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Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

By Mark Linville

[Excerpt from a larger essay–my side of a printed debate on God and morality with Louise Antony–forthcoming in a new edition of Michael Peterson and Ray VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell). –MDL]
As a part of a larger project of defending an atheistic accounting of “robust ethics,” Erik Wielenberg has recently taken on such arguments and suggested a model for reconciling an evolutionary account of morality with his view that morality is objective (even “robust”).  One assumption of my argument so far has been that unless there is a direct connection between the reproductive advantage of our moral beliefs and their truth–so that their being true is responsible for their being fitness conferring–then we’ve no reason to assume their truth.  But as Nagel says, “value realism” is like an unattached spinning wheel.  It does no such explanatory work, and so we are left merely with the view that we have the moral beliefs we do because of their reproductive advantage–they have been fobbed off on us by our genes, as Ruse says.  Wielenberg instead posits an indirect connection that is routed through a “third factor”[1]— a set of evolved human cognitive faculties (e.g., reason).  It is plausible that certain cognitive faculties have evolved because they confer fitness upon their possessors.  Further, there is “wide agreement” that “if rights exist at all, their presence is guaranteed by certain cognitive faculties.”[2]  Suppose, then, that there are rights and that such rights are based upon those cognitive faculties.  It will follow that any creature with such cognitive faculties possesses rights, and any such creature who exercises those faculties to believe There are rights believes truly.  This, of course, is because having the cognitive faculties is both necessary for having the belief and sufficient for having the rights.

This is a neat way of explaining how evolution might ultimately be responsible for our having true moral beliefs, even if those beliefs are about non-natural truths.  Does it succeed?

Wielenberg is entitled to the assumption of rights due to the rhetorical context of his argument.  After all, I and others have argued that there would not be moral knowledge even if there were moral truths, and so his strategy–positing some moral truth and determining whether it could be known given the conditions laid down–is the natural way to proceed.  And his proposed model is, so far as I can tell, internally consistent.  After all, if our cognitive faculties are a product of our evolution, and if having such faculties is sufficient for having rights, then anyone capable of believing that there are rights is in possession of both the faculties and the rights.

But one wonders whether the assumption is safely lifted from the paper and transferred to the world itself.  Indeed, there are two assumptions at work: there are rights, and rights are based upon the possession of certain cognitive faculties.  Wielenberg cites “wide agreement” regarding the connection between those faculties and the possession of rights.  But the entrenched evolutionary skeptic might suggest that our belief in rights is just a part of that fobbed-off illusion.  When Bertrand Russell appealed to “wide agreement” regarding certain moral beliefs, George Santayana replied–no doubt with Darwin in mind–that such appeals are little better than “the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.”[4]  Further, given the background assumption of evolutionary naturalism, we might expect that such faculties themselves emerged as an evolutionary solution to the problem of survival and reproduction.  As such, they are of instrumental value as a means to such ends, much like opposable thumbs.  Can we rest the case for the intrinsic value of persons upon their possession of extrinsically valuable properties?  Human rationality is certainly good for humans just as arboreal acrobatic skills are good for rhesus monkeys, but beyond bald assumptions, does Wielenberg’s view provide the conceptual resources for thinking that it is a good in itself as would seem to be required for it to do the work assigned to it?

Wielenberg’s strategy may go some distance towards reducing the improbability of our possessing moral knowledge given the emergence of rational and moral agents who have both rights and a tendency to believe that they do.  But the model in itself fails to address a more astonishing cosmic coincidence to which Santayana pointed in his critique of Russell.  As an atheist and naturalist, Russell famously said, “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[5]   The forces of nature are not goal-oriented, and we should not think of the emergence of homo sapiens as the achievement of cosmic purposes.  We are here because nature “in her secular hurryings”[6] happened in at least one corner of the universe to throw spinning matter into the right recipe for things such as ourselves to form. But at the same time, Russell defended a view of morality that includes objective and intrinsic values–a form of Platonism not far from Wielenberg’s robust ethics. Santayana argued that these two commitments are mutually at odds.  As he saw, Russell’s moral philosophy implied that “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.”[7]  But Russell’s naturalism–and rejection of cosmic purpose–implies, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.”[8]   It would be marvelous indeed if, in the accidental world that Russell described, the very things that ought to exist should have come to be.  It would be as though among the eternal verities a special premium had forever been placed upon, say, conscious moral agents, and, despite the countless possibilities, and because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris.  Presumably, Beings with cognitive faculties have rights is a necessary truth–if a truth at all–and, as such, it was inscribed in the Platonic empyrean long before the Big Bang.  How astonishing it seems that such things with that “remarkable property” of being such that they ought to exist–should have appeared at all when the things responsible for their emergence had no prevision of such an end.  Did we win the cosmic lottery?  Santayana observed that at least Plato had an explanation for such things because the Good that he conceived was a “power,” influencing the world of people and things so that the course that nature has in fact taken is determined at least in part by moral values.[9] It is for such reasons that Thomas Nagel has posited the idea that “value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.”[10]  Nagel’s good is a power, unlike Russell’s, and as such it plays a role in explaining the moral shape that the world has taken.  But presumably no such moral guidance was at work in Wielenberg’s universe, seeing to it that portions of the material world should be fashioned and formed into moral agents.  Yet here we are!

I think this point remains despite Wielenberg’s further ruminations on whether Darwinian Counterfactuals are, in fact, likely or even possible.  He suggests that if physical law does not strictly require that emergent moral agents should have developed moral sensibilities something like our own, so that evolution would naturally narrow the range of possible outcomes, it is highly likely–at least “for all we know.”  Daniel Dennett has suggested that there may be certain “forced moves” in evolutionary design space.  For instance, given locomotion, stereoscopic vision is predictable.[11]  Wielenberg seems to be suggesting a forced move of his own.  But both moves are forced–if at all–only once certain conditions are in place.  Nagel has a relevant observation here on precisely the example Dennett cites.


Even if we think it likely that the evolution of moral agents such as ourselves should drop into a predictable groove, we are still left to explain why the natural world should be deeply structured in such a way that its natural processes and algorithms should produce such agents at all.  The whole thing is quite wonderful, and without the guidance of God, a Platonic demiurge, or Nagel’s guiding values, it seems an astonishing bit of luck.  It adds an additional epicycle of coincidence to the so-called “anthropic coincidences” in that not only have we beat astonishing odds simply by arriving on the scene–because of the mind-boggling improbability that the universe should have permitted and sustained life of any kind–but that it is also the achievement of ends eternally declared to be good and morally desirable by necessarily true but causally impotent moral standards. It is a called shot, but without a Babe Ruth to place it.  To base one’s argument on an assumption that defies such odds seems a bit like planning one’s retirement on the assumption that one will win the lottery.  One might suggest that Wielenberg help himself to the additional unjustified assumption of Nagel’s causally effective guiding values, for this would fill a void in his view, and anyone with the liberality to grant the one (i.e., rights) is likely to grant the other.

 

Notes:

[1] To illustrate, suppose we notice a strong–even exceptionless–correlation between chilly weather and the turning of fall leaves.  But suppose we are told that the chill in the air is not the cause of the colorful leaves.  But then we consider a third factor–the earth’s tilt from the sun resulting in both less light and colder weather–which is responsible for both the color (due to the light) and the chill.

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

[5] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine and Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 153.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] “Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.” Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p. 143.

[10] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Consciousness, p. 116.

[11] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

[12] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 60.

 

Image: “Evolution” by M. Bruneke. CC. License.

Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

By David Baggett 

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.
In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

Podcast: David Baggett on Four Ways God Best Explains Morality

On this week’s episode, we have a lecture by David Baggett entitled, “Four Ways God Best Explains Morality.” Dr. Baggett begins by assuming the position of moral realism, the idea that there are various moral facts in need of explanation: moral values, moral obligations, moral knowledge, the convergence of virtue and happiness, and the reality of moral transformation. He then explains why theism generally and Christian theism particularly provides a better explanation of these facts than does naturalism.

Photo: “God is Love” by C. Clegg. CC license. 

Link: Does Humanism need God? A Debate with Angus Ritchie vs Stephen Law

One of our contributors, Angus Ritchie, recently debated atheist philosopher Stephen Law on whether “atheistic humanism can account for the human dignity, morality and reason it espouses.” Ritchie, along with co-author Nick Spencer, wrote an essay defending the idea ” that Christians ought to be more aware – and more proud – of their humanist credentials, rather than allowing humanism to become a cipher for atheism. Were it not for Christianity, they argue, the core ideas of humanism would simply not have developed in Europe.” You can listen to
the debate over at Unbelievable?.

Photo: “The Good Samaritan” by Lawrence OP. CC License. 

Podcast: David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 2)

Part 1 

This week, we are finishing up a two part series with Dr. David Baggett on the failure of secular ethical theories to explain human value and dignity. Last week, Dr. Baggett surveyed a wide array of secular ethical theories and explained why none of the theories considered could ground human value. This week we take aim at the views of Erik Wielenberg. Dr. Wielenberg is a top-notch philosopher and atheistic moral realist. His new book, Robust Ethics, is a serious piece of philosophy. Nevertheless, Dr. Baggett has some objections about Wielenberg’s view as it relates to human value. And we’ll be hearing those objections this week.

David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 2) (Right Click to Download)

Photo: “Collapsed” by G. Fornaro. CC License.

Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Moral Realist, Either

Editor’s note: This essay comes from Philosophy and the Christian Worldview: Analysis, Assessment and Development edited by Mark Linville and David Werther. 

By Mark Linville

So long as he is content to assume the reality and authority of the moral consciousness, the Moral Philosopher can ignore Metaphysic; but if the reality of Morals or the validity of ethical truth be once brought into question, the attack can only be met by a thorough-going enquiry into the nature of Knowledge and of Reality. –Hastings Rashdall, 1907

Bertrand Russell was not a Christian, and he bothered to tell us, in some detail, why he was not. At the time of the writing of “Why I Am Not a Christian,” his moral philosophy was a variety of emotivism. But this was not always so. At fifty, Bertrand Russell reflected upon the early days of his philosophical career and wrote, “When the generation to which I belong were young, Moore persuaded us all that there is an absolute good.” Indeed, for a period of nearly a decade, Russell defended a robust version of moral realism. His 1902 essay, “A Free Man’s Worship” touts a human vision of the Platonic Good as the one saving grace in a world where all human aspiration and accomplishment is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” Through our knowledge of the Good we may retain our dignity and find meaning despite the “omnipotence of death” and the utter indifference of the cosmos to all that we hold dear.

Just a few years later Russell published his Philosophical Essays (1910), which originally included “A Free Man’s Worship” as well as his essay, “The Elements of Ethics.” The latter offers an account of moral philosophy that is taken, with little alteration, straight from the pages of Moore’s Principia Ethica. Russell maintains that goodness is the fundamental moral concept and resists analysis into other terms, moral or non-moral. And moral properties resist identification with properties of any other order. Further, they are “impersonal” or objective: if a thing is good, then it is such that “on its own account it ought to exist.” Hence, “the object of ethics, by its own account, is to discover true propositions about virtuous and vicious conduct, and … these are just as much a part of truth as true propositions about oxygen or the multiplication table.”

Russell appealed to intuition.

In the case of ethics, we must ask why such and such actions ought to be performed, and continue our backward inquiry for reasons until we reach the kind of propositions of which proof is impossible, because it is so simple or so obvious that nothing more fundamental can be found from which to deduce it.

Thus, this “backward inquiry” arrives at “premises which we know though we cannot prove them,” and these become the starting ground for moral reflection. Moral beliefs ultimately receive their sanction through “immediate,” i.e., non-inferential, judgments. The final court of appeal is to “ethical judgments with which almost everyone would agree.” In short, the younger Russell was a stark raving moral realist.

But in the years between the publications of Philosophical Essays and Mysticism and Logic (1918), Russell’s confidence in the objectivity of morality had begun to erode. The latter collection included “A Free Man’s Worship,” but “The Elements of Ethics” was omitted. In the preface to that collection, and in reference to his views in “A Free Man’s Worship,” he confessed, “I feel less convinced than I did then of the objectivity of good and evil.” By the time of the 1929 edition, his abandonment of moral realism was complete: “I no longer regard good and evil as objective entities wholly independent of human desires….” He added, “It was Santayana who first led me to disbelieve in the objectivity of good and evil by his criticism of my then views in his ‘Winds of Doctrine.’”

George Santayana thus seems to have argued Russell back out of the moral realism of which Moore had earlier persuaded him. To my knowledge, Russell never bothered to elaborate on the specifics of Santayana’s arguments that he found compelling. There is some speculation on this. Harry Ruja, for instance, suggests that Russell’s moral realism was but a short-lived and halfhearted interlude between periods when he embraced varieties of anti-realism. According to Ruja, it took little more than a nudge to dislodge Russell from a view that he never found all that compelling. And the brutalities of war may have played a role. Be all of that as it may, our chief interest here is in Santayana’s arguments themselves and not whatever propensities caused Russell to change his mind. Are any of them any good?

Moral Faith in an Accidental Universe

Santayana’s criticisms of Russell’s “hypostatic ethics” are many. Some are specific counters to particular Russellian arguments. Two of his arguments are much grander in scale. On the one hand, Santayana argues that the requirements of moral realism per se are incoherent. In fact, he offers a number of arguments that seem to foreshadow those that would be marshaled in defense of non-cognitivism in the following decades. Space does not permit discussion of these interesting arguments. And a century of space-time is filled with discussions of similar arguments.

My chief interest is with Santayana’s second argument, which I believe has received but scant attention. According to Santayana, the conjunction of Russell’s moral philosophy with his naturalist metaphysics forms an unstable compound and thus lacks cohesion. In fact, Santayana thinks the combination is reduced to absurdity. Harry Ruja thinks this is Santayana’s “most telling criticism,” and I quite agree.

On the one hand, Russell’s moral philosophy implies, “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.” Russell’s language echoes that of Moore, who was concerned to show that some things “are worth having purely for their own sakes.” In Principia Ethica, Moore had argued against Sidgwick that some values—beauty in particular—obtain even if forever unappreciated by any conscious mind. Moore’s thought experiments using his method of “absolute isolation” were designed to discern what sorts of things are of intrinsic value. Generally, things have intrinsic value just in case “if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we should yet judge their existence to be good.”

On the other hand, given Russell’s naturalism, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.” In the very essay in which Russell found solace in the human vision of the Platonic Good, he asserts that “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.” But in such an accidental world it would be marvelous indeed were the very things that ought to exist should have come to be. It would be as though among the verities a special premium had forever been placed upon something—featherless bipeds, say—to the exclusion of all other possible forms (feathered monopods?), and, despite the countless possibilities and, because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris. The cosmic lottery seems not only to have turned up Moore’s beautiful world, but also a Fink-Nottle to gush over it: “People who say it isn’t a beautiful world don’t know what they are talking about”

Moral Scepticism and Animal Faith

Further, if human hopes and fears, loves and beliefs are, as Russell affirmed, “but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” it would be especially surprising to learn that, by fortuitous circumstance, and with no direction or influence from any heaven above, the emergent human conscience, to which Russell appeals, is a reliable indicator of eternal moral truth. Indeed, Russell observes a bit later in “A Free Man’s Worship” that it is a “strange mystery” that nature, “omnipotent but blind” should, in her “secular hurrying,” have “brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.”

At this, G. Dawes Hicks wrote in his 1911 review of Philosophical Essays,

Strange mystery indeed! But why should we be called upon in the name of science  complacently to admit such occult and incredible mysteries? The alleged miracles of former days were at least ascribed to a cause that could conceivably have wrought them.

The trouble with Russell’s overall position is that he has latched upon one set of possible values to the exclusion of the rest, and has done so by appeal to “intuition,” but he lacks any sort of background account, in the form of a supporting metaphysic, that would warrant his taking “felt values” as any indication of moral truth. As Santayana puts the point in Platonism and the Spiritual Life,

The distinction between true goods and false goods can never be established by  ignorant feeling or by conscience not backed by a dogmatic view of the facts: for felt values, taken absolutely and regarded as unconditioned, are all equally genuine in their excellence, and equally momentary in their existence.

If Russell thought that there are immediate judgments, “which we know though we cannot prove them,” Santayana replied, in effect, that their very immediacy is grounds for thinking that they do not constitute knowledge. Russell maintains that moral properties are mind-independent, and endeavors to justify his assertion by appeal to moral consensus, or something near enough. At this, Santayana complains,

Mr. Russell … thinks he triumphs when he feels that the prejudices of his readers will  agree with his own; as if the constitutional unanimity of all human animals, supposing it existed, could tend to show that the good they agreed to recognise was independent of their constitution.

Russell finds sympathy for his intuitions, not because they are self-evident, but because his reader is “the right sort of man.” And even if the sympathy were found to be universal, this would only demonstrate that his readers were members of the right sort of species.

Taking certain considered moral beliefs for granted, Russell proceeds in a forward direction to the construction of a moral philosophy. After all, one cannot reasonably demand that such intuitions themselves be inferred from yet more primitive moral beliefs. But, according to Santayana, Russell’s vision is “monocular” where a “binocular” perspective is required.

The ethical attitude doubtless has no ethical ground, but that fact does not prevent it   from having a natural ground; and the observer of the animate creation need not have much difficulty in seeing what that natural ground is. Mr. Russell, however, refuses to look also in that direction.

Russell spoke of a “backward inquiry” that terminates when and only when one has run out of grounds of a moral nature, but, Santayana thinks, the sequence continues into natural, physical and even animal grounds that reveal the conditioned nature of Russell’s would-be ethical axioms. Though Santayana agrees with Russell that “the good is predicated categorically by conscience,” a “glance back over our shoulder” will reveal that conscience itself is conditioned and has its basis “in the physical order of things.” Hence, “Ethics should be controlled by a physics that perceives the material ground and the relative status of whatever is moral.”

Given the implications of Russell’s “naturalist philosophy,” it is “no marvel that the good should attract the world where the good, by definition, is whatever the world is aiming at.” Nor is it any marvel that the dictates of human conscience should share such a trajectory. “Felt values reconcile the animal and moral side of our nature to their own contingency.” They arise out of “a substantial harmony between our interests and our circumstances.” When that harmony is achieved, there is a propensity to hypostasize the resulting “home values” into “a cosmic system especially planned to guarantee them,” and Russell’s very philosophy is just the outworking of this propensity. Russell’s good is but “natural laws, zoological species, and human ideals that have been projected into the empyrean.” Where Russell envisions the human intellect attracted by, and ascending to, a fixed and eternal Good, Santayana sees the vision of contingent and relative goods emerging in consciousness as the product of actual natures placed in actual circumstances.

Thus “good” and “bad” are understood in reference to “constitutional interests”: “The good is relative to actual natures and simply their latent ideal, actual or realized, is essential to its being truly a good.” Though the life of an oyster may not be the good life for anyone capable of reading philosophy, it suits the oyster. And while the human constitution and human society may set a premium upon the ideal of a “universal sympathy,” “the tigers cannot regard it as such, for it would suppress the tragic good called ferocity, which makes, in their eyes, the chief glory of the universe.” Either way, ethical absolutism is but a “mental grimace of passion” and thus “refutes itself by what it is.” “Human morality … is but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.” The outcome of Moore’s thought experiments or Russell’s poll regarding “ethical judgments with which almost every one would agree” are predictable given the fact that they employ “an imagination which is exclusively human.”

Darwin’s Descent of Man cannot have been far from Santayana’s elbow as he wrote. According to Darwin, human morality is ultimately rooted in a set of social instincts that conferred fitness upon our remote ancestors given the circumstances of the evolutionary landscape. Some behaviors (feeding one’s babies, fleeing from large predators) are adaptive, and others (feeding one’s babies to large predators) are not. Any predisposition or prompting that increases the probability of the adaptive behavior will thus also be adaptive. The circumstances of early hominid evolution were such that various forms of altruistic behavior were fitness conferring. For instance, members of a cooperative and cohesive group tended to have greater reproductive success, since the group itself would tend to fare better than competing, discordant groups.

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of  patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Assuming that the spirits of patriotism, sympathy and so forth are heritable, the predisposition for such behaviors will be passed from patriotic parent to obedient offspring.

Of course, there is more to the moral sense than the instincts that Darwin had in mind. All social animals are possessed of such instincts, but not all are plausibly thought of as moral agents. According to Darwin, conscience is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any   animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

Santayana may be right in thinking that ferocity is the chief glory of the universe for the tiger, but your average tiger is not given to reflection on the matter. Were he graced with intellect alongside his ferocity, he might be found guilty of hypostasizing ferocity in just the way that Russell has projected his own ideals. Were he to employ Moore’s method of absolute isolation the results would be radically different, dominated, as he is, with an imagination that is exclusively tigrine. He might think Russell eloquent on the topic of oysters, but only because he is the right sort of cat. Tigrine morality is, after all, nothing but the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.

Russell’s vision is monocular, then, in that he takes the deliverances of conscience as his point of departure but fails to consider the conditioned nature of conscience itself. He assumes that the moral sense is truth-aimed, with objective moral truth as its object, when, in fact, “moral truth” proves simply to be whatever it is that human conscience projects. If there is indeed anything “inevitable” about the “hygienic bias” that is human morality, it is only a hypothetical necessity, conditioned upon a radically contingent set of circumstances. Had the theater in which human evolution has played out been different in any of countless ways, either we might never have been among the cast at all, or we might have played an entirely different role. There may be some “forced moves” through evolutionary design space, as Daniel Dennett has observed. But if there are such inevitable engineering solutions, the set of predispositions out of which human morality has emerged, according to Darwin, seems not to be among them. Consider what I’ll call “Darwinian Counterfactuals.”

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can   hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.

This “inward monitor” that is the source of moral belief thus appears to be fitness aimed in that it directs the creature towards whatever behaviors are adaptive given the contingent circumstances in which it has been placed. But—and this is Santayana’s central point—there is no reason to suppose a connection between a conscientious belief’s being adaptive and its corresponding to whatever is eternally inscribed in the moral heavens. To paraphrase Santayana, natural selection is blind to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.

Metaphysical Underpinnings

Russell has divorced the realms of nature and morality and, in a way reminiscent of Mark Twain’s quip about naked people, has left morality with little or no influence in the world. He manages, with Moore’s help, to disentangle values from natural facts, but then sends morality to “fly into the abyss at a tangent,” leaving the earth in moral darkness. The result is an “impotent dogmatism on high.” Russell’s trouble, at bottom, is that he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates; his good is not a power.”

According to Santayana, Russell and Moore erred by isolating one element of Platonic morality—the hypostasis of the Good—to the exclusion of two others that are essential to its overall cohesion: the “political” and the “theological.” By the former, Santayana has in mind a theory of human nature holding that human happiness is to be achieved only in the appropriate relation to the good. He develops this idea more fully in Platonism and the Spiritual Life.

Life … has been kindled and is alone sustained by the influence of pre-existing  celestial models. It is by imitating these models in some measure that we exist at all, and only in imitating, loving, and contemplating them that we can ever be happy. They are our good.

The “theological” element constitutes the metaphysical underpinning for the conviction that something or someone is actively working all things together for the good. On such a scheme, that something just so happens to be the Good itself. Indeed, Santayana thinks that a conception of the good as an influential power is the “sole category” that would justify Russell’s hypostasis of the good.

The whole Platonic and Christian scheme, in making the good independent of private  will and opinion, by no means makes it independent of the direction of nature in general and of human nature in particular. For all things have been created with an innate predisposition towards the creative good and are capable of finding happiness in nothing else. Obligation, in this system, remains internal and vital. Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.

This Platonic hypostasis without the underlying metaphysic and theory of human nature is merely “half-hearted.” It is a Platonism “stultified and eviscerated.” Russell, like a number of “modern moralists” attempted to retain much of the substance of such an account of morality “without its dogmatic justification.”

Thus, on both classical Platonism and Christian theism, “The Platonic ideas, the Christian God, or the Christ of devout Christians may be conceived to be the causes of their temporal manifestations in matter or in the souls of men.” As Robert Adams has put it in a work that appeals to a theistic and Platonist framework for ethics,

If we suppose that God directly or indirectly causes human beings to regard as  excellent approximately those things that are Godlike in the relevant way, it follows that there is a causal and explanatory connection between facts of excellence and beliefs that we may regard as justified about excellence, and hence it is in general no accident that such beliefs are correct when they are.

However, there is no place for such teleology on Russell’s naturalistic philosophy. Russell’s morality seems to Santayana a “ghost of Calvinism,” except that the deity has “lost his creative and punitive functions.”

Santayana thus seems to have thought that moral realism is tenable only within the scaffolds of a theistic metaphysics. Given what Russell affirms in his “Free Man’s Worship,” one is left with an undercutting naturalistic explanation for the human propensity to form moral beliefs. Even if Russell’s heaven of ideas exists, we cannot know it, for the simple fact that the only apparent evidence for supposing that it does—our considered moral beliefs—is given an explanation on naturalism that in no way requires the truth of such beliefs. The more plausible view,  Santayana thinks, sees morality as relative to the personal or constitutional beliefs of creatures. If Moore thought that “good” was like “yellow” in being indefinable. Santayana adds that both are secondary qualities as well.

Ethical Naturalism Redux

Charles Pidgen notes that even after Russell came to abandon Moore’s moral realism “… he continued to believe that if judgments about good and bad are to be objectively true, non-natural properties of goodness and badness are required to make them true. It is just that he ceased to believe that there are any such properties.” In the century that has followed, Moore’s refutation of ethical naturalism has come to be widely rejected, probably for good reason.

Moore assumed that the identity of any two properties entails the synonymy of the terms by which they are designated. Given this assumption, he could argue that pleasure is not the good on the grounds that “X is N ” (where N is any natural or descriptive property) and “X is good” obviously do not mean the same thing, as is demonstrated by the Open Question Argument.

We have splendid reason for rejecting the claim that identity entails synonymy. Gold just is that element with the atomic number 79. But the meaning of “gold” was fixed long before talk of the atomic structure of this metal. And it is surely an open question for one to ask, “I know thar is an element of the atomic number 79 in them thar hills. But is thar gold?” John’s disciples surely knew that John baptized with water, and could have explained the difference between water baptism and, say, baptism in fish oil. But if any of John’s contemporaries knew that water just is H2O, they seem to have kept it to themselves. The discovery would have to wait another 1700 years. And once the discovery was made, the headline, “Water is H2O!” was informative in a way that “Water is water!” would not have been.

This, along with a number of other considerations, has reopened the possibility that some variety of ethical naturalism may be true after all. The ethical naturalist will maintain either that moral properties are identical to natural properties, or that they are constituted of and thus supervene upon them. If this is so, one may affirm the identity of the moral with the natural without being committed to the claim that there is synonymy of meaning. “Hitler was depraved” might be true in virtue of some set of wholly descriptive properties that he possessed. These might include his low regard for the value of human life, his monomania, his will to power and his anti-Semitism. I suppose that one may sensibly say, “I know the man thinks nothing of killing people, hates people simply because of their ethnicity, and wants to force the entire world to its knees, but is he depraved?” But this no more stands in the way of supposing that some such set of natural properties constitutes depravity than open questions about water suggest the possibility that the lakes are filled with anything other than H2O.

The ethical naturalist does not posit the “abhorred dualism” of the Platonist, and so there seems little risk of the moral flying “off into the abyss” and little need for a demiurge to ensure that it does not. Moral properties are home grown and terrestrial according to this view, being constituted of garden variety facts discoverable through ordinary means. If justice just is equitable treatment under certain circumstances, then coming to believe that a given arrangement is just would seem to be no more problematic or mysterious than coming to believe that it is equitable and that those circumstances obtain. Does ethical naturalism thus survive the arguments of both Moore and Santayana that, in their turns, convinced Russell? I think not. With a bit of fine-tuning, Santayana’s arguments—or at least an insight central to them—are equally effective against ethical naturalism.

Darwinian Counterfactuals

That “look over the shoulder” that Santayana recommends reveals that the direction that the human moral sense has taken is determined by factors apparently oblivious to the notion of moral truth, even if there were such a thing. The mechanisms responsible for the production of human moral beliefs are fitness-aimed, and, unless we’ve some reason to suppose a connection between their being fitness-aimed and their being true, such beliefs would seem to be unwarranted.

Sharon Street has recently advanced an argument that capitalizes upon these features of the Darwinian account. The core of her paper is her “Darwinian Dilemma” that she poses to “value realists.” Our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also truth-aimed? Either there is a fitness-truth relation or there is not. If there is not, and if we suppose that evolution has shaped our basic evaluative attitudes, then moral skepticism is in order. If there is a relation, then it is either that moral beliefs have reproductive fitness because they are true (the “tracking” relation), or we have the moral beliefs that we have simply because of the fitness that they conferred (the “adaptive link” account).

But the adaptive link account suggests some variety of non-realism, such as the constructivism that Street endorses. The realist requires the tracking account in order to provide an account of warranted moral belief. Here, fitness follows mind-independent moral truths. But the tracking account is just implausible from a scientific standpoint, which is important given the fact that ethical naturalists are keen on assimilating their theory within an overall scientific approach. While there is a clear and parsimonious adaptive link explanation of why humans have come to care for their offspring—namely, that the resulting behavior tends toward DNA-preservation—the tracking account must add that basic paternal instincts were favored because it is independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Why not just say that our ancestors who had a propensity to care for their offspring tended to act on that propensity and thus left more offspring—particularly when we witness such propensities among non-human animals? Do dolphin mothers care for their daughters because they ought to do so?

A consideration of Darwinian Counterfactuals helps to strengthen the point. If, as Darwin supposed, human conscience might have been radically different had the circumstances been different, this strongly suggests that conscience goes whither fitness goest. And it is hard to see just how the ethical naturalist should assess such counterfactuals. Masked boobies, for instance seem wired for siblicide. A female will typically lay two eggs. The first to hatch frequently kills its smaller and weaker sibling, often with an assist from the parent. On the one hand, two eggs are better than one for insurance purposes. But one hatchling is better than two, as the probability that either will survive is decreased if both remain. And so the diminished reproductive value that results from the death of one offspring is outweighed by the advantage that is had in the increased likelihood of the survival of the elder sibling. Siblicidal behavior is thus selected for its reproductive advantage.

So consider “Booby World” —that possible world in which the conditions of reproductive fitness in the evolution of humans (or creatures of similar intelligence) were the same as those of boobies. Here, Cain kills Abel and is met with approval, and his mark is a badge of honor. Here, booby people regard siblicide and infanticide as “sacred duties,” as Darwin puts it. Such moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also true? Is killing certain of one’s offspring in fact obligatory and even meritorious in Booby World?

It is clear how Santayana would answer. These are moral duties in the only sense in which there are duties in any world. “Obligations … presuppose a physical and social organism with immanent spontaneous interests which may impose those obligations.” But, “As the spirit is no respecter of persons, so it is no respecter of worlds.” His “spirituality” involves the full recognition and embrace of the contingency of existence and of whatever values are discovered in the world in which we happen to find ourselves. He describes “spirit” as a “disenchanting and re-enchanting faculty … of seeing this world in its simple truth.” Disenchantment is a matter of deconstructing absolutist morality and whatever dogmas have been erected for its support. Re-enchantment occurs when one sees things as they are in their contingent and relative nature, but fully values them as one’s own. Thus, he can write, “What folly to suppose that ecstasy could be abolished by recognizing the true sources of ecstacy!” Sugar is no less sweet, nor does salt lose its savor, once we realize that those qualities are not “objective” but depend, in part, upon our own constitution. We do not thereby unweave the rainbow. And so, “spirit has no reason for dwelling on other possible worlds.”

Would any of them be less contingent than this one, or nearer to the heart of Infinite Being? And would not any of them, whatever its character, lead the spirit inexorably there? To master the actual is the best way of transcending it.

His first question is rhetorical. No possible world is closer to the heart of “Infinite Being,” because it “includes all worlds.” And spirit would be led “inexorably” to embrace whatever values it discovered in those counterfactual circumstances. “Good” and “evil” are world-relative. All such values are world-bound. It is thus “provincial” and a kind of “animal arrogance” to exalt the values that obtain in this world to the exclusion of those that might have been. Our cosmos has turned up one set of “ambient values” which we hold dear as our own. But when in Booby World, do as the boobies do.

This is not the sort of answer that we should expect from the ethical naturalist, who wishes to affirm that moral facts or properties are mind-independent. According to the ethical naturalist, moral properties are either identical to or at least supervene upon natural properties. Consider supervenience, the weaker of the two claims. On a standard account, any two things that are indiscernible with respect to their natural properties N are also indiscernible with respect to their moral properties M. And this is usually seen as metaphysically necessary so that if there is any world W in which X has N then, for every world W*, if X has N in W*, then X has M in W*. It follows that if Hitler is depraved in virtue of the set of non-moral properties mentioned above, then there is no possible world in which anyone has precisely that set but is not depraved. And if it was wrong for Cain to kill Abel, then that wrongness is in virtue of certain natural properties of the act.

Suppose that the natural properties and circumstances involved in Booby Abel’s slaying are identical to those that were instanced and obtained when Cain killed Abel, but for the fact that in that world the act enjoys the approbation of both conscience and consensus. If moral properties supervene upon natural properties, then, presumably, we should conclude that Booby Abel’s slaying is murder, despite it’s being hailed as a sacred duty in that world.

But if the human moral sense, with its verdict regarding siblicide, is in place ultimately because it was adaptive given actual but contingent circumstances, why suppose that it has any legitimate authority where those circumstances do not obtain and it is not adaptive? Santayana compares such universal judgments to “…the German lady who said that Englishmen called a certain object bread, and Frenchmen called it pain, but that it really was Brod.” They seem to be instances of what Judith Thomson has called metaphysical imperialism. To illustrate, in seeking the reference of “good” as used in “this is a good hammer,” Thomson suggests that the natural property that best serves here is “being such as to facilitate hammering nails in in manners that conduce to satisfying the wants people typically hammer nails in to satisfy.”

She opts for this property as opposed to the more determinate properties of “being well-balanced, strong, with an easily graspable handle, and so on” Even though we may find that this familiar set of properties coextends with those that “conduce to satisfying the wants that people typically hammer nails in to satisfy,” there are all sorts of “odd possible worlds” in which people typically have quite different wants for which deviant hammers come in handy. There are worlds in which “large slabs of granite” do the best job in this regard. And so we are metaphysical imperialists if we presume to impose our nail-hammering wants upon the counterfactual carpenters of those worlds.

Thomson thus fixes upon a property that is less determinate than those that characterize hammers of earthly goodness: it is good insofar as it answers to wants or is useful. Let’s say, then, that usefulness is the natural property upon which the evaluative property, being good supervenes. And the usefulness of the hammer supervenes, in turn, upon those more determinate features that fit this or that hammer to its purpose. Since the uses vary from world to world, so may the particular features that render hammers useful—and thus good—vary.

Should the ethical naturalist follow her lead in the case of siblicide in that Darwinian world we are imagining? Sure, in both worlds, the victim was a fully sentient person with a desire to live, ends of his own, and no intention of bringing harm to his killer. But perhaps the actual supervenience base for such acts is less determinate than such a set of properties. Might this permit one to say that the acts of both worlds are right?

In fact, as we have set things up, both familial love in the actual world, and siblicide in the counterfactual world, are adaptive from the standpoint of reproductive fitness, just as Estwing hammers and chunks of granite are both useful, despite sharp differences between the features that render them useful. Perhaps, then, the sacredness of infanticide is in virtue of the fact that it is conducive to fitness, so that truth tracks fitness, so to speak. A perhaps seeming advantage of this suggestion is that we have now been afforded a guaranteed link between fitness and truth. What reason have we for thinking that moral beliefs that are adaptive are also true? Why, because being adaptive is the very thing that makes them true! But this seems an overly convenient way of replying to Street’s Darwinian Dilemma; it does so by conflating the “adaptive-link” and “tracking” accounts. And it calls to mind Santayana’s quip about the good being, by definition, “whatever the world is aiming at.” All archers are equally good marksmen when the mark is determined by where the arrow happens to fall. But where this is the case, there can be no such thing as a poor marksman. Nor can any be better or best. And then one is left to wonder whether it is meaningful to call any of them “good.” Santayana’s tongue-in-cheek remark was offered in the service of his view that the good is not objective at all, but, rather projective. But on the suggestion that we are presently considering, this proves to be a distinction without a difference. Edward Wilson and Michael Ruse once suggested that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.” But now we know that, by definition, genes never fob.

One might suppose that what is needed is an appeal to natures. Thus, actual human nature being what it is, familial affection and reciprocal kindness commend themselves as virtues. But in the sorts of worlds that Darwin imagines, the creaturely natures are different, and so it is no surprise that virtue and duty should assume quite different forms. Since Darwin is imagining beings with natures different from our own, the fact that those counterfactual moralities come out so different has no bearing upon the objectivity of our own.

Now, assuredly, there are possible worlds in which natural differences are sufficient for various sorts of acts to differ with respect to their moral properties from the same acts performed in our neck of the logical woods. Here, it is a fairly serious matter to shoot off a person’s head. But it might amount to little more than an annoying prank in those worlds where heads are quickly regrown. But we are imagining counterfactual heads that do not grow back, and counterfactual owners of heads who wish very much to retain their titles. If the appeal to differences in “natures” amounts merely to the observation that, here, we think it wrong to kill babies, but there, they do not, what is this if not just to rephrase the suggestion above regarding fitness? We should allow that this difference in the moral sense is sufficient by itself for sorting justified from unjustified homicide only if we think that killing in the actual world is permissible so long as the killer can sleep nights and no one else, save the victim, seems to mind.

Perhaps there is some other natural, subvenient property that is common to both earth and all such Darwinian worlds and is that in virtue of which the various acts described have the property of moral rightness. Presumably, this would be some natural property that is common to both equitable and inequitable social arrangements and to both the nurturing and the strangling of babies. There are, of course, such common natural properties. Random acts of kindness and random acts of violence share the property of being an act. But this will hardly serve as a plausible right-making property of acts. (The Decalogue might have been reduced to one precept: Thou shalt do something.) Presumably, we seek something a little more determinate, but not so determinate as to exclude counterfactually evolved moralities. But whatever we settle upon, the natural properties upon which justice and injustice or depravity and saintliness supervene are not equity or inequity, cruelty or kindness, but something that serves as the genus for these seemingly opposed species of moral properties.

One unhappy result here is that those more determinate natural properties that are favored by reflective equilibrium would prove to be merely accidental and coextensive features of morality. If there is some natural property N that is common to both equitable and inequitable bargaining outcomes, and upon which justice supervenes, then N, and not equity, defines the essence of justice. This would appear to be the metaethical equivalent of the suggestion that water is whatever fills a world’s oceans, so that earthly H2O and Twin-Earthly XYZ both qualify as water. But then being H2O is not the essence of the stuff that we call “water.” One might thus offer a functionalist account of moral properties. Perhaps, for instance, “justice” picks out whatever natural properties tend toward societal stability. We happen to live in a world in which equity has this effect. But there are worlds in which inequity does the trick. In addition to signaling a significant departure from the sort of account that ethical naturalists appear typically offer, such a move would seem a precarious footing for any robust account of moral realism. It is, in fact, a recipe for relativism.

It is hard to see how a metaphysical naturalist after the order of Russell can afford to reject a Darwinian reckoning of human morality. Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success. Early ancestors who lacked the impulse to care for their offspring or to cooperate with their fellows would, like the celibate Shakers, have left few to claim them as ancestors.

And it is hard to see how ethical naturalism can be reconciled in any plausible way with the contingency of human morality as implied by a standard Darwinian reckoning of things as understood within the framework of metaphysical naturalism. Whether the claim is that moral properties are identical and reducible to natural properties, or that they are constituted by and supervene upon them, the relation should be fixed across worlds in order to anchor the realist element. In fact, on a standard account, moral terms function in much the same way as natural kind terms in that they rigidly designate natural properties and thus track those identical properties across worlds. But it seems that this will either end up asserting an unwarranted form of metaphysical imperialism, or it will require the identification of some natural property (or set of properties) that is common to and right-making across widely divergent Darwinian worlds. Among other things, one might wonder how such a property could seriously be set forth as one empirically discerned or as playing the sort of explanatory role that is claimed for moral properties on ethical naturalism.

In principle, as a Platonist of sorts, Russell could avoid the charge of metaphysical imperialism. If the Good exists, then there is a fixed, transcendent standard in virtue of which we may evaluate the moral beliefs and practices of our own world as well as those of others. But, as we have seen, neither Russell nor naturalists in general have reason to believe that we have epistemic access to the Good even if it does exist. The ethical naturalist may avoid the charge either by allowing, for instance, that familial love and siblicide are equally right, or by offering some account as to why the human moral sense succeeds in acquiring moral truth where the booby moral sense fails. But in the absence of the sort of teleology that is precluded on naturalism, such an account seems not to be forthcoming. And the suggestion that there is some natural property that is common to all of the possible moralities countenanced on the Darwinian scheme is just implausible. Thus, the trouble that we have been documenting arises not out of neither ethical non-naturalism nor ethical naturalism per se, but from the attempt to combine any variety of moral realism with metaphysical naturalism. Given the metaphysics of at least Russell’s brand of naturalism, one lacks the “dogmatic justification” required in order to suppose that the “felt values” with which moral reflection begins constitute knowledge. The point is similar to one raised by Norman Daniels in his discussion of reflective equilibrium. Before one may proceed with confidence, one requires “ a little story that gets told about why we should pay homage ultimately to those [considered] judgments and indirectly to the principles that systematize them” (Daniels 1979, p. 265). Russell, like any metaphysical naturalist, lacks such a story because he is “not a theist after the manner of Socrates.”

Epilogue: Lotze’s Dictum

I am inclined to think that Santayana’s argument succeeds in showing that Russell’s Moorean moral philosophy is unwarranted given his worldview. As Harry Ruja puts it,

In his eagerness to establish the good’s objectivity, Russell has separated values from  man and man’s will so emphatically that there is no way to reunite them. He may proclaim “ought to exist” as often as he wishes, but if no one is moved to take on the role of the demiurge, the eternal and potential ideals will remain remote from depraved reality.

But Santayana viewed the positing of some such “demiurge”—or, more generally, a “dogmatic justification” for this moral vision, in the form of the requisite metaphysics—as nothing more than a “gratuitous fiction” that can hardly be taken seriously by any modern critic. The only reasonable position, he thought, was a conjunction of naturalism and some sort of moral skepticism.

In the same year that Santayana published Winds, W.R. Sorley delivered the first of his Gifford Lectures. There, Sorley defended and developed what he termed, “Lotze’s Dictum,” after the 19th century German philosopher Rudolph Hermann Lotze: “The true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics.” Sorley observed that “the traditional order of procedure”—business as usual in metaphysics—was to construct an interpretation of reality—a worldview—that drew exclusively upon non-moral considerations, such as the deliverances of the sciences. Not until the task of worldview construction was complete did one “go on to draw out the ethical consequences of the view that had been reached.” Sorley thought it likely that such a method would result in an artificially truncated worldview, and that moral ideas would be given short shrift. And the exclusion of our moral experience was simply arbitrary. “If we take experience as a whole, and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.”

I do not know about those “modern critics” who were Santayana’s contemporaries, but now a century later Sorley’s suggestion may enjoy enhanced plausibility. It is widely recognized that we must approach each and every field of knowledge, including the sciences, with some fund of beliefs that we just happen to have. Since all theorizing has these same humble origins, how can one non-arbitrarily single out a particular domain of beliefs for suspicion? To use an example from recent discussions, a scientist’s belief that a proton has just passed through a cloud chamber might be explained (away) merely by appeal to her background beliefs and theoretical commitments. For example, her theory has it that the appearance of a vapor trail is evidence of proton activity, and so, of course, when she sees, or believes that she sees, a vapor trail, she forms the belief in the proton. But here we are required to be realists about protons only if we have assumed that the scientist’s theory is “roughly correct.” But, again, why extend this courtesy in these cases while being decidedly discourteous in the case of morality? Certain of my moral beliefs seem to have a greater degree of epistemic security than any of the various empiricist principles that would cast doubt upon them. Why reject the moral beliefs for the sake of such principles unless there is a splendid reason for doing so?

Given Santayana’s metaphysics, moral properties turn out to be metaphysically queer. But, then, so is the phenomenological property of redness, which some philosophers do not admit, and the rest do admit, but also admit that they cannot explain it. Chesterton said that he took pleasure in the fact that the rhinoceros does exist, though it looks as though it does not. There is redness and there are rhinos, and if my philosophy does not admit them, then perhaps it is time to get a new philosophy. Might the same thing go for rightness?

Photo: “Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell” by Bassano Ltd. CC License. From National Portrait Gallery

Four Problems with Naturalistic Evolutionary Ethics

by Paul Rezkalla

 

Gargan, the caveman, lived for only one purpose: producing offspring. His sole purpose in life was to propagate his DNA by any means necessary. Brutality and selfishness are simply the tools of the trade to accomplish the life mission bestowed upon him by natural selection, making Gargan a mean character with no regard for any creatures, human or otherwise, around him.

This caricature of evolutionary morality is becoming increasingly outdated as new methods of observing and studying mammalian behavior shed light on behavioral tendencies. Humans are social mammals, and as such, we depend on each other’s cooperation to survive. Thus, there is a kind of proto-morality that can be observed even among chimps, bonobos, and other primates. Some species of primates understand and live by the laws of reciprocity and fairness, engaging in tit for tat and giving favors in exchange for future favors. Frans deWaal points out that Chimpanzees “build a social economy of favors and disfavors to food to sex and form grooming to support in fights. They seem to maintain balance sheets and develop expectations, perhaps even obligations, hence their negative reaction to broken trust” (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 129). This complex system of interaction is interesting scientifically, but it suffers from some deep problems when applied to conversations about morality and normative ethics.

 

  1. Naturalistic Fallacy

Defining that which is “good” as that which is “natural” commits what G. E. Moore called the naturalistic fallacy: “To argue that a thing is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural…is therefore certainly fallacious: and yet such arguments are very frequently used.” “All that the Evolution-Hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others” and what this leads to, say some, is the “definite view that better means nothing but more evolved; or even that what is more evolved is therefore better.” Once we collapse “goodness” into “naturalness,” we have no standard by which to measure the moral status of human behavior. In order for human behavior to be subject to evaluation, “goodness” has to mean something more than merely “that which is natural.” Moore also points out that: “The value of the scientific theory, and it is a theory of great value, just consists in showing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects: whether these effects are good or bad it cannot pretend to judge.” A recent study has demonstrated a link between the genetic mutation that inhibits the production of Monoamine Oxidase A (an enzyme that catalyzes dopamine and seratonine) and both lower levels of empathy and higher levels of aggression. Another study has shown that males with less white matter in their brains are more likely to experience and express pedophilic tendencies. If “goodness” and “naturalness” are synonymous, then it would follow that male aggression and pedophilia are good, but we all agree that this is not the case. We subject human behaviors and tendencies to moral scrutiny by a standard that exists beyond human behaviors and tendencies (we do it no other way!).

  1. Is-Ought Fallacy

The evolutionary sciences only tell us what is the case about evolutionary history, primate behavior, human psychology, etc. They do what science is meant to do: describe the natural order of things. Hence, by virtue of what science is, it merely describes behavior, but it cannot prescribe behavior. As David Hume pointed out, there is an epistemic and normative gap between that which is the case and that which ought to be. Deriving an ought from an is seems difficult, if not impossible. Science, the careful, methodical observation of the world, can only describe human behavior. It cannot prescribe moral behavior. While scientific results and discoveries can offer interesting and even relevant insight into ethical questions, science is not the arbiter of ethics. And as with the naturalistic fallacy, we run the risk of endorsing immoral oughts simply because we observe some immoral behavior that simply is. A recent anthropological survey of human ancestors in the Pleistocene era has suggested that male-on-female rape was exceedingly common. Due to various factors, females began to recognize and implement their role as sex monopolizers, and this in turn led to an increase in rape. This detrimental exchange of behaviors was soon phased out by natural selection, but for some time it was the norm. It still goes without saying that rape, whether then or now, is morally reprehensible regardless of circumstances. If it is true (and it is) that rape is, always has been, and always will be wrong, then we can condemn natural states of affairs that favored rape and concede that we cannot derive an ought from an is.

It is also interesting to note that humans seem unique in that there is a moral dimension to our behavior. Rape among humans is not merely forcible copulation. Forcible copulation takes place regularly in the animal kingdom with ducks, sharks, dolphins, and bedbugs. Bedbugs and other invertebrates actually practice what is known as “traumatic insemination” as the ordinary means by which they copulate. With human beings, forcible copulation is termed “rape” because we recognize that human behavior is saturated with moral status, whether good or bad. Male lions sometimes kill cubs, but they do not murder. Fighter ants use aphids as forced laborers, but they do not practice slavery. Young bottlenose dolphin males have been known to corner a single female and take turns forcibly copulating, but they do not commit rape. Murder, slavery, and rape are immoral acts that are only possible among humans because of the unique ability of human actions to carry moral status.

  1. Arbitrary Moral Values

The values and tendencies that humans hold are contingent upon the specific kind of social mammals that we are. Had the tape of evolutionary history been rewound and played once again, we might have a completely different set of moral values and tendencies –on what Angus Menuge calls “strong evolutionary ethics.” Darwin himself noted this conclusion: “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” Michael Ruse also paints a stark picture: “We are what we are because of contingent circumstances, not because we necessarily had to be as we are. Suppose, instead of evolving from savannah-living primates…we had come from cave-dwellers. Our nature and morality might have been very different. Or take the termites…they have to eat each other’s feces…had humans come along a similar trail, our highest ethical imperatives would have been strange indeed.”

  1. Evolutionary Science Undermines Justification for Moral Beliefs

Imagine that when you were a child, a scientist gave you a pill that caused you to believe that George Washington was the first president of the U.S.A. Imagine also that this pill caused you to forget that you ever took such a pill. Finally, imagine that the same scientist finds you again late in life and confesses to you that you were part of this experiment of which you were unaware. He tells you that your belief that George Washington was the first president was solely the product of a pill. If you had never researched the topic for yourself, you would not be justified in continuing to believe that George Washington was the first president, right? The only reason you had that belief was the pill that was given to you. But now that you have knowledge about the pill, you cannot honestly say that you have good grounds for believing that George Washington was the first president.

The same is true of evolutionary science and what it tells us about ethics. We are learning now, more than ever, that human beings are social animals with tendencies built in to us over the course of evolutionary history that allow us to function well together in groups. We have tendencies to take care of our children, our spouses, etc. We have tendencies towards reciprocity, altruism, and empathy. The problem however is that coming to know that these tendencies are inculcated into us by evolutionary processes geared towards maximizing survivability and reproduction actually undercuts our justification for believing that these moral tendencies are true and binding for us. In the same way that once you find out that your George Washington belief is solely the product of a pill, you no longer have good reasons for continuing to believe it to be true, understanding that “morality” is merely a set of evolutionarily-ingrained tendencies also undermines our justification for moral beliefs and actions. “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends (Ruse and Wilson 1985)” and it “is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse 1986).

 

Photo: “Two apes share a moment” by Indo_girl2010. CC license. 

Battle of the Angi

By David Baggett

Angus Ritchie versus Angus Menuge. They both have awesome accents, and they’re both brilliant Christian philosophers. But they take interestingly different positions on the question of moral knowledge for naturalists. Let me briefly explain why, then lay out a third possibility that relies a little on both. Any way you slice it, naturalism loses.

Angus Ritchie is the author of From Morality to Metaphysics. In that book, he affirms that moral knowledge is possible, even for naturalists. Knowledge, he assumes, requires justification, good reasons to consider the propositions in question to be true. Justification for moral claims comes, he thinks (roughly following David Enoch), from their “deliberative indispensability.” We can’t help but assume certain moral assumptions as reliable in the inevitable process of our moral deliberations. Ritchie resonates with the approach of those employing a method of reflective equilibrium by which we take our moral starting points not as infallible, but as innocent until proven guilty. So Ritchie doesn’t infer that on naturalism there is a lack of justification for moral convictions; to the contrary, he affirms that moral beliefs, on naturalism, at least on occasion, are adequately justified. Perhaps he would even think, then, that on naturalism there is moral knowledge. If we construe of knowledge claims as justified true beliefs, it would seem likely that Ritchie would affirm moral knowledge on naturalism.

The problem for naturalistic moral ethics, as Ritchie sees it, is not a lack of moral knowledge, but lack of an explanation for how we can have knowledge. In light of the limited resources at their disposal as naturalists, what they can’t provide is an explanation for how moral knowledge is possible. On the assumption that the naturalists in question embrace a sufficiently robust moral ontology, their doing so introduces an explanatory gap between those truths and what they can explain about our ability as human beings to grasp those truths. Their naturalism is epistemically deficient when it comes to morality—not in virtue of naturalism entailing a lack of moral knowledge, but rather in terms of a naturalistic explanation of such knowledge. He writes, “We must not confuse an anti-sceptical [sic] argument which justifies the trust we place in our faculties with one which explains their accuracy.”

Angus Menuge, in contrast, after identifying prima facie reasons to be skeptical of naturalism explaining objective moral truth, distinguishes between two sorts of evolutionary ethics (EE). Strong EE dictates that moral ontology itself would be different had evolution played out differently. If, for example, we had been raised to kill our brothers and sisters or children, then such behaviors would have been morally right. Weak EE, in contrast, says it’s only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees. Let’s set aside Strong EE as it holds no realistic hope of sustaining objective moral facts. Let’s direct our attention to Weak EE instead.

Menuge suggests that Weak EE faces an intractable epistemic challenge. It gives us no grounds to think our moral beliefs are true. For they would be formed for reasons potentially quite unrelated to their truth. To make his point, he uses an example of looking at what turns out to be a broken clock, unknown to you. It reads 7 p.m., and suppose that it’s indeed, by sheer coincidence, 7 p.m. No knowledge results, though, since your reason for thinking it’s 7 o’clock has nothing to do with its actually being 7 o’clock.

Menuge writes, “Unfortunately for Weak EE, if it is true, then we are in a precisely similar situation regarding our moral beliefs. For on that view, natural history is causally relevant to our moral beliefs, but does not account for moral reality. So if we had been raised like hive bees we would think fratricide and infanticide were right even if they were not. And, it could be that we think fratricide and infanticide are wrong (because we were not raised like hive bees) even though they are right. But now suppose that our belief that fratricide and infanticide are wrong happens to be true. Still, it is not knowledge, because what made us believe this has nothing to do with why our belief is true.”

Whereas Ritchie seems to affirm the consistency of naturalism and moral knowledge, Menuge denies it. Both think that naturalism faces intractable challenges to account for moral knowledge. Whereas Menuge thinks naturalism is simply inconsistent with moral knowledge (at least in the case cited), Ritchie thinks naturalism is consistent with it, but deficient in explaining how such knowledge is possible.

On the assumption that Menuge, like J. P. Moreland and Scott Smith, is denying that naturalism is consistent with objective moral knowledge claims by taking naturalism to be a rebutting defeater of moral knowledge, perhaps the reason for his doing so is that he is skeptical that naturalism is consistent with moral justification. When he writes that “Weak EE gives us no grounds to think our moral beliefs are true,” it sounds as if he’s denying that moral justification is consistent with Weak EE. He acknowledges the possibility of moral truth claims, but thinks that on naturalism we would believe in them only accidentally—like the person who forms a true belief on the basis of seeing a faulty clock. If Menuge’s suggestion is that, in either case, it’s the requirement of justification that goes unsatisfied, then Menuge and Ritchie part company. Ritchie would be affirming the possibility of moral justification and knowledge on naturalism, whereas Menuge would be denying both, despite that they agree that naturalism is in trouble here.

And there is yet a third way naturalism makes mischief, which we can see by splitting the difference. Suppose that Ritchie is right that naturalism is consistent with moral justification, but that Menuge is right that moral knowledge is precluded by naturalism. This confluence of conditions would yield yet another possibility: something like a Gettier Moral Counterexample. For on naturalism we could have a justified true moral belief, but not moral knowledge. Think again of the clock case, which, incidentally, is much like Bertrand Russell’s prescient Gettier-like counterexample predating Gettier. Suppose the clock in question is a clock that, in your experience, has always been reliable in the past. You look up and see the time, form the belief that’s the right time, and suppose indeed it is. But unknown to you, the clock is broken. So you arguably have a justified true belief, but presumably not knowledge. Might there be something analogous for naturalism and moral knowledge? Justified true moral belief without knowledge? Perhaps.

Why think moral knowledge would be precluded, despite the justified true belief? For this reason: just as in the clock case, the reasons for the beliefs being true would be a coincidence. Even if this isn’t enough to preclude at least some form or measure of justification—a matter on which perhaps there’s legitimate room for rational disagreement—it is clearly enough to preclude knowledge. So even if we assume this is a naturalistic world in which objective moral truths obtain (a big assumption, but not my current target), and even if justified true moral beliefs obtain on naturalism, moral knowledge could well still be beyond our reach.

What we have seen here, then, are three different ways naturalism seems to face a challenge from the direction of moral knowledge. Naturalism (a) is consistent with moral knowledge but can’t explain it with its resources (if Ritchie is right); or (b) is inconsistent with moral justification and thus moral knowledge (if Menuge is right); or, even if it’s consistent with both moral realism and justified true belief, is nonetheless (c) inconsistent with  moral knowledge because of a Gettier-like moral counterexample. What naturalism seems confronted with is the charge of either failing to be consistent with moral knowledge or, even if it’s consistent with moral knowledge, explaining moral knowledge with the resources at its disposal.

The Battle of the Angi over moral knowledge inevitably results in another loss for naturalism.

 

 

Photo: “chess game” by L. West. CC License.