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Atheism and its Impossible Imagination: How Literary Imagination Insists on Theist Morality

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in The City.

By Corey Latta 

Let me begin boldly: no atheist fiction writer, living or dead, has successfully created a world in the image of his non-belief.  The possibility for such a non-believing world vanishes the moment an atheist author exercises imagination to create conscientious characters in a fictive society.  As soon as the atheist author creates a fictive world, he populates that world with living characters.  These characters must have a semblance of will, intent, emotion, civility, and they must live by the laws, both natural and moral, of their world.  It is in the secondary world, in the tropes of character and identity, in themes of truth or doubt, in those questions of moral meaning and belief, that imagination both resists and ultimately redresses atheistic creativity.

I do not mean that atheist novelists have not created closed worlds populated by characters neglectful of morality or refusing of faith.  Many have done that.  Look no further than works like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for fictive worlds of wanton morality written from an atheistic worldview.  These, some of the most critically acclaimed and popular texts of the twentieth century, are only a few examples of unbelieving attempts to submerge, disturb, or undo theistic assumptions about life and morality.  What I am saying is that as products of the imagination, the self-enclosed communities of Hemingway’s characters, Burgess’s maddening dystopia, even Pullman’s anti-theistic celebration of deceit (Lyra “Silvertongue,” the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, prides herself on her ability to lie with “bare-faced conviction”) fail to escape the inherently theistic laws of imagination.  To put it another way, there are atheist authors, but no atheist stories.

Imagination means the power to create new and previously unknown images and experiences, along with abstract ways of knowing those images and experiences (i.e., it does no good to write a story about space explorers discovering another world if I do not imagine ways they can know, understand, believe in, and relate to that world).  It is important to note that in literature, the imagination creates those images and experiences consistent with the author’s ultimate reality.  So, to use a fantastic example, an author can write a story about a talking giant tree who befriends a lonely child, having met neither the fantastic character or the child, precisely because in the ultimate reality the author inhabits, language, trees, friendship, and children actually exist.  While the story’s images are entirely new–its characters having never existed before mental conception–the author draws from those familiar cognate realities, like trees and children, and old sensory experience, like language.  From the fragmented source material of reality–its nature, its physical properties, its diverse inhabitants, along with their morality and sense of life meaning–an author freely forms a secondary world made in the precise image of his creative vision.

In this way, the imaginative world, no matter how fantastic or illustrious, is essentially a distilled reality, a deliberately crafted parcel of cosmos written so that readers must wrestle with life’s meanings, and in wrestling, must come to understand those meanings more fully and more deeply. What is so vitally important to remember, though, is that the author, regardless of his worldview, has the liberty to make any sort of world, full of any sorts of characters, he wants from the mental material available to him.  From the raw material of his reality, an author may make any world his heart desires.  And in this way authors are subject to the great law of human creativity: we create what is new and unknown from what is old and known.  Ex nihilo has no part in human imagination.

Why is it then, to return to my main point, that no author has ever created a world free from theistic morality–that is, from a morality that transcends the human condition and does not contain inherent truths that point to a higher Being?  An atheist author is free to write any number of secular humanist stories, free to undo the aged myth of Christian belief, free to create a society unfettered from the oppressive gods of a higher truth, and yet, not one has.  Every story, even the most nihilistic, supplies a moral subtext inexplicable apart from some higher agent from whom that morality originates.  When we recall that the imagination is making what is new from bits of what is old, that we create what is not from what is, we find that no author has ever written an atheistic novel because the inherent material of his imagination is spoiled to his purpose.

If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it.  No matter how I might like to write a society whose morality gets along fine without any moral lawgiver, I instantly find that the very ideas of morality which I would like to make new carry with them nagging old notions.  And it would not take long, if I started to investigate from where exactly these nagging old ideas derive, to discover that the same moral precepts have cropped up across civilizations and their literature since the dawn of documented time.

 If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it. 

It is no use saying that these moral precepts simply come from years of evolving human social prescription, for most moral precepts, even those that defy social utility, have remained the same since their first appearance.  The questionable virtue of jealous love in Euripedes’s Medea shows up again in Shakespeare’s Othello.  The honor and shame of which Homer wrote in the Odyssey are the same ideas Hemingway disturbs in The Sun Also Rises.  Friendship in Gilgamesh is not very different than friendship in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It seems when we think about works of seminal literature written with no theist intent that some kind of inexplicable moral ascent keeps showing up.  Even in the bleakest literary moral visions of the modern age–something like William Burroughs’s non-linear, nearly impenetrable, and obscene Naked Lunch–imaginative attempts to unravel higher moral meaning only serve confirm its permanence.  In a world like Burroughs’, the imagination can only play on and push against the raw material of accepted moral principles, so when he writes a line like, “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell….Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus,”[1] he imaginatively assumes there is some “image of Man” that can experience moral brokenness (see the unnumbered Chapter titled, islam incorporated and the parties of interzone).  He makes an imaginative moral judgment.  What is brokenness, or the evil of poverty, or hatred if not all confirmations of higher polarized moral principles–for example, an unbroken image of man characterized by plenty and love – and from where did these values originate other than Burroughs’ im/moral imagination.

For all their disturbances of Judeo-Christian principles or basic theist belief, novels like Naked Lunch present an imaginary immoral world that ultimately–when we begin to question the very meaning of the work’s moral pronouncements–assumes, and then concedes to, a higher moral law.  The origins of this moral law are inexplicable and only imposed on Burroughs’ created world because they were first nested in Burroughs’ own imagination.  It is astonishing that even in works like Naked Lunch, readers do not find pages of nihilist answers to nihilist questions.  If that were the case, the readers’ moral imaginations would experience instant disconnect and that book would fade into an unpopular oblivion.  Instead, Burroughs fills his world with Ecclesiastian doubts about moral meaning while interrogating those doubts with fragmented scraps of possible truth.  And in each fragment exists an inherent meaning of which Burroughs is only a transcriber.  The imagination only creates what is not from what is, and even in a Burroughs novel, what is has loaded moral meaning.  In this way, atheism in Naked Lunch is unable to totally break the tethers of higher moral precept.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, calls these inescapable moral precepts the “moral law” and makes these key observations about the law’s perennial presence:

“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”[2]

In making what is new the imagination works with what is already there, and what is already there are the irremovable realities about how morality should look in characters’ lives.  This moral law goes “above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] It is because of this law’s presence that authors like Burroughs imagine innately morally charged themes of the human condition and poverty and hatred.  Just as the atheist author works from the imagination so the atheist imagination works from a higher moral reality.

The raw materials of the imagination, and this point can hardly be overstated, with which an atheist writer creates are utterly saturated in higher moral meaning.  The imaginative act, then, entails envisioning new worlds for old truths, gleaning from those moral meanings already available to the author, about whom George MacDonald–fantasy writer, theologian, great imaginative theorist, and C. S. Lewis’s self-proclaimed “master”– says, “for the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents…the meanings are in those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling.”[4]

The atheist author writes in no other imaginative power than that from the inexhaustible storehouse of forms offered by the world.  Like the precepts of the moral law, each and every outward configuration of external reality already contains meaning, waiting for the imaginative act to reveal their deeper truths.  In creating those inherently meaningful forms through stories, the writer exercises  “that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God.”[5] Unbeknownst to them, atheist writers imitate this prime operation of divine power by creating worlds that unintentionally affirm a transcendent moral law.  And so atheism is pitted against man’s imagination, man’s chief creative power, which MacDonald describes as being “made in the image of the imagination of God.”[6]

To show how inescapable imagination’s adherence to theistic morality is, I want to look at one short text that embodies atheism’s inability to be carried over into an author’s created world: Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  I choose Hemingway’s short story for two simple reasons: First, it is a superbly written short story, rich and layered with complex meaning, beautiful in style.  Second, Hemingway wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” without any Christian or theist intent.  It is truly a case study in the atheist imagination.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the story of two waiters, one old and one young, both waiting to close up a café one late night.  The remaining only patron is an old deaf man who tried to kill himself the week before.  The two waiters see the old man’s lingering late into the night differently, the younger waiter impatient for the deaf man to leave and the older much more understanding of the old man’s need for a “clean, well-lighted place.”

The old waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”  He feels the need for to create a space for “all those who do not want to go to bed” and to wait along with “all those who need a light for the night.”  The younger waiter does not understand why the deaf man cannot just go to a bar, chirping to the older waiter, “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”  To which the older waiter replies, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”[7] We see in Hemingway’s works a subtextual morality­–and what I would call a subtle metaphysic–at work.

What good is a clean, well-lighted place, anyway?  It has no inherent value.  It’s neither moral nor immoral.  Hemingway has merely imagined a café incandescently illuminated and contrasted it against the outer dark of night and the dimmed atmosphere of a bar. And yet, Hemingway has, in drawing from the cafés and bars and storehouses of imagery from his own life, written a sort of apologetic for morality.  According to the older waiter, Hemingway’s moral voice, the deaf, unsuccessful suicide puts himself in the way of hope inside the café.  Hemingway imagines the café as a solace with latent moral cleanness and order.  The hopeless and desperate need “a certain cleanness and order” in their lives, according to the old waiter.

But Hemingway’s realist imagination raises questions about ultimate moral meaning.  For example, what sort of statement does the narrator really make about the old waiter, when he says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing?”[8] It seems as if Hemingway, despite his salient personal unbelief, makes a statement about morality and life meaning that mysteriously transcends what seems to be a closed world of artificial light, failed suicides, and mundane waiters.

To get at just the kind of statement Hemingway’s short story makes, I think a look at C. S. Lewis’s essay on Christianity and culture might prove helpful.  On the value of culture in relaying higher theological truth, Lewis writes, “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.  These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit.  But God created the soul.  Its values may be expected, therefore to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.”[9] When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

Hemingway’s café, its cleanness, and its well-lighted atmosphere reflect something greater and more essential to the human condition.  Morality and hope and a bright existence in the community of others are imbedded in Hemingway’s imagery of the deaf man in the clean, well-lighted café.  These fixtures of the atheist imagination, despite the atheist author’s creative intentions, ultimately “resemble the regenerate life,” but only, Lewis points out, “as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.  But though ‘like is not the same’, it is better than unlike.  Imitation may pass into initiation”[10] Lewis here captures what Hemingway’s café means as a function of the imagination.  It is that imitation of the storehouse of reality imagined as a place of moral initiation.  Hemingway writes a café story with threads of humanist morality–themes of goodwill toward another, care for life, the need to recover a hurting life–that come to nonsense apart from transcendent truth working to weave those threads into universal moral meaning.

To apply Lewis’s terms to Hemingway’s fiction, the deaf man might move from the imitation of clean moral order to an initiation into actual moral transformation.  He might go from the reflection of moral truth in an artificially well-lighted café to the substance of truth in the real light of a redeemed life.  What Hemingway imagined as a story of minimalist morality, becomes, upon consideration of the story’s embodiment of that morality and its higher meaning, a story of moral ascension into metaphysical truth.

Once the old waiter finally leaves the café, he stops at a bar.  The old waiter stands at the bar smiling, while thinking through a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”[11] It is as if Hemingway’s imagination cannot completely shed spiritual language, as he turns to the Lord’s Prayer as a way to stir nihilistic doubt in his character. This barroom prayer is an instance of doubt seeking the assurance of faith.  The old waiter’s dismissive prayer fails to dismiss, as the old waiter has already given himself to the prayer’s requests.  Hemingway’s imaginative vision for this scrambled prayer includes splintered versions of the lines, “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” lines that get at the essence of the old waiter’s service to the deaf man.   It is fitting that the old waiter would recall these particular lines from Jesus’s prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as he literally served the deaf man his daily bread as well as delivered him from the dark world outside of the café.

The waiter, like Hemingway, uses his imagination to mock a God for which he has little use.  And through that same imagination, creates a moral imperative that transcends the story’s closed world, subtly pointing toward some higher Being.  Interestingly, the waiter’s actions move in a different current than his mock prayer, as he refuses another drink from the barman and goes home to lie awake till the sun comes up.  A kind of small eschatology emerges as the story that begins in artificial light ends in the light of day.  The old waiter’s atheism, as evidenced in the false prayers, turns out to be a failure in the imaginative act.  Why, given the freedom that atheism theoretically provides, would the old man bind himself to a kind of loving his neighbor?  For the same reason that Hemingway, an author free to create any moral vision he desires, imagines a world of moral obligation and angst over Christian spirituality.  The literary imagination does not allow for any other world.

I began by saying that no atheist writer has ever created a fictive world in his own image, and I have given only a few brief considerations as to why I think the imagination redresses atheism’s influence.  I will end this introduction where I started it, by saying that the role of imagination in atheism is subversive.  It cannot allow an author to construct an inhabitable world apart from those transcendent, timeless moral laws that govern necessarily imaginable habitation.  If, as MacDonald said, the imagination is that power most alike “the prime operation of power of God,” then we would do well to study it in the work of atheist authors in hopes that we might better know the creative resemblances of the regenerate life in literature as well as learn how the imagination’s imitation of theist morality passes into Christian initiation.





[1] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 141.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low Marston & Company, 1893), 5.

[5] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 3.

[6] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 4.

[7] Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 382.

[8] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Ballentine Books, 1967), 30.

[10] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” 31.

[11] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.


A Couple of Reasons to Think Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations

By Jonathan Pruitt 

Here is a moral fact: It is wrong to torture babies for fun. (Let T stand for “torture babies for fun.”)

But in what sense is it wrong to T? One answer, and a quite popular one, is that T’ing is wrong because it is irrational to do so. Why it is irrational can be explained a several different ways. One option is the egoist option. It is wrong to T because it is not in my self-interest to do so. It may not be in my self-interest because if I T, others might torture me back or otherwise degrade me in retaliation for my T’ing. The idea here is that it is in my self-interest to live in a world where people don’t torture each other for fun, so, in order to bring about that world, I ought to act in a way consistent with the world I want to bring about. Or perhaps we could say it is irrational to T because it is inherently degrading to myself. I destroy my own soul if I go around T’ing and that is not good for me so it is irrational for me to do so.

We might also say that it is wrong to T because it lowers the aggregate human happiness. Since living in a society where, on the whole, there is more happiness than less, I should not T because it is better to live in a more happy society than a less happy one. Or possibly it is wrong to T because there is an implicit social contract being broken when I T. By virtue of living in a society, I implicitly agree to follow certain norms and T’ing counts as a violation of those norms.

Notice that the theories I listed above all cash out the wrongness of T’ing in terms of bringing about an undesirable result. It is wrong because it will result in states of affairs that are not desirable.  Surely, this cannot be the full explanation of why it is wrong to T because, presumably, it would be wrong to T regardless of the consequences. Natural law provides one way to say it is wrong to T, whether the consequences are desirable or not (and it is worth pointing out that on many of the initially suggested options, counterexamples can be constructed in which T’ing would produce desirable results and therefore our belief that it is wrong to T would be undermined).

One way to say more is to appeal to a natural law account of human rights. The idea here would be that human beings, by virtue of being human beings, have certain rights that are owed to them. T’ing would be wrong because it would be a violation of the baby’s rights that obtain by virtue of the baby being human. This is a better explanation than the ones given above because it makes the wrongness of T’ing more than instrumentally wrong.

Now, consider what naturalism might say about how it is that humans have the rights presupposed to exist on a natural law view. Remember that that naturalist is committed to the idea that everything is composed of only matter and is determined by natural laws.  How could norms of action be generated from mere matter and physics? Rights and the associated norms seem like an odd fit on naturalism. Perhaps the naturalist would appeal to Kant here. Kant thought that moral duties obtain because of the dignity of human beings as rational agents. If humans are rational agents, then we ought to never treat them merely as a means and always as ends. However, Kant himself was no naturalist. And the appeal to Kant here by the naturalist is question begging because the naturalist still has not provided an account of how such properties as “dignity” obtain in a naturalistic universe.

But suppose that we grant that if humans really are rational agents, then we ought to treat them as ends and never merely as means. But consider what must be true of humans in order for them to be rational agents. Obviously, they must at least be rational and an agent. Being rational would seem to require that humans act for good reasons. Here the naturalist faces a problem because human action can be fully explained in third person, physical terms. We don’t think machines act for reasons; we think they act because of physical causes. Some naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, think that acting for reasons and being determined are not incompatible. Possibly he is right. But there is another problem. If humans are agents, this would seem to require libertarian free will. If humans are genuine agents, they must at least be understood as being the cause of their own actions (in contrast to the cause of their actions being fully explained in third-person, mechanistic ways). Again, naturalism will have trouble with explaining how humans could be agents in a naturalistic world. So Kant is no help to the naturalists here.

On the other hand, consider how such rights might obtain in a theistic universe where humans are souls resembling God. Here it seems natural to think that divine image bearers would possess essential, natural rights. If we think about Kant’s view of duty and his categorical imperative, we say that plausibly, being a rational agent just is being a divine image-bearer. And so theists can appeal to Kantian ethics as a possible way to ground the wrongness of T.

However, I suspect there is yet more to say about the wrongness of T. There is a kind of authority to the wrongness of T that cannot be fully explicated just in facts about human persons and their nature. Rather, it seems that if I were to T, I would be in violation of moral obligations that obtain not just as a result of degrading human beings. And we can see how this might be so by paying careful attention to what humans actually are, oddly enough.

Suppose of the sake of the argument that humans really are created in God’s image. This provides a ready explanation for how it is humans have rational agency  and why degrading them would be wrong, for sure. However, if humans are the creation of God, then a violation of their rights is not merely a violation of their dignity as humans, but also a violation of God’s intentions for them as humans. When God created humans, he intended for them not be tortured for fun. That is built into human nature, but not reducible to it.  That is to say that two kinds of violations occur: a violation against the human victim and a violation against God himself by virtue of his intentions towards humans. In this way, we actually defy God himself (by defying his intentions) in T’ing.

Now consider the gravity of these two offences taken together. When T’ing, a person not only violates another human person, but a Divine Person. A person who is ultimately valuable, completely good, holy, and maximally authoritative. That is, the breaking of moral obligations constitutes a defiance of God himself. This means that moral obligations, while serious enough understood just in natural law terms, takes on an exponentially greater seriousness when we consider that we have also violated God himself.

I think this view provides a good explanation of the phenomenology and reality of guilt. When we violate a moral obligation, the guilt we feel seems to extend beyond “feeling guilty for violating a human person.” And to be sure, that considered in itself should create a tremendous amount of guilt. But feelings of guilt often extend beyond that. We have not just harmed a person, but we have gone against the grain of Reality itself. When we do what we are morally obligated not to do, we do not just feel out of sorts with the person, but we are in contention with reality itself. Now, how could we make sense of this phenomenon? It does not seem to make sense that we have failed the universe understood naturalistically; rather the better explanation of this feeling of guilt is that we have failed a Person. That is to say, in addition to feeling guilty about violating  the victim, we also feel guilty about violating the intentions of God himself and this better explains the experience of guilt.

Therefore, theism better explains how it is that humans could have natural rights and the full gravity of the wrongness of T’ing than does naturalism. And if theism more successfully explains these things, human rights and the guilt of failing a Person, it also better explains the reality of moral obligations, since both human rights and moral guilt for failing a person entail moral obligations.


Image: “Holocaust Day 19147” by Ted Eytan. CC License. 

Podcast: David Baggett on Moral Knowledge (Part 1 of 2)

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. David Baggett. Dr. Baggett and co-author Dr. Jerry Walls have just sent in their manuscript of God and Cosmos to the publisher. And in these next few podcasts, we get a little bit of preview of the book! God and Cosmos is a sequel to Christianity Today’s 2012 Apologetics Book of the Year, Good God. In Good God, Walls and Baggett offer an abductive moral argument for the existence of God. In God and Cosmos, they focus their attention onvarious secular ethical theories and show why these theories do not provide as robust an explanation of morality as theism. One of the chapters in the book is “Moral Knowledge” and its that chapter we will be discussing today. This is a substantive topic, so we will be dividing the conversation up into two parts. The first part lays out some of the basic issues related to moral knowledge, including what exactly moral knowledge is, the kinds of moral knowledge available, and the general problems associated with saying we have moral knowledge.

Part 2

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. 

Podcast: David Baggett on Four Ways God Best Explains Morality

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

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

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 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. 

What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall (Part 1 of 2)

By Corey Latta

Part 2

Robert Frost was a poet on whom nothing was lost, nor was anything outside of his poetic jurisdiction. His poetry—though seemingly narrow in its New England regionalism, prosaic in its focus, and proletariat in its characterization—envisions a conspicuous natural world containing an intrinsic theological system of great interest. Frost’s knowledge of the Bible and his poetic engagement with religious doctrine reveal an acute investment in the theological by one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. This investment proves an underlying argument in much of Frost’s work: perhaps an artistically literary experience of the natural necessitates consideration of the theological. Poems like “The Oven Bird,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” unveil Frost to be a writer deeply invested in the use of theological tenets for deeper poetic meaning and a creative mind especially taken with the biblical narrative of the Fall. Within Frost’s verse lies an apologetic of creativity, a philosophy of poesy that implies the natural world cannot honestly be captured without the presence of the theological.

Frost’s continual return to the Fall—along with his employment of other theological matters, such as natural revelation—find fullest expression in the natural worlds of his poems. The landscapes, wildlife, and seasonal cycles of nature are all subject to theological animation and all detectable through metaphor. For Frost, these metaphors of animation could not attain their fullest meaning without synthesizing the natural with the theological. An important consideration when discussing any poet’s inclusion of theologically charged is his use of metaphor. And, in fact, Frost maintained an ardent belief in metaphor as the chief trope and function of verse; according to Frost, metaphor is where poetry begins, exists, and ends:

[T]here are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another. . . . Poetry is simply made of metaphor.

What I see as a type of Frostian orthodoxy, metaphor enables meaning by enacting a poetic schema inclusive of religious, scientific, and philosophical discourse. In Frost’s own terms, metaphor is a way to “say matter in terms of spirit.” If there is spirituality, theology, and the supernatural in Frost’s poems, they reside in his implementation of metaphor. Through metaphor, Frost opens the natural to the supernatural, and every natural object, every leaf, tree, brook, and animal is subject to fuller meaning through the metaphorical. Metaphor becomes a theological act.

The conversion from theological thought to metaphor was for Frost the ultimate act of literary and religious expression. If theology is the study of God, then metaphor is Frost’s theology, his attempt to give form to theological inquiry. For Frost, metaphor making is the doing of theology. Exposure to one trope is exposure to the other, as Frost said, “the person who gets close enough to poetry, he is going to know more about the word belief than anybody else knows, even in religion nowadays . . . now I think—I happen to think—that those three beliefs that I speak of, the self-belief, the love-belief, and the art-belief, are all closely related to the God belief.” Through poetry, one can “bring the thing into existence.”

In his poem “The Oven Bird,” Frost uses the theological tropes of the Fall along with natural revelation to give new meaning to the natural world of the poem while also continuing to develop metaphorical poetics in which meaning itself must be both natural and supernatural. Frost displays remarkable poetic dexterity by both theologizing and naturalizing the act of this common bird’s call.

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I see this poem primarily exploring two theological tropes in relation to one another: natural revelation and the doctrine of the Fall. Note that, as is so often with Frost, the theological is deeply contextualized in the world of nature. Like the ovenbird’s nest, characteristically built on the forest floor, Frost grounds theology in the natural world. On the other hand, the poem’s natural imagery channels a theological dimension that forces the reader to contend with the work’s metaphorical meaning. Precisely in this melding of immanence and transcendence lies Frost’s poetic agenda: to infuse nature with theological phenomena so that both spheres (the natural and the theological) inseparably coalesce. This coalescence, in turn, creates an apologetic for the necessity of theology in the poet’s creative act.

Here, in the claim that “everyone has heard,” Frost interjects the doctrine of natural revelation, a theme that wends its way throughout the entire poem. Natural revelation is the doctrine that God has revealed, and continues to reveal, himself to all men through the natural order. As systematic theologian Louis Berkhof states, “The mode of [natural] revelation is natural when it is communicated through nature, that is, through the visible creation with its ordinary laws and powers.”

The most relevant aspect of natural revelation—and the most relevant distinction between natural and special revelation—is its universality, its common annunciation to all mankind through nature. Being a student of both science and the bible and often troubled by their apparent differences, Frost frequently sought to fuse religious and natural imagery, and it is extremely probable that Frost was well acquainted with the biblical doctrine of natural revelation and potentially saw it as the literal and metaphorical melding of theology and science.

In the case of “The Oven Bird,” natural revelation manifests itself in the winged singer’s “loud” call that “everyone has heard.” Frost positions this ovenbird as a prophet of nature, characterized by his seasonality, the audience of his message, and the nature of his oratory. Significantly, the one note Frost provides for the poem mentions the ovenbird’s common designation as the “teacher bird.” As a “mid-summer and a mid-wood bird” the ovenbird is situated seasonally in the progressive natural order, and it is from his seasonal office that he declares a natural message to the “solid tree trunks.” The ovenbird’s first hearers are not human, but rather organic members of his community that respond to the bird’s message, “the solid tree trunks sound again.” The revelatory world of the bird’s song is accessible and detectable to the listeners of the natural world. Indeed, the poem’s speaker describes the bird’s message as “loud” and resonating to the surrounding natural realm as the trees “sound again” the ovenbird’s oracle, implying a form of acceptance of the message by its hearers. In anticipation of that end, the ovenbird’s oratory begins to introduce the poem’s other prominent theological trope: the theological trope of the Fall. It is in the sonnet’s octave that Frost delves into the substance of the ovenbird’s natural revelation while also inaugurating a theology of the Fall. As the sonnet unfolds, the picture grows increasingly grim. The sonnet reaches its turn in both tone and theological theme as the natural revelation of the octave turns poignantly to a treatment of the Fall in the sestet. The ovenbird reveals a declining natural order where the first beauty of spring life has passed and all is given to the imminent coming of fall:

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

By mid-summer—the time of the ovenbird’s announcement—the leaves that spring birthed are old and on the verge of seasonal death. The ovenbird sings at a time of declivity as mid-summer holds little to no importance to other organisms in the poem. In a somewhat ambiguous line, Frost seems to say that “for flowers” summer is lowest on a scale of importance—numbered “one to ten”—because their time to bloom has past. The preposition “for” signals the position of the flowers as understood by the bird (“He says”). Just as the flowers’ petals have long fallen by mid-summer, so too have the pear and cherry trees, whose blooms “went down in showers/ on sunny days a moment overcast.” The bird speaks of sweeping loss and the beginning of death as leaves, flowers, and fruit trees—all images associated with the Garden of Eden—testify to their seasonal demise. As interpreter of this profound phenomenon reflected in nature’s cycles, the bird knows that mid-summer holds little importance for spring blooms and that the flowery life spawned in spring cannot live throughout summer.


Photo: “Arastradero Open Space Preserve” by Justin Kern. CC License. 

Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Moral Realist, Either

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

By Mark Linville

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

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

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

Russell appealed to intuition.

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

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

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

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

Moral Faith in an Accidental Universe

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

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

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

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

Moral Scepticism and Animal Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphysical Underpinnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethical Naturalism Redux

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

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

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

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

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

Darwinian Counterfactuals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue: Lotze’s Dictum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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