By David Baggett
I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York—and someone with whom I recently dialogued at the University at Buffalo—and Frans de Waal, author most recently of The Bonobo and the Atheist (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority. What is interesting about this trend is that the resulting picture is entirely consistent with the view of complete moral skeptics, even amoralists.
Take Joel Marks, for example, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven. A former Kantian ethicist, he has decided that the category of morality lacks an objective referent. He’s written a few books about it, but an op-ed in the New York Times encapsulated his view in succinct fashion. In brief, although he has retained his aversive feelings toward, say, animal suffering, he has grown altogether skeptical that his feelings point to moral reality. He still fights for a world more to his liking, but he has come to think that morality has precious little to do with it, because there is no such thing. Marks is an amoralist—a very nice fellow, from all accounts, but someone who has given morality up. Resonating with Marks are such naturalists as Sharon Street and Richard Joyce, who have insisted that an evolutionary development of our moral sense, on a naturalistic picture, gives us little reason to think that our moral beliefs and convictions correspond with moral truth. Rather they evolved to produce behaviors that conduced to reproductive advantage.
But then de Waal and Shook come along and insist, largely without argument, that, to the contrary, the success of evolutionary moral psychology to account for our feelings of empathy, altruism, and prosociality is not only consistent with morality, but sufficient to account for it. To project the appearance their argument works, though, they need to engage in some subtle sleight of hand, replacing categories of moral authority with moral instincts, categorical obligations with malleable rules, objective truths with shared beliefs. But in the debate about moral foundations, classical theism can account for the full range of moral truths in need of explanation, without watering them down or subtly replacing them with functional analyses—from intrinsic goodness to categorical oughtness to genuine moral agency. To the extent that our naturalist friends like de Waal and Shook appear to be retaining the thick language of morality to capture ideas thin enough that complete moral skeptics could endorse them, there appears something deeply confused at best or disingenuous at worst about their approach, fortifying my growing conviction that soon enough the real moral debate will feature classical theists on one side and moral anti-realists on the other.
Photo: “Pour” by J. Downing. CC License.