I love it when people like Michael Ruse and Josh Rosenau go after me, for their continued acrimony assures me that I’m on the right track. This week, in his continuing attacks on “scientism,” Ruse singles me out for being misguided about morality. And, in the process, he contradicts himself in a confusing farrago of claims.
Remember that Ruse recently pointed out three areas in which, he argued, truth claims were possible without science: mathematics, morality, and philosophical questions about the justification of ontological naturalism. Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse put the loquacious Ruse in his place, but Ruse is back again in a piece called “Scientism continued.” Here he zeroes in on morality as an area where there are objective truths.
Of course Ruse can’t leave out the obligatory critique of yours truly:
Let’s focus in on moral claims. My most doughty critic Jerry Coyne (really, I should pay him a retainer) [JAC: okay, Michael, I'll take $50/pwn] says “while science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong (or, in Ruse’s case, whether one should feel ashamed of an action) are opinions, based on subjective value judgments.” And he goes on to say “I think that’s true.”
Let me say bluntly – and it really is nothing personal because if it were I would be including a lot of my fellow philosophers including some of my teachers – I think this is just plain wrong. I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.” The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system. It’s just not an empirical claim.
Indeed, I think that Sandunsky’s action, or any sex with children, is dead wrong. But I still think that’s ultimately based on a value judgment about what is right and wrong. The ancient Greeks didn’t think it was so bad, and presumably they had their own justifications for those acts, misguided as they were. The point, though, that judging that “sex with children is morally wrong” does not ultimately rest on any objective fact about the world. It could be informed by observations that sex with children traumatizes and injures them, but one must then still have reasons for thinking that trauma and injury is always wrong. This is the problem that many had with Sam Harris’s assertion that “well being” was an objective criterion of morality. While I agree with Sam’s criterion in perhaps 98% of moral judgments, I do think that there are immoral acts that actually increase overall well being, and moral ones that decrease it.
Not long ago people thought it was fine to have slaves, subjugate women, and torture gays. Those were justified by various means as moral—most often from religious teachings. Morality changes over time, and that is exactly the point of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. At what point do we know we’ve arrived at the “objective facts” of morality? Is killing cows for food objectively right or wrong? The reason morality changes is that values change—exactly what wouldn’t happen if there were “moral truths.”
Well, I needn’t go on saying that morality is subjective and that people who think that there are objective moral facts are wrong. Jason Rosenhouse has done this job far more thoroughly in his second takedown of Ruse’s anti-scientism at EvolutionBlog, “The basis for morality.” Jason’s response is the same as mine:
In my day-to-day life I am an unabashed moral absolutist. Some things are just right and others are just wrong, and if you disagree with my judgments than I will unleash upon you a barrage of stern looks and disapprobation. I simply regard it as obvious that people have certain obligations to one another, and I really have no desire to debate the matter.
But if you absolutely force me to defend my beliefs in terms of something simpler, it seems to me that I would have to give you some sort of standard by which I assess moral claims. I would have to say something like, “X is wrong because…” followed by some statement, probably related in some way to the consequences of X, that justifies my negative opinion of it. And at the end of the day I don’t see how you can give an absolute justification of that standard. No matter what standard I provide, I don’t see how I can reply to someone who steadfastly insists that I’m doing it wrong.
The most bizarre thing about Ruse’s essay, which Jason points out, is that the end Ruse goes off the rails and seems to admit that morality must indeed be based not on science but on subjective criteria.
A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ. I think Grace Kelly was the most beautiful film star we saw in the philosophy of film course this last semester. Some of my students thought that Catherine Deneuve was. Who is right? Who is wrong? And what about the chap who voted for Marilyn Monroe? Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.
But they used to differ about such actions, and “decent, thoughtful people” still differ on many moral questions: euthanasia, abortion, the use of animals as food, the age of consent for sex, and so on. If there are “moral facts” that everyone agrees on, like the egregious immorality of Sandusky’s child rape, what are the “moral facts” when substantial numbers of people disagree?
But wait! It gets worse, for Ruse imputes the “objective truth” of morality t0 Darwinian evolution:
I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)
So what does this make of morality? Sure, it is something that is part of our psychology. Frankly, who would ever doubt that? If you like, the controversial part is that it is only part of our psychology. I think that is the world into which David Hume pushed us. But because it may be the case that we can do what we like, it doesn’t follow that we should do what we like. As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.
Is Ruse serious here? Certainly our instincts for morality may well have been molded in part by natural selection. But that doesn’t mean that whatever “moral” behaviors were instilled in our ancestors were objectively right! Many primates practice infanticide; chimpanzees are often murderous animals, and, as Jason points out, we’re probably genetically predisposed to xenophobia and tribalism. Are all of the “rights” and “wrongs” that evolution gave our ancestors written in stone? Of course not, because so many of them have changed in the last few centuries. And they’ve changed not because morality is a priori objective, but because people’s views of each other, and how they should treat each other, have changed.
Ruse’s essay was meant to establish that there are moral facts that we come to know by non-empirical means. If anyone thinks he has been successful in that regard please tell me about it in the comments. To the extent that I understand what he is saying, and it is frustrating that he just doesn’t seem to value clear writing these days, he has established neither that there are moral facts nor that he has some reliable, nonscientific means of determining what they are.
I agree. So chalk one up for science, and against the pejorative use of “scientism.”
Now tell me this. Ruse is seen as a serious philosopher, and I’m constantly accused of philosophical naïveté. Are Jason and I simply talking out of our nether parts because we don’t have our philosophy Ph.D.s, or can serious philosophers be legitimately criticized by tyros?