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As regular readers will know, I am engaged in a debate concerning morality and whether, as humans, we are exceptional in comparison to the animal world or whether morality can be fully explained in the context of biological and natural evolution, without invoking some other mysterious unknown such as God or similar.

I set out that morality is an abstract object and does not exist outside of our minds, except in the properties of the actions we do. I then set out that morality is an emergent behaviour from evolution that sits on a spectrum in the animal world, one end at which we sit. Human morality could not have developed if the foundational traits and behaviours had not developed before us in our evolutionary line. Guy Walker replied to my first piece, and the pertinent bits will be critiqued below.

The main assumption is that humans exist first without morality but with a mental state that is capable of creating the ‘abstract idea’ of morality for reasons of necessity such as the avoidance of dictatorships or of society falling apart. So “conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds” perhaps out of nothing.

Although I want to steer away from personal attacks and rhetorical device, one issue I often have with Guy is his propensity to use straw men arguments very regularly. Here, although he qualifies it with “perhaps”, the idea that conceptual ideas emerge out of nothing is not at all what I claim. Conceptual ideas emerge out of the evolution of both brains and ideas, together with the evolution of language. I would argue that the beneficial dimension to such ideas are functional in terms of evolution – survivability and reproduction. Some may be neutral, too, when considering that evolution also concerns mechanisms such as genetic drift. Morality does not emerge out of nothing – no, not at all. In fact, that is precisely not what happens and perhaps shows a misunderstanding of the whole argument. 

The necessity of creating such ideas, presumably, arises out of our social condition which, inevitably pits us against each other in Hobbesian conflict. It is interesting to speculate on what the pre-construction of moral concepts state evoked consists of. What were we like at that stage?

As mentioned in my second piece (that Guy had not yet read, to be fair), the components necessary for morality both pragmatically and conceptually include compassion, sympathy, empathy, justice, fairness, reciprocity, reconciliation, a sense of self, values and emotions. Morality would mean nothing, would not have developed as an idea, without these. They may, in philosophical terms, contribute causally to what JL Mackie calls INUS conditions: “Insufficient but Necessary parts of a condition which is itself Unnecessary but Sufficient” for their effects (Mackie 1965). There were a number of hominids that came before us and that coexisted that were subsequently out-competed or “genetically consumed”, so to speak. They are hard to look at behaviourally, but we can make inferences about brain size and ability to do certain things. Other primates are extant species that can tell us an awful lot, and as mentioned in my previous post, do tell us an awful lot about our morality, showing it themselves.

Presumably floating, amoral intelligences. This is to evoke an idea of a kind of tabula rasa state devoid of elements of what we usually take for granted as our whole humanity. It is to take a very distinctive position on these things.

Absolutely not. This is, as mentioned before, precisely not what happens. Tabula rasa, as a psychological position, is outdated. As an evolutionary position, non-existent and incoherent. Environment works with genes to produce outcomes.

Cogito ergo mores. The thinking definitely comes first at the top of the pyramid, the human intellect supreme. In that sense it is a top down approach.

Does it? How can he show that, especially if, as he claims, he adheres to evolution? Intelligence is a product of evolution that emerges from biology and evolutionary pressures!

Inevitably in western culture, based as it was for so long on Christian thought, the objective set of morals have been considered to have been dreamed up by and acquired from a Judeo-Christian God, often portrayed as being petulant and vindictive for no apparent reason.

This is way, way too Judea-Christocentric. As if evolution and society and morals didn’t have any existence or effect before 600BCE!! Western culture is dependent on all cultural and evolutionary history before now. You cannot cherry-pick a preferred time and place as if it is the only variable and was itself cut off from any outside influence. This is patently ridiculous, and that is not rhetorical flair. If it sounds like exasperation it is because it is. I hear this so often from people who want to argue for Judeo-Christian primacy from within that bubble of their belief. They have to give that cultural milieu its causal necessity and primacy because that was supposedly when their God came down and did all the things he did to make us as marvellous as we are. I don’t have time here to pick that apart fully, but it is ripe for the picking.

The trouble with this is that it perpetuates the idea that morals are arbitrary and unforced by any necessity; just snatched from a tree or from the top of a mountain.

This is the sort of straw manning I am talking about, or simply a massive misunderstanding of my and every evolutionary biologist and psychologist’s position. They are utterly not arbitrary. They are there for very functional or historical and cultural reasons. Such an approach also requires one to use moral reasoning in a way that deontology doesn’t, as we will see. In fact, arbitrary is precisely the criticism that can be made against deontology – a delicious irony!

What would be interesting here is to establish some meta-ethics. What does “good” even mean? Is it a fundamental currency in and of itself (axiomatic) or is it derivative? If it is axiomatic, then it has no real meaning. We either say something is good because it just is, or because God says it is. This is empty and without moral reasoning. The other option is to say “good” is derivative and derives down to something like happiness or pleasure/lack of pain. These are self-evidently “good” and form the basis of consequentialist moral theories. It is one of the strengths of such moral theories, for sure. But it is not an arbitrary pastime. Things that make us happy are often good for survival and reproduction (in terms of social cohesion etc.). As a non-derivative moral currency, it’s as good as it gets.

Interestingly, this deontological arbitrariness (Jehovah’s vindictive rules are in no way compelled but just made up) is an idea shared by the author who thinks moral concepts just need to be ‘constructed’ to satisfy practical considerations. Now, although I am characterised as a deontologist in the piece, in fact, I am not. I don’t think a post-modern thinker or Jehovah simply dreams up a construct which is then imposed on society from outside, dropped, as it were, from the heavens or from the pragmatic mind of Michel Foucault. I don’t think that is how morality emerges. So, now, to my under-pinning of moral reality and my account of what it is…..

This shows a misunderstanding of what deontology is, certainly something as pertains to, say, Divine Command Theory (see “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory”).

I do, like deontologists, believe one has a duty to morality, but unlike them, I don’t think morality is a random set of rules with no internal logic or compulsion which we have to adhere to blindly and dangerously. Indeed, why would I?

I’m not sure deontologists do think they are a random set of rules… This, however, does indeed highlight one of the main problems with deontology – it is devoid of moral reasoning. So perhaps Guy has inadvertently hit on one of the main criticisms of it:

1) Arbitrariness

…there is no third party benchmark and so the idea of goodness becomes arbitrary if it is a non-rational assumption made of God. You cannot defer to something else to morally rationalise God’s nature, as this would then become the moral grounding, and this would not necessitate God. But for God to be that grounding, what makes his commands good become merely arbitrary assertions when lacking such rationalisations. Good becomes merely a synonym of God and lacks any useful meaning….

3) We are good only because we reflect God

Think about the previous point on a practical, everyday basis. When you are being good, you cannot use moral reasoning to define that goodness, only that it reflects God. In other words, moral reasoning cannot ground morality, because then the grounding would not be in God. This leaves us with a weird scenario such that you cannot provide any reasoning for moral actions. “Why is this behaviour good?” cannot be answered in any way other than “because it reflects God’s nature”, and thus moral reasoning becomes impotent. It also means that God cannot have reasons for doing as he does, otherwise these will ground the moral value of the action!

4) Defies everyday moral reasoning and intuition (in, say, consequences)

In other words, what makes rape wrong, for us, is roughly what harm it causes. For the DCTer, it is because God commanded us not to rape. Although, he kind of did in the Old Testament! We will look about the world and say, “Look how horrible rape is! Look at the harm it does.” But this in no way makes it wrong! This carries no moral value. Of course, this seems patently ridiculous. None of this plays well with our sense of moral intuition. We feel we are being good for X and Y reason, and yet this is supposed to be reflective of God, and this is what makes it good. Yet most everybody being good on a daily basis believes this or thinks of God in this way when being good.

So on and so forth.

Personally, I think, so far, his reply is a mixture of not properly understanding my position and even a case of not properly understanding his own. Part 2 to follow.


  • Mackie, J. L., 1965. “Causes and Conditions”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 12: 245–65.


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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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