Fundamental Reality XI: What's Right is Right

Now how should we decide between these ethical views?  To my mind, the fact which is of primary importance is the one we started with, that we all have a deep-seated primary belief in the reality of Ethics.  Even people who say there's no such thing as ethical truth suddenly sound quite different when somebody treats them unfairly.  And cultural relativists look down on their ancestors who persecuted other cultures, and comment on how much moral progress there's been since then, showing that they actually believe in moral relativism for moral reasons.  Some ethical framework seems to be embedded as axioms in the human mind.

It's no good to argue that ethics must be subjective because different cultures disagree about it.  People disagree about all sorts of things, many of which are quite real.  And there are various ways people can be rationally persuaded to change their ethical views; that's how moral progress happens.

Nor is Darwinian Evolution fatal to the idea that we know ethical truths.  No sensible Darwinian says that our knowledge of e.g. Mathematics or Biology is necessarily unreliable just because our capacities were developed through Natural Selection, since that would refute the Theory of Evolution too!  We are not here concerned with the origin of our moral ideas, but with their truth.  The origin of human ethics (which is lost in the mists of prehistoric time) would be relevant only if it implied that the ideas are invalid.  But this would not follow, simply from the fact that our ethical views have an origin.  In general, Darwinian evolution gives us true beliefs, not false ones, since for the most part the ability to acquire knowledge about the world is adaptive.  In order to prove that our moral beliefs are unreliable, we would have to show that they originated in a way which was completely disconnected from their truth.  Any such argument would involve a whole raft of controversial philosophical assumptions, not to mention the speculation common to all Evolutionary Psychology arguments.  Morality leaves no fossil record.  Although it is certain that our ethical capacities have some historical origin, we are in a far better position to assess what it means to be a human being today, then to speculate about these origins.

But it may be felt that Ethical Nihilism follows automatically, from the fact that right and wrong are not mentioned anywhere in the Laws of Physics.  Naturalism, you see, is the attempt to reduce all realities down to those described by the Natural Sciences.  Anything which doesn't fit gets cut out or else stretched to fit, as on the bed of Procrustes.  In my view, this is not a benign use of Occam's razor.  Instead it is a zealous oversimplification which throws out nearly all the realities of experience, in order to save a theory that won't cover them.

We have already seen how very similar reductionistic arguments would rule out Consciousness, but in that case we know the conclusion is false.  If this type of reductionistic argument fails so spectacularly in the one case where we can really check it, why should we give it any credence when it is deployed as an argument against morality?  (Or the existence of aesthetics, free will, personal identity, or whatever is supposed to be eliminated next.)  You could even say that, since I believe in the existence of good and bad because they flavor my experiences, the mystery of Consciousness and the mystery of Ethics are intimately connected to each other.  Both are features of reality which I could never have derived from a purely literal intepretation of the physical facts.

Some Naturalists believe it is possible to derive ethical laws from the physical sciences, but this is a rather tall order.  It runs into the famous Is-Ought problem, articulated by David Hume, who highlighted the logical difficulty in deriving an ought statement from any number of purely factual, nonmoral statements.  (Hume himself believed that morality was just a fact about human sentiments towards certain actions, an example of a subjective view.)  Some rather problematic attempts to construct a purely Natural system of Ethics are reviewed here:

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Naturalism*

Of course, part of the problem is that the perfect division between is and ought is an artificial distinction in the first place.  In our actual experiences, the two are nearly always joined together.  We do not experience the world dispassionately.  The vision of a world of pure facts is obtained by abstraction.  It is obtained, not so much by eliminating half of our experiences, but eliminating half of each experience, the part of ourselves which cares about what we are seeing.  This abstract representation of reality may be very useful for certain scientific purposes, but the map is not the territory.  If we are unable to recover certain aspects of our experience from the map, it means that the map is incomplete, not that those experiences are invalid.

The brain is a very complicated organ which tells us a great many things about the world.  Some parts of it allow us to deduce scientific facts, while others deliver to us ethical truths.  To my mind, it is irrational and capricious to reject all those aspects of our thinking except that very limited set which we use when formulating physical laws (and even there, our sense of beauty plays a role).  Rather, the fundamental deliverances of our brain ought to be accepted by default unless we have good reason to reject them.  That is undivided looking: thinking with our whole mind.

Next: The Good, and the Not

[* Footnote: In 2018, after I wrote this blog post, the SEP article was substantially rewritten by another philosopher, in a way that, strangely, removed some of the arguments against Moral Naturalism.  E.g. there was a refutation of Jackson's "Moral Functionalism" which is no longer present in the new article, while Moore's Open Question argument is now presented in a more negative manner.  I have accordingly provided an Internet Archive link to the original form of the article.]

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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5 Responses to Fundamental Reality XI: What's Right is Right

  1. John Michael Salinas says:

    Hey Dr. Wall
    It seemed your argument was similar to what St. Alvin Plantinga argues in his book "Where the Conflict Really Lies". I was wondering what your specific opinions were on the specific argument he used in his book. (the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable given evolution and naturalism is low and the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable given evolution and theism is high). Can we make these sort of Probability judgments without knowing how the phase spaces of probability should be distributed? Thanks again Dr. Wall for everything.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Platinga's argument seems to be a version of C.S. Lewis' "Argument from Reason" which proposes that if we evolved naturalistically, there is no good reason for our thoughts to be true, and therefore we must reject a naturalistic origin of our minds. I don't buy this argument.

    Let me make a distinction. If Naturalism is true, I do think it is quite surprising that any collection of matter should be conscious, as I argued in part VIII. But that is not the thrust of the Argument from Reason, which presupposes we have conscious beliefs of some sort, and asks why we should believe they are (usually) true.

    Given that we have conscious experiences with conceptual content, and that these conscious experiences are intimately related to our brain structures, and that our brains evolved through Darwinian evolution, I don't think it's at all implausible that those beliefs should be normally true. I think true beliefs are generally more adaptive than false ones, as I asserted in this very post:

    In general, Darwinian evolution gives us true beliefs, not false ones, since for the most part the ability to acquire knowledge about the world is adaptive. In order to prove that our moral beliefs are unreliable, we would have to show that they originated in a way which was completely disconnected from their truth.

    As for making probability judgements, as a good Bayesian whenever I don't know what the probabilities are, I have both the privilege and the responsibility of guessing!

  3. Mactoul says:

    "In general,Darwinian evolution gives us true beliefs"
    If so, where do false beliefs come from?
    Most primitives, I suppose, have plenty of false beliefs, say about natural phenomena, about gods, ghosts, about magic, about witches etc.
    I dare say even Stone Age people were as ridden by false beliefs as primitives we know of. Whence all these false beliefs and why these false beliefs not eliminated by evolution?

  4. Scott Church says:

    Hi Mactoul,

    Evolution will favor any adaptation that enhances reproductive survival within a given gene pool, so we can say that it will favor any belief which does so. Say for instance, that a Neanderthal sees a tiger during a thunderstorm and lightning strikes nearby. He might conclude from this that tigers are "fire creatures" that will bring the lightning down on he and his companions if they get near to one. Though false, this belief would contribute to his survival by leading him to avoid a potential predator. This is purely hypothetical of course, but it does serve to illustrate how false beliefs might arise and contribute to natural selection.

    Another case in point that is less hypothetical is morality. Many materialists and evolutionary biologists have argued that moral instincts evolved in higher mammals because altruism and cooperation enhance survival. It's easy to see how this might be true in general, and in fact, a recent cover story in Scientific American was devoted to it. But true or not, few if any of us hold our moral beliefs because we think them advantageous--we hold them because we believe that some things are fundamentally good or evil. A few years ago I came close to being eaten by a lion (no kidding... :-) ). For obvious reasons, it never occurred to me to be angry at the lion--it was simply doing what nature had selected large sub-Saharan felid predators to do. But had it been another person that wanted to kill me, and without provocation, I certainly would have been. I would've taken it as objectively true that I had been wronged, apart from any consideration for the survival of my clan or species, and others would likely agree. Materialism offers no rational basis for this--only for beliefs that contribute to the survival of our species--which renders absolute morality a false belief that exists only because it contributes to our collective survival.

    As Aron pointed out, this is the core of Plantinga's argument... It's not that evolution never selects for true beliefs, or even that it's unlikely to--it usually does. Rather, it's that Naturalism gives us no valid reason to believe it won't, and thus no guarantee that human reason will always be a light unto our feet, and a lamp unto our path as materialists claim.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul, Scott,
    Obviously, our mechanisms for forming true beliefs are not perfect. Everyone needs to be able to account for the fact that we sometimes believe true things, and sometimes false things. Of course (as St. Scott points out) there are some false beliefs which are not removed by natural selection.

    St. Platinga made the argument that Naturalism is unable to account for the existence of many beliefs which Naturalists take for granted as being true (he was not talking, in this specific argument, about beliefs that Naturalism renders controversial, such as the existence of objective morality. He was talking about things like tigers existing and being dangerous, which is agreed upon by the superstitious savage and civilized alike.) His argument was that a Naturalist could not have any good reason to trust practically anything about their own Reason, because you could always imagine a false system of belief which would also lead to survival. But as I said above, I do NOT accept that argument (or the similar one that St. Lewis made in his Miracles book and elsewhere.)

    What I was rejecting is the version of Naturalism which says that our beliefs about the physical universe are frequently reliable, but that we should reject wholesale our moral beliefs because their truth is irrelevant to survival. I think this makes some pretty heavy-duty assumptions about both philosophy and prehistory, which would be pretty difficult to prove.

    We can of course be deluded, but I think by default we should trust our conceptual faculties (e.g. our vision) until we run across a good reason to reject them in a particular case (e.g. an optical illusion). The same for morality.

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