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.
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.
There 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.
Nature 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.
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?
You 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! When 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.