Over at Telic Thoughts commenter Allen MacNeill, a professor of biology at Cornell, criticizes (see comment at 4:22 p.m.) the claim made by Michael Ruse and other naturalists that morality is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to enable us to get along with each other. MacNeill writes that:
Ruse believes that moral/ethical principles can be directly derived from the findings of evolutionary biology. This, as several commentators have already pointed out, violates one of the most basic principles of ethical theory: that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." The attempt to do so constitutes what is known in ethical theory as the "naturalistic fallacy," and is one of the foundational principles of modern (i.e. post-17th century) ethical theory.
While it is the case that some evolutionary biologists (including Franz de Waal, Mark Hauser, and E. O. Wilson) commit the same fallacy as Ruse, this does not mean that doing so is either universal among evolutionary biologists nor in any way validated by the science of evolutionary biology. On the contrary, anyone with even a passing acquaintance with ethical philosophy would know that attempting to do what Ruse does in his commentary is both invalid and pernicious.
I have to say that I didn't read Ruse the way MacNeill did. I understood Ruse to be saying that morality is an illusion. There really isn't any such thing. MacNeill seems to be saying that Ruse is trying to ground morality in evolution. If this is indeed what Ruse is trying to do then I am in complete agreement with MacNeill that Ruse is engaged in a fool's errand. Unless there is a personal transcendent ground for morality there simply isn't any non-subjective, non-arbitrary basis for moral obligation or moral judgment. Certainly, as MacNeill asserts, evolution can't provide one. He and I part company, however, when he goes on to claim that:
That said, the very same thing can be said of those who try to ground moral and ethical codes in religion....any deity (including most versions of the Judeo-Christian god) is constrained to assert what is good by their nature as deities, rather than the other way around. That is, certain things are good in and of themselves, and not simply because God says so; God as God is constrained to proclaim what is good and abjure what is bad.
In sum: morality/ethics are justified sui generis, and any attempt to justify them via grounding in either science or religion is to commit the same fallacy: the "super/naturalistic fallacy."
This, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding of the attempt to ground morality in God. MacNeill seems to be saying that God is one thing and goodness is another. Some acts, he claims, are intrinsically good independently of God. In other words, God commands us to be kind, for example, because kindness is good in itself and would be good whether God commanded it or not, or indeed, whether God existed or not.
The problem for MacNeill, though, is that he's not coming to grips with the Christian concepts of God and goodness. Goodness, in the Christian view, is not "out there" in some Platonic realm of forms waiting to be accessed by God. Goodness is part of God's very essence. It's an aspect of His nature. It flows from Him like heat and light flow from the sun. Just as heat and light would not exist if the sun didn't exist, so, too, goodness would not exist if God didn't exist. Thus, when God enjoins us to be kind He's not pointing us to some independent form of the good and commanding us to partake of it. Rather He's pointing us to Himself and urging us to be like Him.
Just as logic is woven into the structure of the universe because logic is part of the essence of God, so, too, the moral law is woven into the structure of our hearts because goodness is part of the essence of God.RLC