What’s the Moral of the Story?

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This week, we have a guest post from Lewis Waha. Lewis a currently completing his MA in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Check out his blog at cogitatingduck.com.

Maybe you remember from your earliest school years the common refrain, “What’s the moral of the story?” Depending on the story, we’d say something like, “Slow and steady wins the race,” or “You shouldn’t cry wolf.” The moral of the story is more than just a recounting of the events in the narrative itself. It’s not just a description, but a prescription intended to give guidance. This distinction between description and prescription isn’t just for bedtime or the childhood classroom; it is an abiding aspect of ethics that in turn supports the existence of God.

How so? Well, the existence of objective moral reality has long been thought to depend on the existence of God. Now many nontheists, and in particular philosophical naturalists[1], defend views of objective morality to the contrary. I became acquainted with a couple of them in a book I recently read, God & Morality: Four Views.[2] What the volume’s two naturalist views had in common was their starting point: that which can be objectively observed from evolution. They read the story book of nature to get a prescription out of it. That story has often been boiled down this way: we inhabit a physical universe that is all ultimately accidental matter in motion. How can we get objective moral prescriptions out of this story?

Intrinsic Goals on Naturalism?

One way is to look for intrinsic goals or ends, called telos, in nature. Naturalist philosopher Evan Fales’ approach is to find intrinsic, teleologically organized systems (ITOSs). The classic example Fales gives of an ITOS is an oak tree. An acorn is a natural object that has the intrinsic end of developing into an oak tree. On Fales’ view, for the acorn to grow into an oak tree and flourish is simply what is good for it.[3]

Drawing ethics from intrinsic ends or teloi has a long historical pedigree. But there’s an ontological challenge for the naturalist. [4] Physical matter is thought to lack intentionality[5]; no lump of matter can be intrinsically “about” or “of” something, such as an end. If there are intrinsic ends, then something more than matter must exist. Fales opts to place intrinsic ends in conditional statements, which are abstract objects about moral truths. This might be expressed in the proposition that if oaks come to exist, then flourishing would be good for them. Appealing to the existence of abstract objects like this makes Fales a Platonist, but he insists that his modest naturalism can bear it: his only requirement is that no disembodied minds exist.[6]

Transcendent Mind

How does an abstract object like a proposition attach to a biological system that is ultimately just matter in motion? Minds are abstract objects having causal power that propositions seem to lack. If biological systems evolved before embodied minds existed, then I think an immaterial mind justifies better than propositions how those systems really have intrinsic ends.

Road Block to Knowledge: Fact-Value Split

For naturalists who’d rather not appeal to abstracta, an epistemic[7] roadblock to objective moral knowledge is the fact-value split, or the is-ought distinction. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume introduced this problem when he remarked that there is no formal relationship between empirically-derived facts and moral sentiments.[8] Like storybooks, strict empiricism gives us description, but doesn’t itself give a prescription to apply once the storytelling is done.

Moral Agency

Naturalist Michael Ruse takes seriously the fact-value split. For him, there could be no rational justification or ground for morality. He is a moral nonrealist.[9] Yet Ruse locates objectivity in facts about the moral feelings we have. It suffices for him that evolution gives most people such strong psychologies that they won’t deviate from the values they feel, even if they think they aren’t real.[10]

This practical comfort doesn’t square with moral agency, where people really are free to disregard their evolved feelings and adopt new values. Given ongoing efforts by communities (like transhumanism) to do just that, a moral theory should anticipate these potential changes in values, not just describe historically endowed ones. Theism gives a standard for such evaluation.

I know I’ve given only a brief look at naturalist approaches to objective morality. Yet, I hope I’ve done a bit to suggest that extracting an objective “moral of the story” from nature isn’t done without borrowing some requisites—intrinsic goals, transcendent mind, moral epistemology and agency—from theism.

[1] A philosophical naturalist believes that all that exists is nature.

[2] God & Morality: Four Views, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012)

[3] Evan Fales, “Naturalist Moral Realism,” in Loftin, 17.

[4] Ontology is the study of being or existence. For the naturalist to have an ontological challenge to meet here means that they must give an account of how objective morality is grounded.

[5] Intentions are about, or of, something. I can think “about” a horse. To lack intentionality mean to lack this “about-ness” or “of-ness.”

[6] Evan Fales, “A Naturalist Moral Realism Response,” in Loftin, 118-119.

[7] Epistemology is the study of knowledge.

[8] Keith Yandell, “A Moral Essentialism Response,” in Loftin, 44. Here, Yandell points us to Hume’s A Treatise Concerning Human Nature 3.1.1.

[9] A moral nonrealist believes that morality is not real.

[10] Michael Ruse, “Naturalist Moral Nonrealism,” in Loftin, 68-69.

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