How natural is human morality?

Michael Ruse has a talent for displeasing people on both ends of the intellectual spectrum— by some ways of thinking, that makes him more likely correct.

But mere “split the difference” reasoning is not logical. So while Ruse may have good things to say about morality, he’s not right just because he’s in the middle. He seems rather to like being in the middle; it’s his comfort zone.

The best short statement I’ve found to epitomize how Ruse can displease both sides of the objectivist-naturalist morality divide is this one:

There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention—an invention of the genes rather than of humans.

After the first clause of sentence two, Ruse has managed to disagree with only the objective moralists, those who believe that morals exist as their own entities, and that we “discover” them through some combination of revelation, reason, and experience. But what about the rest of the sentence?

I am interested in the foundations of morality and if ethics is an adaptation like hands and teeth (I think it is), so in some respects my work is very Darwinian, but I am not interested in building models of cultural evolution. I am inclined to think that meme-talk is nonsense.

Now he’s crossed the cultural relativists by allowing evolution into his moral conception. Is there anyone he won’t annoy? As Tamler Sommer puts it nicely in Believer magazine’s interview with Ruse (who clearly loves to tweak the New Atheists by publishing in “enemy” territory):

Criticism of evolutionary ethics is a bipartisan affair. From the left come attacks from a large and vocal contingent of academics, who range from being baffled to being appalled by the claim that human nature is not entirely a social construction. … On the right, there are the hard-line moral realists engaged in their search for “moral clarity.” To them, Darwinism introduces an element of subjectivity that threatens to undermine the certainty they bring to ethical affairs. And of course there are the religious fundamentalists, who object not only to a Darwinian approach to ethics but to the truth of evolutionary theory.

Ruse’s ethics — his metaethics, for he is interested not in what particular moral rules one follows but in the foundations of our moral sense itself — is more sophisticated than a simple real-unreal conflict. With echoes of such metaethicians as Simon Blackburn, about whom more in a later posting, Ruse suggests that it hardly matters if our moral values are “real” or not:

Part of my position on morality is very much that we regard morality in some sense as being objective, even if it isn’t. So the claim that we intuit morality as objective reality—I would still say that. Of course, what I would want to add is that from the fact that we do this, it doesn’t follow that morality really is objective. …

Morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective. “Why should I be good? Why should you be good? Because that is what morality demands of us. It is bigger than the both of us. It is laid on us and we must accept it, just like we must accept that 2 + 2 = 4.” I am not saying that we always are moral, but that we always know that we should be moral.

Ruse is careful to distance himself from the kinds of  “social Darwinism” touted by writers from Edmund Spenser and Samuel Butler in the 19th century to Adolf Hitler in the 20th by pointing out (best in the book Darwin and Its Discontents) that social Darwinists make the erroneous assumption that evolution has purpose and direction, designed or at least destined for human benefit:

Of course what I would argue is that the connection between Darwinism and ethics is not what the traditional social Darwinian argues. He or she argues that evolution is progressive, humans came out on top and therefore are a good thing, hence we should promote evolution to keep humans up there and to prevent decline. I think that is a straight violation of the is/ought dichotomy.

Ruse’s position is quite different:

The ethical sense can be explained by Darwinian evolution— the ethical sense is an adaptation to keep us social. … I think that once you see that ethics is simply an adaptation, you see that it has no justification. It just is. So in metaethics I am a nonrealist.

Making the same point more concisely, Ruse told Believer:

Perhaps it is all a matter of biology-produced psychology and morality is simply an adaptation to keep us all happy and social.

Ruse is quick to discount the charge that if morality is an artificial adaptation, not something based on God’s law, then there really isn’t any morality. He points to the work of evolutionary psychologists like Marc Hauser to show “how and why morality is a terrific adaptation for social animals like us humans.” Rejecting an objective origin for morality is not the same thing as rejecting morality itself:

The point is that ethical skepticism is skeptical about foundations. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have morality. Rather, it is a matter of where it comes from and what its status truly is. … The mere fact that morality is something that came about through evolution — that we have a moral organ, as Hauser would say — does not mean that the objects of its reflection are illusory.

In fact, Ruse argues, a naturalistic understanding of morality provides a more solid foundation than does the traditional “God’s Law” view. This idea is worth a fairly lengthy quotation, again from the Believer article:

There are those – and I am one – who argue that only by recognising the death of God can we possibly do that which we should, and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all of that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilised ova being human beings, and about the earth being ours to exploit and destroy. Start with the fact that humans are naturally moral beings. We want to get along with our fellows. We care about our families. And we feel that we should put our hands in our pockets for the widows and orphans. This is not a matter of chance or even of culture primarily. Humans as animals have gone the route of sociality. We succeed, each of us individually, because we are part of a greater whole and that whole is a lot better at surviving and reproducing that most other animals.

As noted in a previous article, fundamentalists love to misrepresent Ruse, usually by quoting just part of what he has to say about morality. One outrageous example is the site “whyidontbelieveinevolution,” which prominently features a picture of Ruse and a partial citation, just the part that asks the questions fundamentalists like — What happens to morality without God? What stops us from being selfish and evil? — but leaves out the answers they don’t like. In fact, what Ruse believes is that the adoption of nonrealist morality is a direct and an important “challenge” to Christian theism.

And in the end, Ruse gives the game point — if not yet the set — to naturalism, with emphasis added for clarity:

It seems to me that we have here more of a challenge to Christian belief than many realize — and among the many I include those of us who are eager to reconcile science and religion (us, so called, accommodationists). The moral argument for the existence of God is popular and persuasive. If you don’t have God, you can’t have morality. But if the kind of evolutionary moral naturalism I endorse is true, then you can have morality and God doesn’t enter into it at all. This may not make for atheism, but it certainly weakens the case for theism. Once again in the ongoing conflict between science and religion it looks as though science is on the winning side and religion has to beat a retreat.