The End of Morality - Evolution News & Views

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The End of Morality

Recently, David Brooks published a column titled "The End of Philosophy" in The New York Times (April 7, 2009). Brooks, long one of the most thoughtful writers in public life, addresses an ages-old tension over whether reason controls our moral intuitions and passions, or whether moral intuition/feeling is king and reason is only rationalization.

In the latter view, Brooks says,

moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous....Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies....
So the question naturally arises, "What shapes our moral emotions in the first place?" And with this question Brooks, ironically, in this particular week, knows not what he does. He gives the standard Darwinian answer that evolution shapes our moral faculties; and Brooks, like most Darwinists, seems to think that this is no detriment to objective morality since Darwinians now think that evolution is not just full of ruthless competition but also "cooperation within groups."

Maybe so. But Brooks seems to have not noticed what he lost when he accepted this view. He may think that this view accurately reflects reality because it would lead us to postulate that the products of such evolutionary processes would have both angels and devils in their nature. And lo and behold, this is precisely what we find!

Yet this is not the correct assumption. If mere material processes have determined our moral evaluations, then we should not expect that humans will be part good and part bad; rather we should expect that either there is no such thing as objective morality, or if there is humans cannot know it. Like many a Darwinists, Brooks evaluates Darwinian evolution like a kid examining a diorama, as though he were outside the thing being examined.

This leads him to say some misguided things.

For instance, Brooks thinks that the "first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition." But by what standard can Brooks call the social nature of moral intuition "nice"? Why not prefer thinking of humans as cold Cartesian rationalists alone on their modernist islands? Supposedly evolution, and nothing objective, has shaped Brooks' moral intuition here. And if so, I see no reason why he should try to persuade anyone else that this is a nice feature of the Darwinian approach to moral judgment.

Similarly Brooks says that this evolutionary picture paints "a warmer view of human nature." But again, by what standard? This statement is only true if objective moral standards exist. Otherwise Brooks can be saying no more than that we meet our own evolved standard of goodness. But of course we do! How could it be otherwise?

Finally, Brooks returns to rationality. "There are times," he claims, "when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions...." This may be true, but how can it be so on Darwinism? In other words, if the Darwinian view holds that our moral intuitions are the product of mindless material forces, must the Darwinian not also hold that his rationality is also the product of such a-rational forces? Brooks writes as though his rationality remains unaffected by such evolutionary processes, as though it fell from heaven like manna.

Brooks' reason cannot stand outside of his moral intuitions if both were affected by the same a-rational evolutionary pressures. For this reason, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have argued that naturalistic evolution undermines itself: if our minds are not necessarily reliable because they are the product of unintelligent, a-rational forces, why think that the outputs of those minds (say, abstract theories like Darwinian evolution) are true?

Like the Marxist who claims that everything is determined by socio-economic forces (except for himslef who, of course, has no class interest), and the Freudian with his determinant sexual urges and primal psychological forces (except for himself who somehow developed rational psychological theories), the Darwinist is a man at war with himself. For he is engaged in mortal combat with rationality itself.

At the terminus of the Darwinian path we find not the end of philosophy but the end of objective morality and rationality.

N.B., my colleague David Klinghoffer has his take on Brooks' article over at Kingdom of Priests.


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