Moral intuitions are elements in the behavioral repertoire of human beings. Their expression differs in detail from one individual to another, but in all cases the ultimate reason for their existence is the fact that our brains acquired the capacity to generate such intuitions through evolution by natural selection. In other words, those intuitions promoted our survival during times in which our environment and manner of living were very different than they are now. Strictly speaking, by “us” I mean our genes. They are the only parts of us that have been continuously alive since the origin of life on earth, and only they have the potential to continue to survive into the indefinite future. The phenotypes they give rise to possess no such potential immortality, but are born and die within a relatively short time. Moral intuitions are a property of the phenotype, not the genes themselves. Just as neither genotypes nor phenotypes can have a purpose, neither can the moral intuitions that are aspects of the phenotype have a purpose. Things that exist as a result of a long series of random mutations that occurred in a continuously varying environment do not have a purpose. Purpose implies a conscious creator, but there was no such creator.
Assume for the moment that, aside from philological quibbles, what I have said above is true. In that case, it is absurd to suppose that the moral intuitions that exist in the mind of an individual of a particular species that was organized by a particular packet of genes can somehow acquire and independent life of their own, acquiring the property of applying not just to that individual, but to other individuals of the same species as well, even if they happen to carry a different packet of genes that provided them with a package of moral intuitions that are substantially different from those of the first individual. There is no way in which one moral intuition can acquire the quality of being absolutely superior to or better than a different, contradictory moral intuition. I suspect that, for those readers who happen to be of a religious bent, the above is “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” A God solves the legitimacy problem (or seems to) in short order. Being on what seems to them secure ground, they have no trouble seeing that their secular neighbors are floating in thin air without visible means of support.
However, secular moralists “feel in their bones” that one thing is “truly good” and another “truly evil” in exactly the same way as religious believers. It is our nature to experience moral intuitions in that way. They cast about for some basis for the legitimacy of their moral claims, and eventually come up with one, arriving at it with a chain of reasoning that invariably includes the step, “miracle happens.” If memory serves, it was Nietzsche who said “It is better to have the void for a reason than to be void of reason.” To disguise the void, secular moralists will often exploit moral intuitions themselves. They pick some deed that is likely to evoke a powerful moral intuition similar to theirs in whoever it is they are trying to convince, such as female genital mutilation, the racist lynching of innocent blacks, the Holocaust, etc., and insist that it is “truly evil.” If the listener dares to object, they can always bring virtuous indignation into play, with the implication that the listener must then himself be evil. Such “logic” is nonsense if what I asked the reader to “assume for a moment” above is actually true. As an unbeliever, it happens to be my opinion that it actually is true. If any secular readers disagree, I would certainly be interested in hearing why.
This sort of common if flimsy rationalization of “the good” by polling of moral intuitions leads to some interesting contradictions. For example, the recent death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has evoked fawning eulogies from those who saw in him the prophet of a brave new world free of inequality, exploitation and misery. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that inequality, exploitation and misery are “really evil”? It has also evoked hostile condemnations from those who considered him one of Stalin’s many apologists and, as such, a collaborator in mass murder. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that mass murder is “really evil”? The resolution of the disagreement in the mind of a given individual depends on whether, one the one hand, their preference for living in a world free of mass murderers outweighs their dubious trust in the promoters of future utopias, or, on the other, their belief in some shining “Brave New World” of the future inclines them to dismiss the “breaking of a few eggs to make an omelet” as a necessary evil.
My own moral intuitions happen to place me in the former group. I have a strong aversion to the Hobsbawms of the world because I agree that they are collaborators in mass murder, and consider their “enlightened” belief in future utopias dangerous delusions. I disagree, however, with the assertion that Hobsbawm was “truly evil,” meaning objectively evil regardless of the opinion of any individual on the matter. The typical objection to such a point of view is that it would promote “moral relativism,” and that the resulting moral anarchy would result in the collapse of civilization or something similarly apocalyptic. In fact, in the unlikely event that most of us did adopt my point of view, we would not all become “moral relativists” because it is not our nature to be moral relativists, and our societies would not descent into amoral anarchy because it is our nature to be moral beings. Morality isn’t going anywhere simply by virtue of the fact that we finally recognize the truth about what it is. It seems to me that truth has been obvious for some time. Books about the genetic basis of morality have been rolling off the presses at an ever increasing rate of late. As research on the genetic origins of morality and the details of its manifestation in the brain continue, the evidence in favor of that truth will become ever weightier.
I personally find general recognition of the truth preferable to the maintenance of what some consider useful lies. Those who agree with my aversion for the Hobsbawms of the world will find any fears they might have that it would disarm the opposition are misplaced. It did not disarm me when I volunteered to serve in Vietnam, even though my opinions about morality were the same then as they are now. My aversion to living in a world run by Hobsbawm and his fellow “enlightened idealists” outweighed my aversion to assuming the personal risk of fighting to defeat them. I know I am not unique in that regard. Other than that, I personally foresee positive benefits to living in a world in which there is general recognition of the truth about morality. For one thing, the pathologically pious and chronically indignant among us who have become an ever greater nuisance of late would be revealed for the ludicrous frauds they really are. Most of the charlatans posing as “morality experts” would become laughing stocks, encouraging them to seek a more useful mode of making a living. I certainly “feel” that that would be “truly good” even if I must agree with Hume that reason can provide no basis for my feeling.