Forgiveness and Cooperation

Where to an atheist’s morals come from?

It’s a common question, and I’m not going to give a comprehensive answer here and now. This post is about one small aspect of the issue.

There’s a phenomenally important book by Robert Axelrod, based on an earlier article of the same name, called The Evolution of Cooperation. This book comes up in pretty much every discussion of evolutionary morals, and just about every atheist blogger on the web has reviewed, summarised or referenced it at some stage, so I’ll just give a really brief overview of it. The basic point is that, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma between members of a population, under certain conditions the most stable strategy is “tit for tat” – you cooperate on the first round, then in subsequent rounds you do whatever the other player did the round before. A fairly small group of players following this strategy can quickly take over a much larger population of players who always defect.

The real-world translation is that, in a population where you often interact with the same members (say, human society), it’s in your own interests to act for the good of others, even when it can potentially disadvantage you – but only as long as they return the favour. If someone responds to your generosity by turning on you, it’s in your interests to avoid helping them in future. You should, however, be willing to forgive them if they change their ways. Basically, you should be nice to people you’ve just met, and from then on you should treat them the way you remember them treating you recently. A similar concept in biology is called reciprocal altruism.

The nice thing about this is that it clicks so well with our (or at least, my) intuitive social sense – it feels natural to behave like this. It’s quite easy to believe that we’ve evolved towards stable, mutually beneficial behaviour. If that’s the case, then we have a basis for morals that make perfect sense without an external Giver of the Law.

Buuut, but but but. The former Christian in me rarely shuts up during discussions like this, and at the moment wants to point out that Christian morals go beyond this. Jesus had this to say:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:27-31, ESV

It seems Christian morality includes something that can’t be derived from rational self-interest. The stable “tit for tat” strategy says that you should cooperate only with people who cooperate with you. Jesus says to cooperate with everyone, regardless of their behaviour. In Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, this is the (sensibly named) “Always Cooperate” strategy. A player using this strategy tends to get exploited – in fact, it’s the worst possible strategy to use in a population of defecting players.

So do Christians know something we don’t? Are Jesus’ moral teachings something that we can’t derive from first principles, that have to be taught to us from someone outside? Are Christian ethics genuinely superior to our natural altruistic instincts?

If you guessed that my answer is “no”, you know me too well, but knowing why is a different story.

The first thing I should mention is that “turn the other cheek” is high on the list of least-observed commandments in Christianity, at least in western society. Some Christians (and churches) go so far as to say that these verses are hyperbole, and not to be taken literally. Some readily confess that they “fall short” of Jesus’ standard in this area. Others just gloss over it. Certainly there are a select few people who have lived up to it, but I must admit I haven’t met any of them. For the most part, if someone takes away your cloak, you call the police and do whatever you can to stop them taking your tunic.

(In the time since I originally wrote that paragraph, someone pointed me at an interesting theory that Jesus’ comments along those lines weren’t as altruistic as they appear. Interesting.)

The point is that, whatever they say in theory, in practice Christians don’t think it’s a good idea to cooperate with someone who’s trying to exploit you. Maybe I could be accused here of taking aim at the fallible humans rather than the godly ideal to which they aspire. However, I’d say that it’s not that the reciprocal altruism embedded in our human instincts is holding us back from God’s ideal plan; it’s that our instincts are quite rightly telling us that God’s plan is wrong. Whether they admit it or not, Christians have realised that the godly ideal is flawed at this point. Unconditional generosity is not a path to a better society.

I think there’s something more to it though – something that explains why people would accept a moral system like this in the first place, even in theory. Take this passage from Proverbs, for example:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you. Proverbs 25:21-22, ESV

The sentiment in the first part is noble, if (as I’ve discussed earlier) impractical to live up to. But does anyone else find the second part of that a bit jarring? It’s as though it’s saying that being nice to your enemy is just a roundabout way of attacking them.

At first glance, “burning coals” might refer to inducing guilt or something – it’s not totally clear. Paul quotes the passage in Romans and adds his own interpretation:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary,

“if your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink;
for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21, ESV

Again, there’s a germ of a noble sentiment here, but it’s marred by the “burning coals” business. But the bit that sheds some more light here is the command to “leave it to the wrath of God”. This seems to be saying that you should treat your enemies well, not because revenge is inherently bad, but because revenge is God’s job, and he can do it better than you ever could. To Paul, the “burning coals” are cast down on your enemies from heaven.

This is where, in my opinion, the Christian “turn the other cheek” sentiment reverts to “tit for tat”. As I said earlier, few Christians manage it in practice; but those even those who do are assured that their enemies will still be punished. Basically, they’re getting out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game by relying on another player to (heavily) punish their enemies, while they give the appearance of cooperating.

If you squint just right, this is actually a pretty cool trick. Christianity has (unwittingly, unless you’re the conspiracy theory type) set up a system for people to be nice to each other, even when they don’t think it’s merited, because they’re confident that justice will be doled out in the end. The bit that almost impresses me is that this works even if the justice never happens, because the ultimate punishment is assumed to come after death, where (conveniently) no one can report back whether it happened.

When I say that I’m almost impressed, what I mean is that this encourages (in theory) niceness and generosity in a way that doesn’t upset our natural need for justice; but that doesn’t make it a better moral system. The strategy is still “Always Cooperate”, it’s just that the players don’t think it is. And it has the same vulnerability – if someone comes along who decides to exploit everyone’s niceness, they’ll get away with it. Everyone else will turn a blind eye, believing that, if what they’re doing is really wrong, then God will put a stop to it. Society will be worse off as a result.

Whether this has ever happened in a Christian society is left as an exercise to the reader.

So my point in all this is that there’s at least a starting point for morality without a god, which holds its own against Christian morality, even though the latter sells itself as more “noble” in the surface. This isn’t the end of the story by a long stretch, and yes, I know other people have explored this area much more thoroughly. But this is the beginning of my take on it.


4 Comments so far

  1. jprapp April 15th, 2008 9:09 am

    You wrote that – “‘turn the other cheek’ is high on the list of least-observed commandments in Christianity, at least in western society.”

    You don’t know this. You’d need a sample population observed for a ratio of “offending incidents” to the praxis of turning the other cheek behaviors, and, something like a double-blind study comparing Christians to non-Christians for the same behaviors justified on other (non-religious) grounds. Until then, what you’re saying is merely assertive. It doesn’t fit into the same category as the empirical studies of altruism in biology nor to the scientifically simulated TFT games. There are TFT simulations showing that altruistic behaviors win. And plenty of studies showing alternative grounds (non-Christian) for shared moral intuitions mapped up to ethical behaviors because of generic meta-concepts or even peer review motivating ethical accountability.

    That you’ve cut some of your moorings to Christianity while retrospecting on your personal grounds for morality shows that you’re in a category similar to atheists who convert to Christianity – what’s the mix between shared and differential grounds for the competing codes?



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