The mental traits responsible for moral behavior did not evolve because they happened to correspond to “universal moral truths.” They evolved because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. The evolutionary origins of morality explain why we imagine the existence of “universal moral truths” to begin with. We imagine that “moral truths” exist as objective things, independent of the minds that imagine them, because there was a selective advantage to perceiving them in that way. Philosophers have long busied themselves with the futile task of “proving” that these figments of their imaginations really do exist just as they imagine them – as independent things. Of course, even though they’ve been trying for thousands of years, they’ve never succeeded, for the very good reason that the things whose existence they’ve been trying to prove don’t exist. No matter how powerfully our imaginations portray these illusions to us as real things, they remain illusions.
God has always served as a convenient prop for objective morality. It has always seemed plausible to many that, if God says something is morally good, it really is good. Plato exposed the logical flaws of this claim in his Euthyphro. However, such quibbles may be conveniently ignored by those who believe that the penalty for meddling with the logical basis of divine law is an eternity in hell. They dispose of Plato by simply accepting without question the axiom that God is good. If God is good, then his purposes must be good. If, as claimed by the 18th century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, he endowed us with an innate moral sense, which serves as the fundamental source of morality, then he must have done it for a purpose. Since that purpose is Godly, and therefore good in itself, moral rules that are true expressions of our God-given moral sense must be good in themselves as well. QED
Unfortunately, there is no God, a fact that has become increasingly obvious over the years as the naturalistic explanations of the universe supplied by the advance of science have supplanted supernatural ones at an accelerating rate. As a result, atheists already make up a large proportion of the population in many countries where threats of violence and ostracism are no longer effective props for the old religions. However, most of these atheists haven’t yet succeeded in divorcing themselves from the spirit world. They still believe that disembodied Goods and Evils hover about us in ghostly form, endowed with a magical power to dictate “right” behavior, not only to themselves, but to everyone else as well.
The challenge these latter day moralists face, of course, is to supply an explanation of just how it is that the moral rules supplied by their vivid imaginations acquire the right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. In view of the fact that, if one really believes in objective morality, independent of the subjective minds of individuals, one must also account for the recent disconcerting habit of the “moral law” to undergo drastic changes on an almost daily basis, this is no easy task.
In fact, it is an impossible task, since the “objective” ghosts of Good and Evil exist no more in reality than does God. However, there are powerful incentives to believe in these ghosts, just as there are powerful incentives to believe in God. As a result, there has been no lack of trying. One gambit in this direction, entitled Could Morality Have a Transcendent Evolved Purpose?, recently turned up at From Darwin to Eternity, one of the blogs hosted by Psychology Today. According to the author, Michael Price, the “standard naturalistic conclusion” is that,
It is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose. Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider. But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.
Here it is important to notice an implied assumption that becomes increasingly obvious as we read further in the article. The assumption is that, if we can successfully identify a “larger kind of purpose,” then the imagined good is somehow transformed into objective Good, and imagined evil into objective Evil. There is no basis whatsoever for this assumption, regardless of where the “larger kind of purpose” comes from. It is important to notice this disconnect, because Price apparently believes that, if morality can be shown to serve a “transcendent naturalistic purpose,” then it must thereby gain objective legitimacy and independent normative power. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but if he doesn’t believe it, his article is pointless. He goes on to claim that, according to the “conventional interpretation,” of those who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection,
There can be no transcendent purpose, because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.
I note in passing that, while this may be “the standard naturalistic conclusion,” it certainly hasn’t stopped the vast majority of its proponents from thinking and acting just as if they believed in objective morality. I know of not a single exception among contemporary scientists or philosophers of any note, regardless of what their theories on the subject happen to be. One can find artifacts in the writings or sayings of all of them that make no sense unless they believe in objective morality, regardless of what their philosophical theories on the subject happen to be. Typically these artifacts take the form of assertions that some individual or group of individuals is morally good or evil, without any suggestion that the assertion is merely an opinion. Such statements make no sense absent a belief in some objective Good, generally applicable to others besides themselves, and not merely an artifact of their subjective whims. The innate illusion of objective Good has been too powerful for any of them to entirely free themselves of the fantasy. Be that as it may, Price tells us that there is also an “unconventional interpretation.” He poses the rhetorical question,
Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself?… This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see.
Notice the quotation marks around “purpose” and “function” when they’re first used in this quote. That’s as it should be, as the terms are only used in this context as a convenient form of shorthand. They refer to the reasons that the characteristics in question happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. However, these shorthand terms should never be confused with a real function or purpose. In the case of “purpose,” for example, consider the actual definition found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Purpose: 1: something set up as an object or end to be attained 2 : a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution
Clearly, someone must be there to set up the object or end, or to discuss the subject. In the case of evolution, no “someone” is there. In other words, there is no purpose to evolution or its outcomes in the proper sense of the term. However, if you look at the final sentence in the Price quote above, you’ll notice something odd has happened. The quote marks have disappeared. “Function/purpose” has suddenly become function/purpose! One might charitably assume that Price is still using the terms in the same sense, and has simply neglected the quote marks. If so, one would be assuming wrong. A bit further on, the “purpose” that we saw change to purpose metastasizes again. It is now not just a purpose, but a “transcendent naturalistic purpose!” In Price’s words,
I think the standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.
In the very next sentence, “transcendent naturalistic purpose” has completed the transformation from egg to butterfly, and becomes “transcendent moral purpose!” Again quoting Price,
If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological. Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction. From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes… These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before.
That’s for sure! In his conclusion Price gets a bit slippery about whether he personally buys into this extravagant word game. As he puts it,
At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.
This implies that Price accepts the idea that, if “these ideas are likely to be true,” then morality actually could have a “transcendent purpose.” Apparently we are to assume that moral rules could somehow acquire objective legitimacy by virtue of having a “transcendent purpose.” The “proof” goes something like this:
1. Morality evolved because it serves a “purpose.”
2. Miracle a happens
3. Therefore, morality evolved because it serves a purpose.
4. Miracle b happens
5. Therefore, morality evolved to serve an independent naturalistic purpose.
6. Miracle c happens
7. Therefore, morality evolved to serve a transcendental moral purpose.
8. Miracle d happens
9. If a transcendental moral purpose exists, then it automatically becomes our duty to obey moral rules that serve that purpose. The rules acquire objective legitimacy.
So much for a rigorous demonstration that a new God in the form of “transcendental moral purpose” exists to replace the old God. I doubt much has been gained here. At least the “proofs” of the old God’s existence didn’t require such a high level of “mental flexibility.” Would it be impertinent to ask how the emotional responses we normally associate with morality could become completely divorced from the “transcendental moral purpose,” to serve which we are to believe they actually exist? Has anyone told the genes responsible for the predispositions that are the ultimate cause of our moral behavior about this “transcendental moral purpose?”
In short, it’s clear that while belief in God is falling out of fashion, at least in some countries, belief in an equally imaginary “objective morality” most decidedly is not. We have just reviewed an example of the ludicrous lengths to which our philosophers and “experts on morality” are willing to go to prop up their faith in this particular mirage. It has been much easier for them to give up the God fantasy than the fantasy of their own moral righteousness. Indeed, legions of these “experts on morality” would quickly find themselves unemployed if it were generally realized that what they claim to be “expert” about is a mere fantasy. So goes life in the asylum.