Are moral values things that are part of the universe itself in the sense that they would exist even if all sentient lifeforms had ceased to exist? One of the pillars of the theist worldview is that some moral values express things that are objectively true. But wait a minute, haven't we all learned that you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is' ? Yet people experience the world as if some things are objectively right or wrong. If this cannot be because of the way the world is, theists conclude that the guarantor of these objective moral truths must be God. There is a well known problem with this: it is the Euthyphro dilemma. Is something good because god commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the former, then what if God had commanded otherwise? It makes morality seem arbitrary. If the latter, then 'good' already existed and God cannot be its guarantor.
So how would a secular account look? Does secularism entail moral relativism in the sense that what is 'right' or 'wrong' is just a matter of cultural preference or societal sanction? I think not. I think that evolution by natural selection has provided us with the ability to track certain aspects of the world. Part of our world is the social nexus. We have a theory of mind. We can predict what somebody else will do sometimes because we can imagine what it is like to be them. This has consequences in terms of which sets of behaviours will maximise survival. Go around arbitrarily killing and stealing and you won't last long enough to reproduce. So we are equipped with a set of 'ethical drivers' which profoundly influence our perception and emotions about our possible behaviours. There is no guarantor in the sky, but just as Noam Chomsky speaks of 'universal grammar' such that humans have a predisposition to develop language, I am postulating (I'm sure I'm not the first) a universal ethics. Does this analogy fit? Well different societies have different ethical codes, but there are some invariant properties. There are no societies where murdering your firstborn is considered 'good'. Similarly English and German are very different but they both have verbs, adjectives and nouns.
So in order to function within a viable ethics, moral values must have certain invariant principles and in this sense there is an objective component. If humans went extinct tomorrow, the scavengers and saprophytes would feast on our corpses without any moral qualms and in this sense morals are subjective on a species level.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, recognised the following problem and it applies to the majority of Christians of all denominations who accept evolution. It is this: at what point in the continuum of the evolution of humans did God decide we should all get souls and why then? The standard christian defense is that we cannot know the mind of God. This catch all seems unsatisfactory though. Have any of you theological Ninjas out there got a patch for this bug?
Ideas are welcome.
Ideas are welcome.