Posted by: Ken Brown | February 10, 2008

The Logical Fallacies of Materialist Morality

This was first posted in April 2005, the Internet Archive retains a copy here, including some important discussion in the comments. This is by no means my favorite post (I include it mainly for the sake of its follow-up), but it does make some important points about Christianity, Naturalism, and the possibility of objective morality:

I’ve got nothing but respect for Tom Clark’s willingness to engage in open debate on the merits of Naturalism in forums like this, which are so obviously hostile to his viewpoint, but his position is simply untenable. In his response to Denyse O’Leary’s brief criticism of the Center for Naturalism, Clark attempts to defend Naturalism’s (or Materialism’s) ability to preserve a full-blooded morality apart from “controversial and unverifiable metaphysical facts about the nature of human action,” apparently not noticing that Naturalism itself fits into that category just as easily as any form of theism. In support, he points to two articles from the aforementioned Center (“Materialism and Morality: The Problem with Pinker” and “The Moral Levitation of David Brooks”) and an external article by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen [Sorry! the article is no longer available – such is the transitory nature of the internet!].

All three articles make approximately the same point, though the first and especially the third in far greater detail than the second. The point he seems to be trying to draw from them is summarized nicely at the end of “The Moral Levitation”: “if we can demonstrate that moral responsibility survives determinism, and moreover requires it, then perhaps the fear-based objections to a naturalistic understanding of ourselves can be overcome” (emphasis original). In other words, his argument is:

1. Materialism implies hard determinism,
2. Hard determinism is consistent with (or even required for) moral responsibility,
3. Therefore, Materialism is consistent with moral responsibility.

Put in this way, it is not hard to see that this argument violates a basic rule of logic known as “Affirming the Consequent.” Consider a similar example [note: I regret this example and would prefer to remove it, but the point I draw from it is valid and important to what follows, so I’ll retain it.]:

1. Tom Clark is a human being,
2. Humanity is consistent with (or even required for) femininity,
3. Therefore, Tom Clark is a woman.

Both arguments fail for exactly the same reason: just as Tom can be a human being without being a woman, so Materialism can imply hard determinism without being consistent with moral responsibility. Why? Because there is more to being Tom Clark than there is to being human, and there is more to Materialism than just hard determinism. Moreover, hard determinism, even if true, does not require Materialism, for it is also consistent with Supernaturalism (just ask any Calvinist!). Thus, even if it is true that hard determinism is consistent with, or even required by, moral responsibility, it still would not follow that Materialism is consistent with moral responsibility. (And obviously it would do nothing at all to prove whether or not Materialism is actually true; though, to be fair, this is not what Clark is trying to prove at the moment!)

In reality, this entire argument is a red herring. The real argument has nothing to do with free will and determinism but with the possibility of a binding Moral Law, yet neither Clark nor the articles he links even attempt to justify how Naturalism can provide such a thing. They only attempt to show that, given a moral law, hard determinism (unfairly equated with Materialism) does not prevent us from holding those who break it responsible. Yet if Naturalism is true, then it needs to do more than just maintain a morality that has been handed down to it by the traditional religions it has debunked; it needs to provide its own morality without appealing to any supernatural authority.

Clark does not attempt to do this, but the articles he links do imply Naturalism’s only possible response: In “Materialism and Morality” we read: “Our basic, neurally-embodied desires and preferences, bequeathed us by nature and fine-tuned by culture, constitute us as moral creatures; they determine what we hold to be right and wrong” (emphasis original). In other words, our understanding of right and wrong (our “moral compass”) is, like everything else, a product of our environmental and social conditioning, inherited through our genes and society (for a similar conclusion, see the end of Greene and Cohen’s article [quoted in Tom’s comment here]). And truly, no other answer is available to the Naturalist, for Naturalism denies a priori that anything beyond those proximate causes exists—Nature is all there is.

But it should come as no surprise that this description of the origin of morality is identical with his description of what causes immoral behavior: “The killing of a child, for instance, would be no less bad or wrong in a world in which actions were the natural falling out of various circumstances rather than the result of free will.” So, the killer’s actions are “wrong” despite the fact that they are the natural result of his circumstances, and our moral outrage is “right” despite the fact that it is the natural result of our circumstances! But if naturalism is true, then such distinctions are entirely meaningless, for the very definition of Naturalism is that “Nothing about us escapes being included in the physical universe, or escapes being shaped by the various processes—physical, biological, psychological, and social—that science describes,” and if nothing escapes that influence, then all judgments of right and wrong are equally dependent upon our environment and therefore indistinguishable.

Why should my belief that killing a child is “wrong” have any more authority than the killer’s belief that it is acceptable? Unless there is some standard—something above both of us to tell us what we should value (whether we actually do or not)—then we are at an impasse. I can say: “more people agree with me than with you, and if you don’t stop, we will force you to,” but I can’t say: “I’m right and you’re wrong, and therefore I am justified in forcing you to stop.” No human can be justified that their view of right and wrong is itself right or wrong, unless there is something above all humans against which those judgments can be compared. If Naturalism is true, no such thing exists, for nothing exists beyond nature.

The point is simple—either there is a standard of right and wrong that stands above nature and therefore has the right to judge between the different ways that nature is (e.g., the different ways that we are), or there is not. If there is not, as Naturalism unabashedly declares, then all morality is relative; if there is, then Naturalism is false. That is why Naturalism is “inconsistent with morality” (a better way to put it would be “incapable of providing a standard of morality”), and the debate over free will and determinism is a separate issue altogether.

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Responses

  1. […] It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned that the core of the argument I made in my last post (though not its form) is drawn from C.S. Lewis, particularly his books The Abolition of Man, Mere […]


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