Thursday, February 9, 2012

Evolution and Objective Morality

This is a quick post concerning evolution and objective morality. From time to time, it is alleged that evolution is responsible for the formation of our shared belief in objective moral values, and hence objective moral values are false. They are merely constructs of adaptation for survival. So, does evolution falsify objective morality? I don’t think so.

First, as is regularly pointed out, this is just an example of the genetic fallacy. That is to say it is fallacious to infer because of how a belief originated it is therefore false. A classic example would be the proponent of socialism scolding the proponent of democracy thus: “You only think democracy is the best form of government because you were raised in one!” One would, and hardly should, think democracy is therefore false. So it is with evolution. Even if evolution is responsible for our shared belief in objective morality, we have no grounds to conclude it is false.

Second, some may suggest while evolution does not entail objective morality’s falsehood, it makes it less likely to be true. The argument would be that evolution’s accounting for belief in objective moral values is consistent with those values being false. But this is hardly demonstrative, or even suggestive, of that belief being false. After all, the same reasoning gets us just any belief to be in the same situation. We don’t think, for example, laws of logic are probably false because evolution accounts for our belief in them.

One final interesting side note: there is at least one way of escape here. The objector may bite the bullet and admit that it is the case that every belief, on naturalistic evolution, is consistent with that belief being false and hence we have a defeater for every belief. In that case, either evolution did not happen, and the best naturalistic account of the current state of things evaporates, or evolution was guided by a transcendent source, guaranteeing at least some true beliefs. In either case, we have a defeater for naturalistic evolution. But if we have a defeater for naturalistic evolution, it follows the objection against objective moral values loses all force.
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  1. Well put! Along those same lines, another defeater that I like to talk about is in answer to the question, "If no gods exist, then why do so many people believe in one?" Evolution: "because we evolved that way. It gave our ancestors a selective advantage." If evolution can produce false beliefs, such as the belief in a god, then how do we know any of our beliefs are true?

  2. Thanks Greg! I noticed you have a blog also, but I didn't see anything over there. :)

  3. Randy,

    Finally, we agree on something: Evolution in no way entails that there are no moral facts (though, it does go a long way in explaining why certain behavioral tendencies & beliefs may have arisen).

    Re: "We don’t think, for example, laws of logic are probably false because evolution accounts for our belief in them."

    Again, right on target here.

  4. Thanks Aaron. Wow, I think this may be a milestone. ;)

  5. I made an argument once called something like The Lazy Person's Guide to the Moral Argument. Basically, I did argue that this matters, but the way in which it matters is that it makes the second premise (i.e., Objective moral values exist) inscrutable by undermining the justification for said belief. I think you've acknowledged this in your post. So, while the challenge may not defeat the Moral Argument, it can be grounds for dismissing it as ineffective.

    I do want to add, though, that I don't see this as biting the bullet. It's true that it would have certain implications, but only for a subset of beliefs. I don't think it entails an extreme skepticism. What we need - and I recognize this is no easy task - is a good way to determine when our internal justifications acting alone are faulty (like delusions) and when they are justified (like inference is at least justified in a probabilistic sense). If we're honest with ourselves, I think we'll agree that is our aim when targeting such internal justifications. We want to know into which category beliefs about morality fall. If we have some sort of good rubric for this, and I would look to psychological research here, then I think we could potentially avoid undermining all beliefs, like in the EAAN.

  6. Hi Dr. Mike! No, I only admit naturalistic evolution undermines belief in objective moral values if it undermines belief in just any facts whatsoever. :) It seems rather ad hoc to stipulate only objective moral values, and any reasoning (thus far) would affect all beliefs, since any beliefs about inference are themselves internally justified. I'm not saying EAAN is true; but only that if one insists on this type of reasoning, EAAN becomes unavoidable. If intuitive knowledge is permissible, and there is no reason to think it is false, one may comfortably assume lack of a delusion unless evidence arises.

  7. Randy,

    What would you say on your view of epistemology is the difference between an experience indicative of objective morality versus something that is known to be illusory from experimental results? Are there criteria you think we can use to distinguish good internal justifications from bad (illusory) ones?

  8. Hey Mike. I do think there are ways to distinguish good intuitions from bad ones. However, I don't pretend to have that all figured out. One way is by a stronger held but competing intuition. For example, suppose I held the intuition that God exists somewhat strongly, but I held very strongly that a loving God would not have any morally sufficient reasons for allowing the suffering that he does allow. If we're not examining anything else (which of course would be silly, but it's just an example), I ought to go with the intuition that God does not exist. More helpfully, I think, will be that if there are premises we hold (or should hold in order to be rational) to be true, independent of the method by which we hold them, more strongly than we intuit whatever it is the intuition is in question.

    So, for instance, someone who intuits he is a bird would be acting irrationally if he did not recognize the rational beliefs that a) humans are not birds, and b) he is a human; both of these beliefs should be held strongly in order to be rational. But if these strongly-held, rational beliefs entail the falsehood of the intuition, then we can safely say the intuition is false.

    This epistemology may have its problems, however, as it may suggest we can only say intuitive beliefs are false if we have a defeater. That may be true after all. For if we only undercut the warrant for a belief, it shouldn't then follow we think that belief is false--at least not on those grounds.

  9. You are right that evolutionary debunking arguments alone are not persuasive. However, there are other reasons to question objective morality, as many philosophers have done (Mackie, Joyce, Greene, Haidt, Wong etc.), and these reasons gain support from an evolutionary account of how our minds evolved.

  10. Thanks ockhamsbeard--love the name lol. While I would be interested in hearing these arguments, I wonder: is one's only reason for affirming these unnamed premises evolutionary development? If so, are they subject to the same criticisms above?


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