Morality is so instrumental and pervasive in humanity, it’s possibly one of the only things that holds us all together. There are differing opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong, a spectrum of ideas on what’s good and what’s bad. And even when there’s agreeance on those things, coming to a consensus on the correct order and value of virtues seems to only be a fantasy. The astonishing thing though, is that there is an indisputable notion that there are things that are good and things that are bad, there is such a thing as right or wrong. When you investigate this phenomenon with even more scrutiny and force people to bring to light their intuitions and assumptions, it’s remarkable how many people think that we live in a world of objective good and bad (there is a large and growing number of people who make morality relative in some way though). This is to say that things are good regardless if anyone believes or thinks it, and there are things that are bad regardless if any believes or thinks it. Between the spiritualist, the religious, the skeptic, the irreligious, and the agnostic, this feeling seems to be incredibly ubiquitous. Even beyond a mere feeling, there are many in each worldview who will say that reason/logic and science can help illuminate the reality that objective morals exist.
Now there are some, a surprising amount I might add, within each of these categories who will adhere to subjective good and bad and that there is nothing objective about morals. I want to take this time to say that without the doctrine of a transcendent being, you will not be able to arrive at objective morality. I’m not saying that people who don’t believe in a spiritual realm are therefore immoral, but rather I don’t see how it’s possible for them to hold to an objective, static, non-changing standard of morals that transcends all cultures throughout the entire existence of humanity.
Materialism (the commitment that only physical matter exists, i.e., there’s no “spiritual matter”) isn’t equipped with the tools needed to persuade us that it’s philosophy alone, in and of itself, is adequate to explain the existence of objective morals. It’s leading account for life is Darwinism. Darwinism can’t and won’t ever give us reasons for believing in objective morals. There’s a few reasons for this. The most obvious one is the issue with the value of human life. Darwin’s notion of evolution is based on unguided random events. Humans are thus just the result of matter plus chance plus time. There is nothing in us that gives us innate value compared to anything else. Nature didn’t have humanity in mind as it acted on species with natural selection. Nature wasn’t trying to achieve humans or any other species. Nature isn’t trying to do anything, it just does what it does. We are as much an accident of existence as frogs or worms or literally anything else. Matter of fact, we are as much an accident of existence as the existence of the universe itself. This also means that our minds themselves are the result of a random mindless process. Yet, for some reason we want to insist that these very minds that came from undirected process with no intention and making them rational, are yet rational and logical and able to determine what is true and not true. We want to claim our minds are trustworthy, when the thing that made it had no intention to make them worthy but was just doing random things. There is no other case I can think of where we would trust the product of something as being trustworthy when the creator created it out of randomness.
As far as materialistic Darwinian philosophy is concerned, we are just another species that happened to arise throughout the course of time that will eventually die out like every other species that has existed if we don’t adapt to our environment. The reason this is important is because the concept of morals hinges heavily on the concept of things having value (value isn’t the only guiding concept for morals but it definitely is a key part), hence why we should treat them a certain way. If something has low or no value, then it doesn’t matter how you treat it. Inversely, if something has a lot of value, then you must treat it with great respect, honor, and dignity. If humans are valuable, intrinsically infinitely valuable as many believe and act as though true, then humans must be treated with much care and concern. Most people don’t want to get rid of this perspective. However, without a transcendent being, namely God, you can’t objectively show that humans are valuable. Our whole concept of morals comes crashing down and we either decide to live in a world with no sense of reverence for anything and treat all things as miniscule. Or we decide to artificially cook up a system of thought and behavior that will work for us, but inevitably change and transform between cultures because there is nothing constant for us to aim at for morals because we will always be shooting at a moving target. The presupposition of a materialistic world immediately negates the possibility of objective morals. You are instantly left with subjective morals because any attempt to show that reason tells us that human flourishing is objectively good or that suffering is objectively bad, presupposes morality to assume flourishing is good or suffering is bad. You can never appeal to something outside of morality to justify having morals.
Darwinism continues to fall short in its attempt to ground objective morality for us. A basic premise of Darwinian evolution is that those best suited for their environment will continue to exist and pass on their genes. Essentially this reduces all adaptations to survival traits. I’ve frequently heard people claim that morals could have easily arose from evolution because those ancestors of ours who acted morally survived, and those we didn’t died. This brings us back to the concept of morality. This account of morals leaves us with the fact that we have the morals we have now because those are the ones the best helped us survive. I have already suggested that morals are greatly built off the concept of value, which helps to guide the things we ought or ought not to do. Darwinian evolution, however, would show that this concept of morality being drawn from value is just a handy thing we happened to do that helped us survive. Darwinian evolution would thus account for morals on the basis of how useful they were to our ability to survive, and nothing about what is objectively good in reality. This radically shifts our concept of morals to simply being a survival trait. Morality would thus no longer be based on intrinsic value and worth of a thing, an act, or a virtue, but rather on what kind of behavior is best suited for this environment to help the continued existence of humanity.
This leads to another deficiency in Darwinian evolution’s capability to display objective morals. Evolution is based on change over time. This should lead us to see that the morals we have now were much different than what we have seen in the past, and what we will see in the future. I also want to remind you that evolution is unguided and undirected. There is no “goal in mind” with evolution. This means that our morals will inevitably continue to change in order to best suit our survival and will never be static. We also aren’t on a journey to find the best morals, because evolution doesn’t have any goal about what is best for anything. It has no goal to reach or attain. The concept of moral progression is inherently an illusion. There can’t be objective morals for us to strive after when the whole system is premised off the concept that there is no end goal and will never be an end goal. Morals will have to change in order to adapt to changing environments or else our species will die out.
Someone might object and say that morals are a law of nature, and so we don’t invent them. Rather, we discover them like the law of gravity and that’s why they are objective. The problem with that is those laws of nature have been found through empirical scientific investigation. There is no way to empirically test for morals. We can’t quantify morals, which automatically puts them outside the grasp of science. We also can’t create a retestable experiment that will allow us to test and show what is objectively right or wrong. The next attempt may be to say that morality is a law, but more so like the laws of logic, like the law of non-contradiction. This attempt will also fail because of the inability to show that, on a materialist philosophy, things have intrinsic value outside of what someone says or decides, let alone that humans themselves have this value. In materialism, we are no different than a rock besides the fact that our atoms are rearranged differently. Everything in the universe is made of the same things but just arranged differently. It would seem silly to suppose that the basis of something’s value comes from the structure of its atoms.
I also want to point out that under materialism, there’s no reason to show that existence itself is objectively good. Who’s to say that it’s even good that humans exist at all? Why should we believe that living, for any species, is a good thing and that species ought to continue to try to live? Darwinism talks extensively about how organisms try to continue living, but never says why they ought to continue to live. It just posits that organism want to live, and thus assumes that they will try and that they should try. However, there’s nothing within the Darwinian materialistic framework that shows that existence itself is objectively good and thus should be pursued. When there is no authority outside of human feelings and rationalization, we are left with a deafening realization that we are under no obligation to do anything. With no sense of after life or objective value in this life, we are left with an insatiable urge to live and self-preservation, but then left with no reason to have that urge at all. Any thoughts on how we ought to live are ultimately all mute and equally unprofitable. We can make up our own reasons for living, our own morals, our own system of bestowing value on life if we would like, but all of them are a façade and illusory because all will be equally valid and correct since there’s no standard to judge them by anyways. Some people are comfortable with proposing human reason, although not objective, is good enough to place our trust in for governing how we should live.
The premise of materialism is inherently incoherent with objective morals and would lead to a contradiction to hold to both of those beliefs. The materialist will never be able to out run the inescapable truth that under materialism, there are no objective morals and no right or good way of anything. It seems like the only options for the materialist is to abandon the idea of morality all together and say there’s no such thing as morality, completely change our fundamental basis of morality and what morality is precedent on, adhere to subjective morality and deal with the consequences of that. Or to through off materialism and embrace some sort of transcendent being. I understand this isn’t the most sophisticated, or technically correct, or air tight argument against materialism being able to hold up objective morality, but I think it does point out the glaring issues materialism faces in trying to account for objective morality.
The issues are that the best explanation we have of life right now is Darwinism, which is incapable of providing reasons for valuing humans as unique. Its premise is based on continue change, it can’t tell us what is good outside the context of survival, it doesn’t give us a benchmark for which to judge what ought, or ought to not happen besides human reasoning which itself is only subjective. And doesn’t give anyone or system of thought authority over another. It also doesn’t give us any reason or credibility to trust our minds and our mental capacity in the first place to find out truth. It results in us inventing and making up morals, but being fooled into thinking we are discovering them as though they were a law of nature.
One thought on “Morality Without Transcendence”
Nice post. Right up my street.
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