Michael Shermer on Evolutionary Accounts of Ethical Beliefs

April 22, 2012

At the 2012 Greer-Heard Point-CounterPoint Forum last week I teamed up with Gary Habermas and Peter Kreeft to debate Michael Shermer, Victor Stenger and Keith Parsons on the reality of life after death. It was an exciting time and, from my perspective an that of many who attended, things really went well.

There was one thing that happened, however, that time did not allow me to comment on. This was an assertion by Shermer that evolutionary explanations of theological and ethical beliefs/behaviors are readily available, followed later in the debate by another claim by Shermer to the effect that Kantian objective intrinsic values and moral laws exist and can be known without the need for a God to ground either.

Now, while these two claims are strictly logically consistent, the former provides a substantial undercutting defeater for the latter. Here's why:

If our moral beliefs/behaviors resulted in our struggle for survival in light of the need to feed, fight, flee and reproduce, then those beliefs/behaviors do not track truth and are not counterfactually sensitive to it. Thus, suppose that in our world, the Kantian dictum to treat people as ends in themselves (e.g., don't lie to or kill or be racist towards them) is actually true.

Now consider a Twin Earth just like ours but in which these dicta are false. In Twin Earth, we would have exactly the same moral beliefs/behaviors; that is, our beliefs/behaviors would be ours whether or not they were true. In another possible world in which those beliefs/behaviors did not serve survival needs, then we would not have them. Thus, they track survival not truth.

It follows that if an evolutionary account of moral beliefs/behaviors is accepted, these constitutes an undercutting defeater for the reliability of our moral belief forming mechanisms and our action dispositions.

There could still be an objective moral law, but it would be sheer coincidence if our beliefs/actions comported with it.


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9 Responses to 'Michael Shermer on Evolutionary Accounts of Ethical Beliefs'

  1. avatar Paul Pardi says:

    This argument has teeth only if we first assume that “moral laws” exists outside of whatever beliefs and practices have been developed by evolutionary processes and are things that beliefs must correspond to. Objectivity and a moral statement being “lawful” need not entail this. Suppose humans believe the following to be a moral law: it is wrong to treat people as means. On evolution, what might make this a moral law just is the fact that humans believe (consciously or unconsciously) that this practice is conducive to survival (and the belief is a product of evolutionary processes including social and environmental programming). Objectivity does need to be any broader than the idea that the belief is shared and publicly analyzable and it’s can be considered a law only to the extent that it continues to be a practice humans believe to be conducive to survival. Over time, evolution may rewire our brains such that this is no longer considered to be valuable for survival and it would cease to be a moral law. That doesn’t seem to have any impact on the value or force of what we call a moral law today.

    To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn’t track truth assumes what it’s seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to. Given the enormous fluidity of the moral code across generations and cultures, there seems to be little reason to believe that.

  2. avatar CA says:

    Hi JP, is the debate MP3 or video available online?

  3. avatar Lazarustoo says:

    It would seem that with a mechanistic paradigm, the reason anything should happen to humanity is lost. It is not as though a mechanistic universe creates anything with a purpose. The only way that a purpose could be imputed to man is if he could be certain that he was to continue indefinitely, then he might construct an enduring purpose, provided that all might agree to it and that it had staying power to all future generations, that it would not become stale or old-fashioned in the minds of future people.

    But, we are reminded by the astronomers and geologists that the planet cannot sustain us forever. Civilization as we know it has only a few thousands of years, at best; the species can sustain itself in a return to a more primitive state for thousands of years after. Then extinction followed by a few hundred thousand years before the ever expanding sun reduces the planet to a cinder.

    In such a scenario, morality and/or ethics are only a way to sustain human hubris or a mindless universe’s refusal to allow us to cease to survive.

    So, herein is the paradox: the skeptic/naturalist militants offer us an amoral universe for a temporal species, but for which they must construct a moral framework, one they imagine is more moral than that of a theistic worldview. This not so much creating cloth from gossamer as from the spaces between. Hidden in all this is that there indeed needs to be a moral world for scientific advance to take place. Chaos, the most natural consequence of naturalism, will not do.

  4. avatar Joshua says:

    Hi Paul,

    You’re correct to say that the argument only has teeth if we assume that “‘moral laws’ exist outside of whatever beliefs and practices have been developed by evolutionary processes and are things that beliefs must correspond to’. However, if Moreland is accurate in summarising Shermer’s later claim that ‘Kantian objective intrinsic values and moral laws exist and can be known without the need for a God to ground either’, then this argument does have teeth, because ‘Kantian objective intrinsic values and moral laws’ are a synonym for that very assumption. Your objection is why Moreland is careful to note that the two propositions by themselves are logically consistent.

    If Shermer had maintained a consistent position and defined “objectivity” as you have outlined, then the statement “our moral beliefs and practices wouldn’t track truth assumes what it’s seems to want to prove” is correct. However, Shermer’s later assertion of the knowability of Kantian objectivity renders the statement false.

    “Over time, evolution may rewire our brains such that this is no longer considered to be valuable for survival and it would cease to be a moral law. That doesn’t seem to have any impact on the value or force of what we call a moral law today”. If”given the enormous fluidity of the moral code across generations and cultures, there seems to be little reason to believe that” moral laws are not something outside of the human mind and entirely subject to environment and genes, then moral law is something that cannot be enforced across generations and cultures by appealing to the existence of an external code as a justifier. This has a huge impact on the value and force on moral law – it would involve seismic shifts in the understanding of just war theory, government policy, and generally any interaction involving the use of power between groups of people. It is possible that people can continue behaving as if these things were “correct”, but given that a key motivator for the validity of laws has been removed it is hard to see how this is plausible.

  5. avatar Craig says:

    Dr. Moreland,

    I wonder if your same argument would work regarding “objective laws of prudence,” as opposed to “objective moral laws.” Assuming that the evolutionary explanation of our beliefs about prudential laws is correct, would it still be sheer coincidence if our beliefs/actions comported with the objective laws of prudence? Would it, moreover, be sheer coincidence on the evolutionary explanation if we were able to recognize other kinds of objective truths (e.g., porcupines have sharp quills) and to recognize and perform objectively valid forms of reasoning? I don’t see why it would be.

    These sorts of reflections lead me to think that there are many sorts of objective truths for which our knowledge claims would not undermined by the evolutionary explanation. Moreover, given the ability to perform and recognize valid forms of reasoning, we could presumably come to know many truths that were not themselves in any obvious way “evolutionarily beneficial.”

    Does that seem right? If so, then it becomes less clear to me why the evolutionary explanation should be thought to undermine our claims to know objective moral laws. What is it about objective moral laws that is supposed to make our knowledge of them so peculiarly difficult in the face of evolutionary explanations?

  6. avatar Craig says:

    Dr. Moreland, I also find something puzzling about your Kantian dictum example. Suppose that Kant’s categorical imperative is true and knowable for the sorts of reasons and in the sort of ways that Kantians (of the true-believer variety, let’s say) seemed to think it is. How exactly are we to imagine the relevant Twin Earth? How are we to imagine a Twin Earth that is exactly like Earth except for the fact that the laws of rationality are different? What are we imagining, for example, in a world just like ours except for that fact that it is perfectly rational to simultaneously believe that triangles are three-sided and that triangles are not three-sided?

  7. Dear Craig,

    Regarding your first comment (which is all I have time for at the moment), I have addressed your questions in my book The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (chapter 4 and the appendix), so I refer you there for a more adequate response to your very thoughtful post.

    But three points can be briefly made here.

    First, I agree with Alvin Plantinga’s argument to the effect that knowledge of truth in general is undermined by the conjunction of naturalism and evolutionary theory precisely because, given this conjunction, our faculties have been formed to track survival advantage, not truth or experiential accuracy, and the latter are not needed for survival (e.g., as long as false beliefs or inaccurate sensory experiences were consistent, that would be sufficient for effectiveness in feeding, reproducing, fighting and fleeing behaviors).

    Second, evolutionary theory is materialistic and has great difficulty allowing for the irreducible presence of consciousness, along with room for conscious states to be causally efficacious. Thus, the theory runs into self-refutational difficulties regarding the physical determinism of our “acceptance” of various beliefs, where such acceptance is not due to the free will presupposed in deliberation, or to the semantic contents of beliefs and their logical/epistemic relations to other beliefs, but rather, results from non-rational, physical, causal processes.

    Third, even if one tried to argue that accurate sensory faculties would be likely to confer evolutionary advantage on organisms (a claim that is hard to sustain), moral properties are not empirically detectable; thus, the mental faculty apt for apprehending moral properties would go far beyond the resources of evolutionary explanation. So even if, so-called prudential or sensory knowledge were evolutionarily explainable, the sort of non-empirical grasp of intrinsic moral value would not be. I hope this helps.

  8. avatar Craig says:

    Dear Dr. Moreland,

    Thank you for your generous reply. I’ve yet to read your book, but your three points do give food for thought. I am impressed (and daunted) by the way your arguments extend far beyond matters specific to moral epistemology.

    The arguments you cite cast a broad net. Your third point would undermine logical and mathematical knowledge, your first point would extend the argument to knowledge generally, and your second point would undermine the claim that anyone has ever even had a single reasoned belief. One non-philosophical reaction I have is that, as the implications of your arguments grow, perhaps also will the audience’s confidence that there is something mistaken about those arguments. Many people, I suspect, would take solace in the thought that, for all the arguments show, our knowledge of objective moral truths is undermined only if our knowledge that two plus two equals four is also undermined.

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