The Ambiguity of “Morality”

I’ve seen plenty of statements along these lines over the years: “Can evolution explain morality?” “Morality doesn’t come from religion!” “Can morality exist without God?” “Evolution cannot explain morality!” and so on and so forth.  The questions or statements seem straightforward enough, but they aren’t straightforward when we consider that the word “morality” is a bit ambiguous.  What do people mean by “morality” when asking these questions or making these claims?  There are at least three things people can mean by “morality.”

Moral Behaviors
These would be our actions, like helping people or hurting people.

Moral Beliefs
These are what we believe to be right or wrong, good or bad.

Moral Facts
These are objective facts as to what is right or wrong independent of our opinions and behaviors.  Just as there is a fact of the matter that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons, there is also a fact that certain things are morally good and certain things are morally bad (there is a discussion on exactly what form these facts take or what kinds of facts moral values could be, but I will not get into that here).

So if someone is asking whether evolution can explain “morality” or not, what does he mean by “morality”?  It seems completely clear that evolution and sociology can explain why people exhibit certain moral behaviors and have moral beliefs, so it can explain morality in that sense.  As Richard Dawkins says

We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship.  Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback.  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising. (The God Delusion, pg. 251)

However, that doesn’t mean that evolution and sociology can explain moral facts if they exist, given a certain view of moral facts (non-naturalism).  Some people may believe that morality only exists in the first two ways, but not in the third.  If someone is trying to argue that morality only comes from God, that person can just mean moral facts without meaning moral beliefs or behaviors.  In fact, William Lane Craig argues over and over again that the moral argument for the existence of God is talking about moral ontology, not moral epistemology or moral behavior. In other words, the second premise of the argument argues that there are moral facts and then goes on to show that those facts have to be grounded in God, it doesn’t say anything about our knowledge of the facts or our behavior.  As he says in his writings

The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?  There’s no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God?  If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there’s no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree.  Or again, the question is not: Can we recognize the existence of objective moral values without reference to God? The theist will typically maintain that a person need not believe in God in order to recognize, say, that we should love our children. (Reasonable Faith, pg. 175-176)

If a person S says morality comes from God and a person P responds with “but evolution and sociology explain our sense of morality and moral behavior,” does that response address what S was saying?  Well, if S was talking about moral facts and P was talking about moral beliefs or behaviors, then P’s response does not actually respond to what S was saying. Perhaps S agrees that evolution can give an account of why we have the moral beliefs and behaviors we do but still believes that there are moral facts and these facts can only be explained by God’s existence in some way.

I’m not giving a particular argument on morality here.  I’m saying that the word “morality” is ambiguous and needs to be specified when we are in discussion about it so that misunderstanding and red herrings are avoided and clarity is maintained.

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2 Responses to The Ambiguity of “Morality”

  1. Pingback: Posts on Morality, God, and Ethical Theories | Into the Harvest

  2. Pingback: Ambiguous Words | Into the Harvest

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