Does Evolution Explain Morality? Part 2

In the previous post, we introduced the ethical theory of optimistic humanism.  In this post, we will start to analyze optimistic humanism in order to see whether it can adequately explain morality.

Many of the same objections can be cited for optimistic humanism as were cited for social Darwinism because both base their ethics on evolution and so both suffer from similar deficiencies.  Optimistic humanism, though it tries to escape the logical results of social Darwinism, does not completely succeed. 

First, this theory offers no mechanism to objectively judge heinous crimes such as those of Nazi Germany.  We intuitively know that gassing millions of innocent Jews is morally outrageous, but how would optimistic humanism condemn these activities?  When Nielsen and Kurtz tell us to adopt morality in line with our life plans and in sync with the “throb and excitement of life,” on what grounds can they call the atrocities of Germany wrong?   J. P. Moreland answers:

After all, many of the Nazis found a lot of excitement in killing other humans, and this activity was obviously one to which they attached value.  If an optimistic humanist responds by saying that we ought not to do this, then he is inconsistent.  For now he is using an absolutist sense of ought.  It even seems he uses an absolutist sense of ought if he tells us we have a moral obligation to be optimistic humanists.  So optimistic humanism either fails to provide the rationale for a moral objection to obviously immoral behavior, or if it does provide such a rationale, it becomes inconsistent.

Kai Nielsen would seem to have to agree with this assessment because he states that his theory of ethics “doesn’t give you an absolutism.”   But if there is no absolute wrong, then the Nazis were not absolutely wrong.  Nielsen and Kurtz leave the door open for Nazi atrocities to be justified and any ethical theory which cannot categorically state that Nazi Germany was morally wrong must be in serious error.

There are additional problems with optimistic humanism.  As there is no ultimate rational source for its moral dictates, there can be no prescriptive element or “oughtness” to it.  Morality is experienced as a communication between two minds and it carries an incumbency.  With evolution as the source of optimistic humanism, where is the transmitting mind?  A communication that comes from a random process can and should be ignored.  There can be no rational obligation to follow any of the ethics of optimistic humanism.  According to J.P. Moreland, Paul Kurtz “admits that the ultimate values of humanism are incapable of rational justification.”

Much more analysis of optimistic humanism is to come, so please come back.

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • If we know about ethics, then the possibility to “know about ethics” had to be evolved or supernaturally given to us. This does not mean that there are no ethical truths.

    Also, I’m not sure what he meant by “absolutism.” Some people might think absolutism means something like “killing people is always wrong” even for self-defense or to save many lives. Instead, something like utilitarianism can be accepted. A utilitarian can still accept objective moral values. One action can be wrong based on the probable results rather than by a categorical imperative.

  • Bill Pratt

    James,
    I think he means by absolutism that the moral norm is absolute for all people, places, and times. The word objective also carries the same connotation. It means non-relative. So the moral norm, “It is wrong to kill innocent people,” would be an absolutism if we said that it was true for all people that have ever lived or ever will live. It does not depend on when or where you live.

  • Dear James Gray,

    I hope I am capturing a complete thought in quoting your statement of “One action can be wrong based on the probable results rather than by a categorical imperative.”

    Help me understand your position on “probable results”.

    It seems to imply that things like location, point in time, intent and prevention of greater wrong all must be considered to decide the “probable results”. This also seems to require us to define who would be included in the results of the action. Is your view based on the idea that over time we as humans are more and more able to define the probabilities of our actions resulting in a wrong and then choosing to not do something because of the “probable results”. If moral values where evolving, wouldn’t we be able to look at history and see a trend toward continual improvement? It seems to me that if we exclude religious people who base their definition of wrong on categorical imperative that we do not see a reduction in people doing things that are wrong. Is there something that you see in the history of man that supports the theory that moral behavior is evolving?

  • There is a famous essay about Relativism that says precisely the opposite: The absolute morality is probably false, but relativism is also false. It needs to be clear what these terms mean.

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  • Bill Pratt

    James,
    Thanks for your comments. Do you care to take a position on whether materialistic evolutionary theory can adequately ground an ethical system? With a degree in philosophy, I assume that you’ve dealt with many variations on this theme.

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