Does Evolution Explain Morality? Part 3

We continue with our analysis of optimistic humanism.  In the previous post, we found that optimistic humanism is incapable of condemning obviously immoral acts as objectively or absolutely wrong.  In addition, this ethical system cannot explain the “oughtness” inherent in moral norms.  But there are additional problems for optimistic humanism.

Morality seems to require humans to possess a robust form of free will that allows them to make moral choices.  We often praise good moral acts and condemn bad moral acts as if the people we are judging have some control over their actions.  If there is no free will, then moral choices are completely determined by the laws of chemistry and physics, and it makes no sense to praise or criticize anyone because they are acting according to deterministic physical laws. 

Our uniform experience, however, is that we naturally judge others as if they do have control over themselves, as if they possess free will.  C. S. Lewis helps us by pointing out:

The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.  For you notice that it is only for our bad behavior that we find all these explanations.  It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.  

Humanism, however, denies the existence of true free will because free will requires that non-physical properties such as the mind, consciousness, and moral values exist.  Physicalist Paul Churchland has this to say:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process.  If this is the correct account of our origin, then there seems neither need nor room to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical accounts of ourselves.  We are creatures of matter.  

Thus optimistic humanism, as well as all other evolutionary ethical systems, must reject the existence of free will and therefore the rational thinker must reject optimistic humanism.  In the next post, we will review one final and serious problem with optimistic humanism: its adherents find it nearly impossible to talk about morality without contradicting and undermining their own theory of morality.

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • Tyler Godat

    That C.S. Lewis quote is from Mere Christianity isn’t it?

  • Bill Pratt

    C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperCollins Edition 2001 (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 8.

  • I enjoyed this series, and await the next post

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)
    India

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