About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, March 15, 2010

What can Darwin teach us about morality?

"What can Darwin teach us about morality?" is the question this week at Cif belief, on The Guardian's Comment is Free site.

The first answer to the question comes from Michael Ruse, who is, like me, an error theorist when it comes to questions of meta-ethics (at least that's how I've always understood his position, and this brief piece seems to support it). Ruse is rather flip and cynical, but I think he's essentially right this time. It's a pity that he feels the need to get a dig at the "New Atheists" right at the end. That aside, all his paras are worth reading. Ruse continues to be, well, good in parts.


[...] there are those – and I am one – who argue that only by recognising the death of God can we possibly do that which we should, and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all of that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilised ova being human beings, and about the earth being ours to exploit and destroy.

Start with the fact that humans are naturally moral beings. We want to get along with our fellows. We care about our families. And we feel that we should put our hands in our pockets for the widows and orphans. This is not a matter of chance or even of culture primarily. Humans as animals have gone the route of sociality. We succeed, each of us individually, because we are part of a greater whole and that whole is a lot better at surviving and reproducing that most other animals.

I'm not sure I'd put the last sentence quoted exactly like that - after all, it might be questioned whether we really do succeed judged by our own values, something that natural selection is indifferent to - but it's about right. And hey, some subtle distinctions cannot be teased out in such very limited space.

I don't know whose answer will be next, but my own will be appearing at some stage this week (yes, they asked me ... and I managed to do 600 words while at the big Global Atheist bash). The piece I've written will be pretty consistent with Ruse's, though with a different emphasis. Presumably there will also be some religious folk contributing, but we await events.

Meanwhile, as usual, some of the comments are amusing ... (I think I'll try to avoid the comments when my own contribution goes up. You get some real nutters commenting there. But of course, I'm not referring to all the sensible people who read this blog. Go and comment away!)


Emily said...

Hi Russell, just wondering: what does it mean to be an "error theorist when it comes to questions of meta-ethics?"

Russell Blackford said...

Well, in a nutshell, it means that there's a deep error in the way people normally think about ethics.

Usually, the point is that people normally think about ethics as "objective" in a certain sense, when it isn't objective in that sense (which doesn't, however, mean that it's just arbitrary). The idea is associated with JL Mackie, and more recently with various contemporary philosophers such as Richard Joyce.

Emily said...

Thanks Russell. Do you think it makes sense to postulate that ethics don't exist a priori to human beings, instead emerging from increasing social complexity? In a way, perhaps ethics are both discovered and invented (there are those who believe the same holds true for mathematics).

Russell Blackford said...

I wouldn't even talk about ethics "emerging". I guess it's true as far as it goes, but gives an impression that sounds wrong to me. I'd say we have various reasons for action, some of which are other-regarding but all of which relate to our contingent psychological makeup. I don't have a view about philosophy of mathematics, but I don't think it helps - it seems to me to be explaining something difficult and controversial by way of something even more difficult and controversial.