Have you ever heard an atheist tell you that naturalistic evolution is an answer to the moral argument? I have. And I found a good reply to this challenge in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. The chapter that responds to the challenge is authored by Dr. Mark D. Linville. It is only 13 pages long. I have a link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.
First, a bit about the author:
Blog: The Tavern at the End of the World
- PhD Research Fellow
- Tutoring Fellow in Philosophy
- PhD in Philosophy with a minor in South Asian Studies and a specialization in Philosophy of Religion, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- MA in Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- MA in Philosophy of Religion, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
- MA in Theology, Cincinnati Christian Seminary
- BA in Biblical Studies, Florida Christian College
Here is his thesis of the essay:
Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate. In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, 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—perhaps erroneously—that there are.
Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology. I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism. And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away. Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false. I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.
And here’s a sample to get your attention:
But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation. There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law. The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of second-order propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself). Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character. And, assuming that there is anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import. Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience. What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import? “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.” Right. So?
The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality. Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.” He explains,
By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions. For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.” These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.2
Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge. He then addresses the question of moral motivation.
In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?” For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?” The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.3
Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter. Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives. Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not. More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.” As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative. But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.
One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature. But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology. Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not. If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly. If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.” And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.
In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.
When it comes to morality, we are not interested in mere descriptions of behavior. We want to know about prescriptions of behavior, and whether why we should care about following those prescriptions. We are interested in what grounds our sense of moral obligation in reality. What underwrites our sense of moral obligation? If it is just rooted in feelings, then why should we obey our moral sense when obeying it goes against out self-interest? Feelings are subjective things, and doing the right thing in a real objective state of affairs requires more than just feelings. There has to be a real objective state of affairs that makes it rational for us to do the right thing, even when the right thing is against our own self-interest. That’s what morality is – objective moral obligations overriding subjective feelings. I wouldn’t trust someone to be moral if it were just based on their feelings.
The PDF is right here for downloading, with the permission of the author.
4 thoughts on “Mark D. Linville: does Darwinian evolution make morality rational?”
Linville asks: “Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience. What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import?”
Answer: One can say, “Your lineage will die out.”
From the Darwinian perspective, carrying on the lineage is the supreme good. That’s all anyone really cares about. Evolutionary naturalism doesn’t “explain away morality,” but it merely shifts the moral focus from God to evolutionary survival.
But survival is not a moral category, unless you think that every other organism on the planet is a moral agent the same way that theists think humans are.
You can’t help yourself to human rights and compassion on a survival-of-the-fittest meta-narrative. That’s the point.
What’s a “moral category”? Christians sometimes seem to define morality in a way that it requires God, but that’s not a fair argument.
Suppose we define morality as the deepest fundamental longing that people have. In that case, God is the basis of morality. Or if God doesn’t exist, then evolutionary survival is the basis of morality. What do you say to this suggestion?
Objective moral values, and prescriptive moral duties. You don’t have to be a theist, you can affirm that these things exist in a Platonic sense as abstract objects, but that opens you up to other difficulties. I’m not going to make your case for you, but what we mean by morality is objective moral values and objective moral duties.