“Morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes”—Michael Ruse
[The following was presented to the UNF Philosophy Club on December 9, 2011. By no means is it complete and it is my intention to develop a more coherent paper arguing against the Moral Error Theory. I am open to any comments and criticisms]
As we approach the 35th year anniversary of John Mackie’s, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, it has become an appropriate time to commemorate the arguments put forth along with more recent ones, as well as some criticisms of his argument. Though, to begin outright with the arguments discussed may create some confusion. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid this confusion, it is essential that a brief account of the origins of the Moral Error Theory be given.
John Mackie introduced the Moral Error Theory to us in 1977. In it, Mackie opens with a provocative statement; he says, “There exist no objective values” (Mackie 1997: 15). He continues with his exposition explaining:
[T]hat values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty, obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.
Mackie goes on to make an argument from relatively and an argument from queerness with the latter proved more convincing then the former. Mackie explains the potential queerness of the ontological status of moral values; he states, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe” (Mackie 1977: 38). Consequently, Mackie insists that what we are left with is an error theory of morality.
Contemporary philosopher Richard Joyce has picked up where Mackie left off. However, Joyce, along with philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, has moved away from the argument from queerness towards an ‘argument from evolution’. They insist that given that our moral sentiments are a product of natural selection, and that we have no reason to suppose that evolution is sensitive to objective moral truth, then we have no justification to suppose that our moral values and judgments are indeed true (Joyce 2000; 2001; 2006; Ruse 1984; 1985; 1986a; 1986b; 1989; 1993; 1999a; 1999b). Consequently, Joyce and Ruse insist that all our moral claims and judgments are systematically false, and that, at least according to Joyce, we should subscribe to a fictionalist view of morality (Joyce 2001; 2006). From here, I will expound on Joyce and Ruse’s argument from evolution. Next, some challenges will be presented, which may cause some suspicion in Joyce/Ruse’s argument, where subsequently, one may reject the error theorist’s argument from evolution or perhaps the Moral Error Theory all together. First, I must explain and present how Joyce and Ruse use what is often called an evolutionary debunking argument in regards to morality.
I. Evolutionary Debunking and Error
An initial question here may be, “what is an evolutionary debunking argument”? Well, it is not an argument, which attempts to debunk evolution. Rather, it is an argument that utilizes empirical research in the evolutionary sciences (biology/psychology/anthropology) in an attempt to discredit some form of belief (the targets have commonly been religious and moral beliefs). Philosopher Guy Kahane’s model of evolutionary debunking is of use here:
(P1) S’s belief that p is explained by X
(P2) X is an off-track process
(C) S’s belief that p is unjustified
According to Kahane, an off-track process is one in which the process is not sensitive to whether the beliefs are really true. Since evolution is not sensitive to beliefs of type p being true, then we have no reason to believe that beliefs of type p are indeed true. Therefore, we are unjustified in beliefs of type p and the error is revealed.
Let us briefly consider the implications of this model. It is certainly plausible that evolution is sensitive to cognitive mechanisms influencing beliefs about depth perception, colors, and counting, for example. Therefore, a belief such as ‘things/animals of the color red should be avoided’, or that ‘this paper is approximately one foot in front of my face’ is warranted on grounds that evolution granted us with somewhat reliable cognitive mechanisms that are influencing these beliefs.
However, what the error theorist will respond with is that evolution is not sensitive to the truth of, for example, ‘red is ugly’, or more generally, to any aesthetic appeal towards colors. Since evolution does not track the truth of what colors are considered beautiful or ugly, the error theorist would argue that aesthetic appeal is really just a useful illusion foisted upon us by an evolutionary process and explains what Joyce calls that an intrinsic ‘omphf’. That is, bthe overwhelming sensation and belief (the omphf) that, for example, ‘red is ugly’, was really evolution’s way of keeping individuals in a certain environment away from the color red, as it was detrimental for some reason to their survival (perhaps certain poisonous plants were red).
At this time, one may consider the following, “why can’t I just denote the same meaning for ‘red is ugly’ from the meaning as ‘red is something to avoid because things associated with it were selectively disadvantageous”. That is, “why can’t just some form of ‘aesthetic naturalism’ become suitable here”? I ask that you hold on to this thought, as it will be revealed that this line of reasoning is a fatal mistake, at least according to the error theorist. For now, I will turn to the error theory’s argument from evolution.
The Argument from Evolution
Richard Joyce insists that
[H]umans are by nature moral animals [and] may be understood…as meaning that the process of evolution has designed us to think in moral terms, that biological natural selection has conferred upon us the tendency to employ moral concepts. According to the former reading, the term “moral animal” means an animal that is morally praiseworthy; according to the second, it means an animal that morally judges.
He goes further though, insisting that evolution has instilled upon us a tendency to believe that moral values exist in a way similar what Kant calls a categorical imperative. That is, certain inescapability exists for morality; it something one cannot opt out of, or at least not without serious penalty. So, to use Joyce’s example
Imagine the child asking why he mustn’t pinch his play mate. The parent replies “because it’s wrong.” The child continues “but why mustn’t I do what’s wrong?” The parent might give an exasperated “because you mustn’t!”
In this sense some cognitive drive is pushing one towards behaviors we associate with morality whose origins, if we recall, lie in cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and inclusive fitness, which are essential for an individual’s survival and their genes. What better way of motivating an individual to act in such ways, than for evolution to simply create the illusion that doing such things is in some sense a ‘universal law’. At this point, it should be made clear precisely how the argument from evolution goes; Michael Ruse provides that argument.
(P1) In many social animals, cooperative behavioral strategies have
evolved because of their adaptive value on the basis of natural
selection among individuals.
(P2) Belief in moral (prescriptive, universal, and nonsubjective) guidelines has
arisen in humans because such belief results in the performance of
adaptive cooperative behaviors.
(P3) We have no reason to believe that moral guidelines are both adaptive and
(C) Moral guidelines are an (adaptive) illusion, our belief in them false.
The question, which may still be lingering and the one I asked you to hold on to earlier, is “why can’t we denote the same meaning from moral values with words such as cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and inclusive fitness?” That is, “why isn’t some form of moral naturalism suitable?” I imagine Joyce would respond with just a subtle question asking “why couldn’t we just denote the same meaning we used when we talked about phlogiston with the discovery of oxygen?” Well the answer seems obvious; talk of phlogiston theory meant that combustible bodies contained and released a fire like substance called ‘phlogiston’ when ignited. However, an anomaly was revealed when it was realized that combustible bodies retained and often gained weight after combustion. Therefore, we had reason to reject phlogiston theory when Lavoisier showed that another gas, oxygen, was gained during combustion, and more so when the caloric theory of combustion was introduced.
Likewise, Joyce is convinced that since our moral discourse is discussed as ‘universal laws’ independent of human experience, and that this is fundamentally different than what evolutionary science has revealed about the nature of morality, which is that its origins lies in an evolutionary process (i.e., cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and inclusive fitness), then all our moral discourse has been systematically in error. Therefore, simply changing our old understanding of morality being objective with what evolutionary science presents would be the same mistake a chemist replacing the meaning of phlogiston with oxygen; the two properties are fundamentally different and cannot be reconciled with each other.
Powerful as it may seem, the argument of evolution, and more generally the Moral Error Theory, is not without its critics. I will focus the remainder of this discussion on some of those criticisms presented by two philosophers.
II. Responding to the Error Theory
There are certainly more than just a couple critics of the Moral Error Theory’s argument from evolution. However, two critics that seem to be particularly fruitful with their arguments are philosopher of biology, Fritz Allhoff, and philosopher and biologist, David Lahti. I’ll begin with Allhoff’s challenge.
Allhoff’s challenge insists that some social contract model of morality can vindicate morality while still being sensitive to the initial premises of the error theory. He describes the social contract as follows:
“ø is wrong” =“ø was (or would have been) prohibited by rules agreed upon by informed, rational, and autonomous agents.
Allhoff insists that this model “avoids the metaphysical commitments of moral realism because, on this approach, there are no moral facts which exist independently of us; morality is something that we construct as informed, rational, autonomous agents.” Thus, if moral realism need not be linked with metaphysics, then morality can still be vindicated even with an evolutionary explanation for its existence. In fact, Allhoff claims that the “evolutionary story can provide an empirical basis for the motivations of contracting agents” (Allhoff 2009: 103)
Allhoff goes on to provide such an evolutionary based social contract, or more specifically an evolutionary based contractarianism, which he describes as the view that “the equality of the contracting parities is ‘merely de facto and their choice of principles rationally self-interested’” (Allhoff 2009: 103). For the contractarian, such as Hobbes, contracting parties need not appeal towards a moral equality, only towards a natural equality, which is simply due to individuals having equal attributes, i.e., similar physical and mental features. It is for this reason that Allhoff insists an evolutionary based contractarianism to be more plausible, then one based on contractualism because in contractualism some form of mutual respect, understanding, etc. needs to exist. Perhaps if group selection played a dominant role in evolutionary history, then there could exist an evolutionary based contractualism. However, Allhoff objects to this stating:
[T]he favored view seems to be that group selection did not play such a role. Rather, it is more plausible that the dominant mechanism in our evolution was individual selection, in which case we would have evolved to be self-interested rather than to be interested in mutual respect and understating.
In short, contracutalism is incompatible with the premises of Darwinian evolution. Hence, we are left with an evolutionary based contractarianism, which seems to vindicate morality, as our moral discourse is sensitive to this model. In fact, much empirical research in evolutionary game theory seems to shed positive light on Allhoff’s argument. But for now, I turn to David Lahti’s challenge.
Lahti, like Allhoff, is willing to grant the basic presuppositions of the moral error theory’s argument from evolution, e.g., morality being an evolved trait. However, he disagrees with the how the error theorist’s constructs her argument, particularly in P2 Ruse’s argument (Lahti 2003).
Lahti elucidates that P2 requires us to distinguish between two types of altruism and their connections; that is, the connection between ostensible altruism and intentional altruism, and the connection between intentional altruism and morality. Ostensible altruism stems from what Bart Voorzanger called ‘bioalturism’. It is means
[T]hat the behavior appears (to some observer) to incur a net cost to the performer, which is the only reason it is called ‘altruism’. In reality the prima facie cost may persist after scientific investigation, or it may not; appearance may or may not be actuality. If a cooperative behavior appears to an observer to incur a net cost to the performer, that behavior can be labeled ostensible altruism…saying that a behavior is ostensibly altruistic implies that we are ignorant about whether it incurs a fitness cost to the performer.
Intentional altruism, on the other hand, is different. It is a deliberate action an individual takes, which increases the fitness advantage of another individual; it is understood (and in some sense can be measure) as to whether a fitness cost exists for the performer. It is not controversial to claim that intentional altruism arose in humans as a mechanism for ostensible altruism and the literature supporting this is significant.
The mistake Lahti reveals is the move from intentional altruism to morality where he questions how would, or for that matter why would, morality serve as a mechanism for intentional altruism, as the psychological predispositions needed in morality already exist for intentional altruism? For Lahti, the question might be comparable to asking why would something like fins appear in penguins for swimming when they already had phenotypic structures perfectly adequate for swimming in the water? The error theorist might regard this as silly, but insofar as the psychological mechanisms needed for morality were already fulfilled with intentional altruism, then the challenge holds.
Allhoff’s evolutionary contractarian-based view might be of use here. Recall that one need not appeal to morality to motivate behaviors, only that contracting agents possesses similar endowments. This is similar to Lahti’s argument, as one need not appeal to morality to motivate individuals to perform certain actions; rather, all that is needed are the psychological mechanisms influencing intentional altruism, which is void of any appeal to metaphysical ‘laws’ associated with morality. This seriously undermines the error theorist’s argument as Ruse insists that “unless we think morality is objectively true— a function of something outside of and higher than ourselves— it could not work” (Ruse 1989: 286). However, Lahti insists that “given the role of intentional altruism, human would be cooperative regardless of whether we recognized an apparently objective moral law demanding it of us” (Lahti 2003: 644). Thus, the Moral Error Theory’s argument from evolution fails to provide an adequate explanation for morality because the connection between intentional altruism and morality is flawed, as it makes morality superfluous.
There exists a potential problem here; morality exists and Lahti needs to offer an explanation for its emergence if it indeed it wasn’t to serve as a mechanism for intentional altruism. Lahti presents an alternative to how the ‘universal law like morality’ emerged over the course of human evolution. Lahti offers a simple explanation that it occurred after the Paleolithic era (the era our minds are best adapted) in order to ‘update’ existing behavioral strategies. Understanding what Lahti means requires me quoting him in full, which I will also use as the closing remarks for his challenge:
Moreover, the moral law, in Ruse’s sense of a set of universal, prescriptive, and nonsubjective guidelines, is likely a recent phenomenon, postdating the hunter-gatherer period. This concept of a moral law may function to update our behavior to the present social environment from that of our paleolithic ancestors. A much older predisposition to obey parents and other leaders real and imagined may have been co-opted, with existing sources of moral authority being replaced by a universal God or a value-laden universe. A prediction from this hypothesis of the moral law as an updating mechanism, is that moral guidelines should play a larger role in motivating a behavior the more different that behavior is from what would have been adaptive in the ancestral environment. For example, Jesus did not need to give, and so did not give, an exhortation to care for members of one’s own social group. Rather, one of his most cited commands (in the Good Samaritan parable, Luke 10:30–37) was to care for strangers, even those with varying religious beliefs or ethnicity. This command is at variance with evolved predispositions, and was required to steer behavior in a manner more appropriate in the modern situation.
III. Conclusion and Discussion
To wrap up what as been argued thus far, I will recall that it was not my immediate intent to show the Moral Error Theory as false. Rather, I wished only to expound on the argument from evolution, which has, in recent times, become the dominant feature of the Moral Error Theory. If I have my done work appropriately, then there should exist suspicion for the Moral Error Theory’s argument from evolution, though perhaps, I have convinced some to reject it. In any case, it is my intention to reconcile the criticisms of Allhoff and Lahti more coherently while providing some form of an instrumentalist account for morality using a model similar to philosopher Michael Smith’s; if follows that:
If a subject has an intrinsic desire to cooperate, increase human flourishing, etc. and a belief that she can bring about this by bringing about morality, then she has an instrumental reason to desire that she bring about morality.
[In a future version of this paper I wish to utilize what is mentioned above to undermine and eventually show the Error Theorist’s argument from evolution is indeed false. This last section is where I feel I will need to make a clearer argument]
Alhoff, F. (2009). “The Evolution of the Moral Sentiments and the Metaphysics of Morals.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 12:97–114.
Hobbes, T. ( 1994). Leviathan. Curley, E. (ed) Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis IN.
Joyce, R. (2000). “Darwinian ethics and error.” Biology and Philosophy. 15:713–732.
Joyce, R. (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Joyce ,R. (2006). The Evolution of Morality. MIT Press. Cambridge.
Kahane, G. (2011). “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.” Nous. 45, 1: 103-125.
Lahti. D. (2003). “Parting with illusions ins evolutionary ethics.” Biology and Philosophy 18: 639–651, 2003.
Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin. London.
Ruse, M. (1985). “Evolution and morality.” Philosophy Exchange.16:5–26.
Ruse, M. (1986a). “Evolutionary ethics: a phoenix arisen.” Zygon 21:95–112.
Ruse, M. (1986b). Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy. Blackwell, Oxford.
Ruse, M .(1989.) The Darwinian Paradigm: Essays on its History, Philosophy and Religious Implications. Routledge, London.
Ruse, M. (1993). “The new evolutionary ethics.” In: Nitecki MH, Nitecki DVN (eds) Evolutionary ethics. State. University of New York Press, Albany NY, pp 133–162.
Ruse, M. (1999a). “Evolutionary ethics: what can we learn from the past?” Zygon 34:435.
Ruse, M. (1999b). Monad to Man: the Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Smith. M. (2010). “Beyond the Error Theory in A World Without Values:” Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory edited by Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin. New York: Springer, 2010) pp.119-139.
 Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin. London. p. 15.
 For a more detailed analysis of Mackie’s ‘argument from queerness’, see his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.
 See Richard Joyce’s latest book, The Evolution of Morality and Michael Ruse’s Taking Darwin Seriously.
 Joyce, R. (2006). The Evolution of Morality. MIT Press. Cambridge. p. 3.
 Joyce, R. (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge Press. Cambridge. p. 31
 Philosopher David Lahti (2003) has assured that this is indeed Ruse’s position via email correspondence.
 Alhoff, F. (2009). “The Evolution of the Moral Sentiments and the Metaphysics of Morals.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 12:97–114. p. 101.
 Alhoff, F. (2009). “The Evolution of the Moral Sentiments and the Metaphysics of Morals.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 12:97–114. p. 108
 See Voorzanger B. (1994). ‘Bioaltruism reconsidered’. Biology and Philosophy 9: 75–84.
 Lahti. D. (2003). “Parting with illusions ins evolutionary ethics.” Biology and Philosophy 18: 639–651, 2003. p. 641.
 It may be helpful to explain a behavioral update strategy as analogous to a ‘software update’ on a computer.
 See Smith. M. (2010). “Beyond the Error Theory” in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory edited by Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (New York: Springer, 2010) pp.119-139.