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A “Ruse” On Morality April 5, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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One of the most important and intriguing ideas to come out of modern biology is that human morality is largely a product of our evolutionary history. The consensus view among biologists is that the tendency to be generous, fair, and kind to others, at least in some contexts, confers a survival advantage on beings like us who must cooperate to survive. This is not to say that we aren’t self-interested as well; rather we are a battleground between self-interested desires and desires directed at the good of others. [-See Michael’s recent post on this topic]

But I am puzzled by some of the conclusions scientists and some philosophers often draw from this. Here is Michael Ruse on the implications of this research:

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 (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam. […]

Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down. […]

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective.[…]

Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral

This is just utter nonsense. True, morality is rooted in emotions and desires which are explained by our evolutionary history, but it is not just a mere preference like a preference for ice cream. A human being who dislikes ice cream will do fine; a person who lacks moral emotions will likely end up in prison. From the fact that something is an emotion or desire it does not follow that it lacks import.

Surely, the fact that a practice enables me to cooperate with others in order to secure goods and to respond responsibly to the needs of others are “grounds” to pursue that practice. They are not “apriori” grounds but philosophers long ago gave up the notion that “rational” is identical to “apriori”.

Morality isn’t “pretending” to be something other than emotion. Everyone except a few hyper-rationalist philosophers are quite aware of the emotional content of morality. But morality can’t be only emotional if it is to perform its function. The fact that it is rooted in emotion does not entail that is opposed to reason or immune to self-control. Emotions have be properly trained and habituated if they are to serve our interests—they are not merely urges.

And if morality is a function of natural selection, how on earth is it an “illusion” or “subjective”? It would seem to be both real and objective. Granted, as intelligent, self-reflective beings we have lots of control over when and how we express these moral emotions. We can resist moral impulses if we wish, just as we can resist the desire to eat ice cream. But that fact does not entail that morality is an illusion—it is a central feature of the human condition as real as hearts, lungs, and language.

Instead of being puzzled about morality’s pretentions, Ruse should wonder about why an interest in science leads some people to be contemptuous of ordinary human traits.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. michaelmussachia - April 7, 2010

Perhaps Ruse, like many people, thinks that the only basis for any objective aspects for morality is if they are independent of ourselves, as in “It’s God’s will” or as in laws of physics. While what helps us survive and flourish is quite variable, it is not wholly subjective. The need for oxygen, water, vitamins, proteins, etc., just as the survival value of social cooperation and the moral considerations involved in such, are not in the same ontological class as ice cream or spinach taste preferences. What both evolutionary biology and neuroscience are telling us is that at least some of morality, namely that which is truly needed for social cooperation and survival, is more like the nutritional value of ice cream and spinach rather than individual differences in liking ice cream or spinach. Ruse’s comments suggest to me that we’ll never understand the nature of morality as long as we assume that the only basis for objectivity in morality is God or physics.

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