Nature is a Jerk. Don’t Expect Morality From It.

(originally posted 7 June 2015; last edited for content 3 April 2016).
(See also, Nature is a Jerk, Part 2 and Part 3)

We Don’t Need God to Be Moral, Right?

Often skeptics, atheists, agnostics, and Pastafarians claim that we can get morality from nature. “We don’t need God to be moral,” they say, “We can get morality just fine from natural processes like evolution, brain waves, the water cycle, and otters holding hands.”

But is nature that kind of thing? Are we just putting lipstick on a pig, thinking we’ve made a moral man out of it? If so, we are pretending to get civility from nature when it offers nothing of the sort. People who think nature can give us morality are akin to those girls who think that their horrible abusive boyfriend just needs the “right girl” to settle him down. It’s naive to think that you can get morality from that guy. It’s just as foolish to think that nature is anything less than a jerk incapable of robust moral stuff.


To be fair, nature does have “nice” and “pretty” features like rainbows and puppies. But if we really look long at nature, from a naturalistic perspective, we find that nature isn’t nice at all. Instead, nature drives everything in the universe down to extinction, running all usable energy to zero. Nature kills every living thing. In Tennyson’s famous words, “nature, is red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A.H.H., 1950). Given nature’s penchant for killing and destroying everything in sight, nature is a horrible basis for morality. In other words, . . .

Nature is a killer.

Maybe you grant that nature isn’t nice but, you contend, it can still give us morals right? Well, sort of. It can force on us all of our thoughtless instincts and meaningless feelings. And we can mistake these for “desires” or even “morality.” But if you mean real morals, like moral facts and objective morality, no, nature can’t give us that. Nature can give us all sorts of non-moral facts like gravity, geography, and groundhogs. But nature is amoral. According to British-accented atheist, Richard Dawkins,

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”
–“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American (Nov. 1995), p85

Now I normally think Dawkins is wrong about most everything, but if naturalism were true, then his account would fit right in. With no divine guide over nature, no Intelligent Designer, no personal God ultimately grounding all goodness, then that leaves only mindless nature to do those things for us–or leave them undone. Nature lacks all moral awareness or moral direction. Nature can’t even “propose” things that could be true or false since nature doesn’t make claims. Nature doesn’t say “love your neighbor” or “don’t sit on porcupines.” In this way, nature is libertine. You can do these things if you want, or not. Either way, no biggie. Nature isn’t judging your behavior as right or wrong.tumblr_muj9qqTr3V1qewacoo9_r1_400

With nature, moral claims can never be true or false since there’s no reference point, no truthmaker in nature, that could make a moral claim true or false. It’s not like you can find a place in nature where there exists a fact saying, “People should love their neighbors”–that’s an immaterial idea; it’s a bundle of language that seems to exist but has no explanation in reductive naturalistic terms. It’s either an illusion constructed by people or it’s something else entirely, some radically non-moral something masquerading as morality. Our moral sentiments may reduce to amoral animal instinct or a coerced desire programmed into us by heartless unguided forces. In short, moral facts are prescriptions–how things should or should not be–and nature doesn’t have those. Nature has descriptions. Nature has natural facts like people and porcupines, but it doesn’t have prescriptive facts like “love people” and “don’t sit on porcupines.” If you want to sit on porcupines, that’s your business, nature won’t judge you. Nature has no truthmakers for any moral claims. Nature silently permits everything naturally possible–whether rape, genocide, or headbutting puppies. We may long for a voice of moral reason but ultimately . . .

Nature is a silent killer.

Strictly speaking, if the fully naturalistic account were carried to its end, you and I can’t make any claims either–since we’d need to be able to generate meaningful language to do that, but meaningful language (the kind that we can originate, deliberate over, and understand) implies all sorts of things like free-will, self-reflection, goal-directedness (aka “teleology”), and intention, that doesn’t make much sense in naturalism. Those things tend to get explained away in naturalism too. It’s not that they “exist” but need some clarification to fit in naturalism. It’s more like they don’t exist, and yet their shadow persists because it is evolutionarily useful. There is no real goal-directedness in nature–such as intentions, purposes, and ends–whether the goal in mind is a bit of meaningfulness in language or a moral value for which we strive, or even “the meaning of life.” Those “goals” are not goals at all. They are objects that we may want, but even that ability to imagine something that’s not in our possession and then to “want” it–that’s more goal-directedness that Charles Darwin supposedly kicked out of science a long time ago.

Most naturalists, however, grant a whole range of mental activities for mankind such as desire, language, goal-oriented behavior and so on. Rather than haggle over that here, let’s suppose (for the sake of argument) they are right. That still doesn’t give us the rich sense of morality that we know and that we normally encounter. We have no set reason for which we are made; we aren’t even “made” at all (i.e., not designed, created, intended, etc.). We are accidental outcomes. We are glorified chemical spills. To say that one chemical spill is behaving “well” and another is behaving “poorly” assumes, errantly, that there’s some standard of reference by which chemical spills can be judged. But chemical spills aren’t supposed to be one way or another. They just are one way or another.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-11211-1361550775-1There are no intentional ends for which we are made. We are not supposed to love our neighbor, nor respect other races, or treat men or women as equals. We are just chemical spills doing what chemical spills do. One human accident loves his neighbor. The other human accident eats his neighbor. There’s no set reference to judge one as “good” and one as “evil.”

Your very desire for purpose in life is not really your desire. “You”, that is, the “self”, is really just–to use another analogy–a glorified meat machine programmed deterministically as a tool, not a person. “You” are not a locus of causal power. “You” don’t cause anything whatsoever, you are nothing but an instrument in the hands of prior forces. Hammers don’t “want” to hit nails, they are just useful for that function. You are programmed through evolutionary and environmental forces to “think” that “you” are a locus of individual unique experience, with “Free-will,” cognition, judgment and all sorts of “mental faculties.” But few if any of these exist in the transcendent way that’s needed if you are going to be able to truthfully reflect on yourself, a word, or an idea. None of that actually happens. Instead, your whole sense of self, your mental life, your insights into abstract knowledge, judgment, and thought are all dissolved down to nothing or nature replaces it all with something entirely different from what you would otherwise think is happening.

The Lego brick universe of naturalism has no place for free will and “selves.” Nature dictates everything about you, down to the very thoughts and decisions you believed were your own. Nature put all of them there in your brain and then forced you to believe you originated them. Nature is a dictator like that. Or to put it more kindly, nature is a boss.

Nature is a silent killer boss.

honey-badger-dont-careNature is also careless. Nature is kind of like Honey Badger, it don’t care. Nature not only fails to care, it can’t care. Nature isn’t the kind of thing that can intend good things or bad things.  It can’t “intend” anything. It’s incapable of wanting any outcomes general or specific. It’s not like nature has goals to which it aims. Nature just does stuff, whether we like it or not, whether it’s good or not, whether it’s morally coherent or morally incoherent. Nature, according to naturalists, does not care at all about how you think things should be. It’s going to do what it’s going to do.

Nature is a silent killer stone cold boss.

What about Reasoning?

Still, you might be thinking that we have reason and we can get morality from reason, right? But reason is a slippery base for morality. It looks firm and strong, but there’s no good place to set morality on it.

For one thing, reasonable people disagree all the time. Peter Singer is a reasonable person, a college professor, and the chair of ethics at Princeton. And he reasonably argues that infanticide should be legal and sex with animals is okay. I assume you disagree and that you too are reasonable.

Second, we can admit that reason is a wonderful tool in ethics but its value is in discovering moral values not in creating them. If it’s already a fact that killing babies for entertainment is evil, then we might be able to discover that by reasoning, and then reasonably infer good ethical principles which follow such as, don’t watch baby torture, don’t bowl with babies, don’t assault young democrats, don’t eat republicans young or old, etc. But no amount of reasoning can change a real and true moral value.babyburrito1

Third, reasoning is a kind of frame, it needs a picture to adorn. There need to be moral facts before reasoning can help us deliberate about where they apply and where they don’t, what inferences can be drawn from them and what can’t be drawn, and so on. But reasoning–by which I mean logic–is an abstract science that is purely theoretical unless and until it is informed with content in its variables. “If X is evil, and evil things should not be done, then we should not do X.”–but unless there is some content for X then this logic is morally vacuous.

Fourth, nature doesn’t really help us ultimately in this regard. Nature is mindless. Any transcendent grounding for morality would have to be outside of nature since nature is ultimately devoid of thought, goals, direction, or moral values. In this way, nature is unreasonable.

Nature is a mindless silent killer stone cold boss.

What about Desire?

BCc2NfuYou might be thinking now that it’s human desires that give us morality. Maybe we shouldn’t look to nature for ultimate explanations but rather should look at the human facet of nature to find an immediate (not ultimate) explanation for morality. This option, to be fair, looks to be the most promising. But it has only shallow appeal. Nevertheless, even a shallow appeal is pretty appealing since many internet audiences are pretty shallow.

Desire-based theories are shallow for several reasons. For one thing, our ability for “desire” might itself be illusory. Nature forced instincts on us, but it’s not like those instincts can be presumed coherent, or reality-based. Nature doesn’t filter for truth, it just filters for survival (see below “Evolution”). I want to live forever. You may want to be Spider-Man. We all want to gorge on no-calorie deserts and still look great. The mere fact of desire doesn’t prove much of anything about the objects of desire. But desires are no easy thing to explain if nature is all there is. Desires are intentional acts. That means we (supposedly) cause a mental event where we are “about” (intend) something else that is yet unrealized. But this relation of “aboutness” is weird. It’s not a material thing. It’s pretty abstract. And it doesn’t seem to be reducible to purely material stuff, whether material substances, properties, or relations. Now maybe you are smarter than me and can give an account of how nature can do that, but I haven’t the slightest clue how that would work or that it’s even possible given the categorical divide between “is” and “about.”

Second, that’s not even the strongest objection to desire-based theories, desires aren’t all good. This point seems obvious but bears repeating. Desires can be very very wrong. We can want things that are bad, evil, and nasty. Our ability to desire can be “wronged” (as with lobotomies). We can fail to want things that we should want. We can want things that are impossible. And of course, our desiring abilities are often quite silly. Perhaps you’ve had a child that wants to be a dolphin, or a mighty morphin power ranger, or pixie dust. The very fact that we can have good and bad desires is proof that our desires themselves are not the most fundamental basis for moral good and evil.

Third, building on the last point, we can discern good and bad desires by referring to other more basic measures. If Jeffrey Dahmer wants to kill and eat a young boy that’s an evil desire, no matter how sincerely he wants it, no matter if nature forced that desire on him, no matter if nature has no prescriptions anywhere in all the universe that could tell us that “Jeff shouldn’t eat people.” We know that Jeff shouldn’t eat people, but it’s terribly tricky to find a way in nature to translate that prescription (or proscription to be exact) into a natural fact. This problem is what ethicists call the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the “is-ought fallacy.” If you think it’s easy to solve in naturalism, then you probably don’t understand it.

Fourth, there are some kinds of goods outside of our desires. Imagine a beautiful art piece, the last one from the artist before he died. It is still wrapped in paper and not yet unveiled. And now imagine a person who accidentally unleashed his dogs into the art museum. The dogs, for some reason, tear that art piece into art pieces. Real value has been lost, but there is no discernible human desire connected to that art piece. The insurance company hadn’t insured it yet. The artist is dead, and can’t want it. The museum didn’t know if they want it or not since they hadn’t yet studied the piece. Their wall space is at a premium. And it’s the policy of the museum not to sell that artist’s work so they cannot stand to gain financially by selling it to another dealer. There are no human desires connected to that art piece, yet there’s a loss of value when it’s ruined.

Fifth, even if desire-based theories somehow worked they would only give us moral relativism. In philosophical ethics, moral relativism is about as popular as CSPAN. Why is that? Relativism surrenders too much. When we say “rape is evil” we don’t just mean “I feel like rape is bad,” or “I don’t want rape,” or even “We collectively don’t want rape.” When we claim that rape is evil, we are referring to a fact that is true regardless of culture, law, or time period. If everyone agreed or no one agreed. Rape would still be evil. Relativism doesn’t measure up to what we know about evil things like rape.

What can we say about desire-based theories? Nature is too robotic to even give us a meaningful and robust account of desires, much less desire-based ethics. Nature is heartless, like a machine.

Nature is a mindless heartless silent stone cold killer boss machine.

What about Evolution?

Still, others may try the standard “go-to” option for naturalists. Evolution! tumblr_mcl0j2FD191rezbgzo1_1280When you have a sticky problem just wipe some evolution on it and that will clean things right up. But Evolution pretty much embodies all that’s wrong with natural morality. The engine of evolution is fueled by selective pressure, that means, a deadly competition for survival. Nature kills everything through evolution. It’s sort of like the Hunger Games where kids are placed in a wild landscape to kill each other for a chance at some food. Nature puts everyone in a gladiator cage fight. We call this bloodsport, “Evolution.” If nature is red in tooth and claw, evolution is the most nobilifying excuse for that bloodlust.

And don’t forget, nature is arbitrary. According to naturalists, nature works entirely without direction or purpose. That means evolution is arbitrary, operating entirely without direction or purpose. [Otherwise, they’d be allowing for intelligent design–and that’s a no-no for naturalists]. Now, to be fair, evolution gave us a dose of charitable sentiments and group loyalty, but in the next generation it could take all that back and give us an appetite for old people to where we kill and eat everyone 55 and older. Evolution, just like nature, just like Honeybadger, don’t care. It could just be screwing around with us and we’d never know. Evolution may have forced dolphins to have, what looks like, social ethics but evolution also made sharks eat cute baby seals. Evolution may make babies look cute so we’d want to protect them, but it also makes some people ugly–should we kill them because “Evolution”? No. Evolution is still a terrible way to justify ethics.

At best, evolution would explain why there might be the appearance of some ethical behaviors, namely, the appearance of ethical “goods” and “evils” which can aid survival. It’s not clear that evolution addresses any ethics except survival issues. As far as evolution is concerned, it does not matter whether we butcher a cow in a painless way or not, but we recognize that even for beef-eaters we shouldn’t torture a cow slowly till we feast on its flesh. Evolution doesn’t inform that ethic, yet that ethical principle–don’t torture cows–still exists.

Also, evolution fails to address ethical truth–evolution is neutral on all matters of truth. There’s nothing in evolution that can ever make any moral claim true. Evolution has not prescribed that any species survive, it has not prescribed that one species should mate for life and another species should whore around the neighborhood. Evolution might force a given species to behave one way or another, but that’s determinism, that’s not ethical prescriptions. Evolution is too coercive to cooperate with free will, yet moral choices require free will.

Suppose a computer is programmed to restart and inform the NSA of your search history every time you leave it idle for 2 minutes. That computer is not doing “good” nor “evil.” The computer isn’t culpable for anything. The programmer is to blame. But according to naturalism, there is no intentional program anywhere in the works. There is no one to blame for any evil whatsoever. The computer was forced to act that way. Evolution didn’t have a choice, and it didn’t allow any choices either. Nature and evolution have forced all behavior on us so we cannot fault a drug addict, an egomaniac, or even Kanye West. They can’t help it, evolution made them behave like that.

Put another way, evolution has not prescribed any behaviors good or bad. It has not prescribed anything whatsoever. Evolution doesn’t do prescriptions, that’s what doctors do. Prescriptions are complicated mental things and evolution and nature have no mind, no ability to prescribe anything. Instead, evolution explains some of the interesting organic splatters squirting out from underneath the gargantuan vice-press of nature as it summarily crushes all life into oblivion. Evolution is a wandering accident, with no destination, no purpose.

Nature is a wandering mindless heartless silent stone cold killer boss machine.


To sum things up about nature, if you had a friend who was a wandering, mindless, heartless, silent, murderer coldly indifferent to anybody else in the universe, a genuine totalitarian dictator–would you consider that person to be a “good friend.” The “friend” part is unlikely, the “good” part is absurd. But nature is all that and a bag of #*$%. Nature is a jerk.

33 thoughts on “Nature is a Jerk. Don’t Expect Morality From It.

  1. Hey John. Nature is indeed cold and cruel, but still sometimes a curious phenomena called morality arises from it. It requires certain quality and quantity of a brain capacity and a social structure in which it operates. Its useful for the population, and that’s the simple reason why evolution “favors” it.

    I would love to discuss more about morality with you, perhaps by email, if thats okay to you. By the way, I really like your website. 🙂

    1. With all due respect, it looks like you didn’t read the post. I’m familiar with the position you are taking. But for the reasons stated in the article, I don’t have faith enough that moral facts can arise from nature alone, and that for lack of a truthmaker for any moral claims whatsoever. I also have posts on utilitarianism and relativism that I would recommend to you if you feel that those provide (nonrepugnant) alternatives to moral objectivism/absolutism.

      1. I dont think you can derive prescriptive moral claims from anything, even God. They do not exist. You are trying to give morality more substance than it can hold. We do have values which are indeed based on mindless forces as far as I can see, and I dont know why this is a problem to begin with. Nature gives us empathy and sense of fairness, as it does to any creature with sufficient cognitive capacity. They are at the very core of our morality, and without them, there would not be much left, no matter how absolute the moral claims would be. It seems to me that you are trying to justify your values by projecting them onto something intrinsic like God, and I think that is a fool’s errand. Morality arises, it is not to be received or found. The fact that you can’t find the justification you want from nature, evolution, reason or desire, is not a suprise because they are not to be found anywhere.

        I have read some of your other posts about morality, and I would have something to comment about those as well. It might be a better idea for me to just comment here on separate posts. No problem. 🙂

      2. What is so valuable to you that, to hold on to it, you would surrender all moral truth? Are you willing to live out your days in that nihilistic graveyard? Perhaps you imagine there’s more to that landscape than how I picture it. Nevertheless, the only way I can imagine someone embracing the kind of amoralism/absurdism you described is by not fully looking at what you are backing into. Theism poses some tough claims and there’s little certainty to be found in the realm of morality–for all parties involved. But to surrender to moral absurdism is downright antisocial. We could start listing things which your system has just embraced, if you like. I suspect you wouldn’t like that. Quite possibly, a thorough application of the moral system you’re asserting would send civilization backward to the Rape of Nanking or the Bolshievik revolution. Hell on earth. All the while you are left asserting that the moral truths self evident to billions of people can’t be “true” because that doesn’t fit your metaphysical preference for godlessness.

      3. Also, it’s more like I’m trying to justify a minimal set of shared moral values. I think people have an intrinsic right to life. Do you deny this? I think women have a moral right to be treated with equal dignity, as men, before the law. Are you saying that’s not true? I think it’s wrong to bully gay people or kill them for sport. Are you suggesting that morality is such a shallow fabrication that a society could literally make “gay bashing games” a good and legal sport? Human dignity and equality seem to be a natural fact and that fact bears upon our moral duties towards each other. Your system doesn’t seem rich enough to account for this apparent reality about humanity and society. As such the whole of the United nations, international Human rights councils, and even the US founding documents agree with me. Some kinds of evil are so evil that no amount of “legal” can make them good.

    2. Thanks for the positive feedback though. I wouldn’t mind a respectful exchange, but I’d prefer to keep it here on my blog unless we know each other personally or professionally. Mainly that measure helps me keep from spending too much time answering emails.

  2. For some reason I couldn’t reply directly to your response, so I shall reply here. Is that a bug in WordPress perhaps or just my ignorance?

    Now you are making assumptions about my view that I don’t actually hold. I will tell you so that you don’t have to do that. I do think moral facts and values exist, but I’m not sure I like the word ‘truth’, I don’t find it to be especially useful in this context. The moral facts and values relates strongly to a facts about our experience as human beings, governed by nature. Sure, they are not intrinsic or absolutely unconditional, but they are objective in a sense that it doesn’t depend on my opinion whether for example punching someone in the face hurts the poor guy, not always even his own. Neither is it dependent on culture or laws, just to the fact whether it unnecessarily hurts or causes harm.
    As I have defined my moral terms like wrong and right to actually mean something coherent and useful (the usual consequentialist stuff about suffering and well-being bla bla bla, but not simply just as ‘pleasure’), it then follows according to my definition, that punching someone in the face (without a good reason) is morally wrong thing to do.
    Killing someone without good reason is wrong by my definition of the term ‘wrong’. I could come up with a hypothetical situation where it would be morally monsterous to not kill a person, and I think you could do that as well. It serves no good purpose to say things like killing is intrinsicly wrong, I think it just feels good to state things like that with majestic authority. The human rights are not intrinsic either, but they are demonstarted to be good guidlines towards well-being. So good in fact, that they could be generally held as “intrinsic” for practical reasons. My “moral system” is alot more complex and nuanced than this, but now you have an idea where I stand.

    So the case was made in your post and response earlier, that unlike naturalists who are desperately trying to justify their moral claims through different equally doomed methodes, theists have a truthmaker who can be the real standard of morality and simply be the definition of good. I don’t think that is a coherent or useful definition. More than that, I don’t see how you can derive moral ought’s from whatever God is. Could you elaborate on that, or give me a link to where you explain the method that allows theists to do so?

    1. to my knowledge, naturalists have only a handful of reference points to use in trying to make their moral system meaningful. Desires, instincts, and reason. Perhaps there are some others, but quite likely they reduce down to some combination of these.

      Now, you pointed out how punching a guy harms him unnecessarily. that is true. It harms him unnecessarily. that’s a fact. Now, where’s the moral bridge from that natural fact? There’s no disagreement about whether assaulting people is “harm,” but my worldview allows that harm is morally wrong, I don’t see where nature ever dictated any “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” regarding our behavior. Where is it established, through nature alone, that that guy “shouldn’t” be harmed unencessarily? Nature harms people all the time, it could even program you or me to be quite harmful to people on a regular basis. If nature is everything, then nature could make rape ethical. Indeed for some animal populations rape, or baby-eating, or poop-throwing are normal to the point of boring behavior. Nature could even have engineered our social outcomes so that whole societies are regularly harmful to other societies, on purpose, and without any moral concern for that out-group. Indeed, we have whole populations who have thought like this–such as Nazis, the Tutsis, or the invading Japanese (in Nanking).

      You haven’t shown that any of your moral system bridges from the facts of nature to oughts of morality.

      Next, I’m not trying to read into your ethics. I’m just trying to point out implications of the claims you are making. please forgive me if I mischaracterize you and your views at any point. When I refer to a “moral fact” and “moral truth,” I’m referring to inextricable features. If you affirm a moral fact, then you are affirming states of affairs which correctly describe what ought to be or what out not be. The “truth” refers to a correspondence between one’s moral claim and it’s reference point.

      In simple terms: It’s categorically impossible to affirm moral facts if those fact-claims don’t correspond correctly (truthfully) to their reference point. If you “should love your neighbor” then that claim is true, and it’s truthmaker is some reference point to which that claim correctly correponds. without a correspondence relation there’s no truth, and no fact. yet nature still offers nothing that could operate as a truthmaker for moral truth. I think you would agree with this last point, but I suggest you can’t hold onto the rest of with affirming correspondent truth.

      If you abandon the notion of moral truth, you have abandoned the notion of moral facts. You’ve likewise abandoned the normal most common sense of “moral objectivism” whereby there exist moral facts that we can know as such, and which are not merely reducible to subjective morality.

  3. Regarding your last point/request, where you said:

    “…theists have a truthmaker who can be the real standard of morality and simply be the definition of good. I don’t think that is a coherent or useful definition. More than that, I don’t see how you can derive moral ought’s from whatever God is. Could you elaborate on that, or give me a link to where you explain the method that allows theists to do so?”

    I would answer that, at minimum, theism admits a mind–whereby intentional states can exist, including moral “oughts.” This mind is not materially dependent, metaphysically derivative, ontologically contingent, nor errant as are human minds. Admitting a mind, intentional states make senses, and moral “oughts” can exist. Our moral claims can be facts to the extant that correctly correspond to these oughts, grounded in God (a supracultural, objective reference point).

    Were human minds the only minds in existence, we could have a kind of morality, but we’d never have the objective frame of reference (which Thomas Nagel calls a “view from nowhere”) to be able to judge if our “oughts” are anything more than coerced desires and instincts that nature forced on us (like when a monkey rapes it’s mate, or a male cat eats its young–nature made them do it). Mindless indifferent nature has made us think this way, and if she’s wrong, we would be categorically unable to know it. We would have moral relativism, at best, and not objectivism. Plus, it’s not clear that human minds could even arise from natural forces generally or brain processes specifically. I take the fact of human minds as evidence against materialistic reductivism and some of the best evidence on earth of an intelligent designer. I’ve never seen, for example, any proof of concept, much less scientific demonstration, showing that mind can ever be made to arise from mere material, with no mind among its causal priors. Yet, we all the time see parents (having minds) produce children (having minds). We have billions and billions of instances where it takes minds to make minds, and no proof that minds, much less life itself, can arise from non-living or non-mental stuff respectively.

    1. Here’s how I see our current situation. You don’t find my system to be meaningful because I can’t derive any moral ought’s from reason, desire or anything else in naturalistic worldview. I disagree that it is not meaningful, but I agree that I can’t derive those pure moral ought’s from anywhere, but like I argued earlier, neither can you. So I don’t want to try to explain away this lack of “true” prescriptive power. It wouldn’t make sense, right? Therefore, I will only try to show why moral facts relate necessarily to natural facts, and why every ought in any naturalistic or theistic moral system is a rational ought, and nothing more.

      You asked what if nature would have programmed us to value rape or other immoral behaviours, wouldn’t they be then moral things to do. There’s a reason why certain kinds of behaviours are favored more than other kinds in a social populations. Lions for example, do not generally kill members in their own group. Why is that? Because it would be a stupid thing to do, right? They are stronger when they cooperate instead of going all bezerk on each other. When we look at any of the social species in nature, we can see they have atleast some degree of primal morality. If they evolve capability for empathy and reciprocity, it becomes clear that some behaviours become more moral than others. Its not arbitary that certain kinds of values are good for social species like us, and that we ought to value them if we want to live in a happy, healthy, cooperating and flourishing society.

      You agreed that punching someone harms the victim objectively. But to be clear, you don’t think this fact has anything at all to do with morality of the act, am I right? It would be just as wrong if no harm or suffering would have been inflicted at all, making it practically equivalent to punching a doll, wouldn’t it? If not, then what is it in the act of punching someone, that makes it wrong? If you were to make a moral diagnosis on this act, what would be the symptoms you would look for?

      And then the ought’s. You explained to me that God has a mind in which he can intend things to be wrong or right, and this sets up a solid reference point where we can anchor our moral facts. Ok, I could grant that for the sake of argument, but why would we want to care about Gods intended moral prescriptions? Saying that God intends something to be right or wrong is a descriptive statement about God, there’s no more prescriptive power to be found than in the Californian law prohibiting texting while driving. If we ought to do what God says we ought to do because he can punish or reward us, it becomes rational to obey Gods intentions. If I would for some reason prefer going to hell, I wouldn’t have the slightest reason to behave like God intended me to behave, and therefore I would not be bound by the God’s moral ought. What does it mean to ought to do something without any rational reason what so ever?

      Questions about origins of mind and conciousness are indeed extremely interesting, but maybe we shouldn’t dwell into that area right now. If you have article about those I could take a look and comment there if I have something to say.

  4. I may have misunderstood your point about harm being morally wrong now that I reread your reply. You did say your view allows harm to be wrong, but mine doesn’t. I am sorry about that.

    All we have to do to link harm to morality, is to define the term ‘wrong’ to mean causing unnecessary harm and suffering, and that’s it. How do you define that term? What do you mean when you say something is wrong? If you say that punching someone is wrong because it causes harm, it is the harm that makes it wrong, not whatever God Intends to be wrong.

    1. Stipulating “wrong/evil” to mean “harm” is fine, but it amounts to a language game unless there’s a more basic metaphysical framework bolstering those terms. If IN FACT the stuff we call “harm” is something we shouldn’t do to each other then our language can and should reflect that fact. But the worldview you are asserting doesn’t seem to allow such METAPHYSICAL facts about morality since the “factual” standing only comes AFTER some stipulated terminology. According to your suggestion, the “moral fact” would occur only at the linguistic level. By that same thought, I can define “good” as “whatever serves my own immediate pleasure” (i.e., subjectivist hedonism) but that doesn’t make it true that moral values even exist, it doesn’t make it true that I ‘ought’ to act one way and not another.

      It looks like this Language game option amounts to a wholesale surrender to moral absurdism (the metaphysical sense of amoralism). Donning a thin cloak of relativism is no real protection against the frigid indifference of meaningless nature.

      1. You also have to define your terms, it’s not a language game. My definition is useful and coherent; harm is IN FACT something we shouldn’t do to each other IF we wish to live in a happy, healthy and flourishing society. Do you think that is not the case?

  5. Nilla, that’s the case. And that’s fine.

    But I thought we were talking about morality. You gave an example which isn’t distinctly prescriptive in a moral sense. You can describe all you want how the desire for pleasure or the dislike of pain can inform our behaviors, but that’s a descriptive game. You need something more than descriptions before you’ve entered into moral prescriptions. To use Immanuel Kant’s terms you gave a conditional imperative

    “If x, and x>y, then y.”

    The problem is that You haven’t shown that “x.” “If x” isn’t the same as “X exists.” In this case, if it’s a moral fact that we should not harm each other (x), then all sorts of implications (y) follow from that. But you haven’t yet entered a moral discussion.

    To enter the realm of morality you need something besides conditional imperatives, and entered what Kant calls Categorical imperatives (X exists as an intrinsically binding duty/imperative). These would be moral facts. The argument form is different. The conditional imperative is entirely relative, in a sort of instrumental way. If I want pleasure, and alcohol gives me the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, then I should partake of alcohol. If I want to facilitate long life for myself and others, then I should do/think/speak in ways that facilitate that goal. Nowhere in that moral calculus, however, is there a natural foundation for justifying any of those “goals” as moral facts, as “goods” which are intractably good.

    x, x>y, therefore y.

    In this ethical argument, x is a moral fact. For example, human life is sufficient grounds for human rights (oughts about right and wrong treatment of human beings). Human rights entail the rights of bodily autonomy. Therefore, there exists a right of bodily autonomy for human lives. This is not a conditional claim. It’s a categorical claim.

    1. I understand that, but your requirments for moral prescriptions are not possible to obtain in any real sense, nor are the intrinsic categorical imperatives. If you insist that there must be unconditional moral oughts in this universe for us to have a truly meaningful morality, it is your job to show that these ought’s exist. If you can’t show that, then we have to work on what is available to us, and rely on reason when it comes to moral prescriptions. What I tired to point out couple of posts earlier, was that the ought’s don’t hold any normative power if there is no reason to act on it, how could they? It doesn’t mean anything to ought to do X without any reason what so ever. The only real reason for the moral duties in your system seems to be the desired circumstances after we die, whether we wish to go to heaven or not. Why else would we want to act accordingly these ought’s?

      Your last example about bodily autonomy is not an example of a unconditional claim. Why is human life sufficient grounds for human rights? What makes it so special for us? Because we value it, right? We value life over death, health over sickness and so on. Human rights are strictly dependend on what circumstances we desire to live in, and that is the whole point of morality. There is no moral category that is truly separate from the facts about our experience as humans. Human rights is semantic category that is useful for us, but it is not a real moral category that we plainly should respect just as it stands. We should only respect it IF…

      1. “The problem is that You haven’t shown that “x.” “If x” isn’t the same as “X exists.” In this case, if it’s a moral fact that we should not harm each other (x), then all sorts of implications (y) follow from that. But you haven’t yet entered a moral discussion.”

        I think that the moral facts find their natural home in the realm of our values, which again are intimately related to the objective facts about our experiences. What is the moral discussion about, if it’s not about seeking the kinds of circumstances, where we can flourish as human beings? For me atleast, the effort to try to justify the moral claims into some sort of intrinsic laws that we just should obey, is a wasted effort. Even if they would exist somewhere and somehow, what good could they ever contribute to our lives if they really are disconnected from our experiences? If you say they are not completely disconnected, what exactly is the relationship between those two?

      2. I don’t have to prove that objective moral oughts exist. The point of this article is to show how naturalism is a terrible basis for ethics. In fact, you basically surrendered to my argument, thus proving the moral paucity of naturalism. Your embrace of relativism is sufficient proof that naturalism, as far as you can see, readily undermines the notion of intrinisic moral values, including innate human rights and the standard points of leverage against racism, sexism, and so on. If enough people desire otherwise then we can rightly reinstate slavery, or spousal rape, etc. I would hope you see a moral problem there. Relativism looks good on paper but when you really think it through and equally think through your own moral convictions, I suspect, you will be able to see that killing people for pleasure, for example, is wrong unconditionally and not just because some people somewhere happen to arbitrarily feel that way at the moment. Naturalism just doesn’t have much to work with in ethics since it renders so many of its adherents relativists, as you have conceded. All that moral indignation you might feel over an apparently immoral God, none of that is truthful. It’s just not in the same category as objective truth claims. It’s more like feelings forever trapped away from factual reality.

  6. Well, I agree moral relativism is a very problematic system, but what makes you think that basing morality on what IN FACT is for the good of us would be relativistic, as if it would depend on one’s cultural background, opinion or arbitary feelings? The whole humankind could be mistaken about what’s good for them, and what they ought to do in order to live happy, healthy and flourishing lives. It really is a science, where we try to map out what really is good for us, and what is not.
    Is for the good of us to follow Gods moral convictions? It might be, but only for the reasons that would increase our well being or to avoid suffering. Do you think that is not the case?

    1. Are you affirming relativism or objectivism here? If you are leaning towards relativism then there are no moral facts (“what IN FACT is for the good of us”) in the objective transcultural or otherwise universal/agreed-upon sense. It might be “good” for us to flourish materially and have great pleasure all life long, but it could also be “good” for us to extinguish the human race so that mother earth can flourish (for example, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). It could be good for me to take your lunch money, buy an extra ice cream and rough you up in the school hallway. If those are my desires, and if I can get away with it, then evolution has no real filter for that behavior. Nature, evolution, and science can’t even judge a school bully as “wrong.”

      If relativism is the case, and you seem to be conceding that as a rational consequence of naturalism, then there are not “facts” as such. There are only “my facts” and “your facts” that is, morally relative reference points adopted within our own systems according to the desires and interests of ourselves or our group. And those facts have no “trump” power over anyone else’s mutually exclusive and equally relative “facts.” Notions like “well-being,” “flourish,” “success,” etc. become relative, unable to stand for any absolute, universal, or otherwise basic “good.” I don’t think nature is sufficient justificcation for our moral knowledge, yet we still have moral knowledge. Jeffrey Dahmer should NOT be allowed to flourish/succeed, ethically speaking, if his moral self has been contorted by evolutionary and natural inclinations towards kidnapping, rape, murder, and cannibalism. I contend that you and I both truthfully know some things that are “right” and some things that are “wrong” but which have no truthmakers in the natural world.

      Regarding your appeal to science: science is value neutral. It can tell us how to go about achieving our goals but it has no ability whatsoever to deliberate between goals saying one goal is “good” and the other is “evil.” Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.

      Regarding your last claim, “God’s moral convictions” is an odd phrase, and sounds a bit anthropomorphic but I’ll roll with it. If God is as classical theism describes him, then his “moral convictions” would be identical with his moral nature. God IS good. His will and commands express his necessary and perfect nature, which is goodness. In this way, it’s a little misinformed when folks belabor the euthyphro dilemma as if there’s any way for a necessarily morally perfect being to be only arbitrarily related to goodness. God wills the good because he is identical with goodness. If it turned out that classical theism is wrong, and the christian God is somehow not identical with goodness, and he’s just doling out arbitrary laws developed from moral values which he drew from someone/somewhere else, then I need to find THAT supernatural source of goodness and start focusing my attention there. When it comes to the source of morality, I don’t want to talk to the secretary or the salesman, I want to speak with the manager. We know that nature isn’t an adequate grounds for moral facts, and if it turned out that the christian God doesn’t work either, then I need to look to a higher supernatural source.

      In this way, my case isn’t really for a Christian God but just a critique of naturalistic ethics.

      1. I affirm to some sort of moral objectivism, but certainly not relativism, so no point in beating that horse anymore. It’s pretty much dead as it is.

        Lets make this really simple. Are there things in this universe that are good for us, and are those things worth reaching for, even if people choose not to? I would imagine God would be such a thing, wouldn’t you agree? People don’t usually choose God because he’s good in some absolute sense that is disconnected from the feeble human experience, no, they choose God because He allegedly brings health, happiness and flourishing in their lives here and in the forever after. He brings joy, love, peace and hope, all the things that we as human need and want, whether or not Jeffrey Dahlmer agrees. You see, some people do in fact have a better moral knowledge than others, just as some people have better medical knowledge than others. There could be even moral geniouses.
        Everything we value in God’s promises, or in the teachings of Jesus, is at bottom reduced to our experiences as human beings. But why is it that you can’t spell this out? It seems to me that you are effectively hiding behind elusive terms like ‘absolute goodness’, when you really should start unpacking what is it in the goodness of God that makes you want act accordingly.

        If God’s moral goodness is completely disconnected from our concious brain states, why is it that christians can’t name a single moral prescription that happens to be in fact bad for us, for example causing unnecessary suffering or misery? If there’s really no deep enough value in avoiding those things, why do they still seem to deliver the normative power to any moral prescription we could ever learn from God? They seem to be, as they should, the ultimate source in which you should pay attention to. They are the real “managers” you should speak to.

        You asked why shouldn’t we value the well being of nature higher than of ourselves, and therefore extinguish humans from the face of the earth. The group you linked to is not completely lost on this matter. I agree with them that the earth cannot forever sustain the ever growing human population, something needs to be done. I think there are multiple moral ways to control the human population, and volutarely ceacing to breed is surely on of them, although it will propably never be effective enough. If we value the well being of ourselves and our descendants, we rationally ought to value our environment also. There is a balance to be found between the well being of nature and humans, that we clearly haven’t found yet. This is a rational conversation that we should have as a species living in this fragile world, and come to a conclusion about where we should focus our efforts at. A veil of ignorance would be useful in this kind of conversation in order to screen out all the selfish benefits people tend to seek when making moral “calculations”.

        Science has always been in the value business, because what good is scientific knowledge if no one values it? Given the trackrecord of scientific knowledge making our lives better and easier, we ought to value it. Same with the morality. Anyone is free to choose not to value moral knowledge and to a total asshole, just like anyone is free to choose not to value medical knowledge and to be sick all his life. Being the kinds of critters that we are, there are reasons to be healthy, as there are reasons to be good. It’s an interesting thought experiment that what if evolution would have made us to value raping and killing and such, but it just happens to be that some ways of living are more conducive and sustainable than other ways, when living in a social groups filled with concious, empathic members. If that fact doesn’t change, we do have an objective base for morality.

        Sorry for the lenght.

      2. I don’t have to prove that objective moral oughts exist. The point of this article is to show how naturalism is a terrible basis for ethics. You claim to hold to some wort of objectivism, but you haven’t shown how there can be any moral truth with only nature as the source of any truth-makers (the reference points making any moral claims ‘true’).

        In previous posts it sounds like you embrace relativism, and that seems consistent with naturalism. It also would be sufficient proof that naturalism readily undermines the notion of intrinisic moral values, including innate human rights and the standard points of leverage against racism, sexism, and so on. If enough people desire otherwise then we can rightly reinstate slavery, or spousal rape, etc. Since you are now claiming a brand of objectivism I suspect you see the moral problem there. Naturalism just doesn’t have much to work with in ethics since “oughtness” (the key feature of morality) is just not a natural relation or property, unless one grants teleology (goal-directedness) and that’s a huge concession to supernaturalism. In that way, naturalism tends towards mystical objectivists (who admit everything about the moral argument for God’s existence but just won’t look at the conclusion–i.e., God exists), or moral relativists. I suppose there’s a third and popular option which is to hold to relativism but do some wordplay to make it sound like “objectivism.”

      3. Nilla, it seems you are really determined to make this comment thread about something other than the OP. That’s fine. I believe I have other articles on my blog where we can take up critiques of theological ethics. But I might have to suggest we take this conversation elsewhere, to one of those articles, since this article thread was originally just a critique of naturalistic ethics. It could be, logically speaking, that naturalism is a terrible basis for ethics AND SO IS EVERY OTHER SYSTEM. One does not have to defend theism or supernaturalistic ethics to correctly critique a competing system.

        I would grant that God, according to my theology, is intrinsically valuable. But I don’t grant the consequentialist/relativistic/egoistic framing of the rest of your line of questioning. Something can be intrinsically good (metaphysically speaking) and I discover that fact through relative and imperfect means (epistemologically speaking). Your line of questioning seems to skip in between these two HUGE fields indiscriminately. So rather than fire all my ammunition at those huge fields hoping I hit something in the fog, perhaps you could boil it down for me. Is there a single central issue, as you understand it, that suggests that naturalism IS capable of objective moral facts? It seems the is-ought problem, and the lack of a natural moral truth-maker are fatal rebuttals to naturalistic morality.

        Meanwhile, I do grant, as you say, “You see, some people do in fact have a better moral knowledge than others, just as some people have better medical knowledge than others. There could be even moral geniouses [sic].” I agree. I think this helps us in favor of moral objectivism.

        In the course of your post you continue into a lot of contentious things, assertions which I’ve argued (and evidentially supported) don’t arise from naturalism. Yet you are using them against supernaturalistic ethics. For example, “well being” and “good” and (categorical) “values.” These don’t seem to exist in an objective sense to where you and I can talk about them as moral facts unless you step away from naturalism and it’s amoral trappings. In this way, science IS value neutral in the sense of categorical/objective values. Science can be used to destroy the world or save the world. It can be used to create solutions to world hunger, or generate ways to destroy whole nations. Science doesn’t tell us whether we should exist, be happy, enjoy life, etc. Science just informs our practices with knowledge about nature. If we want to survive, science can help us do it. If we want to destroy all humanity because of our extinctionist ideology, science can help us there too. Science is morally indifferent. Science is value neutral when it comes to the grounding of moral facts.

        You might want to revisit the original post. It seems like you are bringing back into the conversation a lot of the things that I demonstrated (reasonably speaking, at least) don’t work unless you step away from naturalism. Now you are fully entitled to disagree, but on pain of rationality, I need some comparable evidence and reasons for your case before I surrender my case. So far, it sounds like you are assuming the very things I discredited, and you’ve been using these assumptions as foundational planks in your naturalistic ethic. If I have sound reasons for denying these foundational planks, then it’s not necessary to address any of the argument that’s built on them. If the base can’t stand up, then neither can the edifice erected on top of it.

  7. The reason I’m questioning the theistic moral system and not responding to your criticism from your point of view, is that the arguments you propose against naturalistic ethics are in my opinion based on a faulty premises, and as you so eloquently put it: If the base can’t stand up, then neither can the edifice erected on top of it.
    In order to answer your critique, I have to show that the critique is not well founded in the first place. I’m not just going to take the bite and accept your premises as you present them, and then try to defend naturalism.

    If you have a more appropriate article where we could discuss this matter, then feel free to suggest one, if you wish to continue in the first place. However I do think everything we have discussed here, is related to the OP closely enough, but its your website. I will hold the rest of my answers to your questions, if you wish to continue this somewhere else. I would love to be questioned also, I don’t want to be wrong any longer than I have to. Thanks for you time having this conversation, I honestly appreciate it. 🙂

    1. Fair enough. I’m not sure though what premise in my critique of naturalistic ethics you are referring to. Forgive me for not using a neat syllogism anywhere in my original article, but if you point out what exactly you take issue with I’ll gladly address it.

      As for theistic ethics, I develop a brief Moral Argument for God’s existence as the Sixth point here:

      1. The big one is the idea that there even could be a basis for morality, that is not at bottom reduced to facts about human experiences. You talk about it as if it would be absolutely necessary for any sufficient moral system, and hence you criticise naturalism for not being able to reach that absolute by relying on reason, desires or evolution. For me it’s not about whether naturalism or any other system deliver this kind of absolute objectivity or not, its that the notion itself is problematic. All I hear theists arguing for is about what is good for us, but they don’t seem to want to spell this out, for obvious reasons. Sticking on questions like “what does ‘good’ mean, if there’s no supernatural source for goodness?” is just missing the point, while not actually bringing any wisdom to what ‘good’ is, other than whatever God seemingly arbitrarily happens to be.

        The second premise that I won’t swallow is the notion of ‘oughtness’ you seem to require from any sufficient moral system. What is that about? How could there ever be intrinsic ought’s, given that we always need to have some reason to act accordingly? It seems to me, that otherwise it would not be binding at any meaningful level.

      2. Moral nihilism is a possible option for naturalists. I suspect you and I agree that a total dismissal of all moral reality is wrong (and repulsively counterintuitive). But that’s at least an option.

        It sounds like you are arguing, now, for relativism. Rather than repeat my critiques against relativism I’ll ask for your explanation and defense of how you either are not affirming relativism, or, that relativism succeeds in accounting for what morality as we know it. I consider moral relativism (whether subjectivism or conventionalism) to be better than moral nihilism, but ultimately a failure since we have knowledge of at least some moral facts for which relativism cannot account.

        As for the “oughtness” problem, I agree with Aristotle who says that “good” is “that which is desireable for it’s own sake.” That’s another way of saying, “intrinsic” goodness. We want food, for example, because we like the taste or the nourishment. If I want to survive and have a long happy life, I need to have something to eat at least once in a while. Food is “good” for that purpose in the sense of being useful towards that goal. But if I want to live a short depressed and starving life so I can fulfill some adolescent grudge against my parents, well then food is not “good” for that purpose. Food isn’t intrinsically and immediately good, it’s only extrinsically and instrumentally “good.” Put another way, it’s not morally good, it’s just functionally useful to some other goal which may or may not be “good.”

        If we are going to get to the bedrock stuff of morality, and have an ethical system that’s pulls it’s metaethical weight, then it needs to account for ate least some things that are just plain good not because some group says so, or you and I want it, but because it’s just the right thing to do towards the planet, or towards each other, or towards ourselves. We need to get to the sort of intrinsic good that Aristotle was talking about. We need some sort of goals that are just plain correct. A big example of that sort of “intrinsic” good is the human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are considered morally charged/ethical rights that are true of human beings regardless of what country or time they live in. These rights are true of each human being and even if the whole country decides that your race of people should die, or your gender should be denied fundamental liberties, your human rights are still facts about you. The whole country’s laws can be wrong, while your lone moral knowledge (about how you ought to be treated) holds true no matter how many politicians, religious authorities, or lab coat people say otherwise. You have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is good to have these, not because they serve some other goal or purpose, but because these rights are just good for their own sake. I’d suggest that the fact of human rights is indeed a fact, and these are examples of intrinsic goods. Yet naturalism can’t adequately account for any intrinsic goods whatsoever since nature has no goals (to which we should or should not aim).

  8. I don’ t affirm relativism in the meta-ethical sense, but in that people in fact disagree on moral question because of cultural differences etc. But as I wrote earlier, medical facts remain the same no matter where you are, or what’s your opinion about them. Same with the morality. Moral facts exist just as medical facts exist, and one can be absolutely dead wrong about them. In this matter, we are indeed close to each other. We just disagree where we ground those moral facts.

    You brought up human rights as an example of something that is instrinsically good and plainly correct, while food is something that is only instrumentally good IF you happen to value health and life. But it seems to me, that human rights are also good only IF we value human well-being. The goal of the human rights is to safeguard the integrity and dignity of human person. Lets ask then, why is it that we hold values like human dignity and well-being as good and worth reaching for? It think the answer is that because we are the kinds of critters that we are, meaning that we have a certain kind of neurophysiological composition that gives us certain kinds of experiences that we naturally recognize either as desirable or undesirable, and that’s where the puck stops. I agree that a sufficient moral system cannot operate on just these fundamental desires, but they are the end of the line when it comes to reducing values. I think they are intrinsic in the sense that they are not derivable, but not because they carry some supernatural significance. We could be wired differently, but we are not, and so this makes an objective grounding point for morality.
    Again, consider the analogy of physical health. The fact that drinking battery acid is bad for our health is not because there’s somekind of intrinsic badness in drinking battery acid, it’s because of the negative effects in our bodies, and were our anatomy different in some ways, drinking the very same fluid might not be bad for us at all. But although it’s relative in that way, it doesn’t change the fact that drinking battery acid is objectively bad for our health, and no number of differing opinions could make it otherwise. I think this is an apt analogy, because in a way morality is also about the health of our society. Just like in medicine, we can use different kinds of diagnostic tools to evaluate how we are doing, and what could we do better to fulfill our humanity.

    But nothing above or what you described as intrinsically good, gives us the intrinsic oughtness you require. If there are no rational reasons behind oughtness, why should I follow God’s commands, or why should I respect human rights?

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