Chasing Rainbows

A vexing feature of modern physicalistic non-theism is that, followed to its logical conclusion, it leads to moral nihilism. (I realize that theistic attempts to put morality on an objective basis also face serious challenges, but that’s not the point tonight.)

Moral nihilism being, to most folks, bad, there’s been a rash lately of books and essays attempting to square the circle. Generally the plan seems to be a kind of scientistic utilitarianism, based on the notion that by understanding what leads to human well-being, we can understand the Good to be whatever maximizes it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for maximizing happiness, and the only reason I hold the traditional conservative views I do — about multiculturalism, big government, the welfare state, mass immigration, etc. — is because I think all of those things make for less-happy societies.

But the argument put forward by writers like Sam Harris goes further than that, and claims that Science, which concerns itself entirely with what is, can actually leap the chasm and give us objective oughts.

This is a fool’s errand, and completely unnecessary. We come wired up from the factory with moral instincts and intuitions, and cultures can, and do, build on those in all sorts of ways to get perfectly acceptable results. We should just leave it at that. The desire to ground the Good, somehow, in the indifferent material Universe of the atheist is understandable, but it is doomed to failure at the most elementary philosophical level.

The argument that science can bridge the gap from is to ought seems to be:

1) Science can tell us what things increase and decrease human suffering.
2) Therefore, science can tell us what is morally good, and what isn’t.

This is an “enthymeme”: a syllogism with a piece missing. With the missing bit put in, it looks like this:

1) Science can tell us what things increase and decrease human suffering.
2) We ought to do what decreases human suffering.
3) Therefore, science can tell us what is morally good, and what isn’t.

But science tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of 2). At best it can predict that “if you do X, you’ll get result Y.” And so the whole thing falls apart.

It may be that we all agree with 2) — but what do we consult to arrive at that conclusion? We refer to our moral instincts and moral training, which already tell us what’s right and wrong, and what we ought to do. It is only because of this that people can get away with leaving 2) out of the syllogism: it just seems obvious, so much so that we don’t even mind (or, for that matter, even notice) that it’s missing.

At Twitter, Steven Pinker just linked approvingly to a brief essay by Michael Shermer that is no better than any of the others I’ve seen, and proceeds along the same lines. Indeed, in many ways it’s worse than some, because it tries to pull in natural selection as having something (I’m not sure quite what) to do with objective Good:

Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

If this makes sense to you as an objective foundation for morality, dear reader, you see farther than I.

Take a few minutes to read Mr. Schermer’s essay, here.

The post attracted some pretty sharp commenters. Here’s a good reply, from someone calling himself Daniel, in response to Mr. Schermer’s assertion that “it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.” (My emphasis.)

Science does no such thing, just as science can’t tell me why it’s wrong to rape, pillage and murder. Maybe science can tell me why it feels icky inside to do stuff like that, but it has nothing to say one way or another as to whether that it’s wrong.

This is exactly the right distinction. Science, and evolutionary theory, may well be able to account for why our moral intuitions are what they are — indeed, I believe that the phsyicalist position should be that a correct theory of human evolution must be able to account for this — but they cannot tell us, without reference to some moral intuitions already in place, what our moral instincts ought to be.

Commenter “Trimegistus” gets this point just right:

The trouble with any reason-based, “scientific” attempt at morality is that it ultimately becomes a vast exercise in question-begging.

What objective, provable reason is there for a person to behave morally at all? Before we can come up with any moral calculus or universal principles, there’s that troublesome Rule Zero which all moral systems assume: “You should try to behave morally.”

But of course there’s no proof for Rule Zero. It’s an axiom. It’s “because I said so” or just “because.” And thus all rational, “scientific” morality crashes straight into the obstacle that sometimes people’s self-interest is served by non-”moral” behavior. Why should I put morality ahead of what I want? Because it’s moral? It’s an endlessly repeating loop.


The way to cut the Gordian knot here is simple enough: just forget about trying to put morality on an absolute, objective foundation. Just go with what you’ve got. The traditional moral frameworks that have prevailed for long ages in human societies have done so, generally, because they work. Your conscience tells you that it is good to help others, bad to behave selfishly, and really bad to rape and torture little girls? Most folks will agree, and on the basis of those intuitions and others like them (which generally coincide, as it happens, with the prescriptions arrived at by people like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer), we can build stable, happy societies. Isn’t that good enough?

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  1. I think that even in a physicalist universe, moral statements can be legitimately constructed so long as one premises an “If-clause.”

    For instance: If we want to decrease human suffering:

    1) Science can tell us what things increase and decrease human suffering.
    2) We ought (see conditional) to do what decreases human suffering.
    3) Therefore (recalling the conditional), science can tell us what is morally good, and what isn’t.

    The crucial point is the conditional. In debating that point, one can pose the question: “What do we want?” The answer, if there is one, doesn’t ground morality in an irrefutable absolute, but it opens the possibility of serious discourse.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I agree completely, Jeffery, and that was my point in this post. But as far as I can tell the new-atheist types are greedier than that; they’re claiming the whole package, absolute foundation and all — and as such, they’re question-begging, just as “Trimegistus” points out.

    Posted February 17, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink