/p>In my recent blog entries I have been raising objections to some of the things that atheists say when they enter into a debate with theists about the relationship between morality and God.
I have been criticizing the evolutionary ethicists who claim that we have evolved a disposition to view certain things as moral or immoral by confronting them with a pair of questions.
(1) Is something good because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is good?
This is simply the classing argument against divine command theories of morality applied to evolutionary morality.
(2) What are we to do about all of the evil that is still within our evolved capacity to perform?
Obviously, we have not evolved such a moral sense that we do not engage in moral crimes of all sizes.
A member of the studio audience, Steelman, suggests that evolutionary ethics can avoid these objections because it is purely descriptive, not prescriptive.
if no one is saying that evolutionary psychology is in any way prescriptive of moral actions, but rather descriptive of the development for moral capacity, how are they on the horns of a dilemma?
Okay, if evolutionary ethics is entirely descriptive rather than prescriptive, than it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do. And if it says nothing about what we ought to do, then how can it possibly be used to answer the question of the possibiity of morality (a set of things that we should or should not do) without God?
Evolutionary ethics would, in this sense, be as divorced from morality as chemistry, capable of telling us how to make a bomb, but able to say nothing about whether we should or should not use it.
Another member of the studio audiene put the objection this way:
In general they may be careful to make the descriptive/prescriptive distinction but when a theist challenges an atheist the challenge is about prescriptions and not descriptions and would you therefore agree that if they do respond with evolutionary ethics arguments they are not answering the challenge?
Steelman also wrote:
It seems to me that the theory of an evolved moral sense (kin altruism, reciprocity, the rewarding of cooperation and the punishing of cheaters) is an explanation of why we have the sentiments that Hume regarded as the impetus for moral decision making, not an argument for what actions we should take when experiencing these feelings.
Again, if it is not an argument for what actions we should take then it has nothing to do with morality - because morality is concerned with arguments about what actions we should take.
If this is what is involved, then the theist can take everything that the evolutionary atheist says and still answer, "Okay, evolution gave us a 'sense' of right and wrong. However, it cannot tell us anything about what is right or wrong in fact. Only God can do that."
If the evolutionary atheist is not talking about things being right or wrong in fact, then they have not answered the objection that god is necessary for the understanding of things being right or wrong as a matter of fact.
Now, I do not dispute that our desires have been under the influence of evolutionary forces. Nor do I dispute that there is reason to believe that have some disposition towards desires that count as "kin altruism", "reciprocity" and the like. Yet, I count these as simple desires.
However, these are just desires - like our taste for certain types of food and our desire for sex. There is no more of a "moral sense" in a mother's desire to feed her child then there was in the mother's desire to have sex to start with, or to eat the ice cream she ate when she was pregnant.
Furthermore, we do not need a "moral sense" to get us to perform these actions. Following the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, all nature needs to give us is a set of desires to engage in this type of behavior. Putting those desires in the form of a "moral sense" is a lot of extra work for nothing.
What is a "moral sense" anyway? How is it different from a simple desire, and what types of evidence do we have that we are dealing with a "moral sense" instead of a set of simple desires? The descriptive evolutionary ethicist needs to explain these to us before he can justify his claim that he has found a way to account for a "moral sense". He needs to define what it is he is accounting for.
The habit of claiming that our desires represent some sort of "moral sense" is a piece of ancient rhetoric used to give one's preferences more weight than they deserve. It provides a way of making an entirely unjustified leap of logic from "I like" and "I do not like" to "You should" and "You should not."
The way we make this leap is by taking the objects of our desires and claiming that what is really going on is that we are perceiving a property that is built into the object of evaluation. This property takes the form of an intrinsic "ought-to-be-ness" or "ought-not-to-be-ness" From here we can jump straight to the conclusion that those who do not see the value that we do.
In this, it works just like the God argument works. With the God argument, a "priest" takes his or her own preferences and assigns them to God. He then asserts, "It is not the case that I am inferring from what I like and what I do not like to what you should and should not do. Actually, I am making an inference from what God likes and does not like to what you should or should not do." Ignoring the fact, of course, that the priest assigned his or her own preferences to God.
So, accounting for a "moral sense" is like accounting for ghosts. The best account we have is that there is no such thing. Thus, there is nothing for the evolutionary ethicist to account for.
Thus, the original problem still remains. When the theist challenges the ethicist to come up with an account of moral value in the absence of God, the atheist's job must be to come up with an account of things that we ought and ought not to do in the absence of a God. If evolutionary ethics is not telling us what we should and should not do in the absence of a God explanation, then it is not answering the question. Then it is not the type of thing the atheist should bring forth in this type of debate.