Where a Materialist, Evolutionary Explanation of Morality Fails

As Ed Feser notes, is that it cannot explain moral obligation.

Perhaps we can get a perfectly satisfactory materialist, evolutionary explanation of the cause of every one of our moral beliefs. ("We think incest is wrong due to the fact incestuous breeding weakens the gene pool," "We believe stealing is wrong because groups that don't respect property rights failed to prosper," and so on.)

What we would now have is not a theory of moral obligation, but a theory of why moral obligation is an illusion. To illustrate: let us say I convince my son of the truth of "evolutionary morality," and he responds, "Great, that's all it is? I thought there was something wrong with stealing, but now I see that thinking that is a kind of trick that our genes have played on us. Well, personally, I don't give a hoot about the survival of the group, and I'm taking up stealing!"

It should be pretty obvious that the believer in such a materialist, evolutionary explanation of morality has nothing to say at this point (as Ed's opponent in his debate on this point graciously admits). He has not explained morality, he has explained it away.


  1. Correct, but.
    Fails isn't the right word. You wouldn't say an evolutionary explanation of speech or blinking failed if it didn't assume the universe cares. Morality is a matter of emotional response and reason, and it is an evolved, biological property. So your inference is correct, but what it really means is that your expectations are off. You want something beyond what you can get.
    So I have no problem calling boko haram evil, and wanting to pulverize them, and calling both reactions moral. I just do not expect anyone or anything beyond human beings to care.
    So we agree!

    1. But a universal aspect of morality is the idea it binds one. Many (not all) philosophers would say an explanation of morality that fails to account for this feature is a failure. Of course, if you don't care that your theory doesn't account for this, you will be unphased.

  2. Hmm. I agree with what you're saying in this post Gene, but it sounds like how I criticized Yeager back in the day. And I'm pretty sure you defended him at the time, telling me, "It's fine to provide an account of where specific moral rules come from. It's a totally separate thing to explain why we should obey them."

    1. Yes, and that is exactly what I am saying in the above post as well!


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