A few weeks ago the famed atheist and philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, wrote a response in the Guardian to the question, What can Darwin teach us about morality? Ruse’s multifaceted answer is accurate, intriguing, and at times, incoherent – but always and thoroughly enlightening about where atheistic and evolutionary thought leads.
Ruse admits that without God “there are no grounds whatsoever for being good.” Morality, he says, is just a matter of emotion and personal taste on the same level as “liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers.” But he’s quick to point out that just because there are no grounds for being good, it doesn’t mean we should be bad. While this is true insofar as it goes, it fails to answer the more important question: Why – in the absence of a moral law giver, and thus in the absence of any objective moral law – should anyone behave in ways traditionally thought to be “good” if and when it is in their own self-interest to do otherwise? In the name of what should they deny their own impulses? In the name of the Grand Sez Who?
This question is all the more pertinent since – on Ruse’s view – we are biologically hardwired by our evolutionary history to think and feel as we do. But human thoughts and feelings are a mixed bag. While some of us feel the need to treat people fairly and be kind to all, others feel it is acceptable to subjugate and rape women, or kill those who stand in their way. Evolution is equally responsible for hardwiring both kinds of emotions and preferences. So why should people act on one set of preferences and emotions but not the other if they are both hardwired into us by evolution? There is no basis in evolutionary theory for saying one set of emotions and desires is wrong, while the other is right. Indeed, given Darwinism, whatever helps one survive and pass on their genes is “good” (and whatever hinders one from surviving and passing on their genes is “bad”). Since natural selection has preserved all of these emotions and desires in the human species, all of them must contribute in some way to our survivability, and thus all of them must be “good.” And if they are good, why should we not act on these emotions and desires? Drawing from an evolutionary framework, there is no reason not to.
Like so many atheists who deny the existence of objective moral values, Ruse is quite certain that behaviors such as treating women and gays as inferiors and exploiting the earth are wrong. Sez Who? If there are no moral absolutes, then all moral claims are reduced to personal preferences, including Ruse’s. There is no moral quality to any behavior. Everything is just matter in motion. There is no objective difference between subjugating women and treating them as equal. One approach is simply different than the other, not “better.” Ruse’s claim that it is wrong to treat gays and women as inferior is just a preference claim, no different than saying “I don’t like spinach.” If morality is just an illusion, then Ruse’s moral judgment that treating women and gays as inferiors is wrong is also an illusion. And if it’s just an illusion, why should anyone care? He’s got his preference, and I’ve got mine. Who’s to say whose is better? Surely Ruse doesn’t see it that way. He thinks it’s really wrong to treat women and gays as inferiors, which is why he feels the liberty to judge those who see it otherwise. The fact of the matter is that Ruse doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. His words betray his words. While in one stroke of the pen he says moral values are illusory, in the next he speaks as if his moral judgments are true. He can’t have it both ways.
Where Ruse really shows the bankruptcy of an atheistic, evolutionary account of morality is when he says morality is “a funny kind of emotion” because “it has to pretend that it is not” just an emotion at all, for “if we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down.” In other words, while morality is illusory, to lead good lives we have to be deceived into thinking moral values are objective: “It has to appear [to us] to be objective, even though it is really subjective.” Indeed, he thinks most people are deceived into thinking their moral sense is derived from some objective source, rather than some illusion hardwired into us by evolution. One might wonder, though, how it is that those like Ruse have succeeded in overcoming their evolutionary programming to see morality for what it really is. If the illusion is so strong that it has deceived billions of people for countless ages, how has Ruse been able to see past the illusion to get to reality?
The more important point to be made, however, is that an evolutionary account of morality has to deny morality to explain it. We should be deeply suspicious of any worldview that requires us to deny our universal experience and deepest intuitions. The purpose of a worldview is to consistently explain our experience in the world, not deny it.
We might also wonder why, if Ruse recognizes that the illusion of objective morality is what causes most people to behave morally, he would want to convince people that morality is just a “funny kind of emotion;” an “illusion” fostered on us by evolution to make us “social cooperators” to help our species survive? Wouldn’t knowledge of this illusion cause people to act badly, thereby hindering the survival of our species? Ruse’s answer is telling: “[N]othing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral. … It doesn’t matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.” He’s right to say nothing can prevent people from acting badly, but obviously wrong to think human psychology will ultimately cause us to continue behaving in a manner deemed “good.” People tend to adjust their behavior and thinking to fit reality, not illusions. For example, before we learned that the puddle in the road was just a mirage, we decelerated our vehicles to avoid hydroplaning. Once we came to recognize that it was just an illusion, however, we kept our foot on the gas pedal. Similarly, if the masses come to believe morality is just an illusion, they will adjust their behavior to fit their desires, not the illusion.
The conclusion to Ruse’s article is as intriguing as it is contradictory. He writes, “God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality. Thank goodness!” If there is no morality, then there is no goodness to be thankful for. It is just an illusion. Ultimately, then, we find in Ruse a man who is at once both happy to deny the existence of morality, and yet happy to see it persist. Surely this is the mark of a confused man. What drives this confusion is the inherent conflict between what Ruse knows to be true by experience, and what he is forced to claim in virtue of his worldview. When the two are in conflict, confusion and cognitive dissonance will result. The solution is to find a worldview that fits our experience rather than denying it. Theism, not atheism or Darwinism, matches our experience. Only theism can provide the transcendental grounding necessary for objective moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability. So if Ruse truly wants morality to live long, he should become a theist.