Why Do Good

“where does the desire to do good come from”

Bradley left a comment on my FAQ 1 page – The Ten Commandments and Morality – as follows:

I just have a question, not a comment. If there is no transcendental being from whom we get at least some inspiration to do good, where does the desire to do good come from, and why would we have any preferences any way? I know that certain things are just naturally disliked, but what makes it uncomfortable or not to be liked?

Rather than clog up my FAQ page I’ve copied this to a new post so I can answer the question, as well as make it easier for others to answer or comment.

Well Bradley to put it simply, the desire to do good has just been bred into us, the human race would not have survived if at least most of us hadn’t wanted to instinctively do good. How long do you think humankind would last if everyone wanted to rape, steal, lie, cheat, harm or kill? Not long.

Much like you assert that “certain things are just naturally disliked” so are certain things just naturally liked.

Apart from the evolution of society needing to (mainly) do good to each other to survive [read some literature on the ethic of reciprocity, which by the way was NOT invented by Christians as some are want to believe, as to why] science has also found various chemicals in the brain, and brain functions, that indicate the desire to do good is a physical property of the body. Have a read of some articles about Oxytoxin for example.

I don’t know about you Bradley, but I find when I do something good I feel good, I get a little “kick” out of doing something good, and it makes me happy. Why would this be? Perhaps it’s chemicals in the brain? Perhaps it’s because of the knowledge that I’ve made someone happy or improved their life in some way. But why be altruistic (which is what we are talking about when we discuss doing good things for no apparent reason or expectation of return)? We know that most religions cite altruism as a virtue, but I don’t consider that religion has a ‘hold’ on altruism. In fact it has been shown that many species of animals act in an altruistic manner and that there is an evolutionary explanation for altruism.

I consider it wholly possible to do good without any transcendental being providing inspiration. Anyway, how would we know a transcendental being provided the inspiration? Could it not be that any supposed transcendental inspiration is actually our own innate goodness and inspiration? That due to a lack of knowledge, or a lack of thought, this inspiration was deemed to have come from a transcendental being only because there didn’t seem to be any other way to explain it’s existence?

Time and again science has discovered reasons for things that people thought were the actions of a transcendental being, pushing the reason for a need, or the possibility, of any transcendental being further and further into non-existence. Perhaps one day science will prove where the desire to do good comes from (from what little I’ve read they pretty well already have) or perhaps there are some things that just are. Either way I see no reason to bring any transcendental being into the equation.

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20 Comments

Filed under atheism, beliefs, christianity, compassion, evolution, golden rule, religion, science

20 responses to “Why Do Good

  1. Rene

    Hello, I would agree with you that science can explain why we do good. But as to science being the first cause, so that when we have the scientific answer we need not look any further (I hope I am understanding you correctly here), I would disagree.

    Reasons:
    1) (Assuming you agree with the Big Bang theory) How likely is it that complex creatures came about? Science explains how these complex creatures work, but does it explain how they came about from the Big Bang?

    2) Science gives an explanation, but as to whether this is really THE explanation we are not sure. For example, if my dog yelps in pain, the scientist can explain all the biological process going out in the phenomena of pain. That is an explanation. However, it seems to leave out other explanations–like my dog is yelping in pain because another dog just bit it. Relating to the issue you addressed, perhaps if you really want to make your point that there is no transcendental being you need to argue how science can give a complete explanation of the why we do good, and how this scientific explanation is not just one out of many explanation but triumphs over the other explanations–like the explanation that people do good because God created them with a conscience.

    3) It seems that if science is the complete explanation for everything, then we are just bodies made up of cells and chemicals operating according to laws of science. Where does human dignity come in? Do we only think killing wrong because it is a disadvantage (evolutionary sense) for the human race?

    Thanks for reading my comment.

    • Welcome Rene, I wouldn’t say that once we find a scientific answer we need look no further. For a start it’s very difficult for science to find a definitive answer to many things. Some would say that’s half the fun of science, there’s always more to find out about just about every topic.

      Personally I think some things may never be fully explained by scientific principles. However that doesn’t mean we need to resort to a “god did it” answer, as that is no real answer either. Saying “god did it” leaves no avenue for further investigation, and isn’t it better to continue asking why and trying to find an answer?

      We are just bodies made of cells, it’s how we use those cells in a positive way that defines our human dignity.

    • Ben Finney

      > But as to science being the first cause

      I’m not sure what this would mean. Science isn’t a cause, it’s a process employed by people.

      Contrasting the theory of the Big Bang against the cosmological argument for existence of gods is handled at Internet Infidels among other places.

      As for the “first cause” as an argument, its premises are false. It is an established fact that events can be uncaused: radioactive decay of atomic nucleus is one example, and quantum fluctuations are another, and those go on all the time. Either of these observed phenomena removes the argument from a first cause.

      > so that when we have the scientific answer we need not look any further (I hope I am understanding you correctly here), I would disagree.

      As would I, and any scientist I have ever heard from. Science does not remove the need to keep looking. But science is the only method of providing reliable answers that we have, and is the only reliable method of determining which answers conform with reality.

      > It seems that if science is the complete explanation for everything

      It is not, and you would be right to suspect anyone who tries to tell you so. Science is a process of evaluating factual claims and determining which ones are supported by reality; there is no reason to think “the complete explanation for everything” is attainable.

      What is clear, though, is that if science is not able to explain everything, no other process ever proposed comes anywhere close.

      > then we are just bodies made up of cells and chemicals operating according to laws of science.

      I agree with most of that, except the implied disappointment in that “just”: we are a wholly inseperable part of a universe of chemicals and fundamental particles and forces, operating according to observable patterns (“laws of nature”) explained by the application of science, and that is wonderful and beautiful.

      > Where does human dignity come in?

      Human dignity comes from each of us treating each other with respect because that’s the kind of world we want to inhabit.

      > Do we only think killing wrong because it is a disadvantage (evolutionary sense) for the human race?

      Neither part of that is true. Killing is often evolutionarily advantageous (e.g. to kill competitors for spreading one’s genes), so that can’t serve as a basis for pacifism.

      So we consider killing to be wrong because we are social animals who empathise with others; and we are moral to the extent that we encompass all sentient beings in that empathy.

  2. Ben Finney

    > For example, if my dog yelps in pain, the scientist can explain all the biological process going out in the phenomena of pain. That is an explanation.

    Yes. And a psychologist could explain the internal models in the dog’s brain that could lead from a pain sensation to a pained yelp. And an evolutionary biologist could explain the likely selection advantages that awareness of pain and yelping in response could have had in the dog’s ancestors.

    It all depends on what the observations are, and what existing knowledge can be assumed as a basis for explanation.

    > However, it seems to leave out other explanations–like my dog is yelping in pain because another dog just bit it.

    To say that another dog bit it requires more evidence than the yelp of pain: it requires some evidence that a bite occurred at the time, and further evidence that the bite was administered by another dog.

    Even assuming those, though, I’d argue that’s a pretty trivial explanation. What is explained by such a statement? What new understanding do we have after such an explanation that we didn’t have before?

    Scientific explanations — also known as theories — actually do significant explanatory work. They allow some observation to be understood in terms of some already-understood, and usually simpler, facts established previously.

    Assigning a purposeful agent to observations (“my dog yelped because another dog bit it”) gets you a little way, but fails entirely when one starts making the situation *more complicated* to explain it.

    If there is no evidence that another dog bit yours — if there are no other animals that can be seen at the time, and no signs of a wound on your dog — then “another dog bit it” only complicates the explanation unnecessarily, since a yelp of pain can be explained without assuming any external purposeful agents at all.

  3. Ben Finney

    > How likely is it that complex creatures came about?

    That’s a good question. It is not something anyone can plausibly answer today, because the data is lacking. We can say that complex creatures have arisen at least once: here on Earth.

    That we have not found evidence of complex creatures on any of the other worlds we’ve explored means that the probability of such creatures arising must be somewhat low; otherwise such creatures would be found in many places. To date we have found evidence of their appearing on only one world.

    That means that, while no-one can currently give a plausible estimate for the probability of abiogenesis (life developing from non-life), there is an upper limit on how likely it can possibly be: the evidence does not support an explanation of life being *very* likely, since we have not found evidence of independently-arising life anywhere else we’ve looked.

    So any explanation of abiogenesis must propose a mechanism that is unlikely, to explain not only the fact of evolution from simple molecules in conditions very different from present-day Earth, but also the fact that we do not yet find evidence of life on any other worlds.

  4. Well, I guess you just explained why it is that the human race has never experienced genocide, slavery, murder, rape, child abuse, deception, or any of these types of evils.

    We are clearly biologically engineered to be nice to each other, and that is all there is to it.

    • Ben Finney

      > Well, I guess you just explained why it is that the human race has never experienced genocide, slavery, murder, rape, child abuse, deception, or any of these types of evils.

      That would be a different article. It wasn’t the question asked, so the article didn’t address it.

      > We are clearly biologically engineered to be nice to each other, and that is all there is to it.

      We are descended from ancestors who are tribal, and our brains and behaviour show that heritage. We have tendencies to be nice to those we identify in our in-group, and nasty to those we identify as outsiders. And no, that’s not all there is to it.

      • I would say you haven’t answered the question.

        It is absurd to interpret a person concerned about the motivation to do good as being concerned about evils that nobody has ever committed because they are biologically incapable of doing so.

        The concern is preventing those evils that make it into the history books and make it into the newspapers every day – evils that people are very much capable of performing.

        Your answer is a lot like answering the question, “How do we prevent people from being injured in accidents” by arguing, “Well, some forms of accidents can never happen because they would violate the laws of physics.”

        To which the answer is, “Well, then, those aren’t the accidents we have any reason to be concerned with preventing, are they? Now, can you contribute something useful?”

      • Ben Finney

        Alonzo, I don’t know what article you’re reading, but it’s not the one I’m reading here that we’re posting comments to.

        OzAtheis’s article is answering a question specifically about why people do, in fact, behave as we observe them to do.

        Your concern about how to *change* that behaviour is laudable, and I share it.
        Bbut it’s a change of topic, and it’s not valid to criticise this article for answering the question that was actually asked.

  5. One issue with the original post, and one issue with a comment:

    First, the original post has a problem of infinite regress. It is stated that, “…to put it simply, the desire to do good has just been bred into us, the human race would not have survived if at least most of us hadn’t wanted to instinctively do good. How long do you think humankind would last if everyone wanted to rape, steal, lie, cheat, harm or kill? Not long.”

    The problem with this type of statement is that it only describes the effect, not the cause. From whom was it “bred into us”, and where did they get it from? Suppose it is a trait that has come as we have evolved across species to our current human state. That still doesn’t answer the question of where it came from. No, if it is evolutionarily bred into us, then there has to be a starting point from which this inherent good came from. The argument about the chemicals in the brain get you closer, but not all there. And to turn it around and say, “It’s better than God did it” is a fallacious argument, since the theist (Bradley) has yet to make a claim. Ironically, it is the theist in this case that has a negative claim, and the naturalist must find the evidence to support his/her positive claim. Don’t take the easy road out on this one. Challenge your foundation! That’s what the naturalist’s beloved science does all the time.

    As to the comment about the “argument from first causes” being no longer valid, keep in mind what type of conclusion you are making. First off, you are blowing out of the water the accepted scientific theory that an effect cannot be greater than its cause, and that plays all sorts of tricks on the evolutionary theory regarding cause-and-effect (think about successive, slight modification issues here). Second, we are talking about atomic nuclei and quantum fluctuations that have been found only in minute capacities (like, inside of a proton minute). What you are then asking is for us to assume that based on this discovery that such a fluctuation is responsible for the largest explosion in the history of our universe, because it is responsible for the creation of our universe. Are you prepared to defend the idea that such a belief takes less faith than, say, the teleological argument or the moral argument that’s at issue in this post?

    Note that I have made no positive claims in this comment, but only challenged the positive claims made here. “God of the gaps” is not at play, lest you lose the argument due to attacking a straw man. Ready…go! :-)

    • Ben Finney

      > No, if it is evolutionarily bred into us, then there has to be a starting point from which this inherent good came from.

      There’s no single “starting point”, unless you want to go all the way back to the common ancestor of all life on Earth.

      Rather, natural selection works on variation in populations. That variety is due to many factors: they include random events affecting embryonic development, random events affecting genes, the imperfect copying process of genes, and (much later) the invention of sex as a means of randomly mixing the genes inherited in every individual, and so on.

      Over countless generations through billions of years — for about three billion years there were no multi-celled organisms, so generations were *really short* and thus vast in number — those factors continue to produce a stupendous amount of variety for natural selection to work on.

      So individuals within a population will differ, in many ways. In mammals, with their brains developed for social interaction, the individuals will have differing responses to social pressures. Some of those responses will increase the individual’s gene transfer to the next generation, some will have no significant effect, and some will reduce the individual’s gene transfer to the next generation.

      The social pressures essentially amount to an environment of *other* individuals also competing to transfer their genes to the next generation. That environment is a big factor in the natural selection working on the expression of the genes.

      Hopefully none of that is news to you. It follows naturally, then, that the heritable traits that contribute to social interaction will be selected based on whether, in aggregate, they make it more likely those traits will be present in the next generation.

      All OzAtheist is saying is that, in the case of humans, the evolutionary explanation for the “nice” social behaviours is the same: natural selection causes those social behaviours that increase gene transfer to be present in a greater proportion in the next generation.

      Genes which express in behaviours that help one’s siblings, close family, tribe, species, will tend to help the transfer of genes that one shares with those individuals — including, of course, the genes that contribute to that behaviour.

      Conversely, genes that express in behaviours that harm one’s species, tribe, close family, siblings, etc. will tend to remove genes that one does *not* share with those individuals (as well as those that one does share).

      So genes that express in behaviours that are helpful toward one’s closest relatives and less helpful to more distant outsiders will tend to increase the inheritance of genes one has in common, and reduce the inheritance of genes one does not have.

      This entails a means for the individual to recognise and behave differently toward siblings, close relatives, tribe members, one’s own species, other species, etc; so genes that express in the development of a brain which makes sophisticated judgements of how closely related another individual is will also tend to be favoured by natural selection, because they allow social behaviour to more precisely match the likelihood of another individual sharing one’s genes.

      All of this is true over *evolutionary time*, which is many thousands of generations. So the conditions that led to these innate behaviours in humans were not those of today: they were, at the latest, the African savannah hundreds of millennia ago, with humans sparse and struggling to survive.

      We are complex social animals, with many sophisticated behaviours enabled by our big brains and molded by the effects of those behaviours on gene transfer. Our heritage includes the innate capacities to be very caring to those with whom we empathise, *and* horribly cruel to those whom we regard as outsiders.

      If this is interesting, I strongly encourage you to learn more. We have learned a lot in recent decades about how natural selection has shaped behaviour. “The Selfish Gene” (Richard Dawkins), “The Blank Slate” (Stephen Pinker), and “The Third Chimpanzee” (Jared Diamond) all explore different aspects of what I’ve said above.

    • Ben Finney

      > you are blowing out of the water the accepted scientific theory that an effect cannot be greater than its cause

      This may have been accepted in ancient times, or even recent centuries, but it was wrong. Science responds to new evidence as it comes along, scientists admit that earlier explanations were inaccurate, and refine explanations to incorporate the growing body of evidence.

      There are abundantly-observed phenomena that *don’t* have a direct cause. So an effect can be greater than its cause, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

      > we are talking about atomic nuclei and quantum fluctuations that have been found only in minute capacities (like, inside of a proton minute). What you are then asking is for us to assume that based on this discovery that such a fluctuation is responsible for the largest explosion in the history of our universe

      For “explosion”, don’t think “chemical reaction resulting in a fireball”; the Big Bang explanation doesn’t talk about a chemical reaction. Instead think “stuff that starts out densely packed into a small space suddenly expanding dramatically”, which is more generally what is meant by “explosion”.

      To better critique it, I invite you to learn what the actual explanation for the Big Bang is; it does, indeed, begin from a space much smaller than the inside of a proton.

      > Are you prepared to defend the idea that such a belief takes less faith than, say, the teleological argument

      Yes: It takes less faith because it explains what we see today in terms of simpler and simpler things that can be tested. It introduces nothing more complicated than things we already know exist.

      Attempts to explain in terms of unobserved intelligent supernatural beings are unnecessarily complicated.

  6. Welcome to all the new readers.

    Thanks Ben for further answering Rene’s comment.

    @sabepashubbo I realised that my original statement could be seen as having a problem with “infinite regress”. I wrote it like that for the sake of brevity to highlight that goodness may have arisen simply through the natural process of a species’ development.

    You say “From whom was it “bred into us”” (emphasis mine). Who would this whom be? Why does there need to be someone / some thing that ‘put’ goodness into us?
    Like it or not I consider the evolutionary process can explain why we do certain things. If you accept the evolutionary process then we developed from very basic structures. There is evidence that “lower” life forms demonstrate goodness, humans have just developed that further. I guess then your ‘starting point’ would be some single celled molecule.
    True that doesn’t exactly explain where goodness came from but it also doesn’t explain where every other emotion, feeling, thought comes from either. IMHO they all come from our brains which through nature and nurture have learnt what is good, bad or indifferent.

    @sabepashubbo you are wrong in accusing me of making a fallacious argument in fact you have completely misread both my opening post and my follow up comment. Straw man back yourself! In fact you have completely misquoted me, a typical attack when you don’t have an argument to back up your own claims. Well done.

    Where did I say ” “It’s better than God did it” ” [your quote] ? No where.

    In fact the only time I used the words “god did it” was in response to Rene’s comment not Bradley’s. In which I said:

    Personally I think some things may never be fully explained by scientific principles. However that doesn’t mean we need to resort to a “god did it” answer, as that is no real answer either.

    Which clearly indicates I do not have the full answer and acknowledge that, but I also wanted my readers to acknowledge that claims for a ‘god’ is no answer either. True I can not prove that evolutionary processes are the sole reason that goodness exists (though someone smarter and better educated than me probably can) but what I was trying to show in my original post and first comment is that it is quite possible that these processes did create goodness.

  7. There you go I was right, there was someone smarter, better educated and a better word-smith than me. Thanks Ben for your many and excellent replies.

  8. Ben Finney

    For more good answers to the questions asked in this article, I direct readers to an excellent episode of Radiolab I just listened to, talking all about Morality.

    Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? This hour of Radiolab, we peer inside the brains of people contemplating moral dilemmas.

    Plus, we watch chimps at a primate research center sharing blackberries, observe 3-year-olds fighting over toys, and tour Eastern State Prison–the country’s first penitentiary. And we hear a story of of land grabbing, indentured servitude, and slumlording in the fourth grade.

    http://www.radiolab.org/2007/aug/13/

    The article page has many links to further resources discussed in the show. Please, if you’re asking about where morality comes from, do yourself a favour and learn what’s been discovered recently in the field — it’s fascinating!

  9. craig

    Hi,
    while you’ve answered the question asked, namely “where does the desire to do good come from?”, it seems more interesting to ask why we should, rather than why we do?
    Any thoughts on that? Covered somewhere else?
    Cheers,
    Craig

    • Ben Finney

      > while you’ve answered the question asked, namely “where does the desire to do good come from?”, it seems more interesting to ask why we should, rather than why we do?

      I would say that the question of “how should we achieve a better situation” necessarily comes *after* an exploration of “what leads to the present situation”. So it’s vital to explore and explain what underlies both moral and immoral behaviour.

      As for “why should we do good”, it’s hard to imagine a response that doesn’t boil down to “because it’s good”. For details, see any secular philosophy text that discusses morality; preferably, read many of them by diverse authors, and synthesise your views that way.

      Any response involving some external authority for “good” is a dead letter, of course; so we choose what’s good ourselves, as a society and as individuals. And we humans have remarkably strong consensus on what that is, once you get authority figures and dogmas out of the picture.

  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Altruism and Being. | Ken's Cushion

  11. Novparl

    G’dye mite. Just popped in to tell you – BBC tv are doing a surprisingly good animal prog with animals voiced over in various accents (Geordie etc.). Whenever they show koalas doing odd things they use guess who for the voice over? no not Kylie – your hero The Rolf. See ya in about a year’s time.

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