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Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

By Mark Linville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

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

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

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

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

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

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

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

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


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

Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity


By David Baggett

Various moral arguments for God’s existence are usually deployed for the purpose of arguing for the truth of God’s existence per se, but they strongly hint at a more specific conclusion. Namely, they are plausibly taken to be evidence that Christianity in particular is true. The claim isn’t that by moral apologetics alone one can somehow deduce all the aspects of special revelation contained in Christianity, but rather this: in light of Christianity having been revealed, moral arguments for God’s existence point quite naturally in its direction. The following list is far from exhaustive, but offers a few reasons to think this is so.

First, one of the great virtues of moral arguments for God’s existence is that they point not just to the existence of God, but to a God of a particular nature: a God who is morally perfect. A. C. Ewing once said that the source of the moral law is morally perfect. Such a notion is described in various ways: omnibenevolent, impeccable, essentially good, and the like. What does it look like when omnibenevolence takes on human form? Jesus is a powerful answer. Moral apologetics works best when it’s Christological.

Second, to conceive of God as essentially and perfectly loving requires some sort of account. The right account, again, isn’t the sort of idea that we’re able to generate on our own; we depend on special revelation to tell us what it is. But Christianity has provided us with an account of the divine nature that’s Trinitarian in nature. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s Trinitarian.

Third, Christianity has a demonstrated track record historically in reaching people of every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background, and radically transforming their lives. In a book chronicling the spiritual lives of various Christian saints called They Found the Secret can be found this description: “Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give it all up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence and companion—in a word, their life.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s individually transformational.

Fourth, Paul Copan speaks of an historical aspect of moral apologetics: the historical role played by Christ and his devoted followers to promote social justice. Morality demands deep cultural transformation too. Copan cites specific cultural developments that can be shown to have flowed from the Jewish-Christian worldview, leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding.

Jürgen Habermas, who isn’t a Christian himself, writes the following: “Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s culturally transformative.

Fifth, Christianity holds out the hope for total moral transformation. Morality upholds a standard that all of us fall short of all the time, yet there’s nothing about morality that hints at accommodation or compromise. The right ultimate explanation of morality should be able to make sense of our aspirations for radical moral transformation, and even perfection as something more than a Pollyannaish pipedream. Christianity offers, by God’s grace through faith, moral hope instead of moral despair, forgiveness and liberation from guilt, and the prospect to be totally conformed to the image of Christ, in whom there’s no shadow of turning. The resurrection offers the prescription from both death and sin: abundant and everlasting life. Moral apologetics works best when it is soteriological (offering both forgiveness and transformation, both justification and sanctification).

Sixth, Christianity offers principled reason to think that the glory to come will not just outweigh, but definitely defeat, the worst evils of this world. Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams writes, “If Divine Goodness is infinite, if intimate relation to It is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s eschatological.

Seventh, Christianity gives compelling reasons to think that every person possesses infinite dignity and value. To be loved by God, the very archetype of all goodness—each of us differently, but all of us infinitely—and to have been made a person in his image is to possess greater worth than we can begin to imagine. And humanity isn’t just valuable in the aggregate, according to Christianity. Rather, each person is unique, each is loved by God, each is someone for whom Jesus suffered and died. And in the book of Revelation, for everyone who accepts God’s overtures of love, a white stone will reveal a unique name for each one of them—marking their distinctive relationship with God and vocation in him. Moral apologetics works best when it’s universal.

The way a labyrinthine maze of jumbled metal filings suddenly stands in symmetrical formation in response to the pull of a magnet, likewise the right organizing story—classical theism and orthodox Christianity—pulls all the moral pieces of evidence into alignment and allows a striking pattern to emerge.



Pornography: A Dangerous Deception


By Joshua Herring

On April 26, the Wall Street Journal Business section offered a new prophecy: Robot Sex! Sex Therapist Laura Berman predicts that technology will enable cheap but fulfilling robotic sex, conception of children without physical touching, and chemical drugs to allow for the experience of more pleasure.

While on the one hand I am surprised the Wall Street Journal would print onanistic meanderings fit only for the trashiest of sci-fi novels, I think this article illustrates the dangerous deception of pornography and its ability to sever us from our own humanity. Pornography could be condemned on many grounds, but I want to consider the possibility that porn poses a subtle danger, causing us to value pleasure over love, solitude over community, and the present over a lifetime.

St. Augustine argued in his City of God that the quest for human happiness has everything to do with rightly ordered love. When we situate the love of God in its proper place, followed by love of neighbor and other subordinate categories, we find the best opportunity for human flourishing. When we displace our loves, perhaps elevating lust over relationships, Augustine argues that we will find our lives filled with dissatisfaction.

This understanding of life as a constant evaluation, or searching the heart for what it should value to the proper extent, goes against our 21st century eroticized culture. Media—including film, television, and music stars—upholds a certain vision of the good life consisting of ever-more exotic sexual experiences producing happiness. Pornography—by which I mean the print, internet, and video aspects displaying sexuality through a mediated form intended to stimulate lust—falls under a certain teleology of sexuality with devastating consequences.

With the advent of the birth control pill, it became possible to sever sexuality from children. Certain strands of Christianity, primarily Catholic, immediately objected to this severing, claiming that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. Most low-church denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, either dodged the moral questions raised by birth control or formulated a different argument: the purpose of sex is pleasure between spouses. Married couples can then make the decision about whether or not to have children. American culture at large accepted the pill with excitement, rushing onward to the Sexual Revolution. For many people, concerns about the purpose of sex paled in comparison to the pleasure of consequence-free intercourse.

If the purpose of sex is pleasure alone, then pornography is an acceptable route to that goal, as it provides pleasurable mental and physical stimulation. Berman’s sex-bots are merely the next logical extension of this pursuit. If, however, the purpose of sex is something different, then it merits further consideration. Sexual intercourse brings together two human beings—male and female—and permits them to mingle, creating the opportunity for new life. This is a profoundly human moment, where two separate consciousnesses, two souls, mix physically and, in their unity, could produce another human soul. If this is the purpose of sexuality, then pornography becomes far more dangerous.

The ancient Greeks had a concept of sin drawn from an archery metaphor. Hamartia, translated as sin, originally described an archer who missed the target. He aimed at a bird, and hit the tree. If the goal of sexual intercourse is the mingling of two persons, then pornography causes one individual to miss the mark. In gazing at the sex act through a mediated lens, whether paper, ink, or a screen, the impulse that should move an isolated individual to form a micro-community causes him to dwell in solitude. The dangerous part, however, is that the deeper into a pornographic habit one goes, the further he is from the target of human community.

Pornography exacts a price; it changes the way a viewer sees the other sex, and it ingrains a habit of self-gratification within the heart. Where sexual intercourse calls for serving the partner in love, pornography produces the illusion that selfish viewing gives greater joy than actual intercourse. To maintain the illusion, the viewer continues in search of ever deeper, more depraved depictions of sexuality. Perhaps the saddest result comes when one who has spent years viewing pornography comes to the bed with a lover and expects sex to be what he has seen and imagined. Sex can be fantastic, but a real sexual relationship takes time, effort, love, commitment, and service. These capacities have been stripped from the pornography viewer’s expectations of sexuality.

Here then is the subtle lie of pornography. It promises satisfaction, but strips one’s ability to appreciate the real thing. It upholds a cheap pleasure as the highest good, removing one’s ability to recognize that children and a loving marriage are infinitely more valuable than orgasm alone.

It reminds me of the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable of a son who has it all, but takes his inheritance and parties it away in the city. After experiencing his epiphany in a pigsty, the most morally reprehensible place for a good Jewish boy, he poignantly recognizes his need for repentance. The danger of pornography is that it trains the one in the pigsty to mistake it for a grand mansion with capacious and ever expanding rooms. Uncovering the deception involves retraining the heart and the eyes to appreciate real love, and place that love in the proper order.

Stories of men and women who have reached the other side of a pornography addiction abound. One of the most well-written of these accounts comes from Erica Garza who tells her story in “Tales of a Female Sex Addict.” By the end of her article, Garza finds hope. Her story reveals the depths of pornographic depravity, but also the existence of the human soul.

As humans, we exist as body and soul. Sexuality is a point where our dual-nature combines in a mixture of desire and expression. The desire for intimacy and relationship reveals humans as more than just physical creatures. If we were only bodily creatures, then physical satisfaction of our physical longings would be sufficient. Pornography feeds this desire. Without the spiritual component of human relationship, however, we create a raging monster of lust within ourselves. Rooting sexuality within marriage, aimed at the teleology of children, satisfies our creational design as body-soul, mortal-eternal beings.

Sexual expression has always been an area of problematization, worthy of contemplation; this is an important question to get right. At stake is our ability to love other human beings, to see in them an image of the Creator worthy of love, sacrifice, respect, and honor.

The hope of joy in this life rides on recognizing pornography not as a harmless habit, something all guys will do, but as a deadly deception which retrains the heart to be nothing but an engine of lust. We are more than bodies with pleasure centers. We are embodied creatures with eternal souls, “designed to live in community,” to quote Aristotle. We live in a deceptive age, in which pornography is held out with the promise of joy but leaves us holding the ashes of our hope.


Image: “Unmasked” by JD Hancock. CC License. 

Podcast: Mark Foreman on Faith, Reason, and Natural Law

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman is a professional philosopher who specializes in both Christian apologetics and bioethics. The main topic of this episode is theism as a natural law ethic. Dr. Foreman will explain what a natural law ethic is, why we should prefer it, how it can be applied in moral dilemmas, and  how to use it in apologetics. But before we get to that, we’ll also get to hear some thoughts from Dr. Foreman on the relation of faith and reason.


Biblical Ethics and Moral Order in Creation

By Andrew J. Spencer

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics as a close second. In addition to blogging at, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

With the constant press of present troubles, it is easy to forget the simple truth that our contemporary cultural concerns are not all there is. As we look for somewhere to anchor our ethics, it is easier to pursue fashionable schemes than to look for simple explanations in ancient books. It is easier, but often less helpful.

Oliver O’Donovan’s ethics, founded on the biblical storyline, are some of the most helpful for moving readers outside of their cultural context. Though his reasoning is nuanced, the basic principles of his ethics are simple. Ethics is founded on the objective reality in the created order. This order was distorted when Adam chose to sin. The resurrection of Christ began the process of renewal that will eventually restore all of creation to its objective, undistorted goodness.

We live in the time between the beginning of the restoration and the complete renewal of all things. As Christians, we stand with one foot in the fallen world and the other foot poised to step over the threshold into complete renewal. We have certain hope in the coming restoration, but equal certainty of the sinfulness of the world.

Ethics must continually seek to identify the order and coherence with which the world was created. This reveals the reality of the Creator and uncovers the way we should live within creation. Since the created order has been distorted by sin, special revelation––i.e., Scripture––is necessary to point us toward an undistorted moral order.

One of the most dangerous and popular fallacies, or logical errors, is the “naturalistic fallacy.” By definition, the naturalistic fallacy is improper reasoning from the way things are to the way things ought to be. For example, if most teenagers smoke, then it is morally acceptable for teenagers to smoke.

Using the example of smoking, which has been demonized by our culture, this fallacy seems unrealistic. However, if the example is shifted to pre-marital sex, its explanatory power is better revealed. According to the naturalistic fallacy, if many people engage in pre-marital sex, then it must be morally acceptable to engage in pre-marital sex. A logical corollary to this is that those who oppose engaging in pre-marital sex are either sexually repressive or even morally evil for opposing something that has been determined to be morally acceptable.

These conclusions stand in contrast to the traditional Christian perspective, as revealed through Scripture, that sex is designed to occur within marriage. However, this sort of faulty reasoning is common in contemporary ethical debates on issues well beyond sexuality. It is also trapped in a vision of ethics that assumes that morality is determined by social acceptance, rather than an objective standard. In other words, societal norms can be based on a statistical evaluation of present practice, without considering the true nature of the common good.

O’Donovan’s pursuit of an objective moral order that reflects the unchanging character of God frees us from the tyranny of contemporary trends and provides a way of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy. Although it does not rely on proof texts, it is profoundly biblical as it explains why Scripture is an absolute necessity for ethics and shows how Scripture should be applied to ethics.

For example, if an unchanging God created all things in a particular manner that was morally good, then it stands to reason there is a specific way of living that is consistent with that original ordering. That way of living would be an objective, moral good.

However, the status of the created order as morally good leads to a question as to why things are out of line with that moral good. The answer lies in the pages of Scripture, as Genesis 3 informs us that Adam chose to defy God’s command by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This set in motion the disordering of the created order. Humans became sinners and creation itself was put out of line with its original moral goodness.

Thankfully, God didn’t simply leave creation in its distorted state, but he set in motion his plan to restore it all. The resurrection of Christ punctuates that plan, as an exclamation point that points toward the complete restoration of the moral goodness of the created order. The resurrection event reveals the future renewal, but it also exposes the reality of the present disordering. No mere human action could restore the creation to its original moral goodness, it required the death of God himself in Jesus Christ.

In other words, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are key events in ethics because they explode the myth that things are the way they ought to be. Instead, the radical distortion of creation set in motion by Adam’s sin needed a second Adam, who lived without sin, to set it right. However, to know this, we must have it revealed to us in Scripture.

All of this is freeing as we engage in moral reasoning. Instead of determining what laws should be passed based on current trends in popular opinion, we are freed to look for patterns that promote the common good and are as consistent as possible with the original, objective ordering of creation. While others may reject our proposals and indict us for not applying their reasoning, we can humbly pursue actions that best reflect the restoration of the created order that will come at Christ’s return.

The biblical pattern, built upon the objectivity of the created order and the resurrection of Christ, enables a Christian to seek a timeless ethics, rather than one driven by the winds of contemporary culture concerns.

Image: “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. By Alexander Ivanov. CC License. 

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

By Jonathan Pruitt 

(part 2)

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

The Features of a Virtue Ethic

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

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

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

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

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

Naturalistic Virtue Ethics (NVE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Foot. 33.

[7] Thompson. 29

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

[9] Foot. 24.

[10] See ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 43.

[12] ibid. 48.


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

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

By Corey Latta

Part 1 

The ovenbird’s universal song, the natural revelation everyone has heard, is an augury of seasonal diminishment. Having a masterful knowledge of the Old Testament, Frost constantly drew from its imagery and themes. Frost’s use of biblical imagery—particularly images of the Fall—in “The Trial by Existence,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “The Onset” (to list only a few) underscore his reliance on the theological here in “The Over Bird.” As both are certainly present in the first three chapters of the Genesis narrative, it is fitting that Frost would marry these two themes of natural revelation and the Fall. The biblical account of the Fall describes a naturally perfect realm in complete harmony with itself and man (Gen. 2:8-19). Upon the entrance of sin into the created order, not only mankind but nature is said to have fallen: “cursed is the ground because of you. . . both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you [mankind]. . .” (Gen. 3:17-18). The Fall is the most cataclysmic theological and ecological occurrence in all of scripture: the entire natural world fell from an ideal form to a perpetual state of aftermath. Likewise, “The Oven Bird” depicts a natural realm where life once existed in an ideal state of spring, but in which now organisms are in a fallen condition, degraded by the passing of spring into summer. Echoing the narrative voice in Genesis, the ovenbird declares a state of natural decadence; the message that everyone hears exclaims a state of fallenness.

The poetic speaker shifts slightly from what the ovenbird proclaims to a larger theological context:

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.

“And comes that other fall we name the fall,” Frost declares with a definitive tone. The poem shifts to a more distinct doctrinal voice here. The octave presents a naturalistic mode of revelation: the poet can assert the theological implications of mid-summer’s diminishments. The double occurrence of “fall” in the first line of the sestet foregrounds the theme of the Fall that will run throughout the remainder of the poem. In this line Frost deploys his most foundational, and perhaps most important, poetic device—the previously explicated use of metaphor, Frost’s theology in poetic practice. At this point Frost begins to make his strongest metaphorical-theological connections.

When the poet says “and comes that other fall we name the fall,” the reader can certainly trace the seasonal meaning, which the poem endorses on its most basic level (spring to mid-summer to fall). However, the poem’s subtle theological undertones along with Frost’s insistence on metaphor should alert any interpreter that “fall” is a loaded term, one that draws on both natural and theological spheres. The ovenbird’s message of seasonal decay—the end of the flowers’ bloom at the peak of summer—culminates in the topos of the Fall of the natural order. The movement from natural occurrence to theological abstraction is a common gesture for Frost. The “fall,” both seasonal and lapsarian, is Frost’s entrance into both the natural and theological world in order to stretch the borders of each, interrogating the implications of one with the other, and perhaps rewriting the boundaries of both—all to create a highly charged poetics.

The speaker moves from his pun on the “fall” by returning once more to the message of the ovenbird: “He says the highway dust is over all.” The winged prophet describes a desolate condition in a sweeping statement. This fall, the Fall, has covered everything in the natural world. Going back to the role of human agency, it is the dust of the highway that has covered all. The poem seems to associate the origins of this desolation to a manmade object, perhaps as an indication of human agency in keeping with the Genesis narrative. Though the fallen world of the poem is purely natural, man—as the originator of sin in Genesis—is implicated as well.

After providing an aphorism on the Fall, the poem’s narrator then addresses the ovenbird’s condition: “The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing.” These first two lines of the poem’s final quatrain provide a fascinating element to Frost’s use of the doctrine of the Fall. By postulating that the ovenbird “would cease and be as other birds,” the poet speaks to the bird’s role by reverting back to the biblical theme of functioning animals. Numerous times in the Old Testament animals were assigned specific functions, at times in an evil capacity (i.e. the serpent in the Garden of Eden—Gen. 3:1-4) but more often as agents for God (e.g. the dove sent from the ark by Noah—Gen. 8:8-9; the donkey who spoke to the prophet Balaam—Num. 22:28). Though there is no explicit divinity in the poem, the speaker makes a clear distinction between this ovenbird and other birds who merely sing without substance, “but that he knows in singing not to sing.”

The poem’s last two lines are by far the most powerful and poignant: “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.” The theological elements of the poem necessarily culminate in the ovenbird’s inquiry. The speaker writes the last line as the sine qua non, the inevitable question from all the bird has said before. It is difficult to nail down what exactly this “thing” may be, but I think there are two likely options.

So profoundly diminished is this “thing” that the bird’s revelatory message primarily serves to frame the question of “what to make of a diminished thing.” Given the mid-summer state of immediate and approaching death, given the fallout and the degraded state of the natural world, what does one make of such faded and diminished objects? It is fitting that Frost ends with a question rather than a conclusion as he rarely seems interested—even in his exploration of biblical and theological tropes—in declaring answers. Instead, he interweaves the natural world of the poem with the theological and experiments with poetic meaning by metaphorizing the natural with the theological. Frost is more interested in writing catechistic verse than providing moral platitudes, and as a result, the poem concludes with inconclusiveness. The fallen condition of this “thing” bewilders the ovenbird, leaving the bird, the poetic speaker, and the readers in a state of contemplation over the poem’s two most prominent themes: the natural order and the assertion that it is fallen. Both themes, indeed Frost’s entire creative schema, argue for the presence of the theological as necessary for poeticizing the natural.

Photo: “Sunset” by Kamil Porembiński. CC License. 

Podcast: David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 1)

On this week’s episode, we get a special preview of Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls’ upcoming book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. In this first part of a two part series, Dr. Baggett takes on a wide array of secular ethical theories and explains how each fails to provide an adequate explanation for human value and dignity.

David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 1) (Right click to download)

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

Mark Linville’s Argument from Personal Dignity, Part III: Personal Dignity and the Imago Dei

By David Baggett

Part I

Part II

Reason has a role to play in arriving at a maxim not to violate the dignity of humanity. But the admission of a role for reason to play does not nullify the main point of Darwin’s discussion: the initial social impulse is very much the product of natural selection. Dennett is likely right in his observation that, given the Darwinian account, the belief in rights, and, here, dignity, is actually a “conversation stopper.” Such “rule worship” is adaptive in that it permits us to get on with the business of social intercourse.

Stephen Gould found a basis for something such as dignity in the radical contingency of the existence of Homo sapiens. [David Bentley Hart uses the radical contingency of things, including the universe, as evidence for the need for something noncontingent to account for it all; see his Experience of God.] There’s something astonishing and utterly unlikely that we find ourselves here. But improbability alone is not sufficient for singling out persons as having any special significance. The naturalist’s obstacles in accounting for the dignity of persons are at least threefold, and they are interlocked: how to derive the personal from the impersonal, how to derive values from a previously valueless universe, and how to unite the person and the valuable with the result of a coherent and plausible notion of personal dignity.

Suppose now instead that the personal and valuable aren’t emergent features of reality at all, but rather are basic. Indeed, suppose that personhood is the most basic feature of reality and that, in fact, the impersonal ultimately derives from the personal. Suppose that the one thing that is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate is a person, so that personhood and value are necessarily united in that Being. Theists, of course, maintain precisely this and believe that Being to be God.

Dennett and others insist that any explanation of consciousness that is not in terms of the nonconcious is question-begging. But one might suggest that this very assertion begs the question. Dennett assumes that all ultimate explanations must be mechanistic, so that the teleological, where it occurs, must be explained in mechanistic terms. But this is just to take naturalism as a kind of axiom, and it is far from clear that such an assumption is warranted. On theism, teleological explanations are irreducible and more basic than mechanistic explanations. And the justification for taking them as irreducible in this way is found precisely in the resulting implausibility and possible incoherence of attempting such reductions. We simply can’t explain all that calls for explanation unless there is a place for irreducible teleology in the scheme of things. For the theist, teleology factors in principally at the level of divine purpose and activity, but theism also offers an account of human persons that permits the irreducibility of human consciousness and purposes.

According to theism, God is person and is the source of all value so that the value of personhood is found in the fact that the metaphysically, axiologically, and explanatorily ultimate Being is personal. As Linville sees it, the rationale for Christ’s command to love persons unconditionally is found in the unconditional value of such persons. Because each person enjoys a worth that is categorical in nature—independent of any extrinsic considerations—the morally appropriate attitude to take toward them is one of a categorical regard for that worth.

The biblical command to love God and neighbor is no coincidence. The rationale for loving neighbor is grounded in the very reasons for loving God with the entirety of one’s being. And this is because the value of persons is, in turn, grounded in the personhood of God. Persons qua persons are created in the image of God in that God himself is a person. On a Judeo-Christian worldview, human personal dignity, though intrinsic, is derivative. Linville writes that the value of human persons is found in the fact that, as bearers of the imago dei, they bear a significant resemblance to God in their very personhood. God and human persons share an overlap of kind membership in personhood itself, and human dignity is found precisely in membership in that kind. [Incidentally, Erik Wielenberg, in his recently published Robust Ethics, offers an “explanandum-centered” challenge to Linville (along with Zagzebski, Adams, and Murphy) for his merely derivative, and thus not intrinsic (in the sense relevant to Wielenberg’s analysis, unlike his own theory of non-theistic robust normative realism, so he argues), account of personal dignity—an issue we will consider in a later post.]

Linville argues that, on theism, human persons have been fashioned, in one morally relevant respect, after the most ultimate and sacred feature of reality and thus participate in that sacredness. Where Camus found only an unreasonable silence in the universe, theist and Christian G. K. Chesterton discovered, and rejoiced over, an “eternal gaiety in the nature of things.”

The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights

By Dr. Angus J. L. Menuge

(Ed. Note: Dr. Menuge is the current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society)


Almost everyone is in favor of human rights, and many of our cultural debates depend on pitting one alleged human right against another.  Both of the major human rights instruments, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) include the basic right to life, for the obvious reason that without life, none of the other rights can be exercised.  Yet today, it is common to claim that abortion and physician assisted suicide are also fundamental human rights.  Since the set of rights claims is inconsistent, we all need some principle that will tell us when a particular claim is (or is not) justified.   As Dave Baggett[1], Paul Copan[2] and John Warwick Montgomery[3] have argued at length, theism clearly provides such a principle.   But most philosophers are committed to naturalism.  So, can human rights be given a naturalistic foundation and avoid the need for God?

I will begin with a few remarks about the nature of human rights, and indicate the prima facie implausibility of naturalistic theories.  Then we will examine Evolutionary Ethics in more detail and show that its attempt to ground morality in natural history faces a serious dilemma.

1. Human Rights and Naturalism.

The modern idea of a human right developed as a response to Nazi atrocities in World War II and the inadequacy of appeal to the positive law of particular nations, since, in point of fact, the atrocities were legal.[4]  At the Nuremburg trials it was recognized that human beings have fundamental, intrinsic value and dignity deserving of protection, and that the state has no authority either to grant or to revoke human rights: these rights are universal (all humans have them), inherent (one has them simply in virtue of being human) and they are inalienable (they cannot be suspended or taken away).

An interesting consequence is that the obligation to protect human rights holds of normative necessity.  To be sure, a higher right can override a lower one (thus the right to self-defense may override an attacker’s right to life), but this is a case of two rights worthy of moral consideration, not one.  It cannot be said, in utilitarian mood, that one has a human right only if the consequences are good and thus perhaps that the attacker had no right to life:  rather, he had a genuine human right to life worthy of moral consideration that was overridden by a higher right to self-preservation.  Thus even though it may be overridden, the existence of a human right as a morally considerable factor is not contingent on circumstances, and this is why (at least) a prima facie obligation to protect human rights has normative necessity.

It is not hard to see why naturalism finds it difficult to ground such obligations.  This is just a special case of the general difficulty naturalists find in accounting for the existence of objective moral values and duties.   For naturalism, the entire cosmos is an unintended collection of undirected natural processes.   It is not true of any of these processes that they are (or are not) supposed to be a certain way.   Thus, on the face of it, the natural processes leading the members of a tyrannical regime to commit genocide are no different, morally speaking, from the natural processes that led Mother Teresa to care for the sick and the poor of Calcutta.   These processes simply are, and we cannot say that some are good (e.g. those protecting human rights) and some evil (e.g. those violating them).

The general problem is the well-known naturalistic fallacy.  No amount of facts about what is going on in nature imply anything about what ought, or ought not, to be going on.   Now a naturalist might embrace nihilism or some very strong version of moral anti-realism, but then they can no longer (without equivocation) claim to justify human rights claims since they do not believe human rights exist.  So what is a naturalist who affirms human rights to do?

A rather desperate suggestion is Atheistic Moral Platonism (AMP).[5]   According to AMP, it is just a brute fact that reality contains both the physical universe and a “Platonic” realm of moral universals (like justice and goodness), and so it is possible that there are objective moral obligations and duties.  However, this is highly implausible. The defender of AMP seems to have whipped out his philosophical credit card and added moral universals to the ontological cart with no serious attempt to show that the moral universals are grounded in the physical universe.[6]  And since there is no substantial relation between the physical and moral realms, there is no reason to expect that the moral universals have anything especially to do with us: why should they not protect the rights of rocks and mollusks, but be indifferent to human beings?   And even if these universals did apply to us, how could they generate obligations?  It is simply incredible that we can have moral obligations to impersonal universals like the form of the good or justice.   And this reveals a more fundamental problem: in our experience, moral obligations (e.g. to keep promises, be fair and impartial, etc.) obtain between persons, for it is persons who prescribe, persons to whom we are morally accountable, and persons whom we can wrong.

Most naturalists realize that they must show why moral values and duties are to be expected in a physical universe.   Naturalists may be either strict or broad.[7]  For strict naturalists, no teleology is operative in nature and so there are no goals (not even impersonal ones) that could ground moral obligations.  If this is how nature is, then J. L. Mackie was surely right to conclude that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features … constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events…”[8]  Indeed, there is no way (besides magic) that completely non-teleological processes can ground objectively binding prescriptions since there is no way the world is supposed to be.   It is not surprising then, that strict naturalists have often concluded that a non-cognitive approach to ethics is required (e.g. emotivism or constructivism[9]), and this means that any idea that we should respect and protect human rights must be an illusion.

However, broad naturalists typically claim[10] that even though teleology is absent at the level of basic particles, as more complex arrangements of these particles in physical systems develop, various higher level properties appear (e.g. consciousness, reason, free will, moral values[11]).  It is further claimed that these properties still qualify as naturalistic because they wholly depend on the physical arrangement of particles (via supervenience or emergence).   On this view, the basis for human rights is to be found in the natural, causal history of human beings: it is only because human beings developed the right kind of complexity that they have special rights.   Yet, it is precisely this claim of historical contingency that appears incompatible with the very idea of a human right.

2. Evolutionary Ethics.

While several versions of evolutionary ethics (EE) are possible, a shared claim is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history.   Since this history is contingent, it follows that our moral sense could have been different, leading us to make different moral judgments than those we actually do.  Darwin illustrates the point with a striking illustration.

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.[12]

In this scenario, humans might have thought that (select) acts of fratricide or infanticide were not merely permissible, but obligatory.

But Darwin is not clear about whether these counterfactual moral beliefs would correspond to a different moral reality, and this leaves the defender or EE two options, which I call Weak EE and Strong EE.  For Weak EE, it is only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees.  So fratricide and infanticide might still be wrong even if we didn’t think so.   But for Strong EE, it is moral ontology itself (what is right and wrong) that natural history explains.  And so in that case, had we been raised like hive bees, fratricide and infanticide would have been right.

Now it is certainly possible for a proponent of EE to defend either moral skepticism[13] or some version of moral anti-realism.[14]  But that would not be sufficient to show there is a genuine moral obligation to respect and protect human rights.  Our question, then, is whether either Strong EE or Weak EE is a plausible foundation for this obligation.  I submit that it is not.  Strong EE faces a serious ontological problem: if it is true, it does not seem that there can be any such thing as human rights.   Weak EE faces an epistemological problem: while it is compatible with the existence of human rights, Weak EE makes it incredible that we could know what they are.  Either way, there is no effective, practical basis for defending human rights.

A. The Ontological Problem for Strong EE.

The trouble with Strong EE is that it makes human rights unacceptably contingent.  Of course, even a theist will say that rights are contingent in some ways: they are contingent on our having been made in the image of God.  However, granted that we are so made, the theist affirms that being human is enough to secure our rights and denies that any further contingencies (such as class, race, intelligence, strength or wealth) are relevant to our value.   By contrast, on Strong EE, being human is no guarantee that we will have any particular set of rights, since our rights will also depend on the details of our natural history.  Thus, had we been raised like hive bees, (select acts of) fratricide and infanticide would have been right, and this means that (certain) brothers and female infants would not have a right to life.   If so, then any right to life such brothers and infants have (because we were not in fact raised like hive bees) is not inherent: we do not have it because we are human, but because of the way we were raised.

Now of course, a defender of Strong EE might bite the bullet and say that his view still allows us appropriate rights in the actual world, where we were not raised like hive bees.  But this move incurs several serious costs.  First, the defender of Strong EE still must deny that there is any normative necessity to our obligation to protect life.  That brothers and daughters have a right to life just happens to be the case.  And yet the only difference between these individuals and others who happen to have been raised like hive bees is extrinsic (we are, note, not assuming some ghastly genetic experiment, so that in the counterfactual case, humans actually become hive bees).  Thus, second, Strong EE seems to violate the principle of relevant difference: it says two classes of individual have different moral value without indicating a relevant difference between them.  And third, Strong EE seems to have the same problem as classical utilitarianism.  When confronted with the fact that a majority may be made happy by the genocide of a minority, utilitarians typically retort that in the real world and over time, most people are made unhappy by such atrocities.  Even if true, this would imply that had a tyrant been more effective in brainwashing or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right.  It is surely absurd to suggest that genocide is only wrong in the actual world because of administrative incompetence!

What is more, the defender of Strong EE is in no position to claim that human rights are inalienable or necessarily universal.  This is because changes in future living conditions could affect what rights we have.  Thus, suppose some tyrant loves hive bees (he sees them as model citizens) and decides that, henceforth, we are all to be raised in similar fashion.  With a stroke, brothers and female infants lose their right to life.  So even if they currently do have such a right, it is not necessary that they do, and the state could easily engineer circumstances which revoke that right.  Indeed, more horrific scenarios are possible, reminiscent of various science fiction novels and movies, where human beings are used as living batteries, fertilizer or food, and in which no one has a right to life (or has it for very long).   More realistically, we see that societies frequently have attempted to engineer living conditions such that (they claim) some group does not enjoy (full) human rights: slavery, child labor, the caste system, forced concubines, ghettoes and apartheid.  All of these, though, are clear examples of human rights abuses, and reinforce the fact that human rights are not dependent on living conditions as Strong EE claims.

Underlying this failure of Strong EE is that it appears to confuse two notions of “good.”  Natural selection can explain the retention of characteristics that are good for an organism, community or species, in that they increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction.   But as Richard Joyce points out, the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.[15]  Assassination is good for removing political leaders and exterminating people in gas chambers is good for ethnic purity, but this does not make either of them morally good.   And the same point applies to the biological good.  That mosquitoes serve malaria’s biological good does not imply that mosquitoes have any moral value, and the fact that (to use one of Darwin’s examples) tribal warfare serves the biological good of a particular tribe by enhancing cooperation and cohesion within it (even if the tribal warfare violates all conditions of a just war) surely does not imply that such tribal warfare is morally good: indeed it could constitute a major human rights abuse.  And similarly, the fact that fratricide and female infanticide might be biologically good for human beings if they lived like hive bees does not imply that those behaviors would be morally good.  Thus there is a logical chasm between what serves the biological interests of a species and what is morally valuable.

A yet further problem is that once our rights are made contingent on the actual distribution of natural capacities conferred by our natural history, there is no good reason to think that only human beings, or that all human beings, have special rights.  If rights are based on our degree of biological adaptedness, then, as James Rachels points out, the humble cockroach is just as well adapted.[16]  So Peter Singer would be right to reject the claim that only human beings have special rights as “species-ism.”  And if rights are based on our natural capacities, then it will always be possible to find individuals who suffer physical and mental defects and thus do not have rights.   And in any case, natural capacities are not uniformly distributed, and this would undermine the basic equality of human rights.  Thus, since some people are naturally smarter or stronger (etc.) than others, it appears some people will have more rights than others.  Yet again, being human is not enough for naturalism: one has to be the right kind of human.  This utterly subverts the idea of human rights, rights one has simply in virtue of being human.

So, if Strong EE is true, it seems that there really are no universal, inherent, inalienable rights.  Even if there are some “rights” (e.g. conventional or contractual ones), human rights will not exist.

B. The Epistemological Problem for Weak EE.

Weak EE, as a modest thesis of moral psychology, is certainly consistent with the existence of human rights.  However, it also has nothing to do with the explanation of those rights.   On this view, had we been raised like hive bees, we would have believed that fratricide and female infanticide were right, but that would have nothing to do with moral reality.    Certainly, this view allows that we might have true moral beliefs, since what our natural history disposes us to believe might happen to correspond to moral reality.   But Weak EE surely gives no grounds for thinking we could know moral reality (including human rights) and even some reason to think that we could not.

It is virtually universally agreed amongst epistemologists (whether internalists who demand we can see why our belief is true, or externalists who are satisfied provided we are in fact reliably connected to the truth) that it is impossible to know that p if one is only right by accident in believing that p.  Thus, if I look at a broken clock that says 7:30 and it is 7:30, my belief is true, but I do not have knowledge because I was only right by accidental coincidence.   A natural explanation of what went wrong here is this: the fact that it was 7:30 had nothing to do with why the clock said 7:30, and hence nothing to do with why I believed that it was 7:30.

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

Notice that internal conviction of certainty is of no avail.  Suppose we were to meet a tribe of humans raised like hive bees.  They would be just as convinced that we were wrong, holding back out of superstitious ignorance from our sacred duties of fratricide and infanticide, as we would be convinced that their behavior was morally abhorrent.  Thus the best that Weak EE could hope for is that we are right by the fortunate accident that we were raised a certain way.

But then of course, one must also ask how likely it is that our beliefs would track moral reality if Weak EE is true.  We have already seen that there is no logical connection between biological adaptedness (what is biologically good for an individual or species) and the moral good.   If so, and given the vast number of possible natural histories we might have had, it seems highly unlikely that our belief-forming mechanism would be apt for moral truth.

This is not merely because of the well-known general problem for naturalism, that biologically useful beliefs do not have to be true.  In the case of beliefs about physical reality, the naturalist can at least offer some sort of causal theory of representation that connects the physical state of affairs with a belief, and it is not wholly implausible that having true beliefs about some local aspects of the physical environment would be adaptive.  Matters are wholly different with moral beliefs since moral values are not physical items with which a creature’s body and brain could causally interact (at least, not on any naturalistic view of causation).  As J. P. Moreland points out, “value properties are not empirically detectable nor are they the sorts of properties whose instances can stand in physical causal relations with the brain.”[17]  So even if moral values are out there in the world, naturalistic evolution has no credible account of how our belief-forming mechanism could be formed and honed so that we could come to know what they are, making moral skepticism the most reasonable option.  In fact, matters are even worse, as Richard Joyce points out.  On naturalistic assumptions, we would have the moral values we do because they are biologically useful even if no objective moral values have ever existed![18]  So if the explanation of our moral faculties and beliefs does not even depend on the existence of moral values, it surely follows that we cannot know them if they do exist.

So if Weak EE is true, even if there are human rights lying around somewhere, we can never claim to know what they are (indeed, for similar reasons to those given above, we cannot even have evidence of their existence and character).  This is as good as useless in justifying human rights and adjudicating competing human rights claims.


It is not difficult to see that the dilemma for Evolutionary Ethics is but one instance of a general problem for Naturalistic Ethics.  Given only the contingencies of naturalistic causation, there is no way to ground claims that hold of normative necessity.  Just like the authority of deductive logic, the authority of fundamental moral obligations depends on a kind of normative necessity that does not depend on, or reduce to, the contingent interactions of humans with their physical environment.  Indeed, we can run a precisely analogous argument to the argument against EE above if the naturalist appeals to individual learning history rather than the natural history of the species.   If we believe in real obligations, like those to respect and protect human rights, we should abandon naturalism.



[1]For example, see David Baggett and Jerry Walls’s, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2]See Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in eds. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister and Khaldoun Sweis, Debating Christian Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 85-100 and “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in ed. Angus J. L. Menuge, Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Farnham, UK; Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 11-31.

[3]See John Warwick Montgomery’s The Law Above the Law (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 1975) and Human Rights and Human Dignity (Dallas, TX: Probe, 1986).

[4]John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law, 24.

[5]An example of this sort of view is provided by Erik Wielenberg, “In defense of non-natural, non-theistic moral realism,” Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (2009) 23-41.

[6]See the critique of Wielenberg in Paul Copan’s “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalisms’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success,” 13-14.

[7]See Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

[8]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 115.

[9] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127:1 (2006): 109-66.

[10]An exception is Thomas Nagel [Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)], who attempts to build teleology into nature at a foundational level.  Arguably, though, this natural teleology then stands in the same need of explanation as all of the “remarkable” phenomena (consciousness, reason and morality) which it is invoked to explain.  Otherwise, it suffers many of the same problems as AMP, since there is no reason to think the teleology is especially concerned with us, and nor is it the sort of thing to which one could have a moral obligation.

[11]See, for example, Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998) and Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).

[12]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 102.

[13]Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy 61: 236 (1986): 173-92.

[14]For example, Sharon Street defends the idea that there are no moral facts, but that moral truths derive from a process of reflective equilibrium.  This is no use for defending human rights as those who gathered together to plan the “final solution” for the “Jewish problem” reached reflective equilibrium.

[15]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 170.

[16]James Rachels, Created From Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 70.

[17]J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009), 149.

[18]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, 183.


Photo: “Broken” by hjhipster. CC License.