A Moral Argument II: Morality (a)

We are continuing this series outlining a common argument for God’s existence that is based off the existence of objective moral values and duties. In Part 1, we cleared the air with some key terminology needed for the argument. If you’re just joining, it is highly recommended you start at the beginning. For now, I will present a case for why I think there are objective moral values and duties.

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought you were doing something morally right, or at least morally neutral, but later you thought was wrong? Do you have any regrets? Maybe that’s a bit too deep. Let’s talk about other people, instead. Do you think things in the past were wrong for people to do? Let’s say slavery. Was that wrong of people to conduct? What about the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, or the mistreatment of the LGBT+, or the crimes against indigenous peoples? Were those things wrong?

You probably answered yes to at least one question. Interestingly, in all situations people thought they were in the right at the time. By answering yes, you claim their (or your) opinion was incorrect. They were wrong. Those things ought not to have been done.

Now, how can someone be wrong about something subjective? Something that is subjectively true is true because of the opinion of the one holding it. If I think it’s true, it is. Can I be wrong about the best (i.e. my favourite) ice cream? Sometimes, as a joke, we say to people that their preference for a certain flavour is wrong, but no one means that literally. Like taste, you can’t actually be wrong, for all practical purposes, regarding truths that are subjective.

Notice then, that claiming that anyone is morally incorrect, even if they think they are right, is claiming that they are factually incorrect about something that is true independent of their opinion.

For example, if I were to think rape is ok, would it make it so? Clearly not. If morality is subjective and based wholly on our individual preferences, all I have to do is think something correct for it to be so. It is therefore impossible to be morally wrong if morality is subjective. Of course, you can still do things that are morally wrong if morality is subjective. You’d have to go against your own personal morality. But that is not what I mean by being morally wrong. I mean that if morality is subjective, i.e. reduces to one’s personal opinion, you cannot have a morally incorrect opinion. But that is absurd. Hitler was wrong do think it right to exterminate people.

It seems, then, that moral values and duties are objective truths – if they’re not an illusion. Saying morality is an illusion is called moral anti-realism or moral scepticism. Is it an illusion? Couldn’t morality be a trick of evolution? As we evolved as a species, those that worked together – a sort of herd morality, if you will – survived better. As time went on certain actions became taboo and others became commendable. Could this be our source of morality?

We must first recognize that this doesn’t provide an explanation for objective moral values and duties. If it’s true that morality comes from sociobiological forces, what that implies is that morality is an illusion; i.e. not real! The objective claim “one ought not murder” is literally false because the moral charge is illusory (the claim “one ought to murder” is also literally false in the same way). Evolution can only describe how humanity behaved and survived, not prescribe how to actually behave.

Saying that behaving in a certain way helps you survive is not the same as saying that we ought to behave that way. Plus, not conforming to the herd, which is what immorality would be, is just acting different from other people; it’s only acting unfashionably. Killing someone is the moral equivalent of wearing bellbottoms. What obligation is set upon us to follow the herd? Disregarding this evolutionary type of morality would just be a bad survival technique. It would be dumb, but not wrong. We can say it isn’t advantageous for us to murder, but not that we ought not murder.

“But we ought to try and survive!” one may retort. Where is that moral obligation coming from? How was that evolved? Yes, I believe that’s a generally true statement, but evolution, on its own, can’t account for it. Natural selection should not be anthropomorphized. It can simply be crudely boiled down to a general principle: if you aren’t able to survive, you die. Survival is an explanatory starting point of evolution, not a moral obligation derived from it.

It seems what we call morality, if it is derived from evolution, becomes like any evolutionary adaptation; like having a thumb. The thumb helps us live (or rather, those who developed thumbs by random mutation survived better and eventually took over the species), but it’s not morally wrong to not have one. “Morality” helps, but there really isn’t any true morality.

Moreover, as the cliche goes, nature is red in tooth and claw. If we try to derive morality from evolution, it would sanction all sorts of atrocities. Actually, this has been tried in recent human history. It’s called social darwinism. The result was mainly genocide. So if people claim this is an explanatory ultimate for objective moral values and duties, it’s not a very good one, pun very much intended.

It’s possible that what we call “morality” came from evolution, but not objective morality. If it came from evolution, there is no real right and wrong. All this is why Richard Dawkins in River Out of Eden can famously assert:

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

No evil. No good.

It should be clarified, though, that evolution could be used as the means to discover objective morality. Or evolution could be true but it could be completely unrelated to our discovery of morality. In both cases, evolution could be true about our past, but not be the reason for our morality. Because of this, the advocates of an evolutionary explanation of morality need to provide additional reasoning besides simply defending evolution. So by my arguing there is objective moral values and duties does not commit me to denying evolution.

So is that it? Is morality a sociobiological illusion? Isn’t it true that if it were we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference? This is why I said in Part 1 that I was unsure of this argument when I first read about it; we couldn’t tell the difference.

And with that cliff hanger, I will leave you until next time.

Keep pondering,




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