The recent discussion on my post has been, if nothing else, illuminating and humbling.  The criticisms, questions, and issues are overwhelming.  While I unfortunately was unable to participate due to working two jobs and receiving major life news that kept me mentally occupied (more on that later, I think), it has been stretching to read through the comments.  If the quality of Mere O’s readers is that high, then I suppose we must be doing something right.

The post itself was written in haste, as I was more interested in highlighting the article than anything else.  To that end, I would offer a few (hopefully!) clarifications and questions of my own.
1)  One of the major criticisms was levied against my parallel between Jesus and Darwin.  While Darwinism (more on that in a second) is clearly separable from its founder, Christianity is not.  The objection is duly noted.  While I think Darwinism shares many elements of a religion, including religious fervor by some of its proponents, by virtue of its evolutionary (heh) nature it is clearly separable from its founder, unlike Christianity.

2)  My use of “Darwinism” was clearly loose.  As I was thinking of the “new atheists” (and of them, Dawkins), I was thinking of it as physicalism.

3)   The erudite Falk made this excellent comment:

The basis of Darwinian evolution is natural selection, not manual selection. This distinction is important because eugenics concerns only the latter and not the former. Darwinian evolution cannot be intelligently used as support for eugenics.

It is an excellent distinction.  But not one, I think, that saves Darwinian evolution from lending itself to eugenics.  If “human nature” is not a fixed entity, if it subject to continual development and “progress” (contra Biblical or Aristotelian notions of human nature), then it seems refashioning human nature, and the human race, is morally permissible.

I’m holding this very tentatively, because it is obviously disputable and am still considering the issues.

Two perhaps unrelated questions, though, for the naturalists who read this blog:  is the difference between animals and humans a difference of kind, or a difference of degree?  What, if any, ramifications does this have for ethics?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

12 Comments

  1. I’ve responded elsewhere. Also, I note your own argument from a couple weeks ago:

    But if the “is” doesn’t entail “ought” for natural law theorists, then neither does it entail ought for those who contend that homosexual practices are morally permissible.

    I’d be curious as to what makes one is/ought different from the other.

    (Might we have a “preview” button soon?)

    Reply

  2. I’ve responded elsewhere.

    Also, I note your argument from an earlier post:

    But if the “is” doesn’t entail “ought” for natural law theorists, then neither does it entail ought for those who contend that homosexual practices are morally permissible.

    What makes these “is / ought” situations different?

    Reply

  3. Apologies for the double post; my comments didn’t appear until a day later. (Are they being moderated?)

    Reply

  4. Jim,

    Thanks for the response. In answer to your question, I think the salient point is that the “is” of physicalism may entail the rejection of any “oughts” altogether (a point that ME Robinson made). That would be an unfortunate consequence of the position, if true. I guess I’m wondering whether local naturalists think that position is true.

    When you say “Preview” button, you mean on the comments, right? Like “Preview comment”?

    Reply

  5. Exactly. Firefox has a great in-line spellchecker, but links or quotes are always dicey.

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  6. “I think the salient point is that the “is” of physicalism may entail the rejection of any “oughts” altogether (a point that ME Robinson made). That would be an unfortunate consequence of the position, if true. I guess I’m wondering whether local naturalists think that position is true.”
    I don’t see why even a fairly radical physicalist would want to grant this. Physicalism about many phenomena is plausible. So is moral realism. Here’s a story that preserves both:

    Suppose moral properties just *are* natural properties (I have in mind something like Cornell realism). Once you get matter arranged in certain ways, the moral properties come along for the ride for free. Ought statements are in turn entailed by the havings of moral properties by things (that an action has the moral property of being ‘not right’, say, entails that ‘one oughtn’t to do it’). On this picture, there is no radical divide between the natural and the moral; the two are identical.

    The most prominent objections to an ethical naturalism like the one I describe above revolve around multiple realizability and semantic reduction. I’m inclined to think that both of these objections can be dealt with, though.

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  7. ABailey,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. If my understanding of Robert George’s version of Natural Law theory, he is very close to something like that (I think he describes the moral imperatives as being “tied” to nature, and hence you don’t derive ought from is, but “ought” depends upon the way “is” is).

    That said, do you think a physicalist who is also an atheist could hold to something like this? It seems that what makes George’s theory go is that at the core of the “is” is reason–that “is” is that way intentionally (teleology). Presuming that is undercut (which may be too much to presume–I don’t know) by evolutionary naturalism, what then for the identification between the is and ought?

    Thanks again.

    Reply

  8. I’m not sure what the worry is. Suppose we think that H20 just *is* water. This is an identity we’ve had to discover, but I’d imagine it holds whether God exists or not. Similarly, if certain moral properties just *are* certain natural properties, then there is no is/ought gap–whether God exists or not.

    You seem to be looking for an explanation of some sort, and think that Cornell realism can’t give it. But just as it’s somewhat odd to ask for an explanation for why we find water wherever we find H20, so also, it strikes me as odd to ask for an explanation for why certain actions are right or wrong (given our natural/moral identity thesis). Identity is explanation enough.

    But perhaps I just don’t understand your worry.

    Reply

  9. Abailey,

    I guess the worry is that the nature of “nature” seems significantly different between a theistic universe and a non-theistic universe, and if moral properties just are certain natural properties, by consequence they would be significantly different as well.

    Is that clear enough?

    Reply

  10. Peregrine Ward April 4, 2007 at 8:31 am

    Abailey,
    I’m not familiar with Cornell realism, but I still think I can venture a query about the position you outlined. You said that even a “fairly radical physicalist” could hold that deontic statements are truth valuable, if one takes them to be entailed by statements about moral properties, which “come along for the ride for free” given a certain arrangement of particles.

    If there are moral properties, then it is probably analytically true that “is” entails “ought” (analytic b/c what one ought to do is wrapped up in the concept of morality). SO I don’t have a problem with the entailment of ought statements from is statements, when the ises are about moral properties.

    But I don’t think the physicalist can haggle such a bargain as you suggest. What exactly does it mean for a moral property to be identical with a physical property? I take it that only actions or perhaps persons have moral properties. A particular arrangement of matter, is at least a partial explanation of an action (a material cause), but note that two very similar arrangements of matter can be brought about by two different agents who have two different intentions in performing the action. One intention may be good, and the other bad, but it seems that the arrangement of matter alone is irrelevant to the goodness or badness of the action (unless one wants to include the respective arrangements of matter in the brains of the agents).We might also ask, is an arrangement of matter sufficient to make an action a token of a type of action, or must we give some further explanation? (Killing and murder seem to be two types of actions, but the tokens of each, at the physical level, may be very similar.)

    But maybe the Cornell realists think that other things besides actions or persons have moral properties. So, what sort of physical things have moral properties according to the Cornell realists?

    Reply

  11. Dear Ward,

    I, too, am unfamiliar with Cornell realism. But it’s the closest ism I could find to the view I describe (and one I think physicalists can plausibly defend). Note that the Cornell realist proper only claims that moral properties can be reduced to natural properties. The formulation I here describe says something stronger: that moral properties are identical to physical properties. The difference is two-fold. First, some think A’s can be reduced to B’s without an identity thesis. I think this is nonsense and go for straight out identity. Second, the physical and the natural aren’t co-extensive, at least on most usages in metaethical debates like this); but I here describe a radical physicalism that preserves moral realism.

    But enough with the preliminaries.

    1. Which Physical Properties?

    You might wonder which physical properties the moral properties are supposed to be identical to. The answer is going to be very complex. ‘Being good’ isn’t identical to ‘being an electron of such and such a charge.’ It’s not even a complex physical property like ‘being a system of matter and energy arranged so-and-so.’

    More plausibly, a property like ‘being good’ is going to be a long disjunction of various complex physical properties. Infinitely many of them, I’d suppose. Discovering which disjuncts make it in the infinite disjunction is an empirical matter. One and the same moral property may be realized in vastly different ways; but each of these ways will be one of the disjuncts. The identity thesis the Cornell realist will defend, then, will like something like this:

    The property ‘Being good’ is identical to the property ‘Being arranged thus-and-so or being arranged such-and-so or…’ (where thus-and-so and such-and-so are detailed descriptions of a system in the language of fundamental physics). Note that the disjunctive property as a whole is held whenever any of its disjuncts are, and the disjuncts are all and only those physical configurations that bear moral properties.

    2. Supervenience Issues

    You wonder whether two duplicate physical systems might have different moral properties; if so, the case poses a counterexample to strong-individual-supervenience (of the moral on the physical) and to the identity thesis. I deny that your case is as you describe it though, for the very reason you suggest (“unless one wants to include the respective arrangements of matter in the brains of the agents”). If two agents perform similar acts but with different intentions, they will not be physical duplicates. Intentions are mental states and mental states supervene on physical states. A difference in mental state then guarantees a difference in physical state. Hence, there’s no pressure for the Cornell realist to think the two systems in question must be moral duplicates (they’re not physical duplicates, after all).

    3. What Has Moral Properties?

    You ask: “We might also ask, is an arrangement of matter sufficient to make an action a token of a type of action, or must we give some further explanation? (Killing and murder seem to be two types of actions, but the tokens of each, at the physical level, may be very similar.)”

    This is a good point, and I think motivates some qualifications to the realism I have in mind. The ‘being arranged thus-and-so’ disjuncts of the property ‘being good’, say, are going to have to include extrinsic properties of whatever bears them (eg, causal and spatial relations). Take an agent and duplicate her intrinsically (her duplicate shares all intrinsic, but not necessarily all extrinsic properties of the original). The duplicate need not be a moral duplicate, since she might be in a completely different situation without a history and any causal relations and so-forth. This motivates a wide reading of the identity thesis the Cornell realist will affirm. Subsequently, it motivates a wide reading of their supervenience thesis too.

    “So, what sort of physical things have moral properties according to the Cornell realists?”

    I’m not sure that the Cornell realist is comitted to any one answer to this question. Perhaps big states of affairs have moral properties (‘Hurricane Katrina shouldn’t have struck’), perhaps states of affairs including many persons have moral properties ‘The United States is morally bankrupt.’

    -abailey

    PS: The view I’ve described entails (but isn’t entailed by) standard formulations of Cornell realism. So again, it’s not Cornell realism exactly–but it’s something near enough to deserve the name, I suppose.

    Reply

  12. Matt,

    You say: “I guess the worry is that the nature of “nature” seems significantly different between a theistic universe and a non-theistic universe, and if moral properties just are certain natural properties, by consequence they would be significantly different as well.”
    There’s a problem here; we’re wondering what godless worlds are like. But on my view (and I suspect on yours), there aren’t any such worlds. That is, God exists necessarily, so there’s something untoward about asking what things would be like were he to not exist. Having registered this worry, I answer:

    I do not share your intuition. If God weren’t to exist, certain important features of the physical world might still be the same. Most importantly, those arrangements of matter and energy which just *are* moral properties might still be instanced. Hence (and this puts things quite crudely), there might be morality, even in a godless world.

    I’ve equivocated here, though. I began by speaking of natural properties quite loosely. What I really have in mind are physical properties, however. Does your intuition hold for this more restricted case? If God weren’t to exist, do you think that the relevant physical properties couldn’t be instanced?

    -abailey

    Reply

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