First, Linville argues that:
Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality… does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away. We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe… that there are… And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away.
With this I heartily agree. Evolution cannot explain moral values for the same reason God cannot explain moral values: the Euthyphro dilemma. “Is something moral because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is moral?”
Evolution only explains how we came to believe in moral facts.
Thus, the theist can level the same kind of attack on atheistic moral realism as the atheist can on theological realism. We have much evidence to show how religions – including Judaism and Christianity – are the products of biological and cultural evolution. If religious ideas merely evolved, this intuitively undercuts the chances that these religious ideas are true.
But in the same way, we have much evidence of how our moral beliefs are the products of biological and cultural evolution. If moral beliefs merely evolved, this intuitively undercuts the chances that these moral beliefs are true, too.
Thus, after a brief account of how evolution explains our moral beliefs, Linville concludes that:
…it would appear that the human moral sense and the moral beliefs that arise from it are ultimately the result of natural selection, and their value is thus found in the adaptive behavior that they encourage. But then it seems that the processes responsible for our having the moral beliefs that we do are ultimately fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed. This is to say that, in such a case, the best explanation for our having the moral beliefs that we do makes no essential reference to their being true.
Again, I could not agree more. This is exactly why I keep saying that our moral beliefs and moral feelings are not a good guide to what is true about morality.
But then Linville says:
This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.
But this clearly commits the genetic fallacy. The cause of a belief may be unreliable, but that does not mean the belief itself is false. Consider the Bakuba child who is taught by ignorant shamans that the stars are not infinitely old, because they were created when the white giant Mbombo got a stomach ache and vomited them into the sky. The child’s belief in finitely old stars comes from an extremely unreliable source, but as it turns out this is a true belief, and we can know it is a true belief by other means: scientific evidence.
So, Linville moves on to a weaker conclusion:
A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis… Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.
Here, Linville argues that because we cannot trust our evolved moral “sense” to give us moral knowledge, we cannot have moral knowledge at all.
But this does not follow. We cannot trust our evolved sense of invisible agents (which causes humans to believe in all kinds of non-existent spirits), but does this mean we cannot have knowledge of spirits? Of course not! As evidential Christian apologists rightly argue, we could know the existence of spirits through other means – inference from the apparent design in the universe, for example.
So Linville’s conclusion follows only if the sole possible source of moral knowledge is our evolved moral sense. But I see no reason to grant this hidden assumption. If moral facts exist, we may be able to infer them from scientific and rational discovery, and totally ignore our unreliable, evolved moral sense.
If Linville wants to claim that we cannot have moral knowledge in a naturalistic universe, he must give a different sort of argument. I suspect the best he could do is to defeat existing theories of naturalistic moral realism. But even that would not rule out the possibility that a later naturalistic theory will give us moral knowledge – just as the failure of ancient Greek arguments for atomic theory did not rule out that we would later gain knowledge of atomic theory by other means.
Because we can gain moral knowledge through reason and evidence rather than from our evolved moral sense, we “have no more cause for moral skepticism than we do, say, mathematical skepticism” (as Linville states the objection).
In response, Linville says:
[But] if our [evolved] moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories that we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process. How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true?
Quite correctly, Linville summarizes the strategy of most moral philosophers like this:
Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping? In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle? Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief? Pretty clearly, it is the latter… As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”
And this method is precisely what I called The Wrong Test for Ethical Theories. I lambast this method as strongly as Linville does, and for the exact same reasons.1 Once again, Linville and I totally agree.
But this does not dismiss my objection. What if the naturalist rejects any information from his evolved moral sense, and instead discovers moral facts through reason and evidence, without ever testing them against his evolved moral sense? That is precisely the method of ethics that I – and many others – employ.
My method of ethics is precisely the method of science. I use evidence and reason to infer moral facts from the natural universe. I do not consult my evolved prejudices, I do not test my theory against them, and I use all the tools of science and logic to remove their influence from my moral calculus.
My objection summarized
I agree with most of Linville’s article, and will take pleasure in using it against atheists who appeal to their evolved moral sense as warrant for their claims of moral knowledge.
But I disagree with Linville’s conclusion, that given naturalism we cannot have moral knowledge. We can have moral knowledge for the same reason we can have knowledge of quantum mechanics.
We use logic and evidence to discover the truths of quantum theory. We do not consult our intuition for quantum truth. Indeed, quantum truth is often violently opposed to our intuitions. And we do not test quantum theory against our evolved intuitions. It is only by the reliable tools of logic and evidence that we discover quantum truths, and it is only by the same tools that we discover moral truths.
So if moral knowledge exists, the naturalist may attain it without any reference to his evolved moral sense.
Is theism better?
Linville concludes his article by saying that theism – unlike naturalism – gives us the opportunity to trust our moral sense, since it was designed by God to accurately detect moral truths.
This is a strange endorsement. Quite recently, our moral sense – the one Linville thinks we can trust – almost universally endorsed slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia. In Biblical times, our moral sense endorsed tribalism and even rape (in certain circumstances).
Theism gives us no reason to trust our moral sense. If theism is true, it is still the case that our moral sense has given us wildly different moral “truths” across different eras and cultures. And even if theism is true, Linville gives us no evidence that a divinely-created moral sense exists, that it accurately detects moral truths, or that God would have given us an accurate moral sense. Indeed, if the God who gave us this moral sense is anything like the jealous, selfish, bigoted, totalitarian God of the Bible, one might suspect he gave us a very corrupt moral sense that maximized our subservience to him rather than one that accurately perceived moral value.2
Theism’s account of moral knowledge is dangerous. Not just because theism is false, but because theism allows people to justify their prejudices. According to theism, each narrow, bigoted, ignorant fool may consult his own feelings about morality and get the “right” answer, because he has been endowed with an accurate moral sense by his creator. (And so it is no surprise that this is a theory of morality that “feels” right to the common man.)
In contrast, my view of morality is anti-prejudice. My view says that the common bigot does not have much moral knowledge. Moral knowledge requires patient research by experts trained to combat their prejudices.
There is much left to say about the evidence for my moral theory, desire utilitarianism. There is also much to say about the lack of evidence for theistic moral theories – regardless of the truth of theism. But this is merely a rebuttal of Linville’s article against naturalistic ethics, and I have given it.
(significantly rewritten April 21, 2009)
- Linville only lambasts this method when assuming naturalism, though. Assuming theism is true, Linville thinks we have good reason to trust our moral sense. [↩]
- Of course, many theistic traditions basically admit this. They say that subservience to a jealous totalitarian God is the ultimate good. But again, they justify this not by providing evidence, but by (surprise!) simply assuming it. [↩]