Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why objective morality fails on scientific naturalism

I've written quite a lot of blog posts on objective morality, what it is, where it comes from and such. With each post I write, I'm trying to work the meaning out in my mind, i.e., how does objective morality work in the world and in us, human beings, and how this works with worldviews other than the Christian worldview. Does objective morality only fit perfectly in the Christian worldview? The answer I come up with is yes. Objective morality fits only within the Christian worldview. It fits perfectly within the Christian worldview. Objective morality does not fit at all within the scientific naturalist worldview. It can't. The piece, objective morality, does not fit in the puzzle pieces of scientific naturalism. You can try to shove it in with all of your might, but it just won't fit. You might hear some popular naturalists speak that there is objective purpose in their worldview, that morality is objective; don't buy it for a second. All of that is rhetoric. (In this post I'll be borrowing heavily from J.P. Moreland's essay The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Atheism).

Evolutionary naturalist Michael Ruse writes

morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says "Love thy neighbor as thyself," they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.

From Michael Ruse's statement, it's hard to find intrinsic value and an objective moral order given naturalism. To the naturalist, morality is simply an aid to survival and reproduction, i.e., kin selection and reciprocal altruism. What is kin selection? Self-help by way of natural selection; but natural selection isn't operating at the level of individuals, it operates at the level of the individuals' genes. An example of this is: a mother who dives into a burning car to save her daughter. The mother is not acting out of pure altruism, i.e., our of selfless concern for the well-being of others; rather she is acting out of desperation to make sure her genes, which are shared by her daughter, make it into the next generation. Even if she (the mother) dies, her genes live on through her children. Reciprocal altruism is, "I'll be nice to you, so that you'll be nice to me." On naturalism, human worth and objective morality is, as Michale Ruse said, illusory. 

One would think, since naturalism cannot explain the existence of objective morality, it counts as a nod toward Christian theism. Atheist J.L. Mackie acknowledged: "Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them."2 The best scientific naturalism can do is explain what I call "low-end" morality, which is explained partly by kin-selection and reciprocal altruism; it cannot explain intrinsic value, objective moral order, or the high equal value and rights of human persons (high-end morality). Naturalists Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse acknowledge that the best justification for the high equal value of human persons is in the grounding of Judeo-Christian doctrine of the image of God.3 This claim by Singer and Kuhse is acknowledged by many thinkers, most notably by Joel Feinberg. 4 

J.P. Moreland writes 

The following skeptical question, Feinberg believes, has never been adequately answered: why would we treat all people equally in any respect in the face of manifest inequalities of merit among them? The simple response "Because we just have such worth" does not answer the skeptic's query. If "human worth" is real and generic, says Feinberg, then it must supervene on some subvenient base that (1) we al lhave equally in common and (2) is nontrivial and of supreme moral worth. Operating within a naturalistic framework, Feinberg considers several attempts to delineate that base, and he judges them all to be a failure because they

  • require an entity such as "pricelessness" for which we have no answer as to where it came from and with respect to which one must postulate a problematic, mysterious, intuitive faculty of direct awareness of such an entity;
  • are grounded in a degreed property (one that is possessed to a greater or lesser degree) such as rationality (Feinberg takes the potential for rationality to be degreed) which, therefore, cannot do the job of founding equal worth for all; 
  • simply name the problem to be solved and do not provide an explanation of the problem itself.
At the end of the day, Feinberg acknowledges that the notion of equal worth and equal rights for all human persons is groundless and may simply express a noncognitivist, unjustifiable pro-attitude of respect to ward the humanity in each person. 5  

Feinberg gives an excellent illustration of the difficulty of grounding equal value and rights (objective morality) on a naturalistic worldview. It cannot be done because given naturalism, it's illusory.
J.P. Moreland then cites David Hull who is the leading philosopher of evolutionary theory in the twentieth century. 

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of "natures" to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo sapiens as a biological species. If homo sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one's claims about "human nature." Perhaps all people are "persons," share the same "personhood," etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin's theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate "Homo sapiens" from "human being," but the result is a much less plausible position.

He (Moreland) goes on to cite atheist James Rachels as claiming, "...a Darwinian approach to the origin of human beings, while not entailing the falsity of these notions, nevertheless provides an undercutting defeater for the idea that humans are made in the image of God and that humans have intrinsic dignity and worth as such. Indeed, according to Rachels, Darwinism is the universal solvent that dissolves any attempt to defend the notion of intrinsic human dignity." 7 

Rachels writes: 

The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them. Therefore, any adequate defense of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals. But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures. This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely.

Rachels is correct. On the naturalistic worldview, "...a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely." All you have with naturalism is an explanation for low-end morality. Naturalism cannot explain the high-end morality that humans demonstrate, which is behavior that doesn't care about reciprocal or genetic advantages to the action. Why do people give blood? The blood is going to help those who the person does not know. There is no naturalistic rationale for this behavior. Richard Dawkins concedes that that the Darwinian thesis cannot explain why people give blood, a fact that he puts down to "pure disinterested altruism." 9 The Darwinian model cannot account for "love your enemies." Or for the actions of Mother Teresa, or for the good Samaritan model. The Darwinian model is confined to the realm of self-interest and the essence of morality operates outside the realm of self-interest. As Dinesh D'Souza writes, "The whole point of morality is that you are doing what you ought to do, not what you are inclined to do or what is in your interest to do. Morality is described in the language of duty, and duty is something that we are obliged to do whether we want to or not, whether it benefits us or not." 10

J.P. Moreland finishes his essay with 

Naturalists can't appeal to emergence to solve their problems because (1) this is just a label for the problem to be solved and not a real solution and (2) it begs the question against Christian theism in a most egregious way. It would seem, then, that important features that characterize us human persons provide evidence that there is a Creator God who made us. And this is exactly what one would predict if biblical teaching about the image of God is true. 11


1. Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262 - 69 

2. J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), p. 115 

3. Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 118-39. 

4. Joel Finberg, Social Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp. 84-97

5. J.P. Moreland, "The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Atheism," in God is Great, God is Good (USA: Intervarsity Press, 2009), pp. 45-46 

6. David Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (Albany: State University of New York, 1989), pp. 74-75

7. Moreland, pp. 46-47

8. James Rachels, Created from Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 171-72. Cf. pp. 93, 97, 171

9. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) pp. 230.

10. Dinesh D'Souza, What's So Great About Christianity (USA: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007) pp. 239-240.

11. Moreland, pp. 47

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