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On the Origins of Morality: Supernatural, Biological, and Relational Possibilities
Back in 2007, Christianity Today hosted Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson in a debate entitled: “Is Christianity Good for the World?”. They exchanged letters six times, with Hitchens starting and Wilson concluding.
They debated a number of issues. The issue of most significance in this essay is their differences concerning the origins of morality.
Wilson, in his initial response to Hitchens, is the first to bring up morality. He argues in the first three letter-exchanges that the origins of morality are “supernatural,” or external to the human condition. Morality is presented as a “fixed standard” that humans more or less hew to.
When Hitchens finally responds to Wilson’s questioning, he argues that “ordinary morality is innate” to animals. In contrast to Wilson’s claim that morality has external origins, Hitchens’ claims that morality is internal to the human condition. It is biological. He notes how a number of animals demonstrate ethical behavior, and not just humans. As Hitchens puts it in the final exchange, “our morality evolved”.
Here we have the two predominate arguments in the contemporary world for the origins of morality: supernatural or biological sources.
There is a third alternative, which is a derivative of Don Cupitt’s non-realist theology. Instead of claiming that the origins of morality are supernatural or biological, I claim that they are social-relational. Morality, in general terms I would claim, emerges through the human conversation. We should not expect any external endorsements for our beliefs and our values and we should not expect to find a morality gene. Rather, we have to love and pursue commitments to our God, to our neighbors and to our enemies for their own sakes. Ultimately, we must persuade and fight for what we believe to be true, good and moral.
So there are three options for the origins of morality. Do you know any others? What about narrative realism? How do we discern which to trust?