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Is Morality Flimflam?

Michael Ruse begins a recent short essay on what Darwin might teach us about morality with a striking question and an even more striking answer: ‘God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six … of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam’:

It might seem that Ruse is assuming the truth of egoism about reasons – the idea that the only reason I have to do anything is that it will further my own self-interest. So if being good in some case goes against my interests, and if there is no God to punish my violating the sanctions of morality I have no reason to be good.

But that, apparently, isn’t so, for he goes on to claim that one shouldn’t go around doing whatever one likes (e.g. raping and pillaging). There are in fact things we should do, including behaving well towards others and saving the planet.

So is morality flimflam or not? Here is where evolution comes into Ruse’s account. Morality, he suggests, is ‘something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection’. In other words, morality – that is, morality as a social institution, consisting in the feeling of certain emotions and the transmission of tendencies to experience those emotions — has survival value. Those groups that have it are more likely to survive than those that lack it, even though individuals within moral groups might be made individually worse off through acting in accordance with morality than against it.

Indeed, Ruse continues, morality is nothing over and above these emotions, ‘like liking ice cream and hating toothache’. But of course it wouldn’t work effectively if it were transparent in the way that those sorts of preferences are. If I feel aversion to acting immorally on some occasion, and I see that aversion as a mere taste or preference like that for ice cream, I am likely to try to overcome the aversion if I think it will benefit me to do so. The same will go for pretty well everyone else, and morality will collapse. Morality has to represent itself as objective rather than subjective.

At this point in his argument, Ruse recognizes he’s in trouble, and admits that, in fact, there really is no objective reason why you shouldn’t rape and pillage. So, in the end, morality is flimflam. But, he asserts cheerfully, this philosophical conclusion will have no effect on your behaviour. Because you’re the kind of being you are, with the kind of evolutionary and cultural history you have, you’ll go on living in just the same way as you do now (not, that is to say, raping and pillaging).

But there is a philosophical option here Ruse has failed to spot. We can accept that Darwin is right about morality, and that the mere fact that something is forbidden (or required) by morality provides in itself no reason for not doing (or doing) it. But we don’t have to think that the moral system itself is our only possible source of reasons. Let me use an example of Thomas Nagel’s. If you have a painful gouty toe, and I’m standing on it, morality requires me to move. We might agree with Ruse that this gives me no reason to do so . But this doesn’t prevent our claiming that your suffering gives me a reason to move, an objective reason the acceptance of which isn’t undermined by Darwinian accounts of morality. Morality may not give us reasons; but simple pain and pleasure can.

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12 Comment on this post

  1. Isn’t it easier just to decide to be good, irrespective of what evolution might say on the subject?

  2. I don’t agree with Ruse. But here’s what he might say: Of course, we are evolved to think that in many contexts, we should avoid pain (of ourselves or others) and we should pursue pleasure (of ourselves or others). But this “should” is just flimflam.
    What’s your response?

  3. Thanks, Simon. This goes right to the heart of the matter, I think. I don’t have a knockdown response. All each of us can do is reflect on our own views and decide whether the evolutionary story is or is not debunking in each case. In the case of morality, I’m inclined to think that some kind of error theory is right, although ‘error’ doesn’t quite capture it. Moral judgements (strictly understood, as those involving irreducible moral concepts) seem to me always false; what inclines me towards acting in accordance with my own has more to do with nature and nurture than my mistakenly taking them to be true when outside the study. But when it comes to, say, mathematics, I can’t accept that the evolutionary story that could be told about my disposition to believe that 7 + 5 = 12 is in the slightest bit debunking. And the same goes for some practical beliefs I have — for example, that I have a reason to avoid agony, or to take steps to ensure that you avoid agony. As we find out more about our evolutionary history, I suspect that where we draw the boundaries between what is debunked and what isn’t will become more of an issue for people than it now appears to be.

  4. My response would be that ethics – i.e. more-or-less any sentence involving the word “should” – lies entirely outside the realm of science. Science can tell us (with varying degrees of certainty) what will be the consequences of actions, but can tell us nothing about which consequences we should regard a more or less desirable.

    Behind this is my (non-scientific) belief that free will and determinism should be regarded as two complementary perspectives, logically incompatible but both essential, rather like wave-particle duality in physics. A related point is that science (such as evolutionary psychology) can tell us what people, in general, are likely to value, but we should not look to this as guidance for forming our own values. We just have to decide.

  5. Thanks, Peter. I’m inclined to agree with you, though of course scientists (as opposed to ‘science’) will tell us what they think we *should* believe. Each of us does indeed have to decide — but that isn’t to say there is no fact of the matter.

  6. Sorry to come back on this, but I don’t see how there CAN be a “fact of the matter” when it comes to morality. It is perfectly legitimate for scientists to tell us how (they think) we should live, they are no longer doing science but rather expressing moral opinions. The risk, from my own moral perspective is that by trying to base morality on a firm rational/evidential basis we divert our attention away from more useful questions such as how to build consensus around morality and achieve the required discipline as individuals and societies. Better to lead by example than to try to convince ourselves that there is some kind of absolute basis for our moral decisions.

  7. I’m interested in this suggestion that the perceived (but supposedly illusory) objectivity of moral demands is somehow integral to their motivational power. It’s not clear how objectivity of itself provides any kind of motivational oomph. For example, epistemic reasons are often presumed to be objective, but no one presumes that epistemic reasons are spectacularly powerful motivational springs; by contrast, the reasons of romantic love (for lack of a better phrase) are typically conceived as subjective to the lover and her contingent motivational set, but they are probably amongst the most powerful motivating reasons known to us. And, once one thinks about it, many moral reasons are not really that powerful (Bernard Williams makes this point very well in “Morality, the peculiar institution”): the fact that an action is absolutely obligatory is obviously a strong reason to perform it and one that might serve to defeat self-interested reasons, but the fact that an action is kind, or courageous, seems to have little by way of the ‘deliberation-stopping’ power attributed to moral thought by Ruse, Joyce, Dennett, Kitcher, and others. As Williams makes clear, even the fact that one has a duty or obligation to perform some action needn’t provide a reason to perform that action that can be overridden only by a more powerful duty: if I have promised to meet a friend at 2, then I am obligated to be there; but if I am deeply in love with someone and 2 is my last chance to declare my love and win her heart, then, all things considered, I ought to break my promise (obligation be damned!).

    It seems to me that Ruse is simply confusing two characteristics of a reason: its strength and its ‘enabling conditions’ (if that’s even the right word). On the one hand, if the fact that p is a reason for S to phi, then the reason (or the reason-giving relation) has a certain strength; on the other hand, there are certain conditions that make it the case that p is in fact a reason for S to phi. If the fact that p is an objective reason then its status as reason-giving is in some interesting sense independent of S’s evaluative attitudes, and that relates to its enabling conditions; but it tells us nothing about the strength of that reason. These are two entirely independent variables, and their dissociation is not merely conceptually possible but relatively common in practice.

  8. Two questions spring to my mind in relation to Andreas’s comment.

    1. If we agree that objectivity is by no means the most important factor in giving a reason for action motivational strength of a reason for action, wouldn’t it be an exaggeration to suggest that it is totally irrelevant? I certainly think it would be, which is why searching for an objective basis for morality is not an entirely pointless exercise.

    2. Do we have a clear definition of what “objective” actually means in this context? i.e., what criteria are we using for determining whether morality can provide objective reasons for action?

  9. Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Roger. I simply could not stop myself from making a commentary about such an interesting issue. As you quoted, Nagel said that “If you have a painful gouty toe, and I’m standing on it, morality requires me to move”. But (pace metaphysical deontologists like Kant) “morality” as such doesn’t require anything. Only persons or individuals with interests can require something from someone else. Requirements (like claims or exigencies, as well as commands or orders) express someone’s interests addressed to persons with the ability to act upon it. They are not, of course, mere “petitions”, “supplications” or “solicitations”. Suppose you are required by another person to “step off of his or her gouty toe”. Why would it not be a (pro tanto or prima facie) reason to act? For the action is demanded from us by him or her exactly with this intention. After all, it is a requirement, a claim, not a mere request (let alone a mere “statement”). Then a claim is at least a prima facie reason for action. But if we accept that we don’t have any reason for thinking that a claim or requirement is not or cannot be, as such, a prima facie reason for action, why should we be impressed by the view that morality is flimflam, after all there is no need for accepting that the only reasons for action are grounded in self interest? Could claims or requests “in the end” be mere “errors” (that is, simple but beneficial delusions)? I don’t understand how and I cannot as well understand why “the mere fact that something is forbidden (or required) by morality” couldn’t provide “in itself no reason for not doing (or doing) it”.

  10. Thanks, Marco. I try to argue in the first chapter of *Reasons and the Good* that we should at least try to make sense of reasons and their grounds without using the language of morality, and that language includes terms such as ‘requirement’, ‘claim’, and ‘demand’. What I’m suggesting is that the pain of the other person itself gives you a reason to move, and that this simple point can be made without potentially debunkable moral concepts. Now, of course, someone might try to debunk the language I myself am using, but I tried to say a little in response to that worry in my reply to Simon.

  11. Roger, I find it difficult to see how the pain of the other person can itself, on its own, give you a reason to move. There would need to be some other factor. This could either be an innate social/empathetic impulse, or it could be a learnt moral concept. (It could also be fear of retribution or social disgrace, but that’s perhaps less relevant here.) I think Andreas makes the point well that the “debunkability” of moral concepts does not remove, or even necessarily reduce, their motivational power. On the other hand, recognising their essentially subjective nature may help us to understand and tolerate moral concepts that differ from our own, and identify common ground.

  12. Thanks, Peter. I think one needs to draw a sharp distinction between reasons for action on the one hand, and one’s being motivated by those reasons on the other. A reason for some action is a property of that action that speaks in favour of it. That moving from the other person’s foot will relieve their pain speaks in favour of moving, whether you respond or not to that fact. On subjectivism and toleration. That’s an empirical matter. My inclination is to think that in most cases metaethical views don’t greatly affect how one actually lives one’s life (see Hume’s marvellous essay *The Sceptic*).

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