Sunday, April 28, 2013

Moral realism and anti-realism

David Baggett at First Thoughts has a fine post on moral realism and anti-realism (with my commentary):

Watering down the categories
I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York—and someone with whom I recently dialogued at the University at Buffalo—and Frans de Waal, author most recently of The Bonobo and the Atheist (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority. What is interesting about this trend is that the resulting picture is entirely consistent with the view of complete moral skeptics, even amoralists.
Moral realism and anti-realism are views that are at the core of the theist-atheist debate. If moral law is real-- if it is an objective thing that we discover-- then atheism is plainly untenable. Atheism inherently requires that our sense of moral law corresponds to nothing real outside of our minds. Atheism presupposes that moral law is something we create, but do not discover.

The Darwinist view is that moral law is something we create as an evolved adaptation-- a sense that something is right or wrong is necessary to our survival. Of course, such a view is anti-realist. It asserts that survival or non-survival is real, and that we adapt by applying moral categories to our survival tactics.

The flexibility of Darwinian "theory" is as always noteworthy. Fierce competition, and the tenderest cooperation, are both explained. Or not explained.

Take Joel Marks, for example, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven. A former Kantian ethicist, he has decided that the category of morality lacks an objective referent. He’s written a few books about it, one that came out just this month, but an op-ed in the New York Times encapsulated his view in succinct fashion. In brief, although he has retained his aversive feelings toward, say, animal suffering, he has grown altogether skeptical that his feelings point to moral reality. He still fights for a world more to his liking, but he has come to think that morality has precious little to do with it, because there is no such thing. Marks is an amoralist—a very nice fellow, from all accounts, but someone who has given morality up. Resonating with Marks are such naturalists as Sharon Street and Richard Joyce, who have insisted that an evolutionary development of our moral sense, on a naturalistic picture, gives us little reason to think that our moral beliefs and convictions correspond with moral truth. Rather they evolved to produce behaviors that conduced to reproductive advantage.
But evolved morality is no morality, but merely an adaptive strategy. Adaptive "morality" lacks an objective referent.

But then de Waal and Shook come along and insist, largely without argument, that, to the contrary, the success of evolutionary moral psychology to account for our feelings of empathy, altruism, and prosociality is not only consistent with morality, but sufficient to account for it. To project the appearance their argument works, though, they need to engage in some subtle sleight of hand, replacing categories of moral authority with moral instincts, categorical obligations with malleable rules, objective truths with shared beliefs. But in the debate about moral foundations, classical theism can account for the full range of moral truths in need of explanation, without watering them down or subtly replacing them with functional analyses—from intrinsic goodness to categorical oughtness to genuine moral agency. To the extent that our naturalist friends like de Waal and Shook appear to be retaining the thick language of morality to capture ideas thin enough that complete moral skeptics could endorse them, there appears something deeply confused at best or disingenuous at worst about their approach, fortifying my growing conviction that soon enough the real moral debate will feature classical theists on one side and moral anti-realists on the other.
If morality is an adaptive strategy, then morality is not real. It is a delusion. I think that Baggett is right. This debate will come down to classical theists (Christians mainly) vrs. atheists. Moral realists vrs. anti-realists.

I think that the prime motivating ideology of modern atheism is moral anti-realism anyway, so at least the debate will move in an honest direction.

New atheism has always been about morality, not science. Scientism is a tactic, not a motive, for atheist evangelism. 


  1. Science is observation and reason, with no faith allowed. Whereas, religion is faith and reason, with observation occasionally allowed.

    Pretending that morality is 'objective', opposed to 'subjective' (meaning coming from within an individual, and not, as is the actual case, from the society in which the individual lives) and is best 'explained' by theism, are matters of faith.

    The fact that different human societies have had, and still have, different moralities, and that other species, such as bonobos, common chimps, elephants and whales, show evidence of having their own moral systems, indicates that our morality is an evolved property.

    Frans de Waal explains it very well in 'the Bonobo and the Atheist' (Michael, really you must once in a while read the actual book and not the book review)

    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyApril 28, 2013 at 10:35 AM

      backfire, I find it unsurprising that you would look to bonobos to find a moral system. I expect nothing less from a man whose world is inhabited by invisible gorillas.

    2. Georgie,

      I don't expect any other reply from someone who is so ga-ga as to promote himself admiral in a nonexistent navy. Who derides someone for citing a book as actually originating from a YouTube video, and subsequently in another thread links, off topic, to a video of someone or another issuing a 'fatwa' against progressives.

  2. Egnor: "If moral law is real-- if it is an objective thing that we discover-- then atheism is plainly untenable."

    That does not follow. You define real as objective in this sentence. Objective, however, does not mean God-given. It is simply the opposite of subjective, meaning independent of beliefs of a particular individual. As such, following moral laws may be hardwired by the creator, learned, or taught by parents and society. All of these can be objective.

    For example, children learn not to touch hot objects like a teapot on a stove. This isn't hard-wired behavior. They touch it once or twice, experience pain, and then learn not to do it anymore.

    Moral principles are more complex than that, of course. Society as a whole learns that permitting certain behavior puts it at a disadvantage. Wearing clothes of mixed fiber was once considered immoral. Perhaps it was viewed as conspicuous consumption that led to other undesirable effects, so there was a prohibition against that. As the economic situation changed, this behavior no longer was objectionable, so no one gives a damn about Deuteronomy 22:11 any more.


    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyApril 28, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      As usual (and unsurprisingly), you fail to understand the most rudimentary moral concepts. Confusing morals and law is legalism. Since you choose parrot some equally equally incompetent Biblical commentator to support your inane claim with a Bible verse, I offer an actual Biblical authority on this particular matter:

      The moral law governs the entire order of human conduct, personal and social; it extends even to motivations and interior acts.

      Law, on the other hand, looks only to the public order of human society; it touches only external acts, and regards only values that are formally social.

      -- J.C. Murray, PhD, SJ

      However, this seemed a good opportunity for you to surreptitiously report someone for something. I'm disappointed by your failure to attribute mental illness, lunacy, or lack of contact with reality in this matter. Your views on mental health are so thoroughly Soviet that one might be tempted to compare them to a psychiatric Lysenkoism. Soviet psychiatrists had a technological treatment for such political disorders - and wherever you find a pair of live jumper cables and a bound victim, you'll find a sneaking little anonymous informer.

    2. Admiral, you are not making much sense. I wasn't confusing morals and laws, I wrote about moral laws, the subject of this thread.

      Take you meds and maybe things will clear up a bit in your head.


  3. “If moral law is real-- if it is an objective thing that we discover-- then atheism is plainly untenable.”

    We argue about morality all the time. Even Christians argue about the meaning of “thou shalt not kill”. Never in history has a dispute about morality been settled by the discovery of an objective moral truth. Atheism is therefore plainly tenable.