On Jerry Coyne and godless morality

Jerry Coyne at "Noorfest", Duke Univ...

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Earlier this month,  Jerry Coyne wrote an op-ed piece for the USA Today called “As atheists know, you can be good without God”. Coyne is an outspoken evolutionary scientist and an atheist. Coyne tries to prove that theists do not have the moral high ground, and to that end I agree with him in some sense. Atheists, of course, can be moral too. But I will argue that he has no basis for thinking that this morality is grounded in anything factual given his atheism.

Jerry seems to share in some of the fundamental misunderstandings that many atheists have when it comes to the moral argument for God’s existence. First, he brings out our old friend the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written here recently that the Euthyphro Dilemma is really a false dilemma, but Coyne throws in a new wrinkle when he brings up that God not only can command us to do evil, but that He has! Coyne cites several examples of what modern Westerners would view as the more abhorrent commands of the Old Testament. Genocide! slavery! stoning! Oh, my!

Forgive me for being flippant, because I think these are valid concerns that should be thoughtfully answered.  The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan:

Mr. Coyne says that morality is not grounded in God but rather based upon evolution and our own reasoning.

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

First let me say that I do think atheists, theists, pantheists and pastafarians alike can recognize moral facts. Human beings recognize that being kind is morally right, and that burning down orphanages for fun is morally wrong. But are these moral facts simply natural facts? If moral facts are simply natural facts, I would argue that they simply descriptive but not prescriptive. Altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing and the notion of fairness is how the world happens to be, but if the atheist is correct and we’re all here by a massive string of cosmic flukes and not for a real purpose, then there is no way things are supposed to be.  The difficulty for Mr. Coyne and atheists like him is saying this is how it ought to be.

When a male duck forcibly mates with a female duck, that is the way nature is, but we don’t say that the duck is doing something it is morally wrong. When we see hyenas eating a young gazelle alive chunk-by-chunk (forgive me if you’re eating while reading this), that is the way nature is, but we don’t see it as morally wrong, it’s just nature functioning as nature does. Unless an atheist is committed to some sort of moral platonism, then for them natural facts are the only kind of facts. They apply to the duck, the hyena and the human being. When humans are nice or when humans are not so nice (think child abusers, rapists, terrorists, serial killers and the lot) we’re just merely describing what is, but it says nothing about what ought to be. Was it necessary that human beings evolved with this sense of morality?  Charles Darwin didn’t seem to think so. In his book, The Descent of Man, he says:

…[if] men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher at Florida State says:

The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .

So there is nothing objective about morality on the evolutionary account, they’re just illusions “fobbed on us by our genes”.  But if God exists, then he provides the necessary foundation for moral duty. And if God designed us with a certain end in mind, he can make human beings in His image with the ability to recognize and discover what is right and wrong.

While Jerry is right that all of us can recognize the difference between right and wrong, naturalism provides no foundation for moral duty; rather it’s just telling us how it is. Telling us how it ought to be is rather meaningless on naturalism because there is no telos to the universe on their view. They can continue to do right because that’s what they prefer, but it’s hard to see how morality would be objective on atheism. I think it makes sense to say that if moral facts exist, then atheism is very unlikely to be true, to put it modestly. I don’t think Coyne wants to say moral facts do not exist, but atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse (as well as J.L. Mackie, Nietzsche and others) are at least consistent in denying that moral facts exist in a godless world. Coyne tries to stick the theist in a dilemma, but I think at the end of the day he’s the one finding himself in a pickle when it comes to plausibly explaining  moral facts in purely naturalistic terms.