bookmark_borderRichard Dawkins and Moral Realism

Christian apologists who love to substitute quote-mining for actual argumentation are fond of quotations like the following, in order to conclude that atheism somehow undermines morality.

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, or any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 133

For people whose search for truth involves more than selectively quoting ‘hostile’ authorities, however, this quotation raises more questions than answers. Let’s start with a basic question for apologists who like to use this quote. Why are you quoting Dawkins on this point? Is it because you think he is an expert on the implications of atheism for morality? Is it because you think Dawkins has given a good argument for the conclusion that in a godless universe there is “no evil and no good”? Is it both? Or is it something else?
(1) Does the Quotation Support a Correct Inductive Argument from Authority?
While some arguments from authority can be logically correct, this one is not. Let P be the statement “If naturalistic evolution is true, then there is no good and no evil,” and let S be metaethics. Using Wesley Salmon’s schema for inductive arguments from authority,[1] we can then formulate the argument from authority as follows.

(1) The vast majority of statements made by Richard Dawkins concerning subject S are true.
(2) P is a statement made by Richard Dawkins concerning subject S.
(3) [probably] P is true.

This argument does not satisfy Salmon’s conditions for an inductively correct argument from authority, in two ways. First, even if we treat Dawkins as an expert on metaethics, the argument would still be evidentially worthless. As Salmon observed, an appeal to one group of authorities has no evidential value when another group of authorities who are equally competent disagree.[2] And there are many qualified experts on metaethics who believe P is false.[3] Second, with all due respect to Dawkins, he is not a reliable authority on subject S. He is an evolutionary biologist with a D.Phil. in biology, not a philosopher who specializes in metaethics. Therefore, premise (1) is dubious. The upshot is that this argument from authority provides literally zero evidence for statement P.
Even if we cannot accept P on the basis of Dawkins’ authority, however, it is still possible that Dawkins has a good argument for believing it. I’ll consider that possibility in a moment. For now, I want to make one other point. Have you ever noticed that Christian apologists love to quote Dawkins as a hostile witness when it supports their desired conclusion but not when it doesn’t? If Dawkins’ opinion about morality (that it’s not objective) is supposed to be evidence for an apologist’s claims about the moral implications of atheism, then Dawkins’ opinion about God (He doesn’t exist) should also be evidence for atheism.  It seems rather one-sided to appeal to Dawkins’ authority when it helps theism (by lending support to a dubious moral argument for God’s existence), but to ignore Dawkins’ authority when it hurts theism (by lending support to a robust evidential argument from evil against God’s existence).
(2) Does the Quotation State an Inductively Correct Argument against Moral Realism?
Again, here is what Dawkins wrote:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, or any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.

What properties does Dawkins have in mind when he claims that the universe has the properties “we should expect” if there is no objective meaning or morality? And why would those properties be expected?
Let’s parse this quotation one step at a time. He writes: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication…” This suggests he is talking about an explanatory hypothesis I’ll call “naturalism.”

naturalism (N) =df. causal reality is limited to physical reality, i.e., there is no such things as minds which can exist apart from arrangements of matter

Continuing on, he writes, “some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, or any justice.  …  Nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” This suggests that he is talking about the evidence to be explained (E).

E1. Distribution of good and evil, pain and pleasure, success and failure, triumph and tragedy, etc. is morally random.

And so a key premise in his argument against theism seems to be this:

(1) Known facts about evil are much more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true, i.e., Pr(E1 | N) >> Pr(E1 | T).

In the quotation, Dawkins also writes the words, “no evil and no good.” This suggests another explanatory hypothesis:

O: ontologically objective moral values (i.e., moral goodness or “good”) and disvalues (i.e., badness or “evil”) exist.

And, again, the evidence to be explained would seem to be the same as before:

E1. Distribution of good and evil, pain and pleasure, success and failure, triumph and tragedy, etc. is morally random.

And so a key premise in his argument against O seems to be this:

(1’) Known facts about evil are much more probable on the assumption that O is false than on the assumption that O is true, i.e., Pr(E1 | ~O) >> Pr(E1 | O).

Dawkins’ argument against theism is much better than his argument against ontologically objective moral values. Dawkins’ terse statement of an evidential argument from evil is consistent with the very powerful defense of an evidential argument from evil by Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper. But what about Dawkins’ terse statement of an evidential argument against moral realism or objectivism? Not so much. It’s far from obvious why known facts about evil are much more probable on the assumption that O is false than on the assumption that O is true, i.e.,
Pr(E1 | ~O) >> Pr(E1 | O).
Dawkins writes, “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” The problem is that DNA and O have nothing to do with each other.  There are two possibilities:
(1) DNA is indifferent to the moral value of pain and pleasure; and O is true.
(2) DNA is indifferent to the moral value of pain and pleasure; and O is false.
For example, it could be the case that moral anti-reductionism is true (and so moral properties are not reducible to non-moral properties) and the Good exists. Or it could be the case that naturalistic moral reductionism is true (and so moral properties are reducible to physical properties) and the Good is desirable; facts about universal human desires rooted in human biology help inform us about the Good.
In sum, Dawkins has overstated his conclusion. It’s far from obvious why DNA (or anything about the “universe we observe”) is just what we would expect on the assumption O is false.
Notes
[1] Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 100.
[2] Ibid.
[3] E.g., Adams; Hick; Moore; Morriston; Nielsen; Pojman; Post; Rottschaefer; Sagi and Statman; Shafer-Landau; Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.
More on Theistic Quote-Mining of Atheists on the Topic of Morality

More Posts by Lowder about Atheism and Morality

Posts by Other Secular Outpost Authors on Atheism and Morality

Wes Morriston’s Critiques of Attempts to Argue that Morality Needs God

Erik Wielenberg’s Critiques of Theistic Metaethics

Stephen Maitzen

John Danaher’s Critiques of Moral Arguments and Theistic Metaethics

Ex-Apologist’s Blog Posts

 

bookmark_borderWhat Are Objective Moral Values and Duties, Anyway?

The concept of “objective morality” is notorious for its ambiguity. You might even say that people–or, at least, philosophers–have a moral obligation not to use that expression unless and until they first give a very nuanced definition of what it means! Because the concept is often misunderstood, I’m going to try to offer a “layman’s guide to moral objectivity” in this post.
Morality and Moral Concepts
Let’s start with “morality.” The average person who is not a philosopher probably thinks there is just the one ‘thing,’ morality, and that’s the end of it. In fact, the topic is a little bit more complicated than that. Non-philosophers might be surprised to learn that philosophers make a distinction between the good (values) and the right (duties). 
Value concepts can be positive (value), neutral (indifference), or negative (disvalue). Honesty and fairness are examples of (moral) values, while dishonesty and unfairness are examples of (moral) disvalues.
Duty concepts can describe actions which are mandatory (required or obligatory), optional (permitted), or prohibited (wrong or forbidden). A moral duty which expresses a required action might be, “Unless there are mitigating circumstances, tell the truth.” An optional action (i.e., an action for which  there is no moral duty to perform or not perform) might be, “Sell your house and give all the money to the poor.” Finally, a moral duty which expressed a prohibited action might be, “Do not hurt another person for fun.”
Something’s moral value doesn’t necessarily imply a corresponding moral duty. For example, it would be good if I were to sell all of my belongings and donate the proceeds to the poor, but no one would say I have a moral duty or obligation to do so. Rather, that action would be optional (i.e., neither mandatory nor prohibited but merely permitted).
Objectivity
Philosophers also use the word “objectivity” to mean different things. Two of the more common meanings have to do with ontology (read: what exists) and epistemology (read: what we know or can know).
Moral ontology is the branch of ethics (specifically, meta-ethics)  which studies whether any moral properties and facts exist and, if so, what metaphysical status they have, such as whether moral properties and facts are natural, supernatural, or non-natural or moral properties and facts are objective, inter-subjective, or subjective. Statements like,  “Objective moral values exist,” tell us that the speaker/writer is talking/writing about moral ontology.
Moral epistemology is the branch of ethics (specifically, meta-ethics) which studies whether, when, and how substantive moral claims and beliefs can be justified or known. Statements like, “We don’t need God to know the difference between right and wrong,” tell us that the speaker/writer is talking/writing about moral epistemology.
Let’s try to make these distinctions more “real” by working our way through a concrete example.
Example 1: “Honesty is morally valuable while dishonesty is morally disvaluable.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you believe Example 1 is a proposition or, in other words, is a sentence which can be either true or false. Let’s also assume that you believe the sentence is, in fact, true.
Now ask yourself, “What makes Example 1 true?” Here are some options.
(1) Brute fact. One option is that nothing else makes Example 1 true; it’s just true. Period. In that case, we would say, “Example 1’s truth is a brute fact.”
(2) Necessity. Another option is that Example 1 is true by definition, i.e., it would be a contradiction in terms to say, “Honesty is not morally valuable,” or, “Dishonesty is not morally disvaluable.”
(3) Inter-subjective fact about human nature. The vast majority of human beings throughout history and across cultures have believed that Example 1 is true.
(4) Subjective opinion. You might say, “I think Example 1 is true just because it expresses what I (the speaker) value and disvalue.”
(5) God’s nature. You might say, “God’s nature or character is the standard of moral goodness. Since God is essentially honest, it follows that honesty is morally valuable and dishonesty is morally disvaluable.”
For each possible answer we can ask a follow-up question, “Does that answer say that the example’s truth is dependent upon the beliefs, desires, wishes, or other subjective states of a person?” If the answer is no, as is (arguably) the case with the “brute fact” and “necessity” options, then we would say that the Example 1 is ontologically objective. If the answer is “yes,” then we need to ask one last question: “Does the answer say that the example’s truth is dependent upon the subjective states of a single person or a group of people?” If the answer is “a group of people (even including an entire species),” then Example 1 is ontologically inter-subjective. If the answer is “a single person (either a human or God),” then Example 1 is ontologically subjective.
You may have noticed that options (1)-(5) aren’t the only options. For example:
(6) Evolution. You might say, “Our evolutionary history explains why we tend to have the moral beliefs we have, including our beliefs about honesty and dishonesty. Social primates have rules to function in primate society. ”
The problem with answers like (6), however, is that they are actually answering a different question. They do not answer the question, “What makes Example 1 true?” Rather, they answer the question, “Why do we believe that Example 1 is true?” The former is a question is about moral ontology while the latter is about moral epistemology.