Atheists who believe it’s good to maximize human well-being cannot support that position with evidences or with reason, but only with prejudice and sentiment. In today’s post, the continuation of a topic I started two days ago on morality and human nature, I will try to explain and defend my reasons for saying so. I’ll begin by quoting some comments from recent threads, which I find to be typical among believers in naturalistic evolution.
I believe we can use a model of human needs and the consequences of actions to offer moral guidance, particularly for matters in which different groups strongly disagree. (Source.)
Talking in terms of good and evil will get nowhere because each “side” has its own definitions. That is why I suggest thinking in terms of basic human needs – something that all sides can agree on – and finding ways forward where everyone’s needs can be met. (Source.)
The model is in terms of these type of fundamental human needs we all share. The aim is to achieve them for everyone, based on the realization that helping others helps us because we are all connected. (Source.)
The goal of all human behavior is that humanity continues. Sounds like a worthy enough goal to me. (Source.)
If you think instead of ensuring the continuation of the human species, then the benefit of reason is clearer, I think. Perhaps reason will enable us to establish colonies on some other planet, when we exhaust the resources of this one–won’t then the ability to use reason to formulate scientific theories be contributing to the continuation of the species? (Source.)
I don’t think in terms of right and wrong. And I wouldn’t judge the person, only their ideas. I think in terms of helpful and unhelpful at meeting human needs. In my view, torturing children is not a human need. A human need is something we all desire – security, meaning, autonomy, health, excitement etc. (Source.)
What Does “Human” Mean?
I’d like you to take notice of the repeated word “human” here. What does it mean? Is it obvious? Certainly, on a common-sense level it is. Everybody knows what “human” means, right?
Not so fast. Is an unborn baby a human? Does he or she have “basic human needs — something that all sides can agree on”? It doesn’t take long to run into confusion on what “human” means, does it?* Peter Singer, ethicist (cough, cough) at Harvard, says that as far as ethical considerations go, it humanness may begin well after the birth of the baby. There is equal controversy over the humanness of organisms (shall we say?) near the end of their life as humans, or of the severely mentally handicapped.
And there has also been considerable dispute over the humanness of the darker-skinned races. I think we’ve settled that one, thank God.
Deeply Muddled Definition
My point is, “human” is not as well-defined as we think it is, and thus we have deep divides over whether human needs are being met when (for example) a woman aborts her baby. My further point is this: naturalistic evolution does us no good in finding an answer. It actually makes things worse, for several reasons:
1. Evolution is about process. Every species is but a snapshot of a population on its way to being something else. Evolution never lands but for a moment.
2. Evolution cannot make a higher species. Did you think humans were an advanced group? You chauvinist, you! Advanced toward what? Paris japonica has the largest genome of any species. Maybe that’s the relevant measure. Cockroaches are reputed to be the animal species that would thrive best following a nuclear disaster. Maybe that’s the relevant measure. Rationality? Sure, we have it, but does a raccoon care? There’s nothing there in naturalistic evolution to justify calling us a higher species. All there is, is self-serving prejudice.
3. Evolution cannot distinguish the worth of species. Ingrid Newkirk at PETA said that as far as our food choices go, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” That’s good evolutionary thinking: we’re all one sort of thing, each of us just our own particular terminus on the particular path that mindless, brainless, purposeless evolution followed (pardon the anthropomorphism) to bring us to be. What makes the path to me (or my distant ancestors, in case you were planning to bring that up) to be of any more worth than the path to my calico cat Callie? I can’t think of anything. So then what makes the outcome worth any more? I can’t think of anything there, either; not on the evolutionary theory, at any rate.
4. Most importantly, evolution does not institute species-ness, in the sense of horse-ness, or maple tree-ness, or of course humanness. The -ness suffix is a fiction, a heuristic convenience foisted by humans upon groupings of organisms to simplify our conceptions.
Let me pause and add a word to explain that. I’ll illustrate from a science fiction story that I never read, but which a friend told me of. In this story a human —call him Sam — meets an alien, either on Earth or some other planet. Trying to establish communication, Sam points at a rock and says, “Rock.” The author lets us in on the alien’s thoughts: it understands immediately. But Sam doesn’t know that, so he points at the rock again and says, “Rock.” Then we hear the alien’s thoughts: This other being is an idiot. It doesn’t realize that if it was “rock” before, it has changed in billions of minuscule ways since then. It’s not the same thing. It could no longer be “rock.”
I don’t know how the alien came to that conclusion without contradiction, for if the “rock” had changed, then so had the “other being” (Sam). And if it wasn’t the same being (Sam) saying “rock” the second time, there could have been no one being contradicting himself by using the same word both times.
But the alien was right to this extent: there’s no rock there, in reality, except as some mind recognizes rock-ness there. Nature (as naturalistic evolutionists conceive it) cannot put rock-ness into a rock. It can only put the atoms that comprise its minerals in close conjunction with one another. And nature cannot put horse-ness into a horse. It can only put its chemicals in contiguous arrangements. Horse-ness is a human construct, not one of nature. So is humanness: it is a purely human construct.
Therefore humanness is a self-serving conception at best, though in reality it is simply a false one: for if evolution cannot create humanness, there’s nothing else in nature that could. Humanness is thus a construct without a cause. What is uncaused cannot come into being. Humanness therefore cannot really be.
Sentiment and Morality, Yes; Reason, No
Therefore also, on naturalistic evolution, to make an ethical principle out of advancing the interests of humans or humanity is to reify something that doesn’t exist except. Humanness isn’t fixed, it’s but a name we give to a population at a particular step in a process. We have no greater worth than any other species. We’re not a higher species. Humanity (in the sense of common possessors of some human nature) is a fiction.
So why make human flourishing our ethical ideal? Let me quote another comment from the recent thread:
Nothing makes humanity any more worth preserving than any other species, but our own feelings about ourselves. (Source) 59
That’s exactly right. On naturalistic evolution, sentiment and prejudice constitute the only explanation for human-based ethics: sentiment and prejudice.
Don’t allow yourself to confuse that with reason.
Meanwhile, don’t forget this: an ethic of seeking to support human well-being can be a very sound ethic. Atheists who get that right, get it right. As I said last time, they get it right because their intuitions are correct: human nature is real. Humanness is real. If naturalistic evolution can’t support or explain that (and it can’t), well then, so much the worse for naturalistic evolution.
*By way of contrast: In the philosophical and biblical tradition represented by Robert George, the subject of my last post on this topic, the answer is well defined. Humanness begins at conception and continues, embodied, until physical death. George writes in a footnote to Conscience and Its Enemies,
By the phrase our humanity, I refer more precisely to the nature of humans as rational beings. The nature of human beings is a rational nature. So in virtue of our human nature, we human beings possess a profound and inherent dignity…. Even individuals who have not yet acquired the immediately exercisable capacities for conceptual thought and other rational acts, and, indeed, even those who do not possess them, and never possessed them, and (short of a miracle) never will possess them, possess a rational nature.
How does he reach this conclusion? I’m afraid I don’t have space to go into it here. I suggest you look up one of Edward Feser’s books on the topic if you’re interested: The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism or Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide). My argument here has not depended on George’s; I only mention this so that you can look into it if you’re interested. (Please note: since my argument does not depend on the success of George’s argument, commenters disputing the accuracy of George’s conclusions will be off topic right from the start.)