By Mike Austin
In this book, two atheists and two Christian theists explain and defend their answers to the following metaethical questions:
- Where does morality come from?
- What, if any, is God’s role with respect to morality?
- Is God necessary for morality?
- Are morals objective?
- How do we come to know moral truths?
Each contributor presents and defends his own view, and the other three then provide their comments and critiques of that view. In my summaries of each chapter, I’ll focus on the presentation of the views, and leave the comments and critiques to the reader to pursue in the book itself. The four views included in the text are naturalist moral realism (Evan Fales), naturalist moral nonrealism (Michael Ruse), moral essentialism (Keith Yandell), and moral particularism (Mark Linville). In this post, I will summarize the naturalist moral realism position taken up by Fales, and close with one criticism.
Fales first explains some key terms concerning his view, Naturalist Moral Realism (NMR). For him naturalism is the view that there are no disembodied minds, and that ethical theory should be grounded in a scientific understanding of human beings. Moral realism is the view that moral norms are independent of our beliefs. These norms are determined by facts about us, and other creatures. Fales clarifies that there is still room for differences due to convention on his view. For example, how one expresses kindness through polite behavior might vary across different cultures. What matters for Fales is that the underlying moral principle concerning kindness is the same.
But how does Fales ontologically ground such moral truths? He contends that morality is based on what is good or bad for a being, and morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. The basis of morality, according to Fales, is our common human nature. Our common nature makes morality objective, because it is objective. That is, we have a particular objective nature as human beings, and it is this nature that grounds objective morality.
Human morality is based on what is good or bad for us, given that we are teleologically organized systems (TOS’s). We are organized such that we have one or more ends, goals, or purposes as human beings. There are several things that are intrinsic goods for human beings with such ends, including health, reproduction, and knowledge. Instrumental goods serve these intrinsic goods. Food, for example, serves the intrinsic good of health. Humans have the particular intrinsic goods or ends that we have as a result of natural evolutionary processes. There is no reason to bring God into the picture, on such a view, because our existence as the type of beings we are is fully explainable by natural means. And since human morality is based on human nature, it is also a result of naturalistic evolutionary processes.
So on this view, how should we live? Fales asserts that morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. Our most central obligations are those that promote social flourishing, because we are a fundamentally social species. In order to know what our obligations are, we can depend upon empirical data derived from an examination of our teleological organization. Other moral facts are necessary truths, which we can know a priori. For example, Fales states “There is a necessary connection—one we easily recognize—between the nature of a small human child and the prima facie duty not to kill it, a connection mediated by the understanding that in killing it we foreclose in the most fundamental and comprehensive sort of way on the realization of that child’s natural teloi” (p. 25).
A problem arises, however, with respect to justifying moral principles that conflict with demonstrable aspects of human nature, such as our tendencies toward violence, greed, dishonesty, and so on. Theism and naturalism offer distinct explanations of our corruption, and according to Fales they each offer a remedy as well.
On Christian theism, human beings are fallen creatures. Adam and Eve chose disobedience, as do the rest of us. We are morally corrupt, and in need of redemption and transformation. Fales argues that Christians have little evidence to offer that shows their remedy—the saving grace offered via the cross—is effective. For instance, over the centuries the individual and corporate behavior of Christians has been in direct contradiction to the ethical dictates of the Sermon on the Mount, in “sordid and massive ways” (p. 27). I will return to this below.
Naturalists can provide a different account of human corruption. Biological evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is quick. Biological evolution cannot keep pace with cultural evolution. As Fales puts it, “so far as our genetic makeup and the social instincts it controls go, we are basically hunter-gatherers who find ourselves born into social unit orders of magnitude larger and more complex than our biological adaptations are designed to handle” (p. 28). We are not suited for the kind of social life we find ourselves thrown into, but since we can reflect rationally on our moral commitments, there is hope for progress, if we focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality. With this in mind, if theists and naturalists can agree on what human nature consists of, then there is common ground for agreement about normative ethics.
I think a focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality is a good place to start. There is common ground based on what theists and naturalists hold in common about human nature. With this in mind theists and naturalists could construct a normative ethic that has much to recommend to them both. But there will be important differences, too, and this could lead to problems in constructing a common normative ethic.
More critically, I think Fales is too quick with respect to the evidence Christians have for the efficacy of their solution to human corruption. He is certainly right that much Christian behavior falls well short of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere), and that there are lame justifications provided for this. However, it is important to emphasize that just because someone is, or claims to be, a Christian, it does not follow that they are participating in the kingdom of God to the extent that they should or could. There are many reasons for this. One is that on Christianity, human corruption persists in many ways, in both Christians and non-Christians. However, the relevant individuals to consider are those who profess faith in Christ and have diligently pursued transformation in partnership with the Spirit of Christ (see 2 Peter 1:3-11). It is those who have pursued the Way that are the crucial test cases here, not those who have merely professed it. I’m reminded of the well-known G.K. Chesterton line: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Image: “Pacific Silhouette” by T. Lucas. CC License.