Relative and Evolutionary Morality

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confusing road signA while back I was asked by a young man to answer the following questions:

  • “Is it a fallacy to say there’s no such thing as an objective truth because if that were true it would be an objective truth? Or could it still be logically sound to say that there is only one objective truth and that is that there are no others?”
  • “Also what do I say in response to the argument that the only reason why humans appeal to morals or some kind of a standard is not because of God, but because it was evolutionarily advantageous for us as a group/species to develop such thinking? Could you give me a response that accepts evolution as real?”

My answers follow:

These questions are interesting, and show a common theme—religious and antireligious thinking. Many believe moral relativism is the only available view for atheists—we ourselves, as Christians, have for too long argued this, and I think we have shot ourselves in the foot by doing so. One does not have to be a theist to believe in objective moral truth, though it helps. Neither does one have to be a moral relativist to be an atheist. Many of your non-believing friends who hold to moral relativism may think it is the natural outgrowth of unbelief, but they would be wrong. Moral view and metaphysical beliefs are separable. This is not to say that one develops without the other, but that they can be mixed by people, especially if they are comfortable with inconsistency in their thinking. I know Christians who hold to moral relativism and hard-core atheists whose morality is practically Kantian (absolutist)—rare but they do exist. Actually, among atheists Utilitarianism is quite common. I see such mixing as inconsistent—often contradictory—but not impossible. Personally, I have come to believe that the only consistent moral view for the atheist is amorality—which many mistake for moral relativism. Many of your relativistic friends probably mix amorality and moral relativism without even knowing it. While relativism and amorality are inconsistent with Christianity, neither is necessarily inconsistent with theism. One could believe in a god who created the universe (or who didn’t create it, but simply watched), yet set no moral bounds for his creation and has no moral expectations, or even a god who lets us decide culturally what is and is not moral. One could even believe, like the ancients, in gods and goddesses that not only make few if any moral demands, but even practice no personal morality.

First Section:

“Is it a fallacy to say there’s no such thing as an objective truth because if that were true it would be an objective truth? Or could it still be logically sound to say that there is only one objective truth and that is that there are no others?”

These two question actually address two complimentary claims:

  1. There exists no moral truth that applies universally.
  2. It is universally true that no other moral truths apply universally.

You will notice I changed the wording of your question. I did this intentionally. I dislike the saying, “there is no objective truth” because few, if any believe it. Those saying it still believe ‘2+2=4’ and ‘There are no square circles.’ These truths are universally accepted by all but a few on the fringe of reality. We have to make sure we address the truth intended by your question. You are not actually addressing the concept of ‘truth’ but the idea of ‘moral truth.’ Therefore, I have reworded your statement to address it without setting up a straw man argument.

These two statements as I have written them are related. The only reason anyone ever formulated the second was as an attempt to repair the obvious logical inconsistency found in the first statement. Anyone bringing in statement two has admitted error in statement one.

Of course, against the first, you could use the same defense as is posited against logical positivism: pointing out it commits the error of claiming something that its own assertion denies. When one says, “There exists no moral truths that apply universally,” one is actually making a claim of moral truth that is expected to apply universally, and in this way undoing one’s own statement. It is similar to the Paradox of Epimenides —which interestingly Paul of Tarsus referred to in the New Testament (Titus 1:2). The paradox goes: “Epimenides, a Cretan, says ‘All Cretans are liars.’” This statement is a classic of logical discussion. Is this true or false? Are all Cretans liars? What about the fact that a Cretan spoke it? If it is true that all Cretans are liars then the statement must be false (because it was spoken by a Cretan), so it can’t be true. If it is false, then all Cretans are not liars and Epimenides could be telling the truth. If the statement, “There exists no moral truths that apply universally,” were true then the moral truth being expressed (the entire statement itself) would either not exist (which it obviously does) or would not apply universally (which it claims to do). So if this statement is true, then (1) it is true that there are no universal moral truths and at the same time (2) it is true that there is at least one universal moral truth. We have a contradiction.

Moral relativism is itself logically inconsistent and contradictory. I would not, in this context, say moral relativity is “a fallacy,” because that word is very precise in the field of logic. I would say that moral relativity is fallacious—because it commits various formal fallacies. Logic concerns itself with arguments. Not the “Yes, you did! No, I didn’t!” sort of thing. It concerns itself with arguments that use premises to draw from them conclusions. To have a logical argument you must have premises and a conclusion. If I say, “Murder is wrong,” I have not made an argument, but simply a statement. If I go on to say, “Murder is wrong; your action is defined as murder; therefore, your action is wrong,” then I have made an argument.

The primary focus on arguments in logic is argument forms. If an argument is well formed then the conclusion can safely be drawn from the premises. There are two rules that are prior in this understanding: 1) a well-formed argument has premises that lead to a conclusion, 2) if the premises of a well-formed argument are themselves true, the conclusion must also be true. If the premises are true and the conclusion is false then there is a problem with the argument. Another problem with an argument can result when premises are mutually exclusive. This violates the Law of Excluded Middle (often symbolized as “A v ~A,” meaning “either A or not A,” or even better as “~(A&~A),” meaning “it is not the case that both A and not A are true”). If in any premise affirming A is true, then any premise denying A must be false—classic logic is bivalent, only allowing truth or falsity. The problem with contradictory claims in premises is that when one accepts a premise along with its negation, then one can logically conclude anything: “It is truth that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President. It is false that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President. Therefore, the moon is made of blue cheese.” Allow inconsistency into your arguments and no conclusion drawn from them can be trusted.

A common form of argument against moral relativism is found in Julia Driver’s text, Ethics: the fundamentals (page 13f). I will paraphrase her argument here. Some will claim the following:

(1)   Abortion is always wrong.

Some believe ‘(1) is true,’ while others believe ‘(1) is false,’ which we can call ‘not (1).’ In an individualistic relative morality they are both right. The only requirement to be right is that they each believe what they are saying to be true. This creates the uncomfortable claim that “statement (1) is both true and false at the same time.” Now of course, while saying that they are true and false simultaneously, it is meant as true or false for different people, so perhaps this saves the argument. However, if this is appealed to, the statement (1) and its counter statement not (1) are reduced from statements of fact (true or false) down to being statements of opinion. The person claiming (1) is then not making an actual truth claim, but an opinion statement. The same holds for the person claiming not (1). So you now have one person saying little more than “I don’t like abortion” and another saying “I like abortion” (or to be fair “I support abortion”). There is then no argument, but simply statements of preference. Many relativists will be happy with this, but it presents a problem when people start acting on their opinions and expanding this reasoning to cover all areas of morality. What is to be done with the person who says, “For me, mass murder is acceptable”? One who doubts the possibility of such a thing needs only watch the news to be corrected.

Many will balk at this, because they will say murder (especially mass murder) rises to a different moral level and is obviously wrong, but on what grounds? Isn’t “obviously wrong” another way of saying “universally wrong”? If there are no universal moral truths it cannot be morally true universally that murder, rape, genocide, etc. are wrong. There must then be times when murder, rape, genocide and others are right. When would such atrocities be right? According to individual moral relativism all that is required would be for the perpetrator to believe them to be right. According to cultural moral relativism the only thing necessary for such action to be right is for society to accept them. If anyone assumes no society would accept such things, that person is deceived at worst, ignorant of history at best. There is an old saying: “Some people love their neighbors; some people eat them.”

This leads us into a murky area. Imagine an interchange between a person who acts upon a belief that these atrocities (murder, rape, etc.) are acceptable and a victim of the atrocity. Someone being attacked in such a way would obviously be opposed to such actions and see them as morally wrong—not just as an opinion, but as a truth claim. A person being raped does not think, “I believe they shouldn’t do this, but he believes he should and therefore this is to be accepted.” No! Such a person would scream, would shout to the heavens, “This is wrong!” But how do we decide which is correct if there is no universal moral truth? Is morality meant to legitimize insanity? Does morality get decided by the strongest? If you are strong enough to murder then it is right and if you are strong enough to stop one then that murder was wrong. What about a third person who sees such a crime being committed? If I believe it is wrong, and I am strong enough to stop it, upon what grounds do I force my moral view on the one who believes the action to be good?

While no relativist I am aware of would claim this to be acceptable, I believe it is on the relativist to demonstrate on what grounds such things would not be permissible. The moral relativist must show where to draw the lines and upon what basis to draw the lines without an appeal to universal truth. If pressed far enough the most die-hard moral relativist will show they disagree with their own view—everyone has a point at which they will demand their own morality be applied universally. The second statement above is an attempt to do this very thing. Moral relativism is more an appeal to libertinism. It is a bludgeon to use against those who would judge and condemn an individual choice of the relativist. “I want to do A, but you think I am wrong for doing A. There is no universal moral truth, so you have no basis for saying A is wrong. Therefore, you are wrong for saying A is wrong.” Note the obvious circle there: “You are universally wrong for saying A is universally wrong because nothing is universally wrong.”

Second Section

“Also what do I say in response to the argument that the only reason humans appeal to morals or some kind of a standard is not because of God, but because it was evolutionarily advantageous for us as a group/species to develop such thinking? Could you give me a response that accepts evolution as real?”

This question is something I have been wrestling with for several months. First of all, is it possible that our morality developed through the interaction of humans as pack animals? It absolutely is possible. Not only is it possible, I believe it has happened. Don’t misunderstand this. I believe a certain morality did develop from the situations of our ancestors and our history. This morality was a response to the needs of large, highly intelligent animals living in extended family packs. We see a similar form of morality among the higher apes today—consider the Bonobos. But this is not the morality that is being considered when this argument comes up. The morality of the Judeo-Christian ethic is very different from this morality. Judeo-Christian ethic is the anti-thesis of an evolutionary ethic. I believe the Judeo-Christian ethic would have never developed from human evolution, but appears to be of divine origin (your friends can take from that what they wish).

What kind of morality would have developed along evolutionary lines? It would meet the primary goal of evolution which is the fittest are enabled to breed, and the fittest offspring are enabled to survive to breeding age. It must make up for other tools we are not fitted with—claws, fangs, thick coats of fur, etc. It does this by producing a society in which humans work together in concert for food provision, nurture of young, and protection from enemies and the elements. This is a morality of the strongest and of the dominant overpowering and even destroying the weak. In this ethic, the Nietzschean Übermensch dominates the Untermensch. Whatever must be done to gain power is acceptable because this evolutionary goal, of the fittest reproducing and prospering, outweighs any concept of human rights or propriety. In such a world any appeal to rights, common humanity, or individual dignity would only come from those without the strength to seize what they want.

We see this morality at work in many ancient writers. Plato (The Immoralist’s Challenge) said it was better to be believed just while actually being unjust because there was great profit in this. No strong man who was wise would actually seek to be just because there was no advantage in it. He also argued that only the weak demand justice. The strong have no need to demand it, because they can force justice for themselves and have the power to profit from injustice against others.

We already see this sort of evolutionary morality. Christianity supplanted it centuries ago. It was the morality of our ancestors. A time when women, and access to them, was tightly controlled in order to control the womb. It was a time when dominance of weaker members of society was not only acceptable, but was what a good, powerful man did. Killing feeble children, unfaithful spouses, and rebellious slaves was not only acceptable, but expected and many times even mandated. A morality of equal consideration and human rights along with personal moral expectations are not evolutionary boons, but often get in the way of evolutionary concerns—remember Nietzsche.

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