developed his own morality. The culture and environment he was surrounded with influenced the way he acted in the world and the same applies for him as an adult. If we live in a predominately Christian nation, is not everyone in that nation, whether they believe in a Christian God or not, influenced by Christian morality? So then does the real root of why we are good truly come from some kind of god?


Dawkins really focused on Darwin’s concept of altruism so I would like to explore those four points a bit. The first reason he gave came from genetic kinship when he said that, “animals tend to care for, defend, share resources with, warn of danger, or otherwise show altruism towards close kin because of the statistical likelihood that kin will share copies of the same genes” (Dawkins 247). Kin altruism, according to Dawkins, has become the norm. With the way that culture has shifted to where families tend to be more spread out, this claim may be more difficult for him to prove. However, if we take a look at small cultural communities within larger cities, his point still holds true today. The little Italy’s, the Latino barrios, the Chinatowns. It is clear that some kind of cultural, maybe even genetic factor is pulling these groups to one another for support and identity. Whether it is actually genetics, just common ground or a combination of the two is beyond me but it is interesting how these communities spring up nearly everywhere you go.


The second point Dawkins brought up was the idea of reciprocation. The way humans have interacted with one another from the very beginning show reciprocal relationships. Before currency people used goods to barter with other traders in order to get what they wanted in exchange for giving something the other person or group did not have. This concept could go one of two ways though. Yes, it can account for altruistic actions where people help spread resources to those who do not have access to them but this reciprocation can turn ugly just as easily. Blackmail is a powerful thing. When one party has the upper hand on a product they can use exploitation to get what they want. Sweatshops are a form of give and take but they abuse and misuse the workers while still getting a product out of the deal and providing jobs to many people that otherwise may not have one. It may look reciprocal on paper but in reality, this is not the case. This point was not even based on genetics, which Dawkins admits himself, but rather on a group’s needs and wants in accordance with the other groups around them. The examples Dawkins provided were all examples of good reciprocal relationships but he claims that “both sides benefit from the transaction,” which I would argue is not always true (Dawkins 248).


The third point he makes is that a reason for altruism is the need to build up a generous and kind reputation. Image is everything and we definitely see that taking root in today’s culture. The way people perceive you is a huge part of how you will be able to move in this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, what other people think of you is important to a certain degree. Especially in a nation and culture of self proclaimed independent, individualists, we are still fairly predictable and conforming. Assumptions are quickly made based on first impressions and even after getting to know someone, we peg people into categories trying to compartmentalize their essence which sometimes can be hard to get out of. That is not to say that opinions can’t change just that an opinion can be formed before even meeting someone based on things heard or read from other sources. Again, I don’t find the connection necessarily with genetics but I thought this point was pretty valid based on current culture.


The final reason for altruism Dawkins brings up basically surrounds a person or group’s ability to show off. A great way to advertise superiority is by being overtly altruistic. Though this may be true, I think it was a weak argument for Dawkins to make. It just shows the evolution of human greed and desire to show up everyone else. I do not think that it portrays real altruism, but perhaps the opposite.


One of the best examples Dawkins presents in this chapter was when he discussed Steven Pinker’s experience of a police strike in Montreal in 1969. There were countless crimes committed, banks robbed, people shot, fires set and the list goes on the day that the police went on strike. He posed a good question as to why those who presumably believed in God would not remain good people with the absence of the police. Although I agree with his inquiry about the theists in Montreal that day, as the scenario doesn’t make people who believe in God look good, I have to wonder, what about all the other non-theists in Montreal that same day? I’m sure Dawkins would not claim that every person in Montreal at the time was a theist but then, doesn’t that story make everybody look bad? To me, that day does not put specifically theists in a bad light; that day makes humanity look pretty bad in general, forget whether they were theist, atheist, agnostic, or otherwise.

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Responses

  1. What I think is interesting in this section of Dawkin’s book is that his reasons for people being altruistic are purely genetic, self-seeking, or products of a culture of image and self-centeredness. It is amazing that he doesn’t entertain the ideas that people do good for others because they care for the other person, perhaps even love the other (this concept of love is probably laughable to Dawkins) or that by doing good to one another, they as a community experience something greater and more spectacular than could be experienced alone. Perhaps people do good for others to bring about a better, fuller, and enjoyable life for all involved.

    Right on Heyse; I look forward to hearing more about this from you next class!


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