Morality and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part V

(by Paul Copan)

We’ve been engaging the thinking of Richard Dawkins, and more recently we’ve touched on the counterintuitive nature of (Dawkins’) naturalism.  I’ll be looking at the topic of naturalism’s counterintuitive claims regarding morality, but first the historical question of naturalism’s alleged link to human rights.

Dawkins, Human Rights, and Historical Connections

When Dawkins spoke Nova Southeastern relatively recently, he talked about how Enlightenment secularism gave rise to human rights.  This is a common claim made be naturalists, but it is simply false.  As human rights scholar Max Stackhouse of Princeton writes:  “intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religion.”[1]   These rights are rooted in the biblical language of the “image of God”—and natural law (in the Middle Ages) and natural rights (in the modern world).  The two leading documents of the eighteenth century refer to God as the basis for human rights: the Declaration of Independence (which speaks of humans being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (affirming human rights “in the presence and under the auspices” of God, “the Supreme Being”). 

More recently, the chief movers establishing a Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 (which speaks of humans being “endowed with reason and conscience”) were primarily church coalitions and individual Christian leaders who worked closely with some Jewish rabbis to create a “new world order” of human rights.[2]

Jürgen Habermas is one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers today.  Another fact about Habermas: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  Yet he highlights the inescapable historical fact that the biblical faith has had a profound influence in shaping civilization.  Consider carefully his assessment:

“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.  This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation.  To this day, there is no alternative to it.  And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.  Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”[3]

Even non-Westerners have come recognized the remarkable impact of the Christian faith in the West.  TIME magazine’s well-respected correspondent David Aikman reported the summary of one Chinese scholar’s lecture to a group of eighteen American tourists: 

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said.  “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion:  Christianity.  That is why the West has been so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don’t have any doubt about this.”[4]

This lecturer was not some ill-informed crackpot.  To the contrary, he represented one of China’s premier academic research organizations—the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

This isn’t surprising.  Intrinsic human dignity and worth make sense if we have been made in God’s image rather than being mere molecules in motion.  Biblical theism has the metaphysical capital to sustain the concept of human rights.  Our law courts and legal system assume that humans don’t simply dance to the music of their DNA.  The criminal’s excuse (“Your honor, my genes made me do it”) flies in the face of what we all know of human nature and our presumption of moral responsibility.  Human value and moral agency make better sense if we have come from a supremely valuable being beyond nature.  We certainly have no rational justification to anticipate the emergence of intrinsic human dignity and worth if we are simply the products of mindless, deterministic, valueless material forces in a purposeless cosmos.

Many Naturalists Themselves Acknowledge No Room for Objective Morality

Another point that undercuts objective morality and human dignity given naturalism is that many naturalists themselves see the logical outcome of their own metaphysic.  Naturalism, they argue, simply lacks the metaphysical equipment to account for objective moral values.  Many naturalists admit that natural material processes without God cannot bring us to moral responsibility and human dignity and worth.  These features of reality—which we routinely assume—don’t square well with naturalism.  Here’s a sampling of key naturalists on this topic:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche: “Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no realities….There are altogether no moral facts.”  Indeed, morality “has truth only if God is the truth—it stands or falls with faith in God.”[5]
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: “It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.”[6]
  • Bertrand Russell believed that “the whole subject of ethics arises from the pressure of the community on the individual.”[7]
  • E. O. Wilson locates moral feeling in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system”; it is a “device of survival in social organisms.”[8]
  • Jonathan Glover considers morality a “human creation” and calls on humans to “re-create ethics.”[9] 

We could add lots more leading naturalists—J.L. Mackie, James Rachels, Peter Singer, and the like; these acknowledge that nature can’t get us to objective moral values and human dignity. 

Science’s Inability to Move Us from “Is” to “Ought.”

Dawkins admits, “Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.”[10]  The study of natural processes can’t get from the way things are to the way things ought to be.  Yet why does Dawkins consider religion   “the root of all evil,” as his BBC documentary affirms?

The popular writer Michael Shermer affirms that our remote ancestors have genetically passed on to us our sense of moral obligation within, and this is reinforced by group pressure. Ultimately, to ask, “Why should we be moral?” is like asking, “Why should we be hungry or horny?”[11]   But this doesn’t mean that I have a moral obligation to eat.  I just have this inclination, and I do it.  If I don’t eat, then I starve.

C. S. Lewis was familiar with such reasoning.  He argued that given such naturalistic conditions, moral impulses are no more true (or false) than “than a vomit or a yawn.”[12]  Thinking “I ought” is on the same level of “I itch.” Indeed, “my impulse to serve posterity is just the same sort of thing as my fondness for cheese” or preferring mild or bitter beer.[13]  All naturalism can do is describe human behavior.  It can’t prescribe human behavior, nor can it ground moral obligation.  How do we move from the “is” of the natural world to the “ought” of ethics?  Naturalism doesn’t inspire confidence that we really have duties and that we ought to be virtuous.

If ethical beliefs are simply hard-wired into us for our fitness and survival, we have no reason to think these beliefs are true or that we ought to act in a certain way; these beliefs simply are. If, as Francis Crick argues, human identity (“you”) is simply “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,”[14] then such a perspective is only accidentally correct. After all, this belief itself is the result of “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”! 

At his talk at Nova, Richard Dawkins said that everyone knows that rape is wrong.  How can he say this from a “scientific” point of view?  And what if rape is completely natural—that it enhances survival and reproduction?  The book A Natural History of Rape[15] (coauthored by a biologist and an anthropologist) maintains that rape can be explained biologically: “[Rape] is a natural phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage” comparable to “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.”[16] 

How does this work?  When a male cannot find a mate, his subconscious drive to reproduce his own species pushes him to force himself upon a female. Such acts happen in the animal kingdom (e.g., male mallards or scorpionflies). Now the authors do not advocate rape; in fact, they claim that rapists are not excused for their (mis)behavior. But we have to ask:  why oppose an act that is as “natural” as granola?  Why stop an act that may enhance survival and reproduction?  To appeal to a standard outside nature suggests that a transcendent realm exists—that nature is insufficient to account for our opposition to what is natural.

Given naturalism, it appears that humans could have evolved differently and inherited rather contrary moral beliefs (“rules”) for the “chess game” of survival. Whatever those rules, they would still direct us toward surviving and reproducing. Ruse (with E. O. Wilson) gives an example: instead of evolving from “savannah-dwelling primates,” we, like termites, could have evolved needing “to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s faeces, and cannibalise the dead.” If the latter were the case, we would “extol such acts as beautiful and moral” and “find it morally disgusting to live in the open air, dispose of body waste and bury the dead.”[17]

According to Ruse, our awareness of morality (“a sense of right and wrong and a feeling of obligation to be thus governed”) is of “biological worth,” serves as “an aid to survival,” and “has no being beyond this.”[18]  He has claimed, rather, than morality is a corporate illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.

The theist doesn’t have to take such a counterintuitive positions and metaphysical gymnastics.  He is properly placed to affirm intrinsic dignity and moral duty rooted in a supremely valuable, worship-worthy Creator.  Such a moral perspective flows more naturally from theism than from naturalism.

[1] Max Stackhouse, “A Christian Perspective on Human Rights,” Society (January/February 2004): 25.

[2] Ibid., 24. See also Max L. Stackhouse and Stephen E. Healey “Religion and Human Rights: A Theological Apologetic,” in J. Witte Jr and J. D. van der Vyer, eds., Religious Rights in Global Perspective (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 486. Mary Ann Glendon, The World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001).

[3] Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, ed. and trans. Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 150-1.

[4] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power  (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 5.  This quotation serves as an exclamation point to round out Rodney Stark’s study, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 235.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ (New York. Penguin Books, 1968), 55, 70

[6] Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), 22.

[7] Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954), 124.

[8] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (New York: Random House, 1998), 268, 269.

[9] Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 41, 42.

[10] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 34. Ironically, Dawkins waxes quite “unscientific” in his book The God Delusion, in which he rails against “religious morality.”

[11] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 56–57.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 37.

[13] Ibid., 38, 37.

[14]Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), 3.

[15] Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).

[16] The Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 20-28; Randy Thornhill, “Controversial New Theory of Rape in Terms of Evolution and Nature,” National Public Radio, 26 January 2000.

[17] Ruse and Wilson, “Evolution of Ethics,” 311. This example can also be found in Ruse’s “Evolutionary Ethics: A Phoenix Arisen,” 241–42, where he humorously refers to the termites’ “rather strange foodstuffs”!

[18] Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262, 268.

11 Responses to “Morality and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part V”

  1. Good thinking. Bad proof-reading. I’d like to pass this along to a friend, but I find the typos a little distracting. He would too.

    Also, the comments from Russell, Wilson and Glover don’t seem to be all that supportive of the idea that “natural material processes without God cannot bring us to moral responsibility and human dignity and worth.” On the contrary, they seem to say that the source of morality is human. Perhaps your focus in on the “natural material processes,” but the quotes still identify a source other than God.

  2. Quarkgluonsoup June 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    One thing that so few seem to know is that the Enlightenment itself was the intellectual movement of protestantism in the 18th century, and was shaped by the counter-reformation in the 17th century (such as John Locke’s experience as a child during the Engilish Civil War).

    I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War recently, and have learned a couple of things that illustrate your point. The reason Lincoln issued the Emanicpation Promcolomation, and subsequently made slavery and rebellion one-in-the-same, was because he promised God that he would do it if the Confederacy was driven out of Maryland. Before the war, supporters of slavery had to use economic arguements, because religious ones were so unpresuasive, while abolitionism was an extension of evangelicalism. After slavery was abolished, Darwinism morphed into a social ideology that was the main weapon used to justify Jim Crow. Throughout history, there have been countless other examples like this.

  3. I wonder how “nature” could appeal to anything outside of itself even in principle? If nothing outside of nature exists then nature cannot appeal to it as there is nothing to appeal to. Dawkins’s chief problem is that he wants to deny a platfom on which to stand outside of nature to describe nature then stands on it to describe nature.
    The universe came into existence by itself, evolved beings within itself, that one day it might explain itself. Now that is circularity on a cosmic scale.

  4. @ Dave,

    I would say, that with the possible exception of Glover, that none of the men in that list would agree with Dawkins. Neitzche and Sartre would strongly disagree with Dawkins. Perhaps the term objectivist would bring some clarity here.Objectivist mean a moral code not reducible to biological and sociological impulses.

    A real problem with Naturalism is that there is no way to distinguish the “ought” from the “is”. From a Naturalistic POV, The act of murder and the moral code against murder are both equally natural processes, and the moral code against murder and alternative moral codes that extol the virtue of mass slaughter (i.e Nazism, honor killings, etc) are both equally natural processes.) Moral categories become meaningless in a Naturalistic system. This is not to say that Naturalists cannot make moral claims or strive to live moral lives, but that they do so contrary to the logic of their world-view.

  5. I think Nick Wolterstorff’s latest stuff on human rights is very illustrative on this topic.

    Wolterstorff issued a challenge to secularist who believes in human rights to identify a non theological or non religious property or properties that:

    (i) is possessed by all members of the human family;
    (ii) is not possessed by an terrestrial non-human animal;
    (iii) plausibly can be said to give humans worth sufficient to account for the standard schedules of human rights that we grant that humans have;
    (iv) is not a property which is possessed by different humans to different degrees.

    Features (i) and (ii) are necessary if all rights are going to be granted to all human beings and not to animals like cows or dogs; (iii) is necessary if the property is to ground human rights; (iv) is necessary if all people have “equal dignity”- if the property that grounds dignity comes in degrees and some people have it more than others then some people will have more dignity.

  6. What if the moral commander ie God
    decreed acts that denigrate humans to be lawful,

    Wouldn’t you say that God himself is no respecter of human rights? And is the Believer obliged to do inhuman acts for the sake of piety? like Abraham to Isaac

  7. I am sorry but relying on ‘intuition’ as a bases for moral truths grounded in a Sky Judge is a failure. Also, asking naturalist to engage in flase dichotomies and metaphysical language is also a failure. All these metaphysical terms like some transcendent ‘ought’, ‘obligation’, ‘God’, and other mystical stuff is just the ultimate question begging. You do not need transcendent metaphysical realites to make human action, specifically morality, meaningful in the present state of human relationships. Science can give us insight into conditionl oughts and can teach about what is best for human individuals and societies. But to think that everything goes to hell in hand basket if you remove the metaphysical language and teleological significance is also another failure. Human nature is the ground for our moral intuitions not anything else.

    • Jay, if all reality is material and thus your and my beliefs are produced by material forces beyond our control, then why is your view any more rational than mine? Why should we trust our cognitive faculties if false beliefs could enhance survival just as true ones could? Moreover, any belief one holds that happens to be true is so only accidentally and thus cannot qualify as knowledge. Appealing to science simply begs the question. Your belief has simply been pumped into you by deterministic material forces beyond your control. Your beliefs are just as non-rational as the next person’s.

  8. Dr. Copan I wonder if you’ve seen Richard Dawkins TV series ‘Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life’. He sounds like he has changed his mind about evil from a naturalistic perspective. He sure does love blaming everything on God and those who believe in him.

    I wonder if you have written about these views?


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