Dear Mr. Bloom,

Thank you for your considered reply. Reading and rereading it makes me think of how speciesist humans are. This could be a major difference between those with a naturalistic philosophy and those with a superstitious one. We are animals with our own behaviour characteristics. Primates, especially homo sapiens sapiens, are considered particularly competitive compared to the modes of living of other animals, and some of our behaviours that you might call "evil" (I usually avoid this religious word although I'm not a Dear Mr. Bloom,

Thank you for your considered reply. Reading and rereading it makes me think of how speciesist humans are. This could be a major difference between those with a naturalistic philosophy and those with a superstitious one. We are animals with our own behaviour characteristics. Primates, especially homo sapiens sapiens, are considered particularly competitive compared to the modes of living of other animals, and some of our behaviours that you might call "evil" (I usually avoid this religious word although I'm not a moral relativist) or bestial or savage are what Dawkins would call extended phenotypes - the result of genes expressing themselves in their own survival interest. So what evolutionary advantage is there in warfare? What in rape? What in terrorism (which could significantly be explained by finding the evolutionary advantage in believing in religious things for which there is no evidence)? Natural selection leads to very good, and fascinating explanations. It's our best approximation to the truth, whether one likes it or not.

On the other hand my human reaction to rape or to atrocities of war is exactly as you describe, but here again natural selection has provided me with the ability to co-opt ethics (ultimately for gene survival reasons) that require me to aim to help others live as happily and free of suffering as possible. Perhaps war can be justified if the overall result will be less suffering, but such a war must be rare. Rape, terrorism, warfare, slavery (and one cause/oft-used justification for three of these: Abrahamic mythology) are wrong simply because they result in unhappiness and suffering for fellow humans. If you want the church to take credit for me growing up in a "Christian" country with "Christian" values (New Zealand is actually one of the most pleasantly secular countries in the world), just remember such ethics have been a part of humanity for much longer than 2000 years.

We don't know that intelligent bottlenose dolphins don't wish their criminal colleagues were more like those pleasant humans who frollic in the waves at the seaside seemingly without a care, and we have no idea of the scale of suffering experienced by dolphins or ants. What does Chesterton mean by "human evil"? I wish the Catholic church would consider reducing the immense amount of human suffering for which it continues to be directly responsible. How is it not evil to coerce a young woman to continue a pregnancy that is the result of rape, or convince a terminally ill person in great pain that euthanasia is a "mortal sin", or to actively campaign against a barrier against HIV infection? I think this is the kind of nastiness that could be more specifically human. Presumably Chesterton, in his jovial knock-about way would have agreed with the church on these matters. How could one justify being an apologist for such "evil"?

Chesterton's self-depricating wit did not seem to go as far as to allow him to see himself as an animal, entirely integrated into a global ecosystem with essentially the same needs and motivations as other species. Few humans think about it, but isn't that exactly what we are? Common evolutionary origins, and many shared behaviours.

Cue discussion on free will among bottlenose dolphins...

Best wishes,
Stuart Mason

Dear Stuart,

What can I say? You maintain that human beings have "essentially" the same needs and motivations as other species. It's like the guy who said that, as far as he was concerned, Hamlet is just a bunch of marks on paper. Who can argue with him? After all, that is what the play Hamlet is. Similarly when you reduce human behavior to the level of any other animal - say, an amoeba - I cannot argue with you. Like an amoeba (or like Dawkins' assertive gene), the impulse to survive and reproduce can explain everything we do. That approach does, as you say, "lead to very good, and fascinating explanations."

But, Stuart, you ruin the elegant simplicity of the argument when you protest that you are not a "moral relativist." Why not? If we have no essential difference from other species, why use the word morality? My brother's cat catches mice and appears to amuse herself by toying with them. I don't accuse her of immoral behavior. Do you? On the other hand, if war, rape and terrorism are merely one more result of natural selection, why consider them repugnant? Why react differently to a terrorist or rapist than to a dolphin or ant? It smacks of speciesism.

I do not, however, think you are being dishonest when you say you are not a moral relativist. Stuart, you are better than your philosophy. Ironically, that shows in the passionate way you condemn the Catholic Church. You exhort us to reduce human suffering and to forgo coercion and "nastiness." Your earnest exhortation (not unmixed with a suggestion of moral superiority) indicates that you really do believe some attitudes and actions are good or bad - and that we have a responsibility for our behavior, that (unlike amoeba) we actually make choices between good and evil.

Regarding "Christian" and "secular" societies: Even though I have not had the good fortune to visit New Zealand, I readily believe that it is a "pleasant" country. My niece and her husband as well as my brother and sister-in-law recently visited your country and they came home with a good report, as well as spectacular photos. They remarked on a few oddities, but gave no indication that New Zealanders condone immoral behavior (breach of contract, child abuse, drunk driving, etc.). Whether that comes from your Christian heritage or natural sensibilities is beside the point. Jews and Christians do not have a patent on morality. As St. Paul observed, the moral law is written in the human heart. A naturalist philosophy cannot extirpate it. Darwin made a good effort in "Descent of Man" but did not succeed.

Christianity is not about the establishment of a moral code. Even in the most "secular" society, humans will have a sense of right and wrong, good and bad - and that we often fail to do the good and avoid the evil. When one recognizes that in a personal way, then (and not one moment sooner) Christianity has something to say to him. At that point I hope that it will speak to you as well, Stuart.

I also extend best wishes,

Fr. Bloom