Continuing our critique of optimistic humanism, we find that proponents of the view are unable to speak about the subject of morality without contradicting their own ethical system.
Proponents of optimistic humanism admit that ethics are relative and changing over time. They assert that there are no absolute, objective moral values that are true for all people at all times and in all places. Their view is that humans just make a subjective choice to be moral and that there is no rational justification for this choice. Morality is a useful tool for man to develop, but nothing more. Oddly, though, optimistic humanists seem to frequently lapse into absolutist speech which undermines their system.
Writing in the January-February 2005 edition of Humanist magazine, former American ambassador Carl Coon says the following:
[Ethical] principles constitute a structure of interlocking behavioral guidelines that have been growing organically since our ancestors first became human, if not earlier. These standards and principles didn’t descend to us from on high as some revealed truth from an intelligent being greater than ourselves. We worked them out through a long and arduous evolutionary process marked by many wrong turns and much social discord. Indeed, the structure is still imperfect and we continue trying to make improvements.
According to humanists like Carl Coon, ethics evolved from a purely natural and physical process with no intelligent agent guiding their development. Ethics are relative in time and relative to man’s evolutionary development; they are not absolute in any way. Ambassador Coon emphasizes in the the article that basic morality has changed over millions of years and that moral norms have been building from one period to another.
But notice the words he employs to describe morality: wrong turns, discord, imperfect, and improvements. All of these words indicate that morality, over time, has been moving in a direction from worse to better, from bad to good, from imperfect to perfect. But how is it possible for the ambassador to judge the morality of the distant past if all morals are relative? How can he say that morality has taken “wrong turns”? How do we know ethics are improving over time if no two time periods can be compared?
The trap to which optimistic humanists succumb is that they cannot help but utilize absolutist language when they describe morality. The only way one can say that ethics are going from bad to good is if there is an objective standard to which all ethics are compared, but this standard must stand outside of the ethical systems being evaluated. A man cannot know a crooked line unless he first knows what straight is. Optimistic humanism does not ever provide knowledge of a “straight line” and, in fact, denies that “straight lines” objectively exist.
There are no absolute ethical standards in relativistic evolutionary ethics, so either Carl Coon is referring to a fictitious standard, which renders his description of morality incoherent, or he is busy sabotaging his own theory. If we take his words seriously, he has introduced an absolute standard and has totally undermined his ethical system. An ethical relativist can never compare the morality of one time period or one culture, or even one person, to another. The moment they compare, they are invoking an absolute and objective moral law, the very thing their theory forbids.
Given the problems chronicled in the last few posts for optimistic humanism, we must reject this theory as a reasonable explanation for morality. Our next post will analyze another ethical system based on evolution – the immanent purpose view.
[quotation references can be provided on request]