Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Hume's Revenge

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

December 20, 2011 - The effort to ground traditional morality in an atheistic, evolutionary account of human nature is logically fruitless. Nevertheless, since many professional philosophers are loathe to kneel with the magi at the manger (their shared profession as wisdom-seekers notwithstanding), they are reticent to concede the futility of the enterprise. After all, if one wants to maintain that pedophilia is genuinely morally wrong (hence, preserving one’s societal image as a decent chap), but one refuses to acknowledge a moral Lawgiver behind the moral law, then genetic mutations, time, and scientific laws are ultimately the only elements to which one has recourse in constructing a metanarrative of right and wrong. 

C.S. Lewis decisively demonstrated the vanity such story-telling in The Abolition of Man, “On Ethics,” “De Futilitate,” and “The Poison of Subjectivism.” Unfortunately, despite his professional credentials (Lewis began his academic career as a philosophy tutor at Oxford), contemporary professional philosophers often regard Lewis as a mere apologist for Christianity. Cataloguing Lewis in this way provides cover for not taking him seriously or excuses not reading him at all.  (Most bookstores carry Lewis’s work in the “Inspiration” section. This is a rather subtle way of saying: “If you need an emotional lift, try one of these titles. The serious-minded work is elsewhere.”)

Perhaps this is partly why the effort to revive the evolutionary account of morality won’t go away. So Michael Ruse argues, “natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.” And this, he assures us, explains “why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong.” 

Like other consistent naturalists, Ruse concedes that an evolutionary account of morality entails that morality is “part of our psychology.” Moreover, he accepts David Hume’s observations about the impossibility of deriving an “ought” (a value claim) from an “is” (a descriptive claim). Yet, he refuses to realize that the contingency of our psychology undermines the normative force he wants to claim for moral rules. Ruse explains, “But because it may be the case that we can do what we like, it doesn’t follow that we should do what we like.”

True enough. But the logical blade cuts both ways. For neither does it follow that we should not do what we like. Indeed, as Lewis has pointed out, in a naturalistic universe nothing normative follows at all.

Naturalistic philosophers like Ruse may indeed very much “want to say” that things like pedophilia are genuinely morally wrong – that the wrongfulness of such acts is neither merely a “matter of opinion” nor merely “a scientific statement.” They may want to insist, as Ruse does, that “the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.”

But psychological states characterized by good intentions cannot repair a leaky logical levee. Sooner or later the walls of reason will burst and Truth will baptize. Will it be water or fire?