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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.



[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.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Section 4.4.2, “Good Roots and Good Wolves”

summary by David Baggett

Hare admits that we should accept at least one central point from Foot and Hursthouse: there is a natural goodness that is conducive to the good life, or simply the good for both animals and plants. The roots of an oak tree are an example, which play a part in the life of the tree: they obtain nourishment. It matters in the life of the organism, and its absence would be a defect. This is an example of an Aristotelian categorical. Goodness in the roots is their ability to carry out this contribution to the life of the organism. We can deduce this goodness from this ability. Hare says this is an acceptable form of deductivism. This is not yet moral goodness, however.

RMH resisted any sort of deduction like this. But if we were to accept the notion of a primary goodness for, say, a tree, what would it mean to say a tree is good? We could say that something is good means one is drawn by it and to endorse the claim that the thing deserves to draw one in that way. Aquinas said goodness belongs to everything that is, and degrees of being and degrees of goodness are coextensive. So here would be a way to think of a tree as good: a tree is good because goodness belongs to everything that is. Another picture of goodness involves every kind of life created by God being good. Yet another, less theist, account of the goodness of, say, an oak tree says goodness consists in the range of features possessed by mature oaks that are flourishing, and this goodness is what the oak is aiming towards. (But this language of “aiming towards” is the language of final causation, and, while it is true that we make use of it continually for organisms, in both lay and professional talk, it is not clear whether it can be validated within the strict terms of the biological sciences.)

Can we make sense of the idea that animals have more value than plants in general, though this may not be true in all cases? Yes, Hare thinks, if there is value in the things animals can do that plants can’t. There are of course dangers with such a hierarchy, but Aristotle could be right about plants and animals and wrong to deny that all humans have the same basic value. On Hare’s view, all humans have the same basic value because they equally receive God’s call, not because they are now equally capable of valuable activities.

Even if we can give an account of the goodness of a tree, though, this is not what Foot was talking about when she said that the roots have a “function.” Foot tried to tie function to features that have to do, directly or indirectly, with self-maintenance or reproduction. Even so, the plants are in competition with each other, and not only with other species; there are strong specimens and weak, and just as many weak as strong. There is no deduction from a particular plant’s typical performance to its doing well or from the typical performance at a time for the set of members of a species to the species doing well.

Hursthouse has a corrective to this, conceding that on occasion it’s indeterminate whether an individual x is overall a good x, and that even an individual perfectly endowed in every relevant respect may still not live well given its circumstances. Survival, reproduction, pleasure or absence of pain, and the well-being of our social group are the natural ends against which we can measure whether some human life is a naturally good life, she claims. Hursthouse and Foot admit that these are value-laden and not simply statistical. But the picture leaves us without a way to say why some dispositions to pursue these four ends are good and some dispositions to pursue these same four ends are not. Even with plants, the result of Hursthouse’s corrective is to make the primary good of the oak frustratingly indeterminate.

Now we move to non-human animals. Foot characterizes a free-riding wolf as defective. RMH had resisted such deductions. What’s at issue here is the distinction between what Foot called “primary” and “secondary” goodness. A particular kind of pig or horse is useful to humans, for eating or riding, and this is secondary goodness. But the question is whether there is a kind of goodness for the pig or the horse in itself. RHM denies that ‘horse’ is a functional word like ‘screwdriver’ is. But Hare says this doesn’t show that there isn’t a primary goodness of horses. So far, Foot’s right.

A complication, though, is that RMH’s examples were of domesticated animals, which have been bred so as to serve human uses. Foot’s examples were of wild animals, the wolf and not the dog. For Foot, defect or natural goodness in an individual is relative not to the actual environment of the individual (like a zoo), but to the normal habitat of the species. Hare sees many difficulties here.

But the main case for the present chapter is the free-rider wolf. Is it defective? One reason this is important is that the cooperation of wolves is the kind of thing de Waal suggests is a precursor or requisite of human cooperation. On Hare’s view, in light of the contingency of the adaptiveness of a trait, there’s no determinate answer to the question of what the good incidence of the trait is within a species. The basic problem here, as Hare sees it, is that what Foot called Aristotelian categoricals work much better with an essentialist conception of species, like one Aristotle operated with.

Hare concludes that, in light of all this, we again need modesty about whether there are determinate answers in many cases to questions about whether an x is a good x, and indeed about the very notion of a species, since the different modes of classification are in part determined by different interests of ours. None of this bodes well for deductivism.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.3, Prescriptivism

Summary by David Baggett 

The third and fourth sections of this chapter are about a debate between RMH’s views about the objectivity of moral judgment and the contrasting attempt by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse in On Virtue Ethics to deduce conclusions about moral goodness by what Foot called a “natural-history story” from the characteristic form of life of the human species. Foot scholars divide up her career, like Plato’s, into three periods: an early Foot, a middle Foot, and a late Foot. Natural Goodness was late Foot. Hursthouse has added significant structure to Foot’s account. There are some ways that late Foot is more like RMH than early or middle Foot. But there still differences, and one of them is that Foot affirmed and RMH denied the deducibility of conclusions about moral goodness from facts about human nature. Hare will argue that we should accept some of the positions of each side in this dispute, but that form-of-life deductivism should be rejected.

One theme in this discussion of Foot will be that we need to disentangle her deductivism from her attack on what she calls “subjectivism.” Hare will argue we can be opposed to both subjectivism of various kinds and to deductivism. What is subjectivism? RMH didn’t like being dubbed either a subjectivist or non-cognitivist, though Foot called him this. The central error she was concerned with was the error of thinking that value is desire-based, rather than being (“objectively”) there whether it is desired or not. But there are at least three things this might mean, and they can be distinguished under three headings: “motivation,” “moral properties,” and “ideals.” RMH’s views can be helpfully separated under these headings.


4.3.1 Motivation

RMH held that when we make a moral or evaluative judgment we are expressing a pro-attitude toward, or an endorsement of, some prescription. The position Foot was attacking was what we might call “judgment internalism,” the view that motivation is internal to moral and evaluative judgment. Why did RMH care about this? He thought it was a true analysis of the logic or grammar of evaluative language. But something else needs emphasis. RMH, through his life, was concerned for the possibility of communication about moral matters between different cultures and different generations within the same culture. He thought that his account of the difference between the meaning of evaluative terms such as “good” and “wrong” and the criteria for the use of such terms in evaluative and moral judgment was important for the preservation of this possibility. He thought we were more likely to be capable of genuine dialogue over moral issues if we shared the meaning of these basic terms, and could then talk together about what criteria to employ for their use.

Whare god's commandhat did he think was the difference between meaning and criteria? He thought that it was given in the meaning of evaluative terms that, when we use them sincerely in an evaluative judgment, we commit ourselves to an imperative. If the judgment is a moral judgment about action, the imperative is a command to act a certain way. For RMH, the criteria for an evaluative judgment were the descriptive facts about the world that we use in our evaluations. An endorsement of the goodness of something is called “a decision of principle.” The principle here is that, say, knives are good when they are sharp, and my decision is to endorse this principle in commending the knife.

Here is one place the early Foot and RMH disagreed. She held that we can’t simply decide what criteria to apply; some are internal to the moral point of view. RMH didn’t think a claim that it’s wrong to run around a tree right-handed was unintelligible (the way Foot did), but of course he did think it wrong. He agreed to this point: we have the pro-attitudes that we have, and therefore call the things good which we do call good, because of their relevance to certain ends which are sometimes called “fundamental human needs.” This passage is remarkable because of its similarity to many things in late Foot. The difference is just that these considerations about the human form of life and its evolutionary history were located by RMH as constraints on criteria, whereas Foot did not admit the meaning/criteria distinction.

There is a second, more significant, place that RMH and Foot disagreed, and this gives one reason for Foot’s rejection of judgment internalism. Foot referred to the category of shamelessness. She thought it showed that a person may make a full-fledged moral judgment without endorsing the norms he is referring to in the judgment. RMH’s response to this was that shamelessness is most probably a rejection of conventional morality, thinking there’s something nonstandard or defective about such a case.

We could put this in terms of a natural-history story. The human form of life needs not only norms—for example, norms of justice—to hold us together, but also ways to express to each other that we are committed to such norms. We need a form of expression that conveys, across a huge range of evaluations, “if I were you, I would.” We need this function because we can’t carry out our characteristic human projects without it. Being social animals is a feature of our thought life as much as our action. Moral language is plausibly construed as having this social function. But as with all functions, misuse or defective use is possible. It’s like not being able to use a chisel except as a screwdriver.

This point about the function of evaluative language is what is essentially right about judgment internalism. It’s true that each side in the dispute can explain the same phenomena. For Foot, shamelessness is making a full-fledged moral judgment but one that can’t be lived by; for RMH, it is not making a full-fledged, but rather a defective moral judgment. But the internalist account preserves one central contribution that evaluative language makes to our form of life. The key is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. RMH thought that this internalism about judgment meant that no deduction of evaluative judgment from descriptive facts was legitimate. But surprisingly, even if they were to agree that a full-fledged evaluative judgment is an expression of some state of desire or emotion or will, they could still disagree about whether the state of the world being commended in such a judgment is a state of the world with natural properties and evaluative properties that have some kind of mutually implicative relation.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism

By Mark D. Linville

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate.  In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away.  We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology.   I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism.  And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away.  Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false.  I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

A Darwinian Genealogy of Morals

According to the Darwinian account, given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—i.e., the circumstances of survival—certain behaviors are adaptive.  And so, any propensity for such behaviors will also be adaptive.  Such explains the flight instinct in the pronghorn, the spawning instinct in the cutthroat salmon and my instinctual aversion to insulting Harley riders in biker bars.  Insofar as such propensities are genetic (at least the first two examples would seem to qualify here), they are heritable and thus likely to be passed down to offspring.

Imagine, for example, a time in the early history of hominids when the circumstances of survival prompted an early patriot (and kite-flying inventor, perhaps) to advise, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all be torn apart by ravenous wolves.”  Insofar as such cooperation depends upon heritable dispositions of group members, those dispositions will confer fitness.

Darwin speaks of “social instincts” that are at the root of our moral behavior.

These include a desire for the approbation of our fellow humans and a fear of censure. They also include a general sympathy for others.  He explains,

In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities  which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.[1]

A favored “complex manner” of the origin of such feelings involves an appeal to two varieties of altruism: kin altruism is directed at family members—chiefly one’s offspring—and reciprocal altruism is directed at non-family members and even to strangers.  The former is an other-regarding attitude and behavior—particularly concerning one’s own children, but extending in descending degrees to other family members—that does not seek any returns.  The advantage, of course, is in the reproductive success.  The sense of parental duty that is possessed by, say, a female sea turtle ensures only that she lay her eggs somewhere above the high tide mark.  From there, her relatively self-sufficient offspring are quite on their own against daunting odds —something like a one in ten thousand chance of reaching maturity.  Those odds are offset by the sheer numbers of hatchlings so that a fraction manage to survive the elements and elude myriads of predators.

Such a numbers strategy would hardly work for the human species, given the utter helplessness of the human infant.  Babies tend to suffer an inelegant fate if left untended.  The probability that a human infant will die if left to its own resources at, say, just above the high tide mark, is a perfect 1.  And those same odds would prevail for each of ten thousand similarly abandoned babies.  (Word would spread quickly in the wild: “Hey, free babies!”)  Human parents possessed of no more parental instinct than sea turtles would find that their line came to an abrupt end.  Thus, a strong sense of love and concern is adaptive and heritable, and has the same function—a means to reproductive success—among humans that hatchling self-sufficiency and sheer numbers have among turtles.

Reciprocal altruism, on the other hand, is rooted in a tit-for-tat arrangement that ultimately confers greater reproductive fitness on all parties involved.  Consider, for instance, the symbiotic relationship that exists between grouper and cleaner shrimp.  Though the shrimp would certainly make a nice snack for a hungry grouper and is busily flossing the fish’s teeth from the inside, the benefit of long-term hygiene (Whiter teeth! Fresher breath!) outweighs that of short-term nourishment, and so the fish is programmed to pass on the prawn. The shrimp, of course, benefits from a delectable meal of the gunk otherwise responsible for halitosis in grouper.

Similarly, there is benefit to be gained from cooperative and altruistic behavior among humans.  For example, Darwin observes,

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.[2]

And membership in such a victorious tribe has its advantages.  To attempt a metaphor, when a baseball team functions like a well-oiled machine, say, with a Tinker, Evers and Chance infield, the likelihood that all of the members will sport World Series rings is increased.

Thus, the human moral sense—conscience—is rooted in a set of social instincts that were adaptive given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape.  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.[3]  According to Darwin, conscience emerges out of a sort of “recipe.”  It is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.  He writes,

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.[4]

Wolves in a pack know their place in the social hierarchy.  A lower ranked wolf feels compelled to give way to the alpha male.  Were he endowed with the intellectual powers that Darwin had in mind, then, presumably his “moral sense” would tell him that obeisance is his moral duty.  He would regard it as a moral fact that, like it or not, alpha interests trump beta or omega interests.  And our grouper, if graced with rational and moral autonomy, might reason, “It would be wicked of me to bite down on my little buddy here after all he has done for me!”

Of course, such a “recipe” is precisely what we find in the human species, according to Darwin.  We experience a strong pre-reflective pull in the direction of certain behaviors, such as the care for our children or the returning of kindness for kindness, and, on reflection, we conclude that these are our moral duties.

Evolutionary Naturalism and Moral Knowledge

It is not clear that the resulting account of the origin and nature of human morality does full justice to its subject.  For one thing, it is hard to see why anyone who accepts it is warranted in accepting moral realism—the view that there are objective, mind-independent moral facts that we sometimes get right in our moral beliefs.  For it would appear that the human moral sense and the moral beliefs that arise from it  are ultimately the result of natural selection, and their value is thus found in the adaptive behavior that they encourage.  But then it seems that the processes responsible for our having the moral beliefs that we do are ultimately fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed.   This is to say that, in such a case, the best explanation for our having the moral beliefs that we do makes no essential reference to their being true.

If we have the moral beliefs we do because of the fitness conferred by the resulting behavior, then it appears that we would have had those beliefs whether or not they were true.  Some writers have taken this to imply that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate.”[5]  This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.  A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis.  This is because that story makes no essential reference to any such alleged facts.   Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.  But if our moral beliefs are unwarranted, then there can be no such thing as moral knowledge.  And this amounts to moral skepticism.

If the argument developed here succeeds, its significance is in its implications for the naturalist, who maintains that reality is exhausted by the kinds of things that may, in principle, be the study of the empirical sciences.  For the naturalist’s wagon is hitched to the Darwinian star.  Richard Dawkins was recently seen sporting a T-shirt that read, “Evolution: The Greatest Show on Earth, The Only Game in Town.”  Perhaps Dawkins’ shirt reflects his more careful comment elsewhere that, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[6]  Before Darwin, the inference to Paley’s Watchmaker seemed natural, if not inevitable, given a world filled with things “that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[7] Naturalism without Darwinism is a worldview at a loss for explanation.  Further, to appeal to natural selection to explain libidos and incisors, but to withhold such an explanation for human moral psychology is an untenable position.  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.[8]   But if naturalism is committed to Darwinism, and Darwinism implies moral skepticism, then naturalism is committed to moral skepticism.

Darwinism and Normativity

In The Descent of Man, Darwin asks, “Why should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”[9]  His subsequent answer is that the stronger of two conflicting impulses wins out.  Thus, the otherwise timid mother will, without hesitation, run the greatest risks to save her child from danger because the maternal instinct trumps the instinct for self-preservation.  And the timid man, who stands on the shore wringing his hands while allowing even his own child to drown out of fear for his own life, heeds the instinct for self-preservation.[10]

What Darwin never asks—and thus never answers—is why a man ought, in fact, to obey the one rather than the other.  The best that he offers here is the observation that if instinct A is stronger than B, then one will obey A.  What he does not and, I suggest, cannot say is that one ought to obey A, or that one ought to feel the force of A over B.  That is, whereas Darwin may be able to answer the factual question that he does ask— why people believe and behave as they do—this does nothing to answer the normative question of how one ought to behave or of what sets of instincts and feelings one ought to cultivate in order to be virtuous.  It is, of course, one thing to explain why people believe and behave as they do; it is quite another to say whether their beliefs are true (or at least warranted) and their behaviors right.  As it stands, it appears that Darwin has precious little of moral import to say to the timid man.

One could, I suppose, reply on Darwinian grounds that the father who lacks a strong paternal instinct is abnormal, lacking traits that are almost universally distributed throughout the species and are, perhaps, even kind-defining.[11]  Darwin refers to the man who is utterly bereft of the social instincts as an “unnatural monster.”  Doesn’t this observation lend itself to a normative evaluation of behaviors?  Who wants to be a monster, after all?  But it is not at all clear that this can give us what is needed.  After all, departure from a statistical average is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the average adult’s IQ is around 100, Stephen Hawking is something of a freak.  And, presumably, the first hominids to use tools (Hawking’s direct ancestors, perhaps?) or to express themselves in propositions were unique in their day.[12]   Indeed, the Gandhis and Mother Theresas of the world are certainly abnormal—enough that one evolutionary naturalist refers to them as “variations”—yet we tend to like having them around.

I suppose that the evolutionary naturalist could go on to observe that, not only do we notice that the timid father is different in that his parental instinct was not sufficient to prompt him to rescue his child, but it is a difference that naturally elicits negative moral emotions.  We disapprove of him and think him blameworthy.  Indeed, perhaps the man later experiences some negative moral emotions himself, such as   “remorse, repentance, regret, or shame.”[13]  According to Darwin, the sense of guilt is the natural experience of anyone who spurns the prompting of any of the more enduring social instincts, and it bears some similarity to the physical or mental suffering that results from the frustration of any instinct of any creature.  Darwin considers the suffering of the caged migratory bird that will bloody itself against the wires of the cage when the migratory instinct is at its height.  Indeed, he considers that conflict between the migratory and maternal instincts in the swallow, which gives in to the former and abandons her young in the nest.  He speculates,

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.[14]

Like the moral sense in general, guilt is the yield of a sort of recipe: one part spurned instinct to one part “great mental activity” that permits remembrance and remorse.  And so, when our timid man’s own personal danger and fear is past so that the strength of his selfish instinct has receded, the scorned paternal instinct will have its revenge.  Also, because we are social animals, we are endowed with sympathies that make us yearn for the approbation of our fellows and fear their censure.  The cowardly father is thus likely in for a long bout of insomnia.  Further, Darwin may explain that the experience of remorse may result in a resolve for the future, with the further result that the paternal instinct is bolstered and stands a greater chance of being the dominant of two conflicting instincts.  Thus, “Conscience looks backwards, and serves as a guide for the future.”[15]

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation.  There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law.  The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of secondorder propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself).  Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,16one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character.  And, assuming that there is [16]anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import.  Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience.  What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import?  “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.”  Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality.  Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.”  He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.”  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.[17]

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge.  He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?”  For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?”  The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.[18]

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter.  Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives.  Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not.  More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.”  As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative.  But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature.  But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology.  Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not.  If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly.  If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.”  And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

A Naturalist Rejoinder

A familiar objection to my line of argument is that it assumes what is almost certainly false: that all significant and widely observed human behavior is genetically determined as the result of natural selection.  Daniel Dennett refers to this assumption as “greedy reductionism.” Dennett observes that all tribesmen everywhere throw their spears pointy-end first, but we should not suppose that there is a “pointy-end first gene.”[19] The explanation rather resides in the “non-stupidity” of the tribesmen.  And when C.S. Lewis’s character, Ransom, was at first surprised to discover that boats on Malacandra (Mars) were very similar to earthly boats, he caught himself with the question, “What else could a boat be like?’” (The astute Lewis reader might also have noticed that Malacandran hunters throw their spears pointy-end first, despite being genetically unrelated to humans, just as Dennett might have predicted.)  Some ideas are just better than others and, assuming a minimal degree of intelligence, perhaps we have been equipped to discover and implement them.

One might thus insist that perhaps all that evolution has done for us is to equip us with the basic capacities for intelligent decision-making and problem-solving, and the enterprise that is human morality is the product of human rationality; not the mere outworking of some genetic program.  If the process that has led to our having the moral beliefs we do has involved conscious rational reflection, then we have reason for optimism regarding our facility for tracking truth.  We have no more cause for moral skepticism than we do, say, mathematical skepticism.

The same greedy reductionism might be thought to plague my argument that

Darwinian accounts of human morality are merely descriptive.  I have said above that, “unless we import normative considerations from some other source,” we are left with a merely descriptive rather than a normative account.  My critic may insist here that we do bring in normative considerations from elsewhere, namely, from moral theory.  If there are true moral principles that yield moral directives and values, then, regardless of how one does feel and behave, it will remain the case that he ought to behave in a certain way.

For example, should it prove true that humans have a natural propensity for xenophobia as a part of their evolutionary heritage, we might nevertheless conclude that, say, a respect-for-persons principle requires that they overcome such fear and potential mistreatment of strangers.  The mere fact that people have a propensity for a behavior does not entail that it is justified.

I plead not guilty to the charge of greedy reductionism.  The argument in no way supposes that well-formed moral beliefs are somehow programmed by our DNA.  Richard Joyce considers the belief, “I ought to reciprocate by picking up Mary at the airport.”[20]  He then asks, “What does natural selection know of Mary or airports?”  Or consider a mother’s belief, “I ought to ensure that my child gets plenty of fruits and vegetables.”  There is, of course, no imperative regarding the dietary needs of toddlers that may be read off of the DNA.  One might as well suppose that there is a genetically programmed human tendency directed specifically at popping bubble wrap.

But Darwin’s account certainly does imply that the basic predisposition for repaying kindness with kindness or for caring for one’s offspring is programmed, and that such programs run as they do because of the reproductive fitness that is—or was for our remote ancestors—achieved by the resulting behaviors.

Philosopher Mary Midgley speaks of instincts as “programs with a gap.”[21]  Consider, for instance, the migratory instinct of the sandhill crane.  The basic drive to follow the sun south every winter is genetically programmed.  But there is a “gap” that allows for variations in the itinerary.  Midgley notes that the more intelligent the species is the wider is the gap so that room is available for deliberation and rational reflection.  Less psychologically complex creatures may be strictly determined in their behavior by their genetic hardwiring.  As P.G. Wodehouse’s newt-loving character, Gussie Fink-Nottle explains to Bertie Wooster, “Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semicircle.”[22]  Assuming Gussie’s description is accurate, we may also safely assume that newt courting behavior, unlike that observed in aristocratic British bachelors, is genetically choreographed.   In humans, the “gap” allows for countless ideas and beliefs that clearly are the products of culture rather than biology.

Still, the basic programming itself is, on Darwin’s scheme, determined by our genetic makeup, and, therefore, so is the range of rational options in that “gap” of deliberation.  Given the perennial problem of tribal warfare, early tribesmen reasoned that thrown spears are far more effective than thrown bananas.  But had humans evolved to be non-aggressive herbivores, spears might have been, well, pointless.   Had the course of human evolution been such that human infants, like baby sea turtles, were self-reliant, the human maternal instinct might never have evolved as a means to the end of reproductive fitness.    Indeed, Darwin thought that, had the circumstances for reproductive fitness been different, then the deliverances of conscience might have been radically different.

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.[23]

As it happens, we weren’t “reared” after the manner of hive-bees, and so we have widespread and strong beliefs about the sanctity of human life and its implications for how we should treat our siblings and our offspring.

But this strongly suggests that we would have had whatever beliefs were ultimately fitness-producing given the circumstances of survival.  Given the background belief of naturalism there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the very parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs.  One might be able to make a case for thinking that having true beliefs about, say, the predatory behaviors of tigers would, when combined with the an understandable desire not to be eaten, be fitness-producing.  But the account would be far from straightforward in the case of moral beliefs.[24]   And so the Darwinian explanation undercuts whatever reason the naturalist might have had for thinking that any of our moral beliefs are true.  The result is moral skepticism.

If our pre-theoretical moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories that we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process.  How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true?  What methodology is available to us?

By way of answer, consider the following “chicken-and-egg” question.  Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping?  In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle?  Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief?  Pretty clearly, it is the latter.  We just find ourselves with certain beliefs of a moral nature, and actually appeal to them as touchstones when we engage in conscious moral reflection.  Indeed, if we were to conclude that some philosopher’s proposed moral principle would, if true, imply the moral correctness of recreational baby-stomping, then we might say, “So much the worse for that proposed principle.”  As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”[25] This methodology, which begins with deep-seated, pre-reflective moral beliefs and then moves to moral principles that are implicated by them, is sometimes called reflective equilibrium.[26]

Presumably, reflective equilibrium, employed by bee-like philosophers in those worlds envisioned by Darwin, would settle upon moral principles that implied the rightness of such things as siblicide and infanticide.  Thus, the deliverances of the moral theories endorsed in such worlds are but the byproducts of the evolved psychologies in such worlds.  But, again, this suggests that our pre-theoretical convictions are largely due to whatever selection pressures happened to be in place in our world.   If this is so, then the deliverances of those moral theories that we endorse, to which we might appeal in order to introduce normative considerations, are, in the final analysis, byproducts of our evolved psychology.  The account, as it stands, thus never takes us beyond merely descriptive human psychology.

A Theistic Alternative

The worry, then, is that our efforts at moral reflection are compromised by features of our constitution that are in place for purposes other than the acquisition of truth.  As philosopher Sharon Street puts it,

If the fund of evaluative judgments with which human reflection began was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence . . . then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter are always just a subset of the former.[27]

In order to inspire confidence in those initial evaluative judgments of which Street speaks, the moral realist owes us some account of their origin that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth.  What we need is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated.  And so our question is, What reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed?  What we seek is what Norman Daniels calls “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.”[28]

It is just here that the theist may oblige us in a way that the naturalist may not.  Robert Adams, for example, has suggested that things bear the moral properties that they do—good or bad—insofar as they resemble or fail to resemble God.  He goes on to offer the makings of a theistic “genealogy of morals.”

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.[29]

The theist is thus in a position to offer Daniels’ “little story” that would explain the general reliability of those evaluative judgments from which reflective equilibrium takes its cue.  Certain of our moral beliefs—in particular, those that are presupposed in all moral reflection—are truth-aimed because human moral faculties are designed to guide human conduct in light of moral truth.[30]  The moral law is “written upon the heart,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome.


A century ago, the philosopher Hastings Rashdall observed,

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.[31]

We have seen that both the evolutionary naturalist and the theist may be found saying that certain of our moral beliefs are by-products of the human constitution: we think as we do largely as a result of our programming.  Whether such beliefs are warranted would seem to depend upon who or what is responsible for the program.  And this calls for some account of the metaphysical underpinnings of those beliefs and the mechanisms responsible for them.  Are those mechanisms truth-aimed?  And are they in good working order?  The sort of account available to the evolutionary naturalist ends in moral skepticism.  The theist has a more promising story to tell.[32]


[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2004), 88.

[2] Darwin, Descent, 112.

[3] And, of course, though any two species of social animals have in common the fact that they are prompted by social instincts, the resulting behavior may vary widely.  It is not clear, for instance, which of the grazing Guernseys is the “alpha cow.” Wiener dogs seem not to come equipped with the obsessive herding instincts of border collies, and would likely endure derisive laughter from the sheep if they did.

[4] Darwin, Descent, 81.

[5] Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J.E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310-11.

[6] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton & Co., 1986), 6.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life,” Biology and Philosophy 18/5 (2003): 653-88.

[9] Darwin, Descent, 91.

[10] I cannot resist including a personal anecdote here.  I once rescued a young man from drowning in the Mississippi River.  After I swam out and pulled him to shore, his mother, who had watched helplessly from the beach,  explained that she would have saved him herself but she could not go into the water because her toe was infected.  She produced the sore toe.  I had to agree that it did look very sore.

[11] The Chinese philosopher Mencius seems to have maintained that the possession of at least the rudimentary “seeds” of the virtues (e.g., the feeling of commiseration is the seed of the virtue of jen —“human-heartedness”) are essential to humanity so that anyone lacking them would not be human.

[12] Consider Gary Larson’s cartoon depicting a group of cave men.  To the left is a small group huddled around a fire, roasting drumsticks by clenching them in their fists directly over the flames.  They are all very obviously in agony.  To the right is another fire with only one cook.  He has the meat roasting on a stick, and is seated at a comfortable distance.  A member of the group to the left has noticed this, and is saying, “Look what Og do!”

[13] Darwin, Descent, 94.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 95.

[16] So if the impulse either to save the child or one’s own hide is a first-order inclination, second-order inclinations would include feelings of, say, guilt or pride regarding the first-order propensities and resulting actions.

[17] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 486.

[20] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 180.

[21] See Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London: Routledge Press, 1979).

[22] Taken from P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (New York: Penguin, 2000), ch. 2.

[23] Darwin, Descent, 82.

[24] Here’s why.  This would imply, for instance, that human mothers are possessed of a powerful maternal instinct for the prior reason that it is true that they have a moral duty to care for their children.  But, given naturalism, the simpler explanation for the maternal instinct is just that it confers reproductive fitness.  Why think that moral facts have any role to play—particularly when we observe similar instinctual behavior in animals that are not plausibly thought of as moral agents?  Further, to what mechanism could the naturalist plausibly appeal to explain how reproductive fitness “tracks” moral truth?  For more on this, see Sharon Street’s excellent paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109-166.


[25] Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands,” in Christine Pierce and Donald VanDeVeer eds., People, Penguins and Plastic Trees (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1986), 157.

[26] Reflective equilibrium involves more than this one-way move from particular beliefs to general principles.  In actual practice, it begins with those pre-reflective beliefs, moves from there to systemizing principles, and then back to other particular beliefs that are entailed by the principles.  There is always a standing possibility that an entailed beliefs is incompatible with one or another of the beliefs with which one began.  In that case, adjustment and revision is called for.  The goal is to arrive at a set or system of principled beliefs that is internally consistent and plausible.

[27] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value. Philosophical Studies, 127 (2006), 125.

[28] Norman Daniels, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,” Journal of Philosophy 76/5 (1979): 265.

[29] Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.

[30] For the purposes of this argument, the appeal to “design” leaves open the question of whether the process responsible for the appearance of moral agents was evolutionary in nature.  Daniels’ “little story” requirement is satisfied whether the tale involves special creation or directed evolution.

[31] Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907), 192.

[32] As always, I wish to thank David Werther for his many helpful comments on and criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.


Photo: “Emptiness in Decay” by H. Adam. CC License. 

The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 1 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt 

(part 2)

In this essay, my aim is to show that naturalism does not provide an adequate ground for a virtue ethic. In order to that, I will first say what a virtue ethic is, then how a naturalist might construe a virtue ethic, and finally give some reasons to think such efforts likely fail.

The Features of a Virtue Ethic

Linda Zagzebski provides a concise definition of virtue ethics: “Traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics makes the concept of virtue dependent upon the more basic concept of eudaimonia – happiness or flourishing. Eudaimonia is in turn dependent upon the idea of human nature, understood as teleological.”[1] This definition can be broken down into three essential parts: teleology, eudaimonia, and the virtues.[2] If these parts are essential to a virtue ethic, then any theory claiming to be a virtue ethic must account for all three of these.

In order to account for the telos of human nature, a theory must say how it is that humans have genuine purpose.

When Aristotle uses eudaimonia he has in mind the ideal or best kind of life possible for a thing. Aristotle thought of eudaimonia as the chief end of man, the good under which all other goods are subsumed. Theories of virtue connect eudaimonia with the human telos so that living up to one’s telos counts as the highest good possible for a human.  Thus, an adequate virtue ethic must say how achieving the human telos, if there is one, counts as good for humans.

A virtue is a means of achieving one’s end, but it is simultaneously bound up in the end itself. By practicing a virtue, a person both helps to bring about eudaimonia and participates in it. If the ideal for humans includes compassion, then by being compassionate we ought to bring ourselves closer to the human ideal. If compassion does not have this means/ends relation to eudaimonia, it does not count as a virtuous activity.

Here is the upshot:  if virtue ethics is correct, then there are at least three facts in need of explanation: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues.

Naturalistic Virtue Ethics (NVE)

The next move is to consider what the naturalist has to say about these facts.

The first issue is whether naturalism allows for teleology in a human. For a thing to have a telos, it must be designed or intended for something. Typically, we think that if something is designed or intended, it was made by a person. That is because in commonsense language these terms imply someone with a mind who does the designing and intending.  This is why Richard Dawkins emphasizes that life has merely the appearance of design.[3] This fact alone might seem to prevent naturalists from assigning a telos to humans since no person designed humans. However, as Colin Allen points out, some naturalists think that Darwinian evolution provides a way for naturalists to talk about genuine “design” without reference to a personal designer.[4] The thought is that nature through the process of evolution really does design life. (Angus Ritchie refers to naturalistic evolution as “quasi-teleological.”)

Through the slow grind of evolution, nature settles (at least for a time) on certain designs or life-forms. Naturalist virtue ethicists invoke the concept of a “species” at this point.[5] A chimpanzee is a species that has a certain suite of natural abilities and characteristics endowed by eons of adaptations. These abilities, like the ability to see, are the result of a series of biological processes. When the processes operate as they should, a healthy chimp will be able to exercise all these abilities without defect. Foot puts it this way: “We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be.”[6] The should is defined by reference to kind or species which counts as the norm.  A hammer is a kind of thing that normally drives nails. Defective hammers break when driving a nail, or otherwise fail to perform its normative function. Defective chimps cannot see. This account takes the designation “chimpanzee” to refer to a real, in some sense normative, category; species carry with them normative constraints and implications. The result, as Thompson puts it, is that living things can be judged as “defective or sound, good or bad, well-working or ill-working, by reference to its bearer’s life-form or kind or species.”[7]

However, granting that Foot and the other proponents of a NVE are correct about teleology only gets them so far. Thompson admits that teleology by itself has no moral qualities.[8] A wrench is for turning bolts, but that does not mean when wrenches turn bolts there is any moral goodness around. So we must have a reason for thinking that the teleology in a human person actually is able to ground the good.

Foot’s first step is to point out that humans have a unique faculty that other animals do not: the will.  The will is a function of being human in the same way sight or hearing is. With a will, humans are able to act from intentions; this makes humans uniquely moral animals. This allows Foot to make evaluative judgments about the will of an individual: “Similarly, it is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species. Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?”[9]A human’s choice to murder is a bad choice because it does not conform to the norm for humans. Conversely, good choices are those that correspond to the norm.

But this does not yet get us to explanation of the moral good for humans. In order to get at that explanation, Foot makes a distinction between different kinds of evaluations. There are different kinds of evaluations we can make about living things. “This kangaroo is defective because it has too few legs” is one kind of evaluation. But we can also evaluate the choices of human beings. “Harry’s choice to steal from his mom was bad” is another kind of evaluation. The reason Harry’s choice was bad was because it did not conform to the norm for a human.  Foot thinks that bad here also has a moral sense because it is an evaluation of Harry’s voluntary choice.[10] In other words, what makes the evaluation a moral one is just that it is an evaluation of Harry’s willful action.

However, we still want to know the substance of the good for humans. Foot’s first step in making the connection between bare teleology and the moral good for humans is to show that the norm for human beings includes a complex psychology and robust social interactions. Foot thinks that “human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagination that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances—and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived.”[11] Foot adds that it “matters in a human community that people can trust each other, and matters even more that at some basic level humans should have mutual respect.”[12] The reason these things matter is because they contribute to the success of a human being as a human being. So the human good consists of a certain desired state of mind and community.

With the substance of the human good fleshed out, Foot can now give an account of the virtues. For Foot, an act is virtuous when it is rationally and successfully performed in light of one’s humanness. To be virtuous is to be an ideal human. So virtues like “justice” and “compassion” are morally good because they are constitutive of the natural norm for human beings. They generate the right state of mind and community.

In light of this, we can see how Foot accounts for the facts of virtue ethics. Humans have a telos because they are members of a species that has certain norms. Foot’s ethic is eudaimonist because living successfully as a human counts as the highest possible good for humans. And the virtues play the right structural role. But is this a successful account?

Tomorrow I will offer objections to a naturalistic account of virtue. (part 2)


[1] Linda Zagzebski, “The Incarnation of Jesus and Virtue Ethics,” in The Incarnation, ed. Davis, Kendall, and Collins (New York: Oxford, 2002), 326.

[2] Katva uses a similar taxonomy: “Virtue ethics has then a tripartite structure: (1) human-nature-as-it-exists; (2) human-nature-as-it-could-be; and (3) those habits, capacities, interests, inclinations, precepts, injunctions, and prohibitions that will move us from point one to point two.”  Kindle location 576.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker : Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1996). 21.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), s.v. “Teleological Notions in Biology.”

[5]See Michael Thompson, “The Representation of Life,” in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory : Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot, ed. Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn(1998). 27. See also Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 219. And Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 24.

[6] Foot. 33.

[7] Thompson. 29

[8] Michael Thompson, “Three Degrees of Natural Goodness (Discussion Note) ” Iride, (2003). 2.

[9] Foot. 24.

[10] See ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 43.

[12] ibid. 48.


Photo: “Many Species. One Planet. One Future.” By N. Jois. CC License. 

Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part IV

By David Baggett

Other parts available here

Darwinian counterfactuals, ethical nonnaturalism, and theism

The nonnaturalist has a ready reply to the argument from Darwinian counterfactuals. For he might wish to maintain that certain natural properties bear a necessary relation to the moral properties that they exemplify, regardless of any evolutionary possibilities. But nonnaturalists who are also metaphysical naturalists seem to have problems of their own in the face of such Darwinian counterfactuals. How is it that unguided human evolution on earth has resulted in just those moral beliefs that accord with moral verities? As Gould has argued, everything about us, even our very existence, is radically contingent. If we were to rewind the reel, it’s highly unlikely evolution would again attempt the experiment called Homo sapiens. The Dependence Thesis in the hands of the nonnaturalist seems highly improbable. A sort of moral fine tuning argument is suggested. The theist may have an advantage just here. For, on theism, as Santayana put it, the Good is also nature’s Creator.

The theist, like the nonnaturalist, is in a position to say why there is a necessary connection between certain natural properties and their supervenient moral properties. Adams, for example, suggests theistic Platonism, so can account for why nobody could exhibit Hitler’s qualities without being depraved and an affront to God’s nature. But the theist also has an account of the development of human moral faculties—a theistic genealogy of morals—that allows for something akin to Street’s “tracking relation”: we have the basic moral beliefs we do because they are true, and this is because the mechanisms responsible for those moral beliefs are truth-aimed. The theist is thus in a position to explain the general reliability of those considered judgments from which reflective equilibrium takes its cue. Certain of our moral beliefs—in particular, those that are presupposed in all moral reflection—are truth-aimed because human moral faculties are designed to guide human conduct in light of moral truth.

Humean skepticism or Reidean externalism?

Linville reads Hume as a skeptic across the board, not just in ethics. His ethical views were part of a seamless whole that includes his discussion of the beliefs of common life. In each discussion—causality, substance, personal identity—he aims to show both that the belief in question is without any epistemic credentials and that relevant human propensities explain the belief without making any assumptions about the truth of the belief. From a Humean perspective, we lack positive reasons to accept either the dependence or independence thesis. His is a variety of epistemological moral skepticism, so it resembles AEN.

Reid countered Hume by common sense. Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher but casting out a devil, as Chesterton put it. There is no set of premises more certainly known from which such beliefs follow. Hume is right: the beliefs of common life are not endorsed by reason, but, instead, are the inevitable by-products of our constitution. But Hume is mistaken in inferring from this that such beliefs are, therefore, without warrant. Why, after all, trust the rational faculties to which Hume appeals, but not trust the faculties responsible for our commonsense beliefs? Both come from the same shop, and Reid thought the shop was God’s creation.

Reid thought the commonsense beliefs that arise spontaneously and noninferentially given our constitution are warranted even though they fail to measure up to the exacting standards of epistemic justification assumed by foundationalists after the Cartesian fashion. These days we say such beliefs are properly basic. A belief is properly basic just in case the faculty through which it is acquired is functioning as it ought. Plantinga puts it this way: a belief is warranted just in case it is the product of a belief-producing mechanism that is truth-aimed and functioning properly in the environment for which it was designed. This account accommodates those perceptual, memorial, testimonial, and even metaphysical beliefs that are the guides of common life and, closer to our purposes, are among the fund of native beliefs with which we begin in theory assessment. Even closer to our purposes, such an account accommodates those moral beliefs employed in reflective equilibrium.

Reid appealed to a set of “first, or ‘self-evident’ principles” of morality discerned through faculties that he thought were wrought in the same shop as reason and perception. Just as there is no reasoning with the man who, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, is convinced that his head is a gourd, neither is there advantage in engaging in moral argument with a man who fails to recognize self-evident principles of morality.

There are moral principles to which we should “pay homage,” as Norman Daniels puts it. We pay such homage when we utilize them as data for the construction of moral theories or as a kind of court of appeal in assessing them. But our confidence in these constitutional beliefs is wisely invested only in the event that we have reason to believe the faculties responsible for them to be truth-aimed. Reid’s theism provided him with such a reason; the moral faculties were forged in the same shop as our other cognitive faculties. They are designed by God for the purpose of discerning moral truth. “That conscience which is in every man’s breast, is the law of God written in his heart, which he cannot disobey without acting unnaturally, and being self-condemned.”

Photo: “Darwin” by A. Comings. CC License. 


Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part III

By David Baggett

Other parts available here

Epistemological arguments and the Dependence Thesis

Linville has been arguing that AEN provides an epistemological argument for moral skepticism, to show that our moral beliefs lack warrant because the mechanisms responsible for our moral beliefs appear to be fitness-aimed, rather than truth-aimed. If our best theory of why people believe P doesn’t require that P is true, then we lack good grounds to believe P is true. This much resembles an argument by Gilbert Harman.

Harman’s so-called “problem with ethics” is that moral facts, if such there are, appear to be explanatorily irrelevant in a way that natural facts are not. According to Harman, we need not suppose that over and above such natural facts about Hitler as his monomania and anti-Semitism there is a moral fact of Hitler’s depravity. Nor must we appeal to his actual depravity in order to explain our belief that he was depraved. Harman may thus be viewed as arguing in his own manner that we have no reason to believe that the best explanation for our moral beliefs involves their truth. We have no good reason to think that the causes of those beliefs are dependent on whatever would make them true.

Sturgeon has replied first by noting that moral facts are commonly and plausibly thought to have explanatory relevance. Both Hitler’s behavior and our belief that he was depraved are handily explained by his actual depravity, and this is in fact the default explanation. Sturgeon follows the method of reflective equilibrium, a method employed in both science and ethics, which begins with certain considered judgments, and with the assumption that our theories, scientific and otherwise, are roughly correct, then moves dialectically in this way between plausible general theses and plausible views about cases, seeking a reflective equilibrium. Sturgeon notes that, whereas he allows for the inclusion of moral beliefs among the initial set, Harman does not. But he argues there’s no non-question-begging justification for singling out moral beliefs as unwelcome in the initial set while allowing those of a scientific or commonsense nature.

Sturgeon’s approach invokes the supervenience of moral properties on natural properties. On standard accounts, if some moral property M supervenes on some natural property (or, more likely, some set of natural properties) N, then it is impossible for N to be instantiated unless M is also instantiated. In all worlds in which Hitler believes and acts as he did, his depravity would supervene on such properties and be instantiated; he couldn’t have had those properties without being depraved. Harman, by denying this, tacitly assumes there are no moral facts or properties, which is of course the point at issue.

Sturgeon’s appeal to reflective equilibrium is crucial in his reply to Harman. Brink goes to some length to argue that Harman fails to demonstrate any explanatory disanalogy between the scientific and moral cases. Linville finds Sturgeon’s reply successful. Sorley once said the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics. He thought that holding off on ethics until the task of worldview construction was complete would result in an artificially truncated worldview, and that moral ideas would be given short shrift. The exclusion of moral experience seemed arbitrary. Harman seems to be following in the tradition Sorley criticized. Harman’s results are achieved only by begging the question against the moral realist.

But even Sorley would in principle admit that the initial “ethical data” must prove to be compatible with everything else that is included in our final interpretation of reality. In fact, the same year Sorley delivered the Gifford Lectures, George Santayana published Winds of Doctrine, in which he complained that Bertrand Russell’s then-held moral realism was the result of Russell’s “monocular” vision. Santayana said Russell didn’t look and see that our moral bias is conditioned and has its basis in the physical order of things. Eventually Russell abandoned his moral realism, crediting these very arguments. AEN suggests following Santayana’s advice, and bearing in mind Sharon Street’s worry: “If the fund of exhaustive judgments with which human reflection was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence…then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter is always just a subset of the former.” What we require is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated. So, what reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed, that the Dependence Thesis is true?

Santayana suggested that if God exists and has fashioned the human constitution with the purpose of discerning moral truth, then we have reason to embrace the Dependence Thesis. But neither Russell nor Santayana was a theist. Moral realists need to give an account of moral beliefs that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth. Quine offers such a story with a Darwinian spin to inspire confidence in our ability to acquire knowledge of the world around us. Natural selection is unkind to those whose behaviors stem from either false beliefs or profound stupidity. We should expect our cognitive faculties to be truth-aimed and generally reliable given such selection pressures.

Plantinga has challenged such stories with what he calls “Darwin’s Doubt.” The connection between fitness-conferring behavior and true belief might not be so certain as Quine suggests. If Plantinga is correct, then evolutionary naturalism is saddled with a far-ranging skepticism that takes in much more than our moral beliefs. Despite Plantinga’s many ingenious examples in which adaptive behavior results from false beliefs, many people just find the link between true belief and adaptive behavior plausible. And in any event the moral and nonmoral cases appear to be significantly different.

The core of Street’s paper is her “Darwinian Dilemma” she poses to value realists like Sturgeon. Our moral beliefs are fitness-aimed. Are they also truth-aimed? Either there is a fitness-truth relation or there is not. If not, and evolution has shaped our basic evaluative attitudes, 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 have conferred (the “adaptive” link account). Adaptive link leads to constructivism. The moral realist needs a tracking account, but Street thinks fitness following mind-independent moral truths is implausible. A tracking account of paternal instincts would have to say more than that the behavior tends toward DNA preservation—something like the instincts were favored because it’s independently true that parents ought to care for their offspring. Nonnaturalists have the worst deal in light of the causal inertness of moral properties on their view. Ethical naturalists have a better time at it, but why not just eschew realism and go with an adaptive account?

A dilemma similar to that urged by Street comes from another consideration of Darwinian counterfactuals. Sturgeon thinks moral terms rigidly designate natural properties. If justice picks out some natural property or properties, we might expect an ethical naturalist to conclude that moral judgments if true are true in all possible worlds. But Linville writes that to insist that our moral terms rigidly designate specific earthly natural properties to which human sentiments have come to be attached appears to be an instance of what Judith Thomason has called metaphysical imperialism.

Sturgeon dialogued with Gibbard, who argued for expressivism. Sturgeon’s reply is that perhaps our ancestors called bargaining outcomes just because they really were. But is this so? The bargaining situation Gibbard had envisioned involved a cast of characters who were self-interested individualists. In such a situation, there was pressure in the direction of equitable arrangements. But imagine a different set of initial conditions—like lupine bargainers. If justice supervenes on certain natural facts, these will essentially include facts about the psychological constitution of the respective bargainers. It seems to Linville that the most plausible explanation is that such counterfactual moral beliefs are formed as the result of selection pressures that are themselves in place due to the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—contingencies that are morally indifferent. While ethical naturalists in those worlds no doubt argue for the supervenience of the moral on the natural, the efficacy of moral explanations, and the existence of corresponding moral facts, we should, Linville thinks, regard them as mistaken. If the moral beliefs of the actual world have also taken their cue from predispositions that were fitness-conferring, then it is hard to see why our own ethical naturalists are in any better position so to argue.


Photo: “Darwin Divergence” by Jwyg. CC License. 

Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I

Part III (coming soon)

Part IV (coming soon)

AEN and “greedy reductionism”

The first premise (if EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection) is widely rejected. Plenty suggest that the sociobiological assumptions of an argument such as AEN have been “widely discredited,” guilty of a “greedy reductionism.” Some ideas are just better than others. The point applies forcefully in our assessment of AEN. The argument, as stated, seems to assume that our “moral beliefs” have an evolutionary explanation. We have various moral beliefs, but it’s implausible to think that any fairly determinate belief has somehow been fashioned at the genetic level and then lodged, intact, within the human brain. Further, do all of these traits find their explanation in the selection pressures that were at work when we came down from the trees? Isn’t it possible that certain moral beliefs are widespread because they simply make sense? Our evolution may have provided us with the intellectual tools needed for building cathedrals, playing chess, and drawing up social contracts, but might not these activities be more or less autonomous as far as the genes are concerned?

Perhaps greedy reductionism is an extreme to avoid, but Linville suggests another extreme to avoid is the idea that natural selection has had nothing to do with the distribution of widespread moral beliefs. To appeal to natural selection to explain incisors and libidos but to exclude the deepest springs of human behavior from such an account would seem rather a tenuous position to hold. 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. The notion we’re born entirely a blank slate, completely malleable, seems wrong—and tantamount to denying any validity to evolutionary psychology.

If instincts refer to basic predispositions, drives, or programs, then humans have instincts, but the more interesting of these are, by and large, “open instincts” or “programs with a gap.” The gap, where it exists, leaves it to the intelligence—rational reflection and culture in general in the case of humans—of the individual or the species to fill in the details. Migratory waterfowl come equipped with a basic drive to follow the sun south in the winter, but the programming itself need not specify the details of the itinerary. The development of ethical precepts of which Kitcher speaks may well be the result of careful deliberation and rational reflection, but perhaps these are in response to proclivities that come with our programming.

Sharon Street distinguishes between basic evaluative tendencies and full-fledged evaluative judgments. The latter include our specific moral beliefs that might be formulated as moral principles or rules, and they may be explained by appeal to a variety of influences, cultural and otherwise. The former are “proto” forms of evaluative judgment that are unreflective and nonlinguistic impulses towards certain behaviors that seem “called for.” She argues that “relentless selection pressures” have had a direct and “tremendous” influence on our basic evaluative tendencies and these, in turn, have had a major, but not necessarily overriding, indirect effect on our actual moral beliefs or full-fledged evaluative judgments.

If such programming and predispositions provide our basic moral orientation, then it is within their scaffolds that all moral reflection takes place. Our reflective beliefs about the duties of parenthood or of friendship, for instance, arise from more basic parental and altruistic drives that predate and are presupposed by all such reflection. While this evolutionary account provides a role for reason, that reason is in effect, to borrow from Hume, the slave of the passions. Those passions, Street’s basic evaluative tendencies, are almost certainly not cultural artifacts.

Human culture is responsible for great accomplishments that assuredly are not the direct product of our evolution. And these may well include complex systems of moral precepts. Perhaps human social contracts are good tricks in that they solve problems posed by some combination of genetics plus environment plus intelligence. Rationality is employed, but it is an instrumental rationality.

Linville is now in a position to revise his claim in the first premise. Human morality is a product of natural selection in that a fundamental moral orientation—Street’s basic evaluative tendencies and Midgley’s “programming”—is in place because it was adaptive for our ancestors given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. The program provides general directives or tendencies. The gap allows room for rational reflection regarding our moral beliefs, but their very rationality is conditional or hypothetical: given the program that has been bequeathed to us by our genes, some policies are better than others. The program itself is precisely as it is due to its adaptive value given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. However big the gap, it’s found within the scope of our programming that is directly explained by appeal to natural selection. Moral reasoning would then appear to be means-end reasoning, where the ends have been laid down for us by natural selection.

So, counterfactually, had the programming been relevantly different, so would the range of intelligent choices. There may be some forced moves through evolutionary design space, but Darwin did not think that any determinate set of moral precepts or dictates of conscience was among them. Darwin says, for example, if we’d been raised in the same conditions as hive bees, our unmarried females would think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and nobody would think of interfering. Here we’re being asked to imagine a world in which our fundamental moral orientation (Midgley’s open instincts) is different. Darwin appears to countenance the possibility of a species that is prompted, even on reflection, to behave in ways that are inequitable and, from our standpoint, unjust. If rational and moral reflection takes its cue from a more primitive predisposition, then have we any reason for supposing that such reflection, the product of culture, would inevitably settle on equitable treatment?

If humans as a species have come to regard equitable arrangements as fair or just, then perhaps this is only because their initial programming was wired as it was given the circumstances of human evolution. We have the actual moral orientation that we do because it was adaptive. Had the circumstances been different, some other set would have conferred fitness. Is there any plausible reason to suppose that such a moral orientation is adaptive because its resultant moral beliefs are true?

Of course, Linville writes, one might reply to this line of argument by insisting that a wedge be driven between Street’s “basic evaluative tendencies” and her “full-fledged moral judgments.” Following Dennett and others, might we not suggest that, with the advent of culture it became possible for us to “snap” Wilson’s “genetic leash” and strike out on our own? Perhaps, then, morality is autonomous, engaging in reflection that is independent of the drives of human nature.

Linville thinks such a reply implausible. Our considered judgments regarding various duties and the like find their wellspring in our psychology, which appears to be what it is because of the circumstances of evolution in each case. So Linville thinks there’s reason to accept the first premise of AEN. This leaves us with whether or not there’s any reason to suppose that there is a relevant dependence relation between the processes of belief formation and the would-be truth makers for such beliefs. To sharpen the question: Is there reason to suppose that the belief-producing mechanisms of our moral beliefs are truth-aimed? Is there a plausible defense of the Dependence Thesis available to the naturalist?

Photo: “Charles Darwin bicentennial” by C. Roffey. CC License. 

Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part I

By David Baggett

Part II

Part III (coming soon)

Part IV (coming soon)

Nietzsche had the insight that those, like George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), who think they can have morality and moral duty without a religious foundation are deluded. “They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality.” Nietzsche thought there are no moral facts, precisely because there are no theological ones. The moral argument takes Nietzsche’s assertion as one of its premises: if there is no God, then there are altogether no moral facts. But contra Nietzsche it also urges that we have, in our moral experience, good reason to suppose that there are indeed moral facts.

Such arguments come in numerous forms—without a lawgiver there’s no moral law, prudential considerations, requirements of moral knowledge—but Kant’s is one of the more sophisticated: If there’s no God, then the moral law makes objective demands that are not possibly met, namely, that the moral good of virtue and the natural good of happiness embrace and become perfect in a “highest good.” But then the demands appear to be empty, and in the face of such an antinomy, we might come to think of moral requirements as null and void. For Kant, though God is not the author of the moral law, he is required as a sort of Director of the screenplay. If death is the end, he also argued morality wouldn’t seem to matter as much as it should.

Linville’s argument will instead focus on this: theists can, where naturalists can’t, offer a framework on which our moral beliefs may be presumed to be warranted. In particular, the naturalist’s commitment to a Darwinian explanation of certain salient features of human psychology presents an undercutting defeater for our moral beliefs taken as a whole. This argument is thus chiefly epistemological in nature, and seldom strays from the discipline of metaethics.

Wilson and Ruse have suggested ethics to be an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate. The pressures of natural selection, on their view, have had an enormous influence on human psychology, including the hardwiring of epigenetic rules, widely distributed propensities to believe and behave in certain ways, which have developed through the interaction of human genetics and human culture. Such rules give us a sense of obligation because of their adaptive value, not because they detect any actual moral obligations. Objectivity in morality is illusory, a useful fiction. Ruse thinks Darwin’s theory complements Hume’s subjectivism.

On Hume’s view, belief in objective moral properties is at best unwarranted, and talk of them is in fact meaningless. The only fact of the matter we find in moral judgments is an object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in ourselves. The mind, as Hume put it, has “a great propensity to spread itself on external objects,” so that the subjective feelings that, given our constitution, result from such contemplation of some act, are mistaken for perceptions of objective properties of the act itself.

Let’s call the combination of naturalism and an overall Darwinian account of the origin of the species evolutionary naturalism (EN); according, then, to one like C. S. Lewis, on EN, the dictates of conscience are little more than an aggregate of subjective impulses which, although distributed widely throughout the species, are no more capable of being true or false than a vomit or a yawn.

An argument—call it the argument from evolutionary naturalism (AEN)—thus emerges from such considerations:

  1. If EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection.
  2. If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.
  3. There are objective moral facts.
  4. So, EN is false.

This isn’t an argument for God, but for the falsity of EN. Also, naturalism doesn’t entail Darwinism, but Darwinism seems to be the only game in town. Linville’s primary focus will be to consider objections to the first two premises. He realizes there are plenty of anti-realists out there, but wishes to focus on realists who try to ground their realism in EN. One might object to the first premise by denying that natural selection is solely or even partly responsible for the emergence of human morality. And the second premise might be accused of a common fallacy by moving so quickly from an account of the origins of human morality to the assertion that its claims to objectivity are false. What might the evolutionary naturalist say about the possible connections between the workings of natural selection and the truth of our moral beliefs?

AEN and the genetic fallacy

The second premise initially appears to be guilty of the genetic fallacy; identifying the source of a belief is generally not evidence of its falsity. But sometimes identifying the origins of a belief is relevant to a consideration of its truth, as in cases where it can be shown that the explanation of someone’s belief is epistemically independent of whatever would make the belief true. (Like forming a belief about the number of people in a room by a random drawing.)

Might we offer a similar evolutionary argument for moral skepticism? Sober suggests it’s a tall order because we’d have to identify the processes of moral belief formation and the would-be truth-makers for moral beliefs, and then show such processes and truth-makers to be independent. Call this the Independence Thesis.

Of course the Independence Thesis doesn’t entail that morality is an illusion, but merely that our moral beliefs are probably false. But we need not argue for the falseness or probable falseness of our moral beliefs. Nor is it necessary to argue for the truth of the Independence Thesis. It is one thing to suggest that there are positive reasons for asserting epistemic independence, and quite another to say we lack any reason for thinking that a relevant dependence relation obtains. We would have a reason for thinking there is such a relation just in case the best explanation for a person’s having a given belief essentially involves the truth of that belief. It seems that a plausible Darwinian yarn may be spun in such a way as to offer a complete and exhaustive explanation of our various moral beliefs without ever supposing that any of them are true.

It was no background assumption of the evolutionary explanation of our moral beliefs that any actual moral rightness or wrongness existed in the ancestral environment. When we look at the animals, we explain their behavior and the impulse toward their behavior by appeal to adaptiveness. Moral properties are not included in the cast of characters. On a Darwinian story, conscience is what arises in a social creature once the social instincts are overlain with a sufficient degree of rationality.

Arguably, given an evolutionary account of human moral beliefs, there is no reason for thinking that a relation of epistemic dependence obtains, and so, given an evolutionary account, belief in moral facts is unwarranted. If our moral beliefs are without warrant, then they do not amount to moral knowledge. Linville thus modifies (2) in AEN to

(2*): If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there is no moral knowledge.

An evolutionary account serves to undercut whatever warrant we might have had for our moral beliefs, and if they lack warrant, they are not items of knowledge.

Wilson and Ruse think Darwinism poses a rebutting defeater for our moral beliefs, as well as for moral realism itself. Linville instead thinks the proponent of AEN might back off from the stronger claim that Darwinism entails that there are no moral facts, speaking instead of whether we are warranted in our ordinary moral beliefs. In this way AEN becomes an epistemological argument for moral skepticism. As Richard Joyce observes, the conclusion that our moral beliefs are “unjustified” is “almost as disturbing a result” as an argument for the actual falseness of those beliefs.

On the suggestion that Darwinism presents us with an undercutting defeater for moral beliefs, (3) becomes

(3*): There is moral knowledge,

and this takes us to the conclusion that

(4) EN is false.

What we lack is some reason for thinking that the adaptiveness of a moral belief depends in any way on its being true. Linville turns the tables on Sober. Instead of Sober’s suggestion that the AEN defender must show that moral beliefs are independent of any truth-makers, perhaps the onus is on those who assert dependence. Why, given EN, should we suppose the world to include anything more than natural facts and properties and our subjective reactions to those properties?

Photo: “Charles Darwin” by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE. CC License.