Questions for Atheists: Does Moral Law Exist in Itself?

Questions for Atheists: Does Moral Law Exist in Itself? December 31, 2010

This post is one in a series responding to Michael Egnor’s challenge to New Atheists to explain what they believe.  And yes, I’m slipping the last answer in right before the year ends. Edited to add: WHOOPS!  I have two questions left.  One on Aristotle’s four causes and one on subjective vs. objective experience.  Ah well. there goes my feeling of accomplishment.)

For his question on moral law, Egnor set up his prompt as a dichotomy:

Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

This phrasing makes my answer an easy one.  I don’t think morality can have its source in natural selection.  As I wrote earlier this week, evolution doesn’t operate with some kind of preset or optimized telos.  Evolution eliminates the unworkable, but it doesn’t differentiate between different stable states.  Plenty of objectionable societies are stable enough to persist, no matter how objectionable their morals are.

For the last self indulgent math metaphor of the year: imagine that you could represent the entire set of possible societies on a coordinate plane.  Obviously, you’d need more than two characteristics or dimensions to describe societies fully, but for the sake of simplicity, imagine you can.  You could assign a ‘morality score’ to each society with higher scores denoting more moral behavior and lower scores reserved for slave-holding, genocidal regimes.  If, for every society, you placed a dot at the height of its moral score directly over the point on the plane that represented that society, you would end up with a surface that might look something like this:

Some points would be higher than others.  The entire map might be a smooth surface, changing gradually as you tweaked the characteristics of the societies, or it might be full of jagged discontinuities.  Either way, some points would be local maxima – no point next to them would have a higher ‘morality rating.’  The graph might have only one maximum (the best of all possible worlds), or it might have dozens or hundreds.

The trouble is that it would be hard to try to distinguish a local maximum from the absolute maximum.  And certainly, from the point of evolutionary pressures, a local max would be a stable strategy.  Depending on the flexibility of the society and the range of possible mutations, a higher maximum might be out of reach, if evolution were left to work on its own.  The interim steps to reach the higher peaks are too unlikely and unstable.

If we want to move between peaks, we can’t rely on evolution.  It needs to be a human-directed and human-instigated process (possibly a transhumanist approach to morality?).  The two most basic steps we’d need to take would be to increase our sensitivity to moral differences between societies and expand our ability to imagine a broader range of societies (fiction can be particularly helpful here).  But none of this comes without effort.  Natural improvement of morality comes too slowly to be of use.

And that concludes the Eight Questions for Atheists, though I realize that I’ve spent this answer primarily on why evolution cannot be the cause of moral law, not on why I think moral law exists to begin with.  The first three chapters of Mere Christianity (which you can read online here) are still a decent summary of my position, and I anticipate I’ll spend a fair amount of 2011 on this question.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m as sure that moral law exists as I am that matter exists as a physical reality, even though I don’t know how to prove either of those propositions definitively.

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  • Ben L

    Hi Leah. Frankly, I think you mis-characterized the relationship between evolution and morality. Your answer to this question and mathematical analogy implies that Moral Law exists in itself, aka your z axis, and evolution is somehow optimizing for it. I think you were on the right track with your first paragraph – that evolution doesn't care, isn't even a thing, etc. In fact, its only relationship to morality is how it has effected what we think is moral. ( Which brings me to my second more important point, which is that if Moral Law is a thing in itself, where did it come from, or what is it? How can we measure it? I happen to think that there is literally nothing that is not a product of nature, taking the definition that if I can think of it, it is represented by chemicals and cells in my brain, which is natural. So the question we should be asking is: what sets of moral rules are most people predisposed to follow, if any? How is this different from what moral rules we claim to operate by? And finally, we need to decide on some criteria for what we want as a society, and what moral rules we *should* be using to get there. So I don't think there really is such a thing as Moral Law (capital M, capital L) at all. There is perhaps the Moral Laws of Ben, and the Moral Laws of Leah, maybe the Moral Laws of the UN – but its all made up by people.

  • Hi Ben,I'm only answering part of your question here, since the discussion of why I think Moral Law exists is (a) too long for a comment and (b) something I'm trying to find a better way to explain, since my last few tries have turned out confusing. So here's a quickie clarification:I don't think evolution optimizes for morality, but I do think there may be some level of correlation between morality and stability, and evolution can favor stable systems. I didn't make that distinction clear above.The basic idea I was trying to convey was that making small improvements in a society may make it both more moral and more stable. But shifting to a much more moral society might require some big upheaval that would not be favored by evolution because of the disruption during the transition, even if the end point represented a BIG improvement.

  • Ben L

    Stable systems certainly tend to persist longer than unstable ones 😉

  • Timothy D.

    What do you think of Aquinas’ treatise on the natural law?