Abstract: This essay will briefly examine the nature of morality from within a strictly naturalistic or materialistic perspective and will argue that within such a framework morality itself cannot establish a reason for one’s adherence to it.
Why should human beings be moral? That seems like a simple question, I mean, who doesn’t want to be moral? Maybe the odd sociopath here and there, but for the most part being a moral person is just assumed as the moral thing to do (just ignore that glaring circularity for now… and forever). Yet, in a Western world that swims in the streams of autonomous reason, it is a bit odd how little the average Westerner struggles with the entire concept of morality.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we are a morally driven culture, perhaps more so than ever, social justice anyone? The moral sense is strong, the moral ability is debatable, but for this post I am considering neither of those; here I am focused on the moral ought. That is, I am not concerned with if someone can be moral, but if they ought to be moral.
Despite our love of reason, we seem to be in rather short supply for a compelling reason to be moral that actually coheres with reality. Think about it, the current secular understanding of reality is that morality arose in a completely unguided process of evolutionary survival of the fittest which had its own birth in a completely natural big-bang where everything came from nothing by itself (perhaps that is a very slight caricature, but really, is it?). For the most part, morality itself is considered merely an outworking of the evolutionary process of passing on one’s genes (so have as much indiscriminate sex as possible!), and even “noble” traits such as altruism are not anything more than a left over tribal survival trait. Essentially, from this perspective, morality is something, but it is not something objective.1 That is, there is nothing beyond our moral sense that makes morality itself real. And there in lies the philosophical problem. MIT professor Ian Hutchinson puts it like this, “Evolutionism’s answer offers mechanisms for how current moral opinions might have arisen, but not justifications for why one should accept or practice them.”2
So even if we can explain how morality arose, within a materialist framework (moving matter is all that there is), there is a significant difficulty explaining why we ought to be moral. Or, perhaps it is more than that, it is actually impossible to put an ontological ought upon morality to anyone unwilling to start from the traditional framework of morality. Ontological just refers to the nature of being, so by this I mean, if someone does not assume certain moral patterns that already exist it is a remarkably difficult task to explain why someone should accept any moral standard merely due to the nature of this morality that by worldview definition has nothing beyond itself. What we are after (for the sake of the argument) is a grounding for morality within a strictly evolutionary framework that actually gives us a non-self-justifying reason to love our neighbor (instead of eating them as much of nature does), to serve the poor (instead of removing the weak as nature does), and to respect those who are different than us (instead of wiping them out as most of human history has done). That is, what about morality itself makes it require something of human beings? And make no mistake, it is not just the religious who can see this problem, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel states that, “From a Darwinian perspective our impressions of value [which includes what we value as moral], if constructed realistically, are completely groundless.”3
At first glance it seems obvious, just be good for goodness sake, right? But why? If goodness is merely a relative construct of human society, why do I owe goodness anything at all? Just do unto others as you would have them do to you? But why? Are you not merely asserting what you deem to be valuable and therefore asserting your own value judgements upon my individual autonomy? How dare you! Just do what society decides is ethical. But why? What if the Nazi’s won? Does the majority opinion still stand? And once more, these questions are only skating around the perimeter of the point, what is it about morality itself that makes one bound to it? Does morality itself, within its nature, make it require anything of me at all? Philosopher Mitch Stokes adds some clarity,
Given the very nature of morality… if naturalism [aka materialism] is true—there can be no morality in the robust sense that we understand it. Morality, whatever else it turned out to be, would be grounded in nothing more than human preference… A purely naturalistic world would require nothing of us whatsoever. Naturalsim does not tell us how we ought to live or how we ought to behave. That is, if naturalism were true, there simply are no “oughts” or “shoulds.” Neither are there “ought nots” or “should nots.”4
Once again, I am not making the claim that the materialist cannot be moral in any sense, of course they can. However, I am making the claim that due to the nature of their worldview, they can offer no deeply coherent reason for why someone ought to be moral other than ‘because I tell you to’.5 This becomes all the more difficult when one attempts to be reasoned into the current moral sense from outside of it. Once one steps outside, and from a hard rationalist perspective, why wouldn’t that be the reasonable move? one enters an abyss from which morality can offer no rescue. In a restless culture of instantaneous social shaming, radical social justice, and a deep loathing of hypocrisy does one not find the elephant in the room a bit disconcerting? With all of our progress, we have progressed beyond the realm of reason, we have become the very tyrants we sought to overthrow6, as we force our own standards upon others, expecting total obedience and willing to destroy those who rebel in a wave of justified wrath. But as it stands, perhaps it is merely wrath.
Without a non-material standard of objective morality which is not left to the ever changing tides of human opinion, we are still demanding the moral law all the while destroying its very grounding; but then again, is this not actually a subtle attempt to replace its grounding? For now, we have become our own gods, we are the final determiners of what is right and wrong, good and evil. And yet, the reign of the gods has come at the cost of the death of God. Nietzsche’s madman still rages, “But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving?…Do we not feel the breadth of empty space?”7
Indeed, such is the tale of our current state. We lust for our autonomous moral order while ignoring the reality of our rebellion. Is it any wonder we have such a conflicted culture? Overrun with moral demands, overflowing with moral failures. Cries for justice filling one ear, outcries against judgment in the other. A deep hope for unity, a sad reality of division. Once more Lewis’ words speak to the present,
Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.”8
- I am here referring to the majority opinion in the academy, there are of course exceptions that I do not have the space to go into here. I am thinking of those who consider there to be some real moral law, similar to mathematics, that is still a completely natural law, such as gravity. In this view one can attempt to argue that there is a real moral law and therefore it should be obeyed. Two quick comments: First, the mere presence of the law does not justify why it should be obeyed, we fight gravity all the time (three cheers for the Wright brothers). Second, nature itself seems to point against this law if human begins are merely one more animal. Why not act like other animals if we are really not set apart? Most of the history of earth points towards this conclusion within a Darwinian perspective.
- Ian Hutchinson, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?: An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science, (Downer Groves, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), 26
- Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 109
- Mitch Stokes, How to be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 154-56
- Such is the conclusion of Peter S. Williams, “Although the non-theist can do the right thing because they know what the objectively right thing to do is, their worldview can’t cogently provide an adequate ontological account of the objective moral values they know and obey.” in Peter S. Williams, C. S. Lewis vs. the New Atheists (London: Paternoster, 2013), 151
- See C.S. Lewis, “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” in C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), 73
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181–82
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), 26