Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Moral Poverty of Naturalism

Yet another great share from the Wintery Knight blog on Mark D. Linville's the moral poverty of evolutionary naturalism.

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation. There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law. The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of second-order propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself). Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character. And, assuming that there is anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import. Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience. What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import? “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.” Right. So?
The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality. Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.” He explains,
By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions. For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.” These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.2
Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge. He then addresses the question of moral motivation.
In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?” For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?” The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.3
Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter. Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives. Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not. More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.” As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative. But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.
One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature. But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology. Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not. If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly. If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.” And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.
In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

At this point I want to recommend reading J.P. Moreland's essay on human worth and naturalism he wrote for the book "God is Great, God is Good..." The following ideas and sources are from that essay. I include this summary of human worth and naturalism because I think the moral argument for God has a lot of weight in human dignity and intrinsic worth.

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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