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The Nature of Morality: Replies to Critics

Well, I thought the Mormons were touchy, but they can’t hold a candle to the New Atheists, who are all over me for my views on the limits of science and, more particularly, the evolutionary-based nature of morality. I am a little surprised, frankly. I would have thought that, having given up God as a foundation of morality, they would welcome an attempt to use evolutionary theory to provide a view of ethics that does not sink into the rank relativism that characterizes undergraduates’ thinking after they have take a couple of sociology courses. Oh well!

Here, lest I be accused of ignoring criticism, let me reply to three objections that have been leveled. The person these days who seems to find my thinking most offensively incorrect is the Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. It is a strange world when my biggest critic is not some evangelical Young Earther, but the head of America’s major evolution society. Half joking, I suggested that I should be grateful for the publicity and put him on my payroll. He in turn suggests that a payment of 50 bucks would be appropriate and I have just written and sent a check—although if he goes on claiming that Alvin Plantinga has a “liberal faith,” I shall want my money back.

First, the complaint that since I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection, I must therefore be using science to justify my ethical claims. I too am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so. Distinguish between an explanation of the origin of something and its justification. Suppose David Barash starts writing columns claiming to be the Queen of the May. We discover that this is because a group of Christian fanatics captured him and, as in The Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed him. That is the explanation for why he now thinks the way he does. It is hardly a justification of the claim—delightful though it would be, were it true—that he is in fact the Queen of the May.

Second, what about all of those societies with ethical beliefs so different from ours?

Three (subsidiary) points. First, I take it as possible that a whole society could be ignoring morality. Surely the evidence is sufficiently strong to suggest that anyone today who sells tobacco products is behaving immorally. But cigarettes are still sold widely.

Second, get your facts right. It is not the case that in Ancient Greece it was considered morally acceptable to corner a young boy in the showers and sodomize him. Greek homosexuality was a much more confined and ritualized phenomenon, involving a kind of masturbation between adolescents and somewhat older youths. If you were into anal intercourse, you could lose your citizen rights. Socrates and Plato indeed were iffy on all kinds of sexual passion, thinking it a kind of madness.

Third, do note that moral claims almost always involve factual claims as well, and it is these latter that lead to differences, not the morality as such. For example, people are divided on the morality of abortion, but everyone agrees that killing other human beings for convenience is wrong. The division is over the definition of a human being. I fully expect that societies that have different views from ours about the nature of women and gays and whatever will have different moral codes about women and gays and whatever. It is not the morality itself that is different.

Now, going back to the main list, and picking up the third point to be made, note that in this discussion, there is something of an equivocation about the word “subjective.” If you place “subjective” in opposition to “objective” and mean by the latter something external, then clearly the kind of ethics I propose is subjective. I prefer the term “moral nonrealist,” because I want to use the word “subjective” in another way, namely where one says it is subjective whether or not one likes Brussels sprouts. That is a matter of choice. But it is not subjective whether you think sodomizing little boys is right or wrong. That is not a matter of choice. (You can choose whether or not to do it, but that is a different thing. The morality itself is not up for grabs.)

My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective. (Although it is a societal thing, I am a hard-line individual selectionist, so don’t try to get me on that one. Selfish genes do not necessarily mean selfish people.)

You may complain that this is not enough. You want a firmer foundation—meaning you still want some outside foundation—for morality. I cannot give you that. Ultimately, I am a Humean. Philosophy leads to skepticism (about foundations), but thank God psychology rescues us.

I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.

To be candid, if the alternative is God—especially if it is the God of the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, who has just likened a gay-pride march to a Ku Klux Klan rally—I want no part of it. Once again, to quote John Stuart Mill:

In everyday life I know what to call right or wrong, because I can plainly see its rightness or wrongness. Now if a god requires that what I ordinarily call wrong in human behavior I must call right because he does it; or that what I ordinarily call wrong I must call right because he so calls it, even though I do not see the point of it; and if by refusing to do so, he can sentence me to hell, to hell I will gladly go.

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