One of the things that tempers my dislike for theists and their sometimes absurd beliefs about right and wrong is the fact that many atheists also have some rather foolish beliefs about right and wrong. They hold onto these beliefs with religious tenacity, cherry-picking the available evidence to support their cherished views.
One recent example of this is an article I read this morning; Blumner: Biology, not faith, is the source of human morality by Robyn Blumner. In this article, Blumner attempts to defend the idea that morality has a genetic explanation, rather than an explanation through scripture.
Before I start my criticism, I want to make it clear that I believe that moral facts can, at least in part, be reduced to biological facts. The system of morality that I defend in this blog holds that value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral value is found in the relationship between malleable desires and other desires. Desires are brain states. Brains are biological organs that came about through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The study of desires is the study of brains – of the way that genes interact with environment to create gray matter of a particular structure.
The dispute is over which biological facts best explain moral properties.
In this particular defense of genetic morality, Blumner wrote:
[Marc] Hauser [a Harvard professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology and biological anthropology] gives the example of five people who are in need of organ transplants and a healthy man walks into the hospital. Nearly everyone, asked if it is morally acceptable to kill the healthy man to provide life-saving organs to the five others, answers no. But in another example, where a trolley is racing down a track and about to kill five people, most people agree that it is permissible to flip a switch and reroute the trolley so that it will kill only one person.
The outcomes are the same, one person sacrificed to save five others, yet people of all types of backgrounds come up with the same contrasting judgments for the two examples and they often can't explain why they have drawn a distinction.
Humans have an inherent sense of fair play and the idea that hurting someone intentionally, such as strapping them down and harvesting their organs, is worse than doing so as collateral damage to a larger rescue (hence the use of that phrase by modern warmongers).
So, tell me, am I supposed to believe that my biological ancestors, way back before they could read and write, were continually running into situations regarding trolley cars and organ transplants? Should I believe that these encounters were common enough and important enough that evolution had an opportunity to select for a ‘do not kill and distribute organs’ gene, and a ‘throw the trolley car switch’ gene?
That seems unlikely.
Even though this conclusion is not the intended implication of the view that moral facts are reducible to genetic facts, it is in fact what such a theory implies. The absurdity of this conclusion tells us about the absurdity of the premises that give rise to it.
The quote above gives a classic attempt to defend one theory over another by showing its superior ability to account for a particular observation – the answers that people give to these two cases. Traditional moral theory, it says, cannot account for this difference because “The outcomes are the same, one person sacrificed to save five others.”
Yet, if the outcomes are the same, then it is just as difficult to appeal to evolution to explain the difference. In order for evolution to play a role, the different outcomes must have a difference that plays out in terms of genetic survival. Otherwise, nature would have nothing to use in selecting one or the other. Either that, or the difference is merely an accident of nature – a genetic trait that happened to become universal even though it serves no evolutionary function, and which could have easily been different.
So, what makes organ harvesters evil and deserving of the wrath reserved for murderers, while the switch throwers are forgiven? It is merely an accident of nature. With a different flip of the genetic coin, it could have been otherwise.
However, that is not the most important problem.
Blumner says that “nearly everybody agrees” that it is not permissible to harvest organs in the one case, and “most people agree” that it is permissible to throw the switch.
But not everybody.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 97% of the population has a “do not harvest organs” gene, and 3% of the people have a “save as many lives as possible” gene. What does this tell us about the morality of harvesting organs?
Are we to conclude that harvesting organs is wrong for 97% of the population, but permissible, even obligatory, for the other 3%? If so, this would go against one of the basic elements of what people generally know about morality – that moral principles are supposed to be universal. To say that raping a child is wrong is to say that no person may rape a child. It does not mean that those with a “rape child” gene may rape children, while those with an “aversion to the rape of children gene” may not do so.
So, at what point does harvesting organs becomes universally wrong. What if the “do not harvest organs” gene was present in only 70% of the population? 60%? 50.01%?
What does “wrong” even mean under this theory?
The theory of genetic morality ultimately says that ‘X is wrong’ means (or can be reduced to ‘the most powerful elements in society are disposed to do harm to those who do X’. That is it.
If the most powerful elements in a society were disposed to do harm to those who ate with their left hand, then eating with one’s left hand would be ‘wrong’.
‘X is wrong’ also means ‘those who do X deserve condemnation and punishment.’ It is not just a descriptive phrase that those who do X will be harmed. It is a prescriptive phrase that says that those who do X should be harmed, that they deserve to be harmed, that they are at fault, and that punishment is appropriate in such circumstances.
How do we get from, ‘the most powerful people in society are disposed to do harm to those who do X’, to ‘those who do X deserve to be harmed’?
David Hume would argue that those who would draw such an implication owe us an explanation as to how we derive such an ought from the ‘is’ premises that give rise to it.
(Note: I believe that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but only from a specialized set of ‘is’ statements, some of which involve the malleability of desires by social forces, which are ‘is’ statements not available to the genetic moralist.)
Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Well, what we need to do is determine if people have a genetic disposition to do harm to those who engage in homosexual acts. If people have such a disposition to harm homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to be harmed – harming them is a good thing.
The Euthyphro Argument
Ultimately, all I am doing here is using Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’ argument against the genetic moralist. However, I am rephrasing the question somewhat.
“Is X morally good because it is loved by the genes? Or is X loved by the genes because it is morally good?”
For a point of clarification, my view is that neither are true. There is no necessary connection between what is loved by the genes and what is morally good. It is quite possible for something to be loved by the genes that is down right evil.
If the genetic moralist takes the first horn of this dilemma, she falls into a trap of saying that the most horrendous acts can be good. A genetic disposition to kill everybody in an ‘out’ group, take their property and their land, and use it for one’s own tribe would make ethnic cleansing a moral commandment. All these many decades we have been bemoaning that ethic cleansing was immoral when all along it was morally commanded by our genes.
If the genetic moralist takes the second option, then we are still missing an account of what ‘wrong’ is. On this option, morality does not come from our genes. Morality comes from ‘something else’ – and whatever that ‘something else’ is, that is where our genes direct us. Here, the genetic moralist has an additional problem that the divine command theorist could avoid. The genetic moralist also has to explain how evolution managed to pick up this good and selected for it, when genetic survival is going to have a far stronger effect on evolution than this hypothetical, independent ‘good’.
The genetic moralist might want to answer, “Well, if we had this disposition to wipe out another race, then we would be justified in doing so and they would deserve to be wiped out merely because we had this disposition.”
He could say that, but he should be careful what he says the next time he hears a theist say, “If God commands us to torture young children for pleasure, then it would be a good thing for us to do so.