At a conference concerning the teaching of moral values in the public schools, a justifiably well-known philosopher from an eastern university asserted that the moral virtues were (1) those values without which we humans do not flourish because they are rooted in human nature, and (2) those values that enjoy a consensus that spans culture, country and century, something like the Tao described at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. That moral values described or derived in either of these two ways are not truly moral and are not truly absolutes is the burden of this brief chapter.
As the following analysis will demonstrate, one must not contend that human nature and human flourishing yield moral absolutes, properly so-called, because such a theory fails to account for (1) the origin of human nature, (2) changes in human nature and (3) the selection and use of “flourishing” as a category of moral discernment. I shall leave aside the vexed philosophical question of whether or not human nature itself actually exists as an entity in its own right, or if it is merely a philosopher’s fiction without any extramental reality. I simply note in passing that the theory of morality here under review assumes an answer to this question that, if mistaken, devastates this theory by erasing its metaphysical basis.
(1) If human nature arose as the chance result of a mindless evolutionary process, a process behind which exists no divine mind and no divine plan, then moral absolutes disappear. That is, if human nature is the result of evolutionary accident, and if right and wrong arise solely from human nature, then right and wrong are accidents, not moral absolutes. Biological chance cannot serve as the philosophical and/or metaphysical foundation of right and wrong; it is their undoing. If human nature and human mind are the unintentional outcome of the chance collocation of atoms and of the random meanderings of natural selection (in other words, if the human mind is a mere epiphenomenona contorting and disporting itself for a short while upon the face of physical matter), then we have no convincing reason to trust them as indicators of moral goodness; nor have we any real or enduring right and wrong.
(2) Had the evolutionary process been different, or had the primordial soup been mixed from a different recipe, so to speak, or stirred at a different temperature, human nature might have been radically altered, along with the allegedly moral values this theory insists arise from it. Evolution might easily have yielded a quite different array of species than it has, and humans (if they existed at all) might not be the most intelligent species, and they might flourish in ways radically different from those that now obtain. That is, one can easily imagine a set of markedly different biological conditions, a set of conditions that demonstrated the physiological supremacy of nonhuman species, one that flourished after the fashion of a cockroach. Cockroach-style flourishing would then become the measure of virtue, rather then means of flourishing that we humans sometimes now employ. This implies that the moral absolutes yielded by this system of thought are neither truly moral nor truly absolute. They are simply that set of actions which we perceive to tend most effectively toward the pleasure and prosperity of our own species, which is, to put it bluntly, simply species bigotry parading as morality.
If something noticeably different from us, but something sufficiently close enough still to be called human evolved, then likely a noticeably different set of human actions would yield human flourishing. That altered means of flourishing would then become the definition of right and wrong. But precisely why the actions that conduce to the flourishing of the most intelligent and biologically innovative survivors of natural selection, whatever those survivors happened to be like, should be called morally virtuous is not clear and has not been (indeed, cannot be) established. Unless this is established, the ethical theory here under review permits itself a mere gratuitous starting point, not a rational one. In short, it simply ignores the fact that it has no proper starting point and insists upon starting anyway.
Put differently, what has been described is not true virtue. It is an intellectual misfire based on the philosophically injudicious assumption that somehow biological might makes right, or that merely by succeeding biologically a species gets to use itself as the measure of good and evil. This is not a system of moral absolutes; it is a system of biological relativism.
That those actions which conclude to the flourishing of the most intelligent and innovative survivors of natural selection (that is, those beings who have managed best to survive the ebb and flow of such things as mutation, catastrophe, retrogression, and adaptation) should be called moral merely confuses with right and wrong those actions that seem to some members of a species to permit that species to flourish at one particular point in its evolution. Conceivably that species was sufficiently different in its earlier stages of development, and might be sufficiently different in its later stages of development, that those means by which they once were right and might eventually become. If so, what are now called right and wrong are not moral absolutes, but simply that set of actions perceived as most efficient at the moment. What set of actions will be so perceived in the distant future is still an open question, a question that might receive a starkly different answer then than either it now does or previously did, but which this system must nevertheless consider morally correct and universally binding. In short, to our previous charges of species bigotry and biological relativism we now must add time relativism and moral contradiction–but not moral absoluteness.
Furthermore, not only does the doctrine of evolution entail the notion that the human species and human nature are essentially mutable, this allegedly natural mutability is amplified by the very startling and very real prospect of the species itself orchestrating and accelerating its own evolution and alteration by means of its scientific experimentation and acumen. Like our alleged natural mutability, this self-conducted mutability is the death knell of any and all moral absolutes supposedly rooted in human nature. When we do acquire the power to modify the nature of the race–and some speculate that our ability to do so is soon to be acquired–will what we produce still be truly and fully human? Will right and wrong then be rooted in human nature as it was or in human nature as it is in whatever it is we shall have made of it? Assuming that the alteration in human nature is accomplished only one person at a time rather than in the entire race all at once, and assuming therefore that two sorts of persons with a defendable claim to human nature exist simultaneously, which version of human nature supersedes the other and is to be considered the fountain from which all right and wrong arise? Will those who possess the other human nature be subject to a system of right and wrong that arises from a nature not entirely their own? What if our experiments do not always succeed? That is, what if the treatment does not always “take”; what if it yields occasionally idiosyncratic results that produce far more than merely two varieties of human nature? Which variety takes precedent? Shall we fall into the logical contradiction of having a number of competing sets of moral absolutes, each with different content? Though the answer to such puzzling questions might be difficult to identify, and though the answer to such questions might raise insurmountable difficulties for those who advocate this inadequate system of moral absolutes, the answers given to these questions make no difference at all to our purpose because any answer given reveals the foundation of this ethical system to be shifting sand, not moral bedrock.
To take another approach, if humans did not exist at all (and under the direction of a mindless evolutionary process they easily might not), and if right and wrong arise from human nature, then right and wrong would not exist (regardless of whether we considered right and wrong as either moral absolutes or as the biological relativism that emerges from biological success). In other words, because this theory of ethics ties morality to human nature, the fate of human nature is the fate of morality. That fate, if the second law of thermodynamics is correct, is oblivion. The material world is winding down to something like an amorphous, motionless mass of dead matter at a low temperature, incapable of sustaining life. Along with the demise of the physical universe go this ethical system’s alleged moral absolutes, the true name of which we now see is “nihilism.” In this system, morality, like everything else, comes precisely to nothing. When human beings cease to exist sometime in the future, as any world view that leaves out God must assert, right and wrong cease to exist at that same moment. In short, what was intended by this philosopher to be the foundation of ethics is really its death warrant.
(3) Values determined by human flourishing are not truly right or wrong, not properly moral absolutes; they are pragmatism or utilitarianism masquerading as good and co-opting the language of virtue and “oughtness,” to which they have no philosophical or theological claim. Simply because an action is efficient or productive does not make it virtuous. To call an action virtuous requires more than mere effectiveness.
Furthermore, why flourishing (and not something else) should be the measure of virtue, cannot be proved. To select flourishing as the measure of moral discernment, or to define flourishing as one thing and not another, is merely to elevate both one’s own personal preference for flourishing and one’s own definition of flourishing (whatever it happened to be) to the level of an absolute, which they neither are nor ever could be. One might just as easily have selected, as did the Marquis de Sade, private pleasure at the expense of another’s pain as the measure of appropriate conduct. One might even prefer death to life, as do virtually all suicides. That happiness or prosperity, and not death, is the proper content of flourishing cannot be established on a merely biological basis, except that one simply assert a preference (pragmatic or otherwise) for the one and not the other. Again, whatever else such private preferences might be, they are not moral absolutes. That is because no way exists whereby you can attach “oughtness” to our personal preferences, thus transforming them into moral absolutes and making them binding upon all people. Nor are your personal preferences morally binding even upon you. One simply cannot move from “I prefer” to ” I must,” mush less from “I prefer” to “everyone must.”
In other words, when pragmatists employ the language of right and wrong, they are dealing in stolen concepts; they are employing words and ideas to which their own philosophy gives them no right and no claim. Don’t let them. Free-hand morals making of this sort is the source of most of the ethical chaos at large in the world of human affairs today. Ad hoc morality is not really morality.
Finally, as much as I value the work of C.S. Lewis in general his The Abolition of Man in particular, I would be misusing his book were I to argue from it that because there appears to be substantial agreement among the peoples of the world about the rules of right and wrong, therefore these rules are moral absolutes. Consensus, regardless of how extensive or enduring, is no sure measure of morality. All too often the majority has consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to colossal evil. Morality is not determined by nose count. “Majority” is no synonym for “morality.” That is, if the philosophical or metaphysical value of an idea is zero, one does not increase its value at all simply by ascribing it to a million (or even a billion) people. A million times zero is still zero. Simple consensus, like simple consent, is not a moral justification. Morality is independent of majority opinion and of pragmatic preference.
As Archibald Alexander somewhere observed, virtue is not known by reason alone, but by revelation and by Providence. Sir Philip Sidney’s way of saying it was to insist that the only impregnable citadel for virtue is religion. Both were precisely correct.
In a word, if there is no God, there is no good.
Copyright © 2000 Michael Bauman. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Previously published in Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery.