Thursday, March 25, 2010

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum*

Philosopher Michael Ruse offers a very odd argument on behalf of the proposition that we don't need God to have morality. Like Nietzsche's Zarathustra he announces that there is no God. He also proclaims that there are, therefore, no grounds for morality. Morality is an illusion, he avers, but, and here's where the argument begins to go seriously awry, he insists we should be "good" anyway. Why? Because natural selection commands it. This is, to say the very least, an unpersuasive claim.

Here's Ruse:

God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam.

Does this mean that you can just go out and rape and pillage, behave like an ancient Roman grabbing Sabine women? Not at all.

Ruse here assumes that there actually is a "good" and a "bad," but what could they be? Perhaps it is good to promote human happiness, but then why is it bad to promote only my happiness? Why is it bad to be selfish? Is it bad because it hurts others? Well, why is hurting others bad? Is it bad because they don't like it? Why should anyone care what others like?

Ruse again:

Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection.

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective. "Why should I be good? Why should you be good? Because that is what morality demands of us. It is bigger than the both of us. It is laid on us and we must accept it, just like we must accept that 2 + 2 = 4."

This has all the symptoms of a tautology. Ruse says in essence that we should be good because, well, we should be good. We should obey the demands of morality because morality demands that we obey them.

He goes on:

Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what's to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral. It has been said that the truth will set you free. Don't believe it. David Hume knew the score. It doesn't matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.

Ruse's argument seems to be that what people call moral behavior is a non-rational illusion but that we should go along with the illusion because it's psychologically satisfying. Well. What if my psychological impulses direct me to exterminate people unlike myself (a very Darwinian possibility), or what if my psychological yearnings induce me to rape, steal, and torture? If these behaviors are a product of my psychology how would Ruse judge them to be bad? Are all psychological inclinations worth following or just some? How do we discern which should be followed and which should not? Neither our psychology nor our genes tell us we should care about strangers. Indeed, they tell us over and over again in a myriad of ways that we should be selfish, so why should we not be?

In any case, Ruse's whole argument is based on a fallacy called the naturalistic fallacy. It's the error of trying to derive an "ought" from an "is." It's the error of saying that because nature is a certain way that therefore it should be that way. It's the error of saying that a behavior must be right if it's found in nature. Most atheists gave up trying to base morality on nature and nature's evolution a long time ago, but since they've nothing else to justify their moral judgments some of them, like Ruse, try every now and then to sneak it back in.

Ruse concludes with this:

God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality.

If God really is dead, Dostoyevsky reminds us, everything is permitted. There simply are no moral duties. Moral judgments are nothing more than statements about our likes and dislikes. To say that cruelty is wrong is to say only that I don't like cruelty. If morality is subjective, as Ruse claims, then right and wrong are just matters of personal taste. To assert that slaughtering whales is wrong is like asserting that liking anchovies on one's pizza is wrong. To insist that kindness is better than cruelty is like insisting that Coke is better than Pepsi.

Contra Ruse, if God is dead then so is the notion of moral obligation, moral good and bad, and moral judgment. The only way one can hold onto any meaningful morality, the only way one's moral judgments can have force, the only way the claim that some act is morally wrong can have any significance is if there is a transcendent moral authority who has established an objective moral law.

Ruse's essay affords us an excellent illustration of the futility of trying to have morality while rejecting it's only possible foundation.

* Concerning matters of taste there is no dispute.


Neither Is the Left Happy

Byron links us to an article by Chris Hedges, a leftist writer, who offers us an analysis of Obamacare from the perspective of the far-left. They're not happy campers and they shouldn't be. What the media is calling health care reform is, in Hedges' view, little more than a massively expensive pork barrel project that will wind up helping very few people:

The claims made by the proponents of the bill are the usual deceptive corporate advertising. The bill will not expand coverage to 30 million uninsured, especially since government subsidies will not take effect until 2014.

Families who cannot pay the high premiums, deductibles and co-payments, estimated to be between 15 and 18 percent of most family incomes, will have to default, increasing the number of uninsured. Insurance companies can unilaterally raise prices without ceilings or caps and monopolize local markets to shut out competitors. The $1.055 trillion spent over the next decade will add new layers of bureaucratic red tape to what is an unmanageable and ultimately unsustainable system.

The mendacity of the Democratic leadership in the face of this reality is staggering. Howard Dean, who is a doctor, said recently: "This is a vote about one thing: Are you for the insurance companies or are you for the American people?" Here is a man who once championed the public option and now has sold his soul. What is the point in supporting him or any of the other Democrats? How much more craven can they get?

As is sometimes the case the value of the Left is that they often make us aware of problems we might otherwise have overlooked. They were right to call our attention to the need to reform health care. The problem is that their solutions to the problems they diagnose are often awful. In this case Hedges' solution is total government control of health care, a solution which is crushingly expensive and which has worked well nowhere else in the world.

In order to pay for the current plan, Charles Krauthammer predicts, there will by next year be a massive effort to pass a national European-style sales tax. This, if it transpires, would violate another of President Obama's pledges to the American people, i.e. his promise that no one making less than $250,000 would see their taxes go up.