A member of the studio audience left the natural follow-up question to my last post.
In that post, I objected that evolutionary ethicists have no answer to the question that theists are asking when they ask about the possibility of morality without God. Evolutionary ethicists claim to be able to give an evolutionary account of a "moral sense", but this is nonsense unless one can give an independent account of morality against which any "sense" can be calibrated.
We can phrase the question coming from theists in the form of, "What is this true goodness and true badness against which our 'moral sense' can be calibrated, and where does it come from, if it does not come from God?"
I argue that, once we understand true goodness and true badness, it shows that the very idea of an evolved 'moral sense' makes no sense. This thing that the evolutionary ethicist is trying to explain is just as much a fiction as God itself. Consequently, it doesn't need any explanation.
So, how do I answer the question?
If you give me any population with malleable desires (desires that are molded through experiences rather than genetically hardwired), then I can give you true goodness and true badness.
It does not matter if that population evolved or was designed. It does not matter if it is a population of robots or a population of animals. It simply has to be a population whose desires are malleable - whose desires can be altered by making changes in the environment in which the members of that population live.
Value has to do with reasons for action.
Let's look at the prescription/description divide. Prescription, by its very definition, has to do with reasons for action. It has to do with saying, "You should do this," and "You should not do that," then looking for the "reasons for action that exist" for doing this or not doing that.
Desires are reasons for action. Once you have a population of entities that have desires, you can start to make statements about what agents should and should not do. The reasons for action that you then look at in justifying such a statement are desires.
This gives us means-ends rationality. This is not yet morality. This is the type of "should" that says, "If you rape a child you should then kill her, because it is harder to be convicted of murder than it is to be convicted of child abuse." This is not morality . . . at least not yet.
Now, we add to this that desires are malleable. These creatures with desires can now alter what other creatures desire by altering the environment. Specifically, we have the ability to alter what other people desire through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
Because we have this power to alter desires, we have this capacity to ask and answer the question, "What should we cause each other to want?" We can look at a desire, see that it tends to thwart other desires, and bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear to inhibit that desire.
We flag desires that we have reason to promote with the term "virtue" and we call the actions that those desires motivate their agents into performing "right actions". We respond to them with praise and reward, and we respond to their absence with condemnation and punishment.
We flag desires that we have reason to inhibit with the term "evil" (or "vice" in the ancient Greek sense of the term) and we call the actions that those desires motivate agents to do "wrong". We respond to them with condemnation and punishment and we respond to their absence with praise and reward.
Now, we have a system against which we can calibrate any type of "moral sense" to determine if that sense is picking out "true good" or "true evil". We look for desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and we look for desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Evolutionary ethicists have certainly shown that evolution can favor desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and disfavor desires that tend to thwart other desires.
However, evolution, at times, can also favor desires that tend to thwart other desires. Evolution, after all, has given us predators and parasites. It has given us lions that kill their step children when they take over a pride, a human disposition towards violence against members of other tribes, genetic dispositions towards rape and racism (for favoring those who 'look like us' over those who 'look different').
History makes it an undeniable fact that holocausts and other forms of genocide, slavery, rape, theft, wanton violence, irresponsible conduct from drunk driving to intellectual recklessness, are all within the realm of our genetic potential. We know this, because we are surrounded by it.
To say that evolution provides an answer to our moral problems is nonsense.
Most importantly, morality turns out to be concerned with malleable desires - desires that can be molded through environmental factors such as praise and condemnation. To the degree that evolution gives us fixed desires to engage in kin selection or "reciprocal altruism", this is fine. But fixed desires are outside the realm of morality.
It makes absolutely no sense to issue praise and condemnation, to offer reward and punishment, for the presence or absence of fixed desires. The person genetically required to give his life for his child deserves no more praise than the person who accidentally falls off of a building and happens to land on his child's assailant.
It only makes sense to apply moral concepts - to use the tools of praise and condemnation - where they can have an effect. Where they have an effect is not with desires that are determined by our genes, but with desires that can be influenced by environmental factors.
Certainly, the existence of malleable desires and the different ways in which environmental factors mold those desires, require (at least in part) an explanation grounded in evolution. However, the concept of "the existence of environmentally influenced malleable desires" bears no relation to the concept of a "moral sense".
This answer also ties in with another of the objections that I raised against evolutionary ethics. I wrote that the theist is not concerned with evils that we have no capacity to perform (because evolution has fixed our desires in such a way that they are impossible for us). The theist is concerned with the evils that surround us every day. It is nonsense for the evolutionary ethicists to say, "We do not need to worry about those because we have evolved dispositions not to treat each other so harshly." If an evolutionary ethicist said such a thing, he would be wrong.
How can we reduce the amount of evil that we quite obviously have the capacity to perform?
Well, we do so by promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires, by bringing the social forces of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear against them.
We do not need a God to do this. We do not need a God to have a reason to do this. All we need are desires and the ability to influence the desires of others. From this, we get a list of desires that we have reason to promote (desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others), and desires that we have reason to inhibit (desires that tend to thwart the desires of others).