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John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.1, “Evolution and Anti-Realism”

summary by David Baggett

This section explores whether evolutionary psychology gives us a reason to be anti-realists, either about value or about God. The first of these forms of anti-realism rejects the view described earlier as “prescriptive realism.” According to prescriptive realism, when we make moral judgments we are both expressing some attitude of the will or desire and claiming that evaluative reality is a certain way independently of our judgment, so that our judgment is appropriate to it. The second part of this, the realism, is at stake in the present context. Mackie, Ruse, and Street will be covered. The second form of anti-realism is about God, and the fourth part of this section, concerning Paul Bloom, will focus specifically on this.

8.3.1 “John Mackie”

We begin with John Mackie’s argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. His first sentence is, “There are no objective values.” He was Humean (like Haidt), and thought our tendency to believe in objective value results from what Hume called the mind’s “propensity to spread itself on external objects” together with the pressure of our sociality. He proposed an error theory, “that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.” In other words, Mackie conceded that realists are right about what moral language means, but he held that nonetheless what people mean when they make moral judgments is always false.

He conceded if DCT were true then moral judgments that claim objective prescriptivity would also be true, but he was an atheist and thought DCT false. He was also opposed to Kant’s universalism, and behind this to the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is simply impracticable, and inconsistent with human nature, he thought, because “a large element of selfishness—or, in an older terminology, self-love—is a quite ineradicable part of human nature,” and it’s doubtful any agency could effect the fundamental changes that would be needed to make practicable a morality of universal concern.

Mackie offered two arguments against realism, which he called the “argument from relativity” and the “argument from queerness.” The first says moral views are too diverse for us to suppose plausibly that we are all receptors of the same objectively prescriptive values beaming down to us. They rather seem to reflect participation in different ways of life.

But in reply, Hare says on DCT it’s unsurprising to find substantial variation in the reception of divine commands. First, in Kant’s language, we are born under the evil maxim, so that we have, in addition to the predisposition to good, the propensity to evil. The closer a faculty is to our heart or will, the more likely the faculty is to be distorted in its perceptions by the preference for our own happiness over what is good in itself, independently of its relation to ourselves. There are manifold ways in which it’s possible to get value perceptions wrong, and so there is manifold variety in moral views.

The contrast with color perception is interesting here. Though there are marginal differences in how different people split up the spectrum, there’s large-scale agreement.

Second, what God commands one set of people, or one person within a group, may be different from what God commands another.

A third important point is that Mackie may have been wrong about the amount of variety. The pendulum seems to have swung back within evolutionary psychology to the acknowledgment of human universals. It’s surprising in fact how much agreement there seems to be on basic principles between cultures, though the details and application of these principles vary substantially.

The argument from queerness is that the objectively prescriptive values that realism proposes and their effects on us are very strange things, not easily related to any kind of causation we know about within science. The simpler explanation is a subjectivist one. The notion of something objective in the world like rightness and wrongness is, in Mackie’s terms, “queer,” by which he meant inexplicable by scientific theory. He accepted that it might make sense if we believed in a God who was prescribing, but science acknowledges, in his view, no such thing.

Hare adds that Mackie was right to point out that a theist has less reason than an atheist to be an anti-realist about value. A divine command theorist already believes in a divine spiritual person outside normal science. She will still have valid questions about how a spiritual being communicates with material beings like us, but she will be less inclined to think such communication is impossible.

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