Missing the Point: Why Functional Accounts of Ethics are Consistent with Anti-Realism

This paper will make the case that attempts to explicate the concepts of ethics in essentially functional ways while retaining the traditional language and categories of morality is a mistake, confused at best, disingenuous at worst. The intention is not to take on all versions of naturalistic ethics, but just those that I am characterizing as functional in this delimited sense: secular analyses that cash out the significance of moral categories like moral freedom, responsibility, authority, intrinsic goods, categorical obligations, and objective truths with concepts distinctly thinner than such thick language connotes, concepts easily enough measureable, empirically analyzable, and consistent with naturalism and evolutionary moral psychology, but concepts, so I will argue, that simply do not capture what ordinary speakers tend to mean by moral discourse. I will begin with phenomenological reasons for this critique, and then move on to make a few metaphysical and epistemic points that bolster the analysis and that will enable me by the end to make a few remarks on moral motivation relevant to the matter of whether or not morality needs religion.

A word on that last point first. The notion that morality needs religion generally or God specifically might amount to the suggestion that without God there can be no objective morality, a premise that sounds quite a bit like one of the famous premises of William Lane Craig’s favored version of the moral argument for God’s existence: “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” I tend instead to favor an abductive variant of the moral argument, an inference to the best explanation, which begins with axiomatic moral facts, at least alleged ones, identifies a pool of explanation candidates, attempts to narrow the field by an application of principled criteria, and infers to the best explanation as the likely true explanation. Even if theism provides the best explanation of morality, however, best doesn’t mean only. So a successful abductive case does not provide warrant for so strong a claim as Craig’s that atheism implies the absence of moral values and duties.

Obviously it cannot be my intention to lay out the whole of this abductive argument, in part exactly because such an argument counsels patience. What is called for is that each individual explanation candidate, or at least each general approach, be carefully assessed to show how it stacks up to the theistic variant under consideration.[1] The only way anyone could try to level all the naturalistic explanations in one fell swoop is by offering quite general critiques of naturalism, some of which are quite powerful, but this is an attempt which often leaves more questions unanswered than answered. So my approach here is different: not to pretend to do anything so ambitious as that, but simply to scrutinize just one sort of version of naturalistic ethics, namely, these functional accounts of moral concepts and categories, paradigmatic examples including Frans de Waal’s take on moral obligations and John Shook’s analysis of moral truth.

An additional reason not to defend Craig’s more ambitious premise is that, if Anselmian theology is true, a world in which God does not exist is an intractably impossible world, for God’s existence is necessary—indeed, God is nothing less than the ground of being itself. So stipulating the features of such an atheistic world can on reflection seem just about as hopeful as identifying the features of a world in which twice two is five. But if we are going to give secularists the chance to construct a workable moral theory, we have to be willing to see them try to use the resources of this world alone in their efforts to build their case. If classical theists are right, and this indeed is a world that God created and inhabited with creatures made in his image, it would be unsurprising if naturalistic ethicists, using the resources of so remarkable a world, are able to make progress in moral theory; indeed it would be very surprising if they did not. Among the implications of this, in my estimation, is that secular and naturalistic ethicists seem well within their epistemic rights to show some tenacity in the matter when, as their efforts invariably will, they encounter challenges, as all moral efforts of explanations do. And the defender of theistic ethics as the better explanation than any and all naturalistic theories needs to take the work of secular ethicists with the utmost seriousness—but one at a time, which is my approach today.

Before beginning, allow me to say a word about moral phenomenology—construed as encompassing, among other things, both the logic, grammar, and semantics of morality on the one hand as well as the what-it-is-like features of moral experience on the other—which together give us excellent reasons to be open to the possibility of objective moral values and obligations. “Objective moral values and obligations” refer to moral values and duties that apply to rational human persons irrespective of whether they correspond with the felt desires or preferences of those persons. Such phenomenological deliverances are in principle defeasible, but if we take the logic and language of morality seriously, along with those features of moral phenomenology such as the felt requiredness or prohibitedness of certain actions, it is certainly no epistemic stretch to remain quite open to an objective morality.[2] In that case, though, what sort of objectivity is needed (1) to make substantial revision of our moral language unnecessary—to capture, in other words, at least the essential meaning of our inherited moral language to make its continuing use ingenuous—and (2) to warrant rational belief that our feelings of, say, moral obligation sufficiently correspond with actual obligations—in other words, that our sense of moral obligations reasonably tracks moral truth?

The Bonobo and the Atheist

Let us begin with the primatologist Frans de Waal’s recently published The Bonobo and the Atheist, subtitled “In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.”[3] De Waal’s preferred understanding of morality is bottom-up. Using a variety of examples, he argues that animal tendencies to prosociality, altruistic behaviors, community concern, and aversions to inequity suggest that the operation of such moral building blocks in primates reveal that morality is not as much of a human innovation as we like to think. As evidence for his contentions, he points to instances of animal empathy, even bird empathy—and the fact that mammals give and want affection and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs. It is particularly the bonobos who show, especially in contrast with chimpanzees, that our lineage is marked not just by male dominance and xenophobia, but also by a love of harmony and sensitivity to others. He resists the depiction of animals as primarily vicious and self-centered; just like us, he writes, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. We have a psychological makeup, de Waal writes, that remains that of a social primate.

He thinks the weight of morality comes not from above, but from inside of us. In a Humean spirit he thinks reason to be but the slave of the passions; we start with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. To de Waal’s thinking, morality is created in day-to-day interaction, grounded in emotions, which often escape the neat categorizations of which science is fond. Such an approach to ethics comports, he argues, with what we know about how the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and with the way evolution produces behavior. He is hesitant to call apes or even bonobos moral creatures, but he definitely thinks what we call morality among human beings finds its origin in our evolutionary history. What distinguishes human morality from the prosociality, empathy, and altruism of other primates (traits that stand in contrast with a Hobbesian analysis of nature) is our capacity as humans to reflect about such things, build systems of justification, and generalize morality into a system of abstractions. But the book leaves a nagging question hanging: Hasn’t de Waal completely, albeit deftly, changed the subject? What he is referring to as “morality” does not seem to be any set of moral truths at all, but rather moral beliefs and practices. Although he identifies some necessary additions to animal behavior to arrive at “morality,” what he adds does not seem to be even nearly enough.

Consider moral obligations, which typically are thought to provide distinctive and authoritative reasons to perform an action or refrain from one. A moral obligation, particularly ultima facie ones among them, ought to be obeyed; it has authority, punch, clout, prescriptive power. In an effort to account for moral obligations, de Waal employs one of the following strategies: he either (1) eschews their importance, arguing that moral feelings provide better moral reasons to act than do obligations; or (2) does not try to explain moral obligations at all, but merely our feelings or sense of moral obligations. His first strategy goes hand in hand with his effort to hint at the emaciated nature of moral motivation when all that is motivating a person is a sense of moral obligation. He rightly sees, contra Kant, that in some sense it is better to be motivated by higher moral impulses, like love. True enough, and nearly every virtue theorist would agree. This provides no liberation from the need to explain the existence of moral obligations themselves.

His second strategy explains how primates, and especially human beings, experience a feeling or sense of moral obligations. But evolutionary explanations of a feeling of obligation or a tendency to use the language of moral obligation do nothing to provide an explanation of moral obligations themselves. If a sense of obligations and the language of obligations are enough, then moral obligations themselves need not exist at all. De Waal has not provided anything a moral anti-realist or even hardened amoralist cannot already provide, and he has instead fallaciously conflated feeling obligated with being obligated.

A thoroughly naturalistic effort to explain why we may well feel obligations or use the language of moral obligation seems eminently possible. Expunged of categorical oughtness, though, is what is left over enough to qualify as morality? Have we explained enough? Explanatory scope and power demand that all of the salient features of morality be explained, and explained well, by a theory before we dub the explanation a good one or the best. De Waal has simply left anything like categorical moral oughtness out of the picture without so much as an acknowledgement. Again, if he is content with an instrumental analysis of reasons to perform certain prosocial actions, then why use the language of morality at all? He is hard pressed to come up with anything more principled than an admission that traditional moral language carries with it more clout than prudential language. Meanwhile he continues to use the thick language of morality, moral obligations, and the like while simultaneously emptying the relevant concepts of those distinctive features of morality that imbue moral language with its presumed force and binding authority. His concepts are thin, while his language remains thick and rich. Moral anti-realists can just as effectively speak in terms of behaviors that comport with prevailing preferences or even nearly universal human emotions. What has de Waal added to the case that such moral skeptics are unable to affirm, and thus what reason is there to think that the functionalist account he has provided has given a naturalist any reason to abandon moral anti-realism, be it the amoralism and abolitionism of Joel Marks or the moral fictionalism of Richard Joyce?[4]

De Waal seems simultaneously underambitious and overambitious. He is underambitious in his characterization of morality, settling to cash prescriptivity out in terms of prevailing expectations rather than objective authority, settling for an account of a sense of obligations rather than obligations themselves, and for empathic behavior rather than empathic motivations. He is overambitious, at the same time, and for related reasons, in characterizing advanced nonhuman primates as engaging in normative judgments that serve as precursors to morality. While it undoubtedly seems true we can use the language of oughtness for advanced primates in predictive and instrumental senses, the evidence to suggest that they have anything like a sense of categorical oughtness is a case yet to be made.

Finally, just because naturalistic evolution can explain why we have some of the moral concepts we do, why we have a natural inclination to behave in certain prosocial or empathetic or altruistic ways, how does it follow that evolution has explained morality? To the contrary, naturalists need to take with great seriousness a challenge like that posed by Sharon Street or Richard Joyce: If evolution can explain why we have the moral concepts we do in a way that makes no reference to their truth, then what reasons do naturalists have to take morality seriously?[5] If reproductive advantage accounted for the selection of those behaviors that issued from moral convictions rather than the truth of those convictions, naturalistic evolution gives us reason to think our moral beliefs lack truth, most likely, lack justification, most certainly. Besides, don’t they have all they need when they point to certain behaviors that stir in most human beings strong feelings, positive or negative, and then letting nature run its course? Why the additional need to hold so tightly to distinctively moral language that carries bigger implications than they can explain?

So to reiterate: a moral realist needs to render substantial revision of our ordinary moral language unnecessary, and to provide an account that warrants rational belief that our feelings of, say, moral obligation sufficiently correspond with actual obligations. De Waal’s study, intriguing at points as it is and as enjoyable a read as it is, fails on both scores.


John Shook’s Ethics

Unlike de Waal, John Shook is trained in philosophy. I had the privilege of dialoguing with him recently at the University at Buffalo on God and ethics; the topic of the dialogue was “Right, Wrong, and God: What Best Explains Morality?” At the event he gave me his book entitled The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between), a Wiley-Blackwell publication from a few years ago. Philip Clayton says Shook’s book “lays out the questions, controversies, and schools of thought with amazing clarity, gradually building his case for a ‘staunchly naturalistic yet faithfully ethical humanism.’” When we turn to the pages of the book, however, and specifically his discussion of morality, we find little warrant for such a glowing commendation.

Shook’s naturalistic account of moral truth comes in the context of his response to a view he rejects, namely, that the truth of moral rules requires the existence of a supernatural reality to explain their truth. He offers his own analysis in terms of what naturalism proposes—as if all naturalists are on the same page, an obviously dubious assumption, but at any rate he writes, “According to naturalism, there are no absolute moral truths. But morality is not simply subjective, either; most of morality consists of culturally objective truths, and the rest is indeed subjective.”[6] He defines objectivity here in this way: “An objective moral truth is made true by the natural fact that a society of people share a common culture which includes that accepted truth among its social rules.”[7] Such objective truths, on his depiction, remain relative, but to societies, not to any individual person. “Because cultures make most moral truths true, these moral truths are only relatively true, even if some people within that culture actually believe that some moral truths are absolutely true.”[8] Shook affirms objectivity in this limited sense, but distinguishes it from absolutism, which is, as he puts it, objectivity plus infallibility, never possibly different or wrong. Shook thinks that, according to naturalism, there are no such infallible or unchangeable moral truths.

He adds that “Naturalistic accounts of morality presently emphasize the evolutionary origins of moral instincts and the cultural pressures guiding the moral development of humanity,” citing, among others, Richard Joyce’s 2006 book The Evolution of Morality.[9] Shook adds, “Like the capacity for other kinds of knowledge, the human capacity for moral feelings and knowledge is part of our species, but moral rules can take diverse complex forms across cultures.”[10]

Shook advances the case that culturally objective morality is objective because such morality is independent of whatever any individual person wishes morality to be; he cites as a good analogy a country’s laws. “Laws are valid because they are politically objective: the law is not whatever any person wants it to be.”[11] Culturally objective moral rules are never fixed, final, or perfect, moreover. “The people of a society can change their culture’s morality after ethical thinking. Individuals can disagree with a culture’s morality, of course, by appealing to a different morality or to a higher ethical standard,” such as an ethical ideal.[12] Although such ideals themselves are not absolute moral truths, the fact that there tends to be some convergence on certain moral truths in concentrated populations is no more surprising than the way that civilizations converged on a few principles of wise agriculture. The best explanation for such convergence, he additionally argues, is entirely naturalistic.

So Shook concludes that “since the theologian cannot provide any clear example of an actual absolute moral truth, and naturalism can explain why cultures have culturally objective moral truths, premise 1 of the argument from morality should not be accepted as true.”[13] What I propose to do is, first, discuss the issue of absolute moral truth, and, secondly, discuss the adequacy of Shook’s own functional account of morality.

By “objectivity” Shook means the opposite of “subjectivity,” so he considers himself qualified to use the phrase “objective moral truth” to refer to a reigning, widespread cultural moral conviction. He wishes to insist that what such objectivity rules out is assignment of primacy to personal whim when it comes to morality, but at the same time he is not suggesting that a particular culturally objective moral truth cannot be mistaken. There is a sense in which such a truth can be insufficiently enlightened or workable, and in time, owing to pressure exerted by individuals or groups within the society, such truths are liable to be replaced by other ones. What constitutes lack of enlightenment or workability has nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of morality. Rather, it is a matter of the extrinsic nature of morality. That is to say, moral truths are truths in virtue of fulfilling certain instrumental purposes—perhaps something along the lines of rules that serve to maximize social harmony or human flourishing.

“Objectivity” is multiply ambiguous, so Shook, having defined moral objectivity in the sense he does, may well be right that naturalism can account for “culturally objective moral truths” thus defined. The real tension has to do with whether his definition is preferable and justified, on the one hand, or misleading and unprincipled, on the other. Setting aside the charge of begging questions by his defining objectivity as he does, it is worth stressing that his particular way of using the term is, if not inappropriate, at least rather idiosyncratic. For someone who puts so much stock in avoiding the whim of personal preference when it comes to morality, he seems to have few qualms about privileging his highly personal definition of moral objectivity that, in truth, simply leaves behind most all of the connotations that people tend to associate with the term. One wonders why he continues to insist on using the phrase “objective truth” at all, when admitting that they can change, and one cannot help but conjecture that it is to project the impression of holding on more tightly to nonnegotiable moral convictions than his view actually allows. To treat moral objectivity in the sense he does, particularly while conjoining it with the category of truth, borders the disingenuous. For “culturally objective truths” on his view would be indistinct from “culturally objective beliefs.” But belief and truth are not the same, a point Shook readily concedes when it comes to whims of individual preference, and he even admits that some widespread cultural moral truths are or can be wrong. What is clear is that he is not talking about truth here at all, but simply belief. Beliefs can be false. Truths cannot. To borrow language because of its comforting implications and connotations without the ability to stand behind the language strikes me as an instance of bad faith.

If there are no objective moral truths, then the language of truth should be abandoned or treated as a useful fiction, not redefined or watered down to refer simply to beliefs while the language of truth is retained to project the impression that the account has more substance than it actually does. Now, Shook has done some work in pragmatism, and perhaps he wishes to depart from something like a correspondence theory of truth and opt instead for a pragmatist one. However American, there remains something deeply problematic about continuing to use “truth” language knowing it is likely that most people will interpret the locution along correspondence lines if in fact one means something very different.

On the issue of whether even pragmatists can rationally exclude considerations of correspondence altogether, consider this short passage from the great American pragmatist William James. When pressed on whether a belief in an existent could be rightly dubbed true if the entity in question did not exist, James wrote that the “pragmatist calls satisfactions indispensable for truth-building, but I have everywhere called them insufficient unless reality be also incidentally led to. If the reality assumed were canceled from the pragmatist’s universe of discourse, he would straightway give the name of falsehoods to the beliefs remaining, in spite of all their satisfactoriness. For him, as for his critic, there can be no truth if there is nothing to be true about. Ideas are so much flat psychological surface unless some mirrored matter gives them cognitive lustre.”[14]

Shook’s challenge to the advocate of moral apologetics is that she provide an example of an “absolute moral truth,” a universal, unchanging moral truth. So can the advocate of the moral argument adduce an example of a moral truth that is both objective in the more robust sense and necessarily true? It would certainly seem so. It is wrong for human beings, everywhere and for everyone, to rape women indiscriminately for the sake of providing a public spectacle. It is wrong for us, everywhere and for everyone, to torture children for the sheer fun and delight of it. In truth, the objectivity and necessity of such moral truths is so beyond debate that the burden here is on the person who would wish to posit the existence of an exception. Most naturalists still insist that they agree wholeheartedly, often adding indignantly, “And I don’t need God to tell me this.” Shook’s skepticism about necessary moral truths, in this sense, already shades in the direction of anti-realism in ethics. If someone is a moral anti-realist, or some sort of radical skeptic, then such a person, including Shook, should simply give up the language of objective moral truth. If someone is not willing to say that it is not possible that child torture for fun could become morally obligatory, such a person seems confused if he is unwilling to jettison language of moral objectivity. Equivocating on the language of objectivity is not enough. Perhaps the person should simply admit that he is a moral skeptic. For such a person to hold on to the language of morality is an expression of nostalgia, an example of Nietzsche’s prediction that atheists would take their time to come to terms with the radical implications of their view. It is a profoundly misguided maneuver to do what Sartre said atheists did too often: eliminate God from the equation and act like it is business as usual, when it is not.

In a discussion of what best explains morality, if a person cannot explain either that or why a moral truth like the wrongness of child torture for fun is necessarily and objectively wrong, then his worldview, or at least his particular variant of it, seems fatally flawed. It is lacking in explanatory scope and explanatory power. He needs to resort to ad hoc redefinitions of standard terms to avoid the unpalatable implications of his view. This is not a good explanation of morality. It is an evasion of what it is that needs explanation, and it is unprincipled.

Shook’s language of infallibility, absolutism, and eternality seems to be a thinly veiled effort to poison the well, as it were, to saddle believers in classically objective and authoritative morality with pejorative labels intended to repulse listeners and readers. But it does nothing to advance his case, “objectively” speaking. What is actually needed for the moral case is moral realism, the existence of objectively true moral principles that are binding, prescriptive, and authoritative across the board. The denial of such principles is tantamount to anti-realism. Shook is careful to avoid the charge of subjectivism in ethics, but the problem is worse than that. He is a skeptic, whether he realizes it or not, who cloaks his true identity with language designed to conceal it—from himself or others, it is unclear. In fact, more often than not, he uses language that obfuscates and misleads more than it illuminates and enlightens.[15]

A discussion of moral “rules” and watered-down moral “truths” has the actual effect of distracting the reader from aspects of morality that Shook is understandably lacking in resources to account for—such as the existence of genuine moral obligations. In an effort to explain morality, and particularly to best explain morality, all the major parts of morality need explanation. And most all of us are inclined to see as an ineliminable part of morality the existence of binding, prescriptive, authoritative obligations—which we morally ought to perform and are morally blameworthy for failing to do so. Even virtue ethicists who speak less in terms of obligation than character formation and the virtues still presumably think we ought to pursue a life of character, integrity, and virtue. Aristotle certainly did not seem to abandon the concept of moral obligations altogether, nor do most people; but moral obligations, if they exist, do not derive their authority from our taking a poll. If they exist, they obtain irrespective of our willingness to live by them or take them seriously—and this applies on both the level of the individual and culture. Torturing children for fun is something we have an obligation not to do, either individually or culturally, presumably. It is a moral fact, and what many would consider to be an ineliminable and nonnegotiable one at that.

So, like de Waal, Shook fails to satisfy either constraint imposed by moral language and phenomenology for a reasonably realist moral perspective; he equivocates on important moral categories like moral truth by talking about belief, avoids the language of moral obligations almost altogether, replaces moral authority with moral instincts; and, in the light of challenges to moral realism posed by the likes of Street, Marks, and Joyce, naturalists all, he says nothing at all. When pressed on this, he arrogates to the cause of naturalism the clarity of certain moral intuitions that all of us are able without any difficulty to apprehend, thereby conflating issues of epistemology and ontology. In truth he does nothing to account for moral obligations, moral authority, moral guilt, moral responsibility, or moral truth—all necessary ingredients that go into meaningful moral judgments. Nor does he so much as seem aware of the need to do so, attributing my dissatisfaction with his answers to my misguided quest for certainty. It is not certainty that is the goal, however, but rather explanatory sufficiency.


Final Thoughts

To sum up, we have seen, phenomenologically, that we have reason to take the possibility of moral realism seriously. But it would seem the concepts of morality need to be robust and thick enough to hold the weight of our moral experience and language, or else we should effect a revision in our use of language and our understanding of moral reality, for these are profoundly misleading if they are so radically nonveridical. Functional naturalistic accounts of morality from de Waal’s characterization of moral obligations as reducible to our sense of obligations to Shook’s equation of moral truth with widespread moral belief—and these are just the tip of the iceberg of such deflationary analyses that leave out the most interesting and important features of morality—fail to capture ideas rich enough to justify ongoing thick moral language. Their analyses are consistent with thoroughgoing moral anti-realism save for the nonfictional use of moral language, but it is just this that renders their language either confused or disingenuous. They appropriate with abandon the language while they, without explanation, jettison what is most interesting and instructive about morality. It is hard not to conjecture that fear of superstition has led to moral emaciation and desiccation; but the wild truth of morality is not so easily domesticated by such deflationary accounts.

Their biggest philosophical mistake, in my estimation, is an inference from the findings of evolutionary moral psychology to a weak version of moral realism, because this inference, rather than predicated on a reliable tracking mechanism, simply leaves out of the picture the need for any such tracking relation to be acknowledged, much less specified. My point could be taken as a specific application of a more general discursive strategy aimed at naturalism per se by the likes of Al Plantinga, J. P. Moreland, Vic Reppert, and others, notably the old Oxford don C. S. Lewis, to the effect that naturalism has a notoriously hard time accounting for such realities as cognition, deliberation, rationality, free will, consciousness, and the like.[16] I have intentionally delimited such a challenge to functional naturalisms with respect to morality in particular, where to my thinking the distinctive features of morality—its authority, its clout, its obligatoriness, intrinsic value—render these functional accounts doomed. Such deflationary analyses employing their thin concepts conjoined with traditional thick moral language obfuscate the fact that they by sleight-of-hand have simply bypassed the need to explain how it is our moral language tracks moral truth. Their thin concepts do justice neither to moral language nor moral experience, fail to correspond to the referents of ordinary moral language, and, finally, introduce a motivational problem that heretofore has gone unmentioned, and with this, after one penultimate point, I will finish because it bears most directly on the theme of this conference.

Both de Waal and Shook largely think that something like Christian faith at its best reflects with a fair degree of accuracy solid ethical content, but that, to one degree or another, it is possible to disentangle the moral content from religious foundations and see it stand on its own feet. Shook is more sanguine than de Waal about expressing such confidence. This is relevant at least to mention at this juncture because here the operative issue pertains to moral content—inalienable rights if such there be, essential human equality, and so on—as well as our access to such content, which are at least intriguing to consider for a moment. Without belaboring it or claiming this to be my own considered view, it is worth noting, in contrast with our confident functionalists, Nietzsche’s diametrically opposite view of the matter from Twilight of the Idols. Speaking of, appropriately enough in this context, the English, here is what he had to say:

Christian morality is a command, its origin is transcendental. . . . it is true only on condition that God is truth—it stands or falls with the belief in God. If the English really believe that they know intuitively, and of their own accord, what is good and evil; if, therefore, they assert that they no longer need Christianity as a guarantee of morality, this in itself is simply the outcome of the dominion of Christian valuations, and a proof of the strength and profundity of this dominion. It only shows that the origin of English morality has been forgotten and that is exceedingly relative right to exist is no longer felt. For Englishmen morality is not yet a problem.[17]

The motivational problem, in a nutshell, is this: such functional analyses water down moral categories while exploiting the authority-laden language of morality. Embedded at the heart of such analyses are seeds of its destruction. For invariably rationality will declare that the sturdy foundations of morality necessary for providing adequate reason and motive to be moral and to take morality with the seriousness it deserves have been lost. That plenty of such naturalists—like de Waal and Shook—remain wonderful people eminently better, in my estimation, than their worldview and faithful in their commitment to humanistic impulses with which many of us heartily concur and resonate is not in dispute. The question is whether such naturalists can sustain their moral commitments by anything more than sheer dint of effort, force of will, or personal predilection. Morality’s authority goes beyond preference, biological dispositions, and nostalgic sentimentalism. That functional naturalists can choose to be committed humanists psychologically is of course possible; that there is any intrinsic, binding, authoritative moral reason for us all so to live and to love our neighbor as ourselves is not something such naturalists have the resources by which to assure us—particularly, it would seem, when the dictates of self-interest and morality are at radical odds or, more broadly, when a commitment to morality appears prohibitively costly. Nietzsche’s prediction will likely prove right that such sentimental naturalists will be slow to come to this realization. I lament this, though, less than when they so steadfastly refuse to consider the possibility of a better explanation of classical morality and its authority robustly construed—an explanation involving not only the myriad resources of this enchanted world that they love to study with such passionate zeal and meticulous detail, but also its Creator who imbued it with its meaning and significance and to whom it points for those willing to discern its signals of transcendence.


[1] My own operative theology is an Anselmian and classical picture of theism.

[2] Classic historical works in moral phenomenology include Wolfgang Kohler’s Place of Value in a World of Facts (New York: Liveright, 1938), and Maurice Mandelbaum’s Phenomenology of Moral Experience (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1955).

[3] Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (New York: Norton, 2013).

[4] Shook even adduces Joyce as a shining example of a naturalistic ethicist, inexplicably enough.

[5] Sharon Street (2006), “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies, 127: 109-66.

[6] Ibid. 112.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 113. See Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007). Also see Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). What makes Shook’s reference to Joyce so surprising is Shook’s apparent ignorance of the fact that Joyce is a moral anti-realist, or at least an agnostic on the question of whether there is objective moral truth.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 115.

[14] William James, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1909, 1975), 106.

[15] Here is another example of it. The universality of absolute morality that Shook eschews pertains to the issue of applying to all human moral agents, not just those in a particular culture or period of time. However, almost as soon as he broaches universality as a prerequisite for classically objective morality, he changes the topic to the issue of universal agreement, and he spends no small amount of time pointing out that we can find no such thing. Of course we cannot. That issue is not what is in dispute. If we asked people the world over to perform the calculation of multiplying two huge numbers, we would not find universal agreement on the answer to that question, either, but that does not give us cause for concern. Lack of universal agreement is completely unrelated to the issue of universal authority. Again, belief is one thing, and truth is another.

[16] See, for example,  throw in Nagel, along with mention of review essay

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, tr. Anthony M. Ludovici (New York: Barnes and Noble, (1888) 2008), 46-47.


Photo: "Day 7 | Off Target" By Rgmcfadden. CC License.