The Moral Argument

Ruse_Michael_mediumI just noticed an interesting entry in a New York Times series of interviews with major thinkers organized by Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting. Up to bat in this edition is Michael Ruse, author of  Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, and decorated professor of philosophy at Florida State. The description of his book on atheism, out early next year, reads,

Above all, the author stresses that the atheism controversy is not just a matter of the facts, but a matter of burning moral concern, both about the stand one should take on the issues and the consequences of one’s commitment.

The author description is also interesting:

In recent years, his attention has been turned increasingly towards the relationships between science and religion. He is not a believer, but thinks that the two can exist together harmoniously.

And Gutting’s interview shows that Ruse seems earnest in his desire not be the kind of intellectually sloppy atheist he sees in Richard Dawkins. Ruse says,

In the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”

But here’s what interested me the most, Ruse’s comments on evolutionary materialism and morality:

I don’t deny substantive morality—you ought to return your library books on time—but I do deny objective foundations. I think morality is a collective illusion, genetic in origin, that makes us good cooperators. And I would add that being good cooperators makes each one of us individually better off in the struggle for existence. If we are nice to other people, they are much more likely to be nice to us in return. However, as the philosopher J.L. Mackie used to argue, I think we “objectify” substantive ethics—we think it objectively the case that we ought return library books on time. But we do this (or rather our genes make us do this) because if we didn’t we would all start to cheat and substantive ethics would collapse to the ground. So I don’t buy the moral argument for the existence of God. I think you can have all of the morality you need without God. I am a follower of Hume brought up to date by Darwin. Morality is purely emotions, although emotions of a special kind with an important adaptive function.

Notice what Ruse did. He denied the necessary connection between God and morality not by affirming that morality exists and God doesn’t, but by affirming that neither one really exists. If there is no Christian God, Ruse must be right. Morality is what we hominids make it. But C.S. Lewis answered this argument a long time ago:

C.s.lewis3I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct—by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys. (Mere Christianity, 9)

Lewis has more to say on the topic, and I encourage you to read it (here’s an excerpt).

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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