Francis Collins: A Response

“Francis Collins, Altruism, and Human Survival”

By William Soderberg

April 8, 2008

Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health and author of the book The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), gave a talk recently (1) on his personal search for a synthesis between his belief in evolution and his Christian belief. He answered a question regarding the future of human evolution with the reply that we may never have to face such a future. Collins stated that the sharp curves on several data charts point to an end of human existence.

What can account for Collins’ pessimism regarding the human future? The tradition that he subscribes to, Christianity, began in a period when the inhabitants of Judea were facing dispersion or perhaps extinction as a community. During a brutal occupation in the time of the Roman Empire, the people of Judea were asking “Is this the end of our way of life?” For Jews who had taken refuge at Massada, the question was even more basic: “Is life under Roman oppression worth living?” Under siege from Roman forces, many in Massada decided that suicide was preferable to life under Roman brutality.

Religious communities in major Western traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have emerged in periods of oppression and turmoil. The faith shared by most community members during the formative years of each of these traditions turned to an answer in survival, not suicide.

As I listened to Collins’ talk and his response to the question about the human future, I was struck by the profound irony of his message. When Collins asserted that he didn’t think humans would survive much longer, he expressed a profound despair. In defending his Christian faith, Collins admitted to an absence of faith in the future of the human community.

The absence of faith in humanity’s future that Collins expressed may be explained by a reading of Collins’ book, The Language of God. He regards the religious point of view as an altruistic or compassionate perspective. The compassion of a Mother Theresa or an Oscar Schindler is echoed in the compassion of other healers. (2) The Human Genome Project pursues the goals of healing and preventing diseases linked to one’s genetic make-up. Such healing efforts are motivated by altruism, Collins maintains, so the scientific aims of medicine parallel the religious efforts to bring healing to the world. Collins’ scientific outlook and his Christian belief are both grounded in a “Moral Law” that expresses the human capacity for altruism.

While on some occasions much good has been done in the name of altruism, on other occasions serious harm has resulted from altruistic motives. When Stalin shared with many of his contemporaries the altruistic goal of a more equal distribution of social goods, he was confused by opposition to this worthy goal. People who opposed his policies, he concluded, were merely self-interested. Because they had the lower motive of self-interest and did not share the good or lofty goal of equal distribution, Stalin sought to eliminate the opposition. He ordered the execution of millions of people who failed to share his political goals and his allegedly higher motive of altruism.

When a person views altruism as the religious and moral point of view, self-interest (or egoism) challenges religious belief and morality itself. Evidence of widespread self-interest among one’s contemporaries confuses those who advocate altruism. The struggle against the self-interested seems to be such an uphill battle that believers who interpret the moral law as altruism may come to fear defeat and to feel despair. They tend to find consolation in associating exclusively with other believers who also equate faith with altruism. The believers come to regard themselves as a remnant chosen to shoulder the burden of promoting benevolence, compassion, and goodness in the world.

Altruism or compassion is an important part of religion and morality, but it is only part of the picture. When altruism or compassion alone is considered the religious or moral point of view, an important feature is missing. The part that is missing may be described as fair-mindedness. Fair-mindedness among policy-makers is a willingness to formulate rules from the perspective of persons who are likely to suffer from the policies. To minimize suffering, brutalization or victimization, basic rights are set in place to serve as boundary lines. Compassion or altruism may bring people to the negotiating table to formulate policies, but fair-mindedness must then inform the policies if the policies are to be considered just and wise.

The pursuit of fairness may help to explain the close association of political and religious leaders in various settings. Ideally, justice and fairness are concerns common to both political and religious leaders. Compassion or altruism takes people beyond narrow self-interest, but fair-mindedness is the quality that characterizes wise leadership.

The view that altruism is the religious and moral point of view leads to divisions among people. The believers tend to place themselves in one group and to regard the non-believers as belonging to another group. The believers cannot trust the non-believers, because they perceive the higher motives and views of life’s purpose to be at odds with the lower motives and goals of non-believers.

As one looks at environmental and other issues that may threaten human life on the planet, one may trace such destructive behavior to a pursuit of short-term self-interest. The threats posed by self-interested behavior may well lead persons who place themselves in the camp of altruists to say that the world is doomed. The self-interested are untrustworthy and greedy, according to the altruists, and the relentless pursuit of self-interest is bringing human life to a rapid end. Further, the altruists and the self-interested stand in such strong opposition to one another that they cannot negotiate policies—even to prevent the ruin of the planet. Collins’ despair over human survival, then, may be traced to his identification of a religious and moral perspective with an altruistic point of view. (3)

Fair-mindedness offers an alternative. When fair-mindedness is included as part of a religious or moral framework, exclusiveness can give way to inclusiveness. Those who regard themselves as altruistic see self-interested persons as different and a threat to their way of life. On the other hand, those who regard themselves as fair-minded can accept either persons motivated by altruism or those motivated by self-interest. Given a serious injustice, anyone can adopt the fair and impartial point of view and accept a change of rules to avoid such injustice.

To be sure, notions of fairness and justice vary. (4) For example, some maintain that fairness is achieved when persons serve the social role to which they are best suited by nature; social stability is present when people accept their assigned roles. Others think fairness is present when people come together and choose the rules by which they govern themselves; citizens achieve autonomy in these circumstances. Some hold that fairness means an equal distribution of the social goods; the well-being of the many is the aim of such distribution. Still others say that policies are fair when they permit people to pursue their human potentials; this approach enables people to achieve self-realization.

Although notions of fairness vary, people who regard one another as fair-minded can generally trust each other and discuss policies. They can acknowledge different notions of fairness while admitting that a single notion of justice or fairness may not prevail in all situations. With this admission, the discussion can then go forward to determine policies that best serve to preserve social stability, autonomy, equal treatment of people, self-realization, etc.

To have hope for the human future, one must trust other humans. Those who regard themselves as altruistic are inclined to mistrust others whom they regard as self-interested; on the other hand, those who regard others as fair-minded share a common ground that promotes trust.

If humans are to have a future, they must negotiate policies that do not destroy the planet. Humans may negotiate policies if they view each other as fair-minded. However, if they divide the world into altruists and egoists, negotiations become virtually impossible. The social world breaks down when people can no longer talk to each other.

Some chose mass suicide during the first century CE in Judea, but many chose their continued existence. The view that each human is capable of fair-mindedness is critical in troubled times—both past and present—if humans are to continue their existence. The half-truth that the religious and moral perspective is one of altruism must give way to the notion that both altruism and fair-mindedness are key elements in religion and morality. (5)

1. Collins’ talk, “Faith and Science: Two Paths to Truth,” was given on March 30, 2008 at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland.

2. Collins asserts on pages 25 and 28 that Oskar Schindler and Mother Teresa exemplify the practice of altruism. On page 149 Collins refers to his acceptance of “…the Moral Law and universal longing for God [and] a signpost within us pointing toward a benevolent and loving presence.” On page 164 he writes that “…great acts of compassion have also been fueled by faith,” and on page 169 he notes that “…the great monotheistic religions of the world…rest upon…the powerful evidence provided by human altruism.” He cites C.S. Lewis on page 217 in describing the Christian virtue of agape as “the love that seeks no recompense.” Collins on the same page links this notion to his personal experience: “…I had felt the gentle stirrings of a desire to do something truly unselfish for others—that calling to serve with no expectation of personal benefit that is common to all human cultures.” Collins contrasts faith with self-interest on page 222: “Faithfulness to God required a kind of death of self-will, in order to be reborn as a new creation.” Collins does point beyond altruism on page 200 when he describes the moral law as knowledge of right and wrong. This view of the moral law moves toward a notion of fairness, but Collins does not develop this interpretation.

3. This account of the source of Collins’ pessimism regarding the future of humanity helps to explain some weak responses he gives to the problem of evil or brutal policies. When he raises the issue that religion has been responsible for some terrible practices historically, he responds that truth is sometimes kept in rusty containers. This platitude is wholly inadequate for addressing the potential harms that genetic modification or genetic testing could produce.
Collins was asked at the talk about his use of the expression “the Moral Law.” The questioner expressed concern about the use of such a phrase, and wondered if it didn’t imply that some people who claimed to know the moral law could try to justify outrageous policies—such as the Holocaust. Collins replied that the Holocaust was a twisted application of the Moral Law. I would respond that this reply reflects Collins’ altruist-egoist framework: Collins implied that altruism produces a correct application of the moral framework, but egoism results in a twisted application.

4. The list of political and moral frameworks in this paragraph correspond respectively to a Christian framework in the tradition of Augustine of Hippo, which aims at social stability; a Kantian framework, which seeks autonomy; a utilitarian framework—including Marxism—which advocates greater equality in the distribution of social goods, including income and wealth; and an Aristotelian or Thomistic framework of self-realization.
The fair-minded approach aims to address shortcomings of the altruist-egoist approach. It invites negotiation of controversial policies from an impartial point of view and assumes that the negotiators are fair-minded. Each of the values—social stability, autonomy, equality, self-realization, etc.–that is potentially compromised by the policy is taken under consideration. The goal of the policy-makers is to preserve to the greatest extent possible the values that the proposed policy places under threat.

5. Collins’ association of religion with altruism reflects the religious half-truth that altruism is identical with the religious or moral point of view. The covenant notion in the western monotheistic religions takes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam beyond altruism, but Collins shows little awareness of the contractual nature of the covenant tradition. By identifying the religious perspective with altruism, Collins leaves out the perspective of fair-mindedness associated with the rich tradition of the covenant. The covenant is built on promises—God’s promise to the people and the people’s promise to God.
Altruism is an inclination or feeling. Some may be inclined toward altruism. For those so inclined, certain obligations to help others follow. Persons not inclined to altruism, however, share no such obligation. Self-interest is also an inclination, and a morality that draws upon self-interest as the moral point of view traces obligations to the inclination of self-interest. One has obligations to himself or herself in this approach to morality.
Obligations do not arise from inclinations in the case of promises. The fact that one has made a promise places an obligation to fulfill the promise. While some promises may carry more binding force than others, some degree of duty is ordinarily attached to any promise. In the covenant tradition, God promises a reward to those who live a certain kind of life and threatens punishment to those who go against this way of life. The writings of Augustine of Hippo incorporate this notion of the covenant, as do the self-realization theories of Thomas Aquinas (who follows the Aristotelian tradition).
The covenant provides the historical background for the more recent development of the theory that a social contract is the source of morality, law, and of human society itself. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant is a major expression of the social contract. The contract is based on a promise made by persons who agree that some practices are acceptable while others are out of bounds. Consensus among the people creates human rights that define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Because these boundaries are agreed upon through fair-minded negotiation of the social contract, the people can promise to abide by the terms of the agreement. In this way, moral obligations are derived from promises rather than inclinations.

His neglect of the fair-minded point of view leaves Collins’ position closer to a utilitarian than to an Augustinian moral framework. A major feature of utilitarianism is the identification of altruism with the moral point of view, while Augustinians ground morality in the promises associated with the divine covenant.