Yesterday, I made some comments about Luke Meuhlhauser's objective moral pluralism - the view that several moral theories may be correct because people adopt different meanings for their moral terms. It is "objective" given the fact that adopting a given language does not change what is true in the world. The diversity in our uses of moral terms suggests that it might not be productive to debate which moral theory is correct. In fact, it might be better to simply drop moral terms and focus on the facts of the matter - to "replace the form with the substance".
With this in the background, I would like to look again at the issue of "altruistic mice" as an answer to the theists' concern with the relationship between atheism and immorality. I am referring to claims that evidence if altruistic mice can answer the theist's assertions about the possibility of morality without God.
Bringing Luke's ideas into play suggests a different order to those responses.
(1) The theist's concern with immorality without God cannot be answered by examining the altruism of a rat.
You can't use this research to prove that humans will never be cruel to each other because we have some innate altruism that will simply cause kind behavior. A long and bloody history of cruelty proves that to be false. What the theist is interested in is preventing that type of cruelty that is far too common. Evidence of altruistic rats simply misses the point.
Here's the question. Without belief in God and fear of punishment in an afterlife, how do we get people to choose not to do the kinds of cruel actions they often do? How does your altruistic rat prove that I need not worry about my children bring raped, my bank account being drained, or being thrown into slavery or into a death camp? Are you trying to tell me that the rat's altruism proves that these types of things will not happen? If you are, you are more the fool than I have ever imagined.
(2) What makes altruism moral?
We have evidence of mice behaving altruistically, but gave altruism the quality of being moral? Can you give me a genetic test for the morality of altruism?
One option, clearly, is that when God created altruism then God gave altruism the quality of being moral. If God did not put morality into altruism, how did it get there?
(3) Can it be wrong to have a particular genetic makeup? Are certain genes obligatory?
If we are going to talk about a genetic basis for morality, this has one of two mutually exclusive implications. Either we have to say that people are morally obligated to have certain genes and prohibited from having other genes. Or we are adopting a theory of morality that simply has no place for moral obligation and prohibition.
Given that, so far, we have no ability to choose our genes, it seems we are stuck with the latter option. In other words, yes, rats may be genetically disposed to behave morally, but that is a sense of morality that makes no use of the concepts of obligation and prohibition.
On the other hand, the morality that theists talk about is a morality that is filled to the brim with talk of prohibition and obligation. It's not the same thing.
Once again, the claim that there is a morality found in the behavior of the rat does not answer any of the theists' concerns about atheism and immorality, because the rat's morality is not a morality of obligation and prohibition, and the theist's concern is with a morality filled with obligations and prohibitions.
(4) Rat morality would be a moral system where we determine the moral guilt or innocence of the accused by conducting genetic tests on the accusers.
Is homosexuality immoral? Does committing a homosexual act make it the case that one deserves to be put to death? Is it morally obligatory to stone a young girl to death for the crime of being raped?
If we take the claim that we get our moral code from our genes seriously, it implies that we can determine the answer to these questions by conducting genetic tests on the accusers. If the accuser is genetically disposed to feel moral outrage at those who have gay sex to the point that he wants them killed, then homosexual couples deserve to die. It is not just that he will seek to put homosexual couples to death. They deserve to die - because we get our moral code from our genes. This means that if our genes tell us that homosexual couples deserve to die, then they deserve to die.
This also raises a host of other moral questions. Which chromosome do we look at to determine the amount a person is obligated to give to charity? What genetic test should we conduct to determine if animals or zygotes or Jews are "people"? Where is the genetic marker for the wrongness of slavery and how did it spread through a the whole of society in just a couple of generations?
What happens if a person with a genetic disposition to view homosexuals as deserving to die meets one disposed to want the death of those who condemn homosexuality? Is there a way out of this situation other than a fight to the death? And what if one of them also has a gene that says that it is wrong to settle moral disputes through combat?
(5) Genetic morality faces the Euthyphro Dilemma
Against divine command theory, atheists argue (following Socrates), “Is X good because it is loved by God, or is X loved by God because it is good? If the first, then anything loved by God would be good. If God was turned on by having children raped and murdered, it would be good. If, on the other hand, it were the latter, then goodness remains a quality independent of what God likes. We still would not have an answer to the question of what makes something good.
Is X good because it is loved by our genes, or is X loved by genes because it is good? If the first, then anything loved by our genes would be good. If our genes were turned on by having children raped and murdered, it would be good. If, on the other hand, it were the latter, then goodness remains a quality independent of what loved by our genes. On this option, we still would not have an answer to the question of what makes something good.
The difference between this report and the previous report is that we are not going to argue here which moral theory is correct. We are simply going to look at the objective statements that are a part of each theory and see if there are any conflicts.
When we do this we see that those who apply moral concepts to the behavior of the altruistic rat are talking about something entirely different from those who worry about a link between atheism and cruelty. This essay identifies a number of ways in which the two subjects simply talk past each other. The speakers are using the same words, but talking about two different things.
Anybody who claims that these are the same concepts – that altruistic rat morality addresses the concerns about a possible link between atheism and cruelty. It is not a matter of which theory is correct. Both sets of claims could be right. Any impression that there is a conflict is merely an illusion, caused by using the same words but giving them different meanings.
The fact is, altruistic rats have nothing at all to tell us about how to address the issue of preventing the cruelties that history itself tells us that humans are very much able to inflict. Altruistic rats do not prove that theist concerns over human cruelty are baseless. They have not been baseless in the human past, and there is no reason to believe that they are baseless concerns about the human future.
Atheists look like fools when they point to altruistic rats as proof of something that the theist is actually concerned about.