In my last blog, sparked by the essentially non-directedness of the Darwinian evolutionary process, I raised what seems to me to be a major problem for those who would reconcile Christian belief with modern science. I want to follow this in a similar vein, turning now to morality, a topic discussed in an interesting piece in Friday's New York Times by the conservative but almost-always-worth-reading columnist David Brooks on the foundations of morality. He is reporting on a recent conference on the topic, where a group of "moral naturalists" argued their case. This is about the claim that morality can be given an entirely natural explanation, no need to get God involved to dictate or support our ethical imperatives. I found it extremely interesting because -- okay, I'm talking about myself again -- the topic is one that has been of major concern and interest to me from the day that I started out as a philosopher, 50 years ago.
As part of our indoctrination into the profession, we junior philosophers were taught that there are some things that the regular world thinks are true (or false) but that we know better. At the head of the list was the most common form of moral naturalism, so-called "evolutionary ethics." This is where you argue that "descent with modification," as Charles Darwin called it, is the key to morality, the most common form being that monster from the past, Social Darwinism. We little philosophical midshipmen learned to regard all such theorizing with a sneer, regarding the whole approach rather like making a bad smell at a vicarage tea party. The great G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica, demonstrated that all attempts to relate ethics to evolution falter on the "naturalistic fallacy": evolution concerns "is" statements, claims about matters of fact, while morality concerns "ought" statements.
How things have changed! The greatest credit must go to the Harvard evolutionist Edward O. Wilson, who in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) simply ignored the philosophers and declared that the time had come to "biologicize" the subject. Of course, evolution had to be relevant to the all-important topic of what we do and why we think we ought to do what we do -- or why we think we ought not to do what we do. Although the response of the philosophical community in general was one of deafening silence tinged with contempt, as a deeply committed evolutionist I don't think I was alone in my reaction. As they say about any good idea, first you ignore it, then you deny it, and then you say you have known it all along. I and a few others, including the ethicist Peter Singer, went rapidly from ignoring to denial to acceptance -- given the attitudes of our colleagues, a bit like facing death in more ways than one.
We did not all go in the same way. Wilson, like previous evolutionary ethicists -- notably the nineteenth century Herbert Spencer and the twentieth century Julian Huxley (older brother of the novelist Aldous Huxley) -- wanted to justify moral claims on the basis of evolution. All of these people think that the evolutionary process is progressive: it goes from the simple to the complex, from the monad to the man as they used to say (or perhaps today from the worm to the woman), and in its course value increases. Obviously, humans are of more worth than bacteria or, to take things higher up the scale, trilobites or dinosaurs. Hence, morality can be based on evolution and what we ought to do is to promote evolution. (The interpretations of how we should do this are as varied as the Christian interpretations of the Love Commandment. Spencer, an old-fashioned Victorian liberal, wanted to promote laissez-faire. Wilson, a new-fashioned Al Gore liberal, wants to save the rain forests.)
The trouble, as I explained in my previous blog, is that there is very good reason to think that, appearances to the contrary, Darwinian evolution through natural selection is not genuinely progressive. I would rather be a human than a bacterium or a trilobite or a dinosaur, but that is my judgment, not evolution's. So what is the alternative? I and a few others thought that this pointed to what is known in the trade as ethical skepticism or moral nihilism. Perhaps there are no foundations to morality! Perhaps it is all a matter of biology-produced psychology and morality is simply an adaptation to keep us all happy and social.
Of course, morality would break down if we generally realized this, but we then added that part of the adaptation was the conviction that morality is justified -- that is objective in some way -- even though it is in fact subjective. To use an ugly term, we "objectify" moral claims. My only hope of ever getting into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is my claim (much beloved by the Creationists because it shows that they were right about me all along) is that morality is a collective illusion put in place by our genes to make us social animals.
Of course there had to be more to the story than this. One thing that had to be shown was that evolution really can produce moral individuals and not just self-regarding monsters. This part of the program has gone very smoothly, with empirical researchers showing in great detail how and why morality is a terrific adaptation for social animals like us humans. Leading the pack today is a Harvard researcher mentioned by Brooks, psychologist and evolutionist Marc Hauser. The point is that ethical skepticism is skeptical about foundations. It doesn't mean that you don't have morality. Rather, it is a matter of where it comes from and what its status truly is.
Another thing that had to be shown was that morality is a special case. The reason why we don't voluntarily step in front of a speeding truck is because we see and hear it. In other words, we use evolutionary adaptations like the eye and the ear to sense it. But of course, the truck really exists. Why then is sauce for the epistemological goose not also sauce for the ethical gander? The mere fact that morality is something that came about through evolution -- that we have a moral organ, as Hauser would say -- does not mean that the objects of its reflection are illusory.
That of course is true, but the reply is that even though there may be other ways of sensing the truck -- echolocation for instance -- ultimately you had better sense the truck somehow. In the case of morality, however, thanks to the non-progressiveness of evolution this seems not to be true. We could have evolved completely different sentiments to be social, and what we now think is true we could then think is false or stupid. I like to invoke what I call the John Foster Dulles system of morality, named after Eisenhower's Secretary of State. He hated the Russians, but he knew that the Russians hated him, so he got along with them. Perhaps instead of thinking we should love our neighbors, we could think we ought to hate our neighbors, but we know that they feel the same way about us, so we get along. Here you would think that the Love Commandment is just stupid.
Of course you could still say that the Love Commandment is really true, but generally this is not what you would want to say about objective morality. "Morality is objective but we don't know what it asks of us and may never know what it asks of us." Perhaps the John Foster Dulles system of morality is the true, objective morality, and we poor deluded fools think otherwise.
I should say that when first I started promoting this position, in a book with the somewhat pretentious title Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy , the shrieks of horror and contempt and ridicule from my fellow philosophers were such that they can still be heard in outer space. Fortunately I have the kind of temperament that thrives on this. For my 50th birthday I made a collage of the critical reviews and sent it as an invitation to all of my critics. A couple had the humor and grace to respond with thanks.
Today, although I suspect it is still a minority position, the kind of evolutionary naturalism about morality that I endorse has far more street cred in the philosophical community. At the invitation of the Princeton University Press I recently put together a collection on these issues and I have not yet heard that philosophers are organizing a boycott. I have just had my 70th birthday and, even if I had wanted to, I could not have put together a like collage of critical reviews.
But rather than just being smug, I want to raise what strikes me as a very important point. It seems to me that we have here more of a challenge to Christian belief than many realize -- and among the many I include those of us who are eager to reconcile science and religion (us, so called, accommodationists). The moral argument for the existence of God is popular and persuasive. If you don't have God, you can't have morality. But if the kind of evolutionary moral naturalism I endorse is true, then you can have morality and God doesn't enter into it at all. This may not make for atheism, but it certainly weakens the case for theism. Once again in the ongoing conflict between science and religion it looks as though science is on the winning side and religion has to beat a retreat.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more