Escaping Moral Relativism Through Evolution

“Without God, anything goes,” or so some say. This claim of moral relativism is often found clinging to the belly of evolutionary theories of morality, like some kind of parasitic lamprey, sucking the blood from the very body that hosts it. Yet evolutionary ethics doesn’t necessarily imply moral relativism. Here’s why:

Say we accept the evolutionary ethics picture that morality is a device used to promote pro-social behaviour and solve the problems of cooperation, because doing so lends its adherents greater reproductive success. And the way evolution promotes moral behaviour is by endowing us with a spectrum of moral sentiments that encourage pro-social behaviour – things like empathy and guilt.

But that’s not the end of morality. We also have our rational capacity, which enables us to predict future outcomes of actions, abstract moral principles away from individual actions and deliberate about the best course of action. Between these two faculties – the moral sentiments and reason – we develop normative codes that are spread amongst our community. However, other communities might settle upon different moral norms, perhaps ones that contradict our own.

Now, some claim this picture endorses moral relativism because there is nowhere a single moral authority that can arbitrate between the various moral norms held in different cultures. But this is not entirely true. For if one accepts the premise of what morality is for – i.e. promoting pro-social behaviour and cooperation – then one can review the various moral norms and assess whether they are better or worse at promoting these ends.


The Future of Morality

This is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

The Case for Secular Morality

“Is a canonical secular morality necessary?,” asks Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. This comes in response to a recent post of mine about science, religion and secular morality. In that post I suggest:

The greatest philosophical endeavour of this century will be to find a workable, rational, scientifically-compatible moral and values system that doesn’t evoke the supernatural and can serve as a replacement for religion in our society. The Great Quest for a secular morality.

But Mike isn’t convinced.

Several readers who have left comments on Tim’s article seem to agree with me that there is no great need to develop a “secular morality” to replace the various religious moral modalities that have governed human civilization for the last seven thousand years or so. Not that we see any particular problem with leaving religion behind—high time for that, in my opinion—but to seek for an equally orthodox substitute seems simply like replacing an old car with a new one, instead of looking for an alternative, sustainable means of transportation.

So, I’d like to outline my full argument for secular morality, why we need it and what it supposed to do. By necessity, I’ll skim over the detail in favour of presenting the entire argument, but I’ll link to supporting material where possible.


Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality

Note: for the record, I’m not particularly interested in engaging in the great science versus religion debate. For me, the debate is over; it’s a non-starter; an albatross around the neck of reasonable discourse. My hope is that we might one day become unshackled from it, and on that day thousands of able minds might be directed towards more fruitful pursuits. And I’m not particularly interested in trying to bend the will of dogmatic religious folk to my views. Others engage in such pursuits with great vigour such that my contribution is unnecessary. However, I am ever enthusiastic to engage with rational individuals in productive dialogue on where we might venture after the debate has passed into memory. It is to that end that I offer the following post.

Can religion and science co-exist peacefully? Many wish they could. But alas, it isn’t so. So says Jerry A. Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, in his review in The New Republic of two books that hope to find some conciliation between religion and science. The review is lengthy, but ably weaved and dense with insightful analysis and observation. Well worth a read.

And it represents another sign that the debate is ready to move on – to the Great Quest of finding a secular morality that can replace religion as our moral and values compass in the modern world. But before I get to that, the review, and why science and religion will never get along: