Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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Thanks for your response to my last question. Did Kant's a priori have any influence on how Christians perceive their God? For instance, everyone (to my knowledge) in the old testament perceives God through one of the five senses, however I doubt all Christians still claim to experience their God that way. I would ask a Christian this, but I live in Vermont so no one I know is religious.
October 8, 2010

Well, I’m really the wrong person to ask if you’re looking for the opinion of a Christian. But most of the accounts I’ve heard and read from other Christians tend to rely on some sort of a posteriori evidence, be it an external event they’re convinced was caused by God, or just the sensation of His presence (I’m calling this a posteriori because these folks have the phenomenological experience of some external force acting upon them, regardless of whether or not that is actually what’s going on).

On the other hand, maybe claims like, “I was lost until I found God” could be taken to be a priori, because it could mean that these particular individuals found within themselves, entirely through self-reflection, that lack which could only be mitigated by a divine presence. But then again, saying that you’re unfulfilled without God doesn’t imply the existence of God—it could just as easily mean that you’re doomed to be permanently unfulfilled. There’s another step somewhere in there.

So I don’t really know. The only truly a priori argument I can think of for the existence of God—in the Kantian sense, unless I’m mistaken, though this predates Kant—is Descarte’s proof. But Descarte’s proof is a total mess, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to emulate it.

I guess I’ll open this up to the believers in my readership. Not just the Christians, but anyone who places faith in the divine. Are you basing that faith off of external evidence, personal reflection, or some combination of the two?

Culture War 2.0
August 20, 2010

Glenn Beck
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I was initially skeptical of Adam’s assertion that we’re in the midst of a new culture war, since the battle lines are drawn more or less the same way they always were: those who believe in American pluralism and equality of opportunity versus a group of predominantly Christian conservative white folk fueled by class and race resentment. So what if this time around, the white supremacist rhetoric is a little more subdued and euphemistic?

But on further reflection, I think Adam’s spot on. The clash on first principle grounds may be more or less the same, but there is something new and undeniably peculiar about the right-wing culture warriors self-image as a guerilla revolutionary. You can see it in everything from the silly Tea Party tricorner hats to Glenn Beck’s confounding claim that he and his followers are going to “reclaim the civil rights movement.

This isn’t just a matter of posturing, but a matter of policy. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a radical, historic pivot point in American history. The Dixie Democrats and others who opposed the civil rights movement (the same one their ideological descendants now want to “reclaim”) were fighting to maintain the status quo.

Now the situation is more or less reversed, if not exactly. When progressives aren’t playing defense, they’re pushing reforms which, while deeply important, likely won’t register on the great richter scale of history the way the Roe v. Wade decision, or the rolling back of the Jim Crow laws, did. The new right-wing cultural warriors may lace their rebuttals with references to the America of their childhood, or America the way the Founders intended, or some other platitudes about a grand, bygone Golden Age, but they’re not really advocating a return to some prior status quo. Instead, they’re advocating a radical, sweeping revolution.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

Republican candidate Mitch Daniels
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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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