Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Does Objective Morality Exist? (p. 2)

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Does Objective Morality Exist?
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The Evolution Objection

Another objection is that evolution somehow undercuts our moral intuition. Evolution is aimed more at advantageous behavior than true beliefs, and moral beliefs (that we ought to have limitations on killing and thievery for example) are advantageous for our species. When there’s a conflict between having true beliefs and having advantageous behavior, natural selection selects for advantageous behavior over having true beliefs. So, evolution gives us a reason to doubt our moral intuitions.

At least without further explanation, the appeal to evolution seems to be begging the question in favor of atheism. On theism, it’s likely that evolution was a process superintended by God that gave us at least somewhat reliable moral intuitions (e.g. about morality existing), in which case God used evolution to select for true beliefs, not just advantageous behavior. On atheism, I agree it is unlikely that evolution has given us reliable intuitions about morality existing (indeed, I think it’s likely on atheism that morality doesn’t exist at all) and that natural selection probably selected for advantageous behavior over true beliefs here, but then it’s clear that knowledge of evolution itself isn’t sufficient to serve as a defeater for the reliability of our moral intuitions. Theism + evolution = one’s intuition is probably right about morality existing; atheism + evolution = one’s intuition is probably wrong about morality existing. Evolution by itself isn’t enough to doubt moral objectivism.

One could finesse the appeal to evolution this way:

    (1)  If evolution is true, then we would come to have the same moral beliefs we do whether morality existed or not.
    (2)  If (1), then we aren’t justified (and thus we don’t know) that objective morality exists.
    (3)  Therefore, we aren’t justified (and thus we don’t know) that objective morality exists.


One way to at least partly justify premise (1) is to note that certain moral beliefs (e.g. moral prohibitions on stealing and killing) would benefit our species even if morality didn’t exist. Basically, the idea is that premise (1) undercuts our justification for our belief in objective morality. But there are several problems with this argument. First, it’s worth considering whether evolution really needs us to believe in objective morality. Even if evolution needs to drive us to behave in certain ways for our species to survive, it need not result in us accepting the existence of morality. If I were a moral nihilist (someone who believes nothing is morally wrong) I would still detest things like rape and genocide even if I no longer recognized such actions having a moral dimension to them. I would also strongly prefer not to do such actions, and this sort of attitude is not at all uncommon among those who would deny objective morality. Us having the right sort of strong preferences would be sufficient for us to behave in survival-conducive ways even without us accepting morality. This doesn’t by itself show that premise (1) or (2) is false, but it does show that our belief in morality isn’t a necessary consequence of evolution, and that should make us a bit more suspicious about the soundness of the argument. With that in mind, let’s address those premises.

Premise (1)

So given that we need not believe in morality for evolution to drive us to behave in the right ways, would we really come to have the same moral beliefs we do whether morality existed or not? As I mentioned in part 2 of the moral argument, that wouldn’t hold for the theist who believes God is both essentially good and the creator of the universe because if this theistic belief were true, then if morality didn’t exist neither would God (being morally good is an essential attribute of God, thus no morality means no God) and if God didn’t exist then he wouldn’t have created the universe, in which case (according to theism) none of us would be here to believe anything. So on theism if morality did not exist then we would not believe in morality.

What about atheism? On atheism, is it true that would we have the same moral beliefs if morality did not exist? Not necessarily. If I were an atheist moral objectivist, I would believe that we humans have a sort of supernatural clairvoyance that detects the existence of invisible, nonphysical moral properties like moral wrongness. That may sound far-fetched, but on atheism it’s difficult to find a more plausible relevant connection between these invisible, nonphysical, causally inert moral properties and our belief in them that would confer warrant upon those beliefs (for more on this sort of thing, see the warrant problem discussed in part 2 of the moral argument). An atheist who accepts that this is how we know moral properties exist can easily believe that if moral properties did not exist our clairvoyance wouldn’t have told us they existed and thus we would not believe they existed, similar to how we would no longer believe we had toes if we looked and saw that our toes were gone. And don’t forget, evolution can still drive us to behave in survival-conducive ways without our species accepting morality’s existence.

So it seems that all things considered, about the only way “If evolution is true, then we would come to have the same moral beliefs we do whether morality existed or not” would be convincing is if one already believed that we do not have knowledge of objective morality. But if the only reason one has for believing “If evolution is true, then we would come to have the same moral beliefs we do whether morality existed or not” is that one already believes we don’t know that objective morality exists, then this evolution objection is a pretty lousy argument for the claim of us not knowing that objective morality exists.

Premise (2)

The argument’s failure with premise (1) is enough to reject this argument, but the truth of premise (2) is also worth considering. Would us having the beliefs we do whether morality existed or not destroy our justification for it? If so, why? Perhaps the general idea is if that if we would believe some proposition p even if p were false, then we are not justified in believing p. But this doesn’t always hold especially for properly basic beliefs (beliefs we are justified in believing even if they are not believed on the evidential basis of other beliefs; e.g. belief in the reality of the external world as opposed to our perception of it being merely a lifelong dream). For example, “It is not the case that I am a brain in a vat of chemicals hooked up to electrodes with a supercomputer generating all the sensations and intuitions I have had my entire life” is a sort of belief that even if it were false, we would still believe it is false. Yet we are still rational in believing that the external world is real and not a computer-generated illusion. Belief in objective morality is properly basic, and we have no more reason to doubt it than we do to doubt the reality of the external world. (Though as discussed in part 2 of the moral argument, on naturalism nobody has any warrant for objective morality, and so arguably on naturalism one’s belief in objective morality is not properly basic.)

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