Michael Ruse channels Walt Whitman

Remember these lines from “Song of Myself,” one of Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass?

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

That solipsistic verse always reminds me of the “some-scientists-are-religious” argument for accommodationism, but now it also reminds me of Michael Ruse.  Yes, he is large, and yes, he contains multitudes.  And this week he contradicts himself in a spectacularly muddled piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The nature of morality: replies to critics“. In it, he defends his assertion that there is an objective morality that has been bred into us by natural selection, buttressing in turn his argument that there are “ways of knowing” that don’t come from science. (In this case the “way of knowing” is that there are objective moral truths vouchsafed us by natural selection. You can read his original argument here.)  This was part of a larger attack on scientism.

I don’t want to go into detail about the piece; if you want to wade through the marsh of his logic, such as it is, be my guest.  I just want to point out two contradictions.  But first the amusing and requisite dismissing of New Atheists and yours truly:

Well, I thought the Mormons were touchy, but they can’t hold a candle to the New Atheists, who are all over me for my views on the limits of science and, more particularly, the evolutionary-based nature of morality.  .  .

Here, lest I be accused of ignoring criticism, let me reply to three objections that have been leveled. The person these days who seems to find my thinking most offensively incorrect is the Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. It is a strange world when my biggest critic is not some evangelical Young Earther, but the head of America’s major evolution society. [JAC: it’s a strange world when one of the people who defends religion most ardently is not one of the faithful, but an avowed atheist.] Half joking, I suggested that I should be grateful for the publicity and put him on my payroll. He in turn suggests that a payment of 50 bucks would be appropriate and I have just written and sent a check—although if he goes on claiming that Alvin Plantinga has a “liberal faith,” I shall want my money back.

I haven’t gotten the damn check yet, but I’ll entertain readers’ suggestions about how to spend the dough.

And now the contradictions:

  • First, the complaint that since I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection, I must therefore be using science to justify my ethical claims. I too am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so. Distinguish between an explanation of the origin of something and its justification.

But later on he says:

My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective.

Does anyone sense a contradiction there? Or can the philosophers among us use some casuistry to show that there’s a difference between saying that evolution doesn’t give us moral absolutes and that evolution does give us moral absolutes? That sounds like a job for Plantinga (aka Superman).

  • Contradiction two; Ruse says:

I fully expect that societies that have different views from ours about the nature of women and gays and whatever will have different moral codes about women and gays and whatever. It is not the morality itself that is different.

He uses the example of abortion here: some people differ on whether a fetus counts as a human being.  But that is a difference in morality, and anti-abortion activists are not going to abandon their views if you tell them that the three-month-old fetus isn’t human.  Telling them that a fetus that young isn’t conscious, for instance, or can’t survive outside the womb, isn’t going to make them suddenly think, “Whoa; I didn’t know that. I’m pro-choice now!”

I defy you to read that column and not think that Ruse is either philosophically muddled or simply phoned in the piece without thinking about it. Whatever the truth, he owes me another fifty bucks.

51 Comments

  1. Tulse
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I still don’t understand how saying some behaviour was produced by evolution means that we “objectively” ought to behave that way. The ought/is problem remains. This should be especially obvious when we realize that there are potentially all sorts of evolved behaviours we have, many of which we do not see as “ethical”. The evo-psych literature is littered with evolutionary explanations for slavery, inter-group violence, rape, etc. etc. etc. I presume that Ruse would say such behaviour is objectively wrong, but that would then entail some non-evolutionary criteria to judge those actions.

    In short, evolutionary accounts of morality face their own Euthyphro Dilemma.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      My understanding is that evolutionary accounts of morality mostly deal with the fact that the concept of the moral “ought” means something to us as a species, as do concepts like “fairness” and “good”: we quibble over the details.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I don’t see how this solves the problems, but perhaps because I don’t understand the claim being made.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          In a nutshell:

          You don’t get an ‘ought’ from an is, but you don’t get it from an ‘isn’t,’ either. An “ought” comes out of an “If … then.” IF you want X, then you OUGHT to do Y. (This assumes that Y will indeed get you X, which could be debated.)

          Evolution explains why the human animal shares a desire for X in the first place, where X = fairness, justice, love, freedom, flourishing, etc. Group-dwelling species will slowly select for such needs and tendencies as they depend more on living in groups.

          This is in opposition to the “theory” that we all crave X because we were made in the image of a Being who has X as His elementary unevolved nature — and we OUGHT to obey Him. If .. we want what, exactly?

          Can’t get an ought from an is that way, either. At least evolution provides nit-picky little details on why we have similar goals with each other.

          • Tulse
            Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

            Evolution explains why the human animal shares a desire for X in the first place, where X = fairness, justice, love, freedom, flourishing, etc.

            But as I pointed out above, it also explains why humans animals can desire forced sex, and slavery, and tribal violence. Saying a preference is evolved doesn’t get us where we want without non-evolutionary foundational criteria.

            • David Leech
              Posted January 1, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

              Except animals show empathy to fellow ‘group members’ which will install a evolutionary advantage. It may be a misfiring of the paternal instinct (to include none offspring) which could lead to its inclusion of the species as a whole.

              • Reginald Selkirk
                Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

                Except animals show empathy to fellow ‘group members’

                This varies from species to species. Social animals show a much greater deference to fellow group members than non-social species.

            • Sastra
              Posted January 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

              No, but the non-evolutionary foundational criteria have to have something to work with. Natural does not automatically equal good: but what is good can rest on natural (as opposed to supernatural) foundations.

              • Tulse
                Posted January 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

                But I don’t see any “foundation” here. Evolution can provide the “facts on the ground”, but can’t tell us how to use those facts. Again, “natural” doesn’t tell us what is “good” — the problem really is Euthyphro.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                What it can tell us is what we want, why we want it and maybe even how to get it or how to substitute it for something easier.

    • Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      We “ought” to behave that way if we want to survive.

      Just as we “ought” to breathe, if we want to survive.

      Morality is an evolutionary response to the pressures of social existence and self-awareness. Ergo, all moral issues are related to the question, “do you wish for your species to survive?”

      Moral questions that are not related to that issue are ill-formed, in the same way “how many sides does the number 5 have” is an ill-formed question.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        We “ought” to behave that way if we want to survive.

        Do you mean “we” as a species? If so, why should individuals care what happens to the species?

        • Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          Exactly.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          There was a question though: “do you wish for your species to survive?”

          I think that isn’t much more important than all other questions, but it is one.

          • Yazhi
            Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

            If you don’t… you won’t really be a long-term philosophical problem. If you get my drift.
            :)

        • Yazhi
          Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

          Because you are a normal, functioning individual?

          You might as well ask, why should we care about sex? The answer is the same: because that’s how evolution made you.

          Yes, there are people who don’t care about the future of the species, or sex, or food, or the feelings of others. There are also people without legs, language, sight, or consciousness.

          But by normal definitions, none of these people are normal, fully functioning examples of the human phenotype.

          if you want to argue that morality is inaccessible to people who don’t have the neurological hardware to process it (which includes the hard-wired desire to care about it), well… no argument here.

          But does that tell us anything about normal people?

          • Tulse
            Posted January 3, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            Tribal violence, rape, and slavery may also be traits built in by evolution — are those therefore moral behaviours?

            But more fundamentally, why should we take our evolutionarily-derived phenotype as a measure of how we ought to behave? My phenotype is also shaped by gravity, but I don’t think it immoral to ride in an airplane. The is/ought divide is still there, and evolution doesn’t solve that.

          • Bryan
            Posted January 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

            “You might as well ask, why should we care about sex? The answer is the same: because that’s how evolution made you.”

            This is simply not true. Group selection is a discredited hypothesis.

      • DMoore
        Posted January 2, 2012 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        [Morality is an evolutionary response to the pressures of social existence and self-awareness. Ergo, all moral issues are related to the question, “do you wish for your species to survive?”]

        I really don’t follow that… I would say the question is do you wish for yourself to survive. Traditional philosophies have phrased it that way… the golden rule, karma, aren’t they just different ways of expressing the same concept; don’t do something to someone else that you wouldn’t want done to you? To me it’s based in logic not religion; I’ve generally argued that morality is self-serving, in that it protects oneself.

        • DMoore
          Posted January 2, 2012 at 4:40 am | Permalink

          I’m gonna reply to my own reply to ask a technical question; is there a trick to reformatting the indentations of others posts? Besides doing it manually or cutting and pasting in and out of some other program. I’ve noticed that as the norm here when excerpting from one another.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

          “Do you wish for yourself to survive?” isn’t a better question. It relates to situations that are relevant to your survival, while the other question relates to situations relevant to the species’ survival.

          There is no reason to consider one of them more important by default. That depends on how much you want to survive, and how much you want the species to survive.

          There is no difference in kind to “Do you want strawberry flavour?”

        • Yazhi
          Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

          But evolution did not program you to view your own survival as more important than the survival of your genes.

          Well, maybe it did you; but not the rest of us.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      In it, he defends his assertion that there is an objective morality that has been bred into us by natural selection…

      I also fail to understand how something which is contingent upon our evolutionary history can be called “objective.” Recall the standard of objectiveness Ruse help up in his previous outing: that moral truths are as objective as heliocentrism. If evolution had taken a different path, the solar system would still be heliocentric. Heck, if there were no life on Earth, the solar system would still be heliocentric. I think a revisitation to the definition of “objective” is called for.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        It is objective in the same sense that any feeling is objective: In that it is an actual item for inventory.

      • Yazhi
        Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

        It is as objective as the fact that we need air to breathe. Clearly that fact is contingent upon evolutionary history, but it is an objective fact of the current history.

        Do not make the (very common) mistake of confusing objective with absolute.

  2. Sastra
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see the same problems you did, but I may be misunderstanding Ruse (or you.)

    He uses the example of abortion here: some people differ on whether a fetus counts as a human being. But that is a difference in morality, and anti-abortion activists are not going to abandon their views if you tell them that the three-month-old fetus isn’t human.

    From what I can tell Ruse is making an argument here similar to that made by Theodore Schick — that basic moral principles are usually shared between opponents, and the actual dispute comes down to arguments over facts. IF you believed all the facts your opponent believes, THEN you would agree that s/he is doing the right thing. And vice versa. Neither side is arguing for the validity of doing wrong.

    Anti-abortionists wouldn’t abandon their view that the fetus is a human being/person because they evaluate that controversial ‘fact’ using other controversial ‘facts’ — facts which can’t be established on common rational ground. But they would agree that abortion is acceptable if the fetus is NOT a human being/person.

    As for the $50 check, I think it would be an interesting gesture if you used it to buy some books or works by Ruse which you do recommend — and graciously donate them to a worthy cause. It would confuse him, and undercut attempts to portray you as lacking discernment or good taste. What could he say?

    • Kharamatha
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      True. Anti-abortionists DO think that they are persons (disclaimer for lying anti-abortionists) and this motivates their anti-abortionism.

      However, it’s possible the words only coincide, and “person” is something else entirely in liferese. I think that is at most partially the case, because anti-abortion propaganda makes use of familiar connotations of person, such as cultural expression, language, leisure-activities, imagery of clearly legal persons and so forth.

  3. Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know evolution was so concerned with implanting objective morality in primates. I’d be more impressed if it stopped producing congenital disorders.

  4. Dirq
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    It could be said that Science should be ‘pro-life’ given that it says a life is finite and that any individual is both unique & irreplaceable.
    Whereas Religion should be more open to ‘pro choice’ given that the sentient creator controls the show, creates & destroys life as and when he sees fit anyway.

    • David Leech
      Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Not necessary so, in the case of rape, incest (also rape) and if giving birth is life threatening. Should the trauma of the former(s) be allowed to haunt the women for the rest of her life? The later to end the only life she has?

    • Kharamatha
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Quality over quantity comes into play.

  5. Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think I can see through the inept prose to what Ruse is trying to say in that last bit. Morality is essentially the concept of fairness; societies don’t have different moralities so much as they have different rules about who counts as a moral agent. Fair is fair, everywhere; but who is entitled to fairness changes with the social climate.

    Obviously, the most logically complete definition of moral agent includes everyone capable of moral action, which is to say every human being; however, culture has long supported the power of small groups by disenfranchising other groups from the collective. This is why the dehumanization of minorities goes hand in hand with their oppression; first they must be cast as non-moral agents (not capable of morality, like beasts) before they can be reliably oppressed, because even the oppressors assume fairness as the default standard of behavior.

  6. Dirq
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Apologies

    That should read ‘gives & takes life..’

  7. Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree. I was dismayed when I read this piece by Ruse a few days ago. He always seemed, in past years, to be a moral error theorist, or at least something very similar. He appeared to be saying that the appearance of the objective bindingness of morality is an illusion built into us by evolution. I agree with the illusion part, whatever the source of the illusion may be, and I’m disappointed to see Ruse retreat into an incoherent position.

  8. Marella
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    The only absolute that evolution lays on us is reproduction. I’m not saying you can’t get from there to morality, but many highly immoral belief systems seem to foster reproduction very effectively, so I doubt it. This obsession with absolutes is not constructive and seems to come from a religious mindset. Ruse needs to read Sam Harris.

    • Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Except that Harris makes a similar mistake. He also wants to argue that morality is objective.

      • Posted January 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        Not exactly the same mistake, mind you. Just thought I should make that explicit.

      • Bryan
        Posted January 2, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        Harris simply asks readers to accept his defnition of “moral choices” as “those choices that increase human well-being”. Using that definition, “morality” can be objective, at least in theory.

        • Posted January 2, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

          Except it loses its action-guidingness. As I say, it’s not exactly the same mistake. Anyway, I’ve talked about the problems of moral naturalism at great length elsewhere so I won’t blather about it again here. Suffice to say that any attempt to make morality “objective” in some sense or other runs into problems, and I do question why so many people seem to find it necessary.

          • Egbert
            Posted January 2, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

            Choice seems central to morality, without choice how can we be moral? I don’t believe morality is objective either, how can choice be objective?

          • czrpb
            Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

            Russell: I think it is because we (humans) all want to be rule-utilitarians vs. act-utilitarians. Thus, we need to find some absolute justification for our rules: Stop at all “Stop” signs when driving. Why/So? Because it is the law. Why/So? It is safe(r)/you are less likely to hurt someone (thus it is a law). Why/So? We do not want people to be hurt. Why/So? We care about people. Why/So? Just because (possible stopping point) OR How would you feel, you do not want yourself to be hurt. Why/So? Because you care about your own life (AND a possible stopping point). Why/So? Like you everyone cares about their own life (universality and possible stopping point). Why/So? Just because.

            Sure, it ends on empathy and intuition, and since humans are mostly the same, we have some pretty fundamentally basic and nearly identical morality/ethics (don’t hurt those in the in-group say). Obviously that is not ultimately universal, but even so most of us are happy to stop at either humanitarianism (care about/for others, in-group or not, and recently other species/animals) or ourselves (egoism, with the rationalization that the same rules of all are best for myself).

            Finally, I think all this is because human nature is to categorize and classify, thus we care to come up some sort of final rule for things, such as what is a tree or chair or what is “good” and “right”.

            Is that really all that surprizing?

    • Kharamatha
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Reproduction is history. The absolute of which you speak is that reproduction has been done, nothing more.

      The rest is explanation of what reproduction does and might do.

    • Yazhi
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      many highly immoral belief systems seem to foster reproduction very effectively

      Such as?

      The current immorality of the Republican party is, at some level, threatening the reproductive success of the entire species. If extinction by climate change due to immoral business practice isn’t a good enough link between survival and morality, then I don’t know what else to say.

      • Bryan
        Posted January 3, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        It’s a bit disingenuous to challenge someone’s assertion that X sometimes leads to Y by giving a single example of X leading to Z – as if that proves anything.

        Examples of X (immoral behavior) leading to Y (increased reproductive success) have been given elsewhere in the thread – rape, slavery, theft, etc.

        Also, the one example you give is instructive: business practices that are environmentally unsustainable in the long term may also increase the reproductive success of business people in the short term – that’s why group selection doesn’t work and is not relevant to a discussion of evolved morality.

  9. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the term “moral nonrealist,” because I want to use the word “subjective” in another way, namely where one says it is subjective whether or not one likes Brussels sprouts. That is a matter of choice….

    My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective.

    I have no idea what he’s talking about here. Is he seriously proposing that a preference for Brussels sprouts (or any other food item) is purely a matter of subjective whim, with no basis in biology or natural selection? That’s just bizarre.

    On ther other hand, if we accept that such preferences are (at least in part) the result of natural selection adapting our tastes to the nutritional environment, and if we nevertheless define such tastes as subjective, then how is morality not subjective in the same sense?

  10. Badger3k
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    It’s simple – we have the Sensus Moralitus – the innate sense of morality that evolved with us – can I has Plantiga’s job now?

  11. Egbert
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    Ruse makes a claim that he can’t support. He explains his claim but has no evidence for any such absolutes. That would put his claim as an opinion, but it’s not a rational opinion, as there is no subjective agreement to support his claim either.

    I don’t believe Ruse is a philosopher to be taken seriously.

  12. jean
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Mr Coyne,

    As we are discussing contradictions, it seems to me that you contradict yourself when you claim that morality is subjective AND that we have no free will.
    It there’s no free will and everything relies on the laws of physics, morality is no more “subjective” than coin flipping.
    To clarify, could you give a definition of subjectivity that don’t assume the existence of free will?

    jean

    • Posted January 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      For that matter does reason even exist in a determined universe? If every thought and conclusion is predestined then any reasoning you believe you did to get there is just an illusion.

  13. MadScientist
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Ruse clearly doesn’t understand evolution. He seems to be jumping into the ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ lake and making arbitrary claims without any credible supporting evidence. He’s simply replaced the “god is the source of morals” mantra with “morals evolved”.

    • Yazhi
      Posted January 2, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

      So where do you think morals came from?

      I only see 3 possible sources:

      A) Supernatural
      B) Arbitrary chance
      C) Evolution

      One of those is impossible, one of them does not fit the observed facts, so that leaves…


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