Saturday, September 7, 2013

Coyne on Free Will and Morality

Biologist Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True raises an important question about human nature. Specifically, Coyne asks how, if man's morality is a product of the impersonal action of evolutionary forces, there can be such a thing as "free will," and if there isn't free will, if man doesn't in some sense choose his actions, how can there be such a thing as moral right and wrong?

Now, Coyne is a determinist who believes our choices are predetermined by environmental or genetic influences over which we have no control. Thus, he rejects the popular notion that there is such a thing as morality. He holds that what we call morality is simply an expression of our likes and dislikes. I think he's very much mistaken about this, but, given his naturalism, his conclusions are certainly unassailable. Here's part of what he says:
Readers here will know that, being a determinist, I’d prefer to dispense with the term “moral responsibility,” replacing it with the simple idea of “responsibility.” That’s because I don’t think we have dualistic free will that would allow us to decide between doing “right” and “wrong”. If that’s the case, then why add the adjective “moral,” which implies that one does have a choice?

We always hear that “unlike humans, nature is amoral.” You can’t say that the actions of animals are moral or immoral—they just are. When a male lion invades another group and kills the cubs, when a chimp tears another chimp to bits, those are just bits of nature, and aren’t seen as wrong.

So why, when a stepfather kills his stepchild (something that, presumably is not something he decides to do “freely”), that is morally wrong, but when a lion does it, or a chimp kills an infant, it’s just nature, Jake.

Now the idea of ethics—a codified set of rules to which we adhere for various reasons, usually as a form of societal glue—clearly was concomitant with the rise of human society and language. But much of our morality is surely based on evolution. I’m not saying that those evolved principles are the right ones to use today: clearly in many cases, as with xenophobia, they aren’t. But some of them remain salubrious, including reciprocal altruism, shame, guilt, and so on. So why can we do wrong but chimps can’t?
It's not clear to me why shame and guilt are salubrious if there's nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about, and if there are no moral wrongs then surely there is nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about. But let's let Coyne finish his thought:
In other words, is it really true that all of nature, including primate societies, must be seen as amoral, while human actions must be judged by this thing called “morality”?

Why, if a male lion has no more choice about killing step-cubs than a human does about killing stepchildren, do we hold the human morally responsible but the lion not? (The ability of humans to foresee consequences and take in a variety of inputs seems to me irrelevant here). Should we punish cub-killing lions, given that they cause enormous pain and terror to the cubs and their mothers?
So Coyne poses this puzzle for us: If we don't hold animals morally responsible for doing things like torturing and killing their young why should we hold humans, who are also animals, morally responsible for doing the same thing? And if we think humans should be held morally responsible then don't we have to assume that humans have a moral obligation that other animals don't have? And if we assume that, then must we also assume both that humans have free will and that there exists a personal moral authority that imposes upon us that obligation?

In other words, it seems to me that accepting Coyne's naturalism leads, if one takes it to its logical conclusion, to moral nihilism. Coyne doesn't take it that far, but he gives us no reason why he doesn't. Perhaps he realizes that if people saw where naturalism leads a lot of them might be disinclined to accept it, but if one rejects nihilism then one must also logically reject naturalism.