Monday, June 27, 2005

Morality, Divinity, and Humanity

Mark Kleiman writes:
The blue team shouldn't back off on its insistence that children be taught accurate biology in biology class, but we should acknowledge that the larger argument isn't really about biology, and cut the folks on the other side some slack rather than dismissing them as ignorant rustics.

This "larger argument", he suggests, is instead about morality, and whether evolution undermines it. I'm not sure why he thinks that this makes creationists any less ignorant. Well-meaning, perhaps, but rational and well-informed? I think not.

Majikthise already has an excellent response up (P.Z.'s is interesting too), so I'd just like to add a couple of quick points.

Here is the pro-creationist side of Kleiman's argument:
The Book of Genesis says that human beings, male and female, were created by God in God's own image. That's not just a proposition in paleontology; it encompasses two important moral claims.

First, it implies that each human being is a Divine project, and therefore has obligations to act in certain ways that flow merely from being a human being. Behaving foolishly or cruelly isn't, on this view, merely self-destructive or destructive, it's blasphemous, because those bad actions are being performed by an Image of God.

Second, Genesis implies that each human being I confront is sacred, again merely as a human being and without any reference to his behavior, status, or appearance. He (or she) is sacred as the Image of God. (C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays that, aside from the consecrated wine and wafer, any individual human being that you meet is the most sacred object you will encounter that day, more sacred than any relic or image.)

Firstly, I don't see how evolution poses any threat to the religio-ethical claim that humans reflect "the image of God". Kleiman later emphasises that the claim should be understood metaphorically. As I've argued before, the similar claim that "all men are created equal" is in no respect an empirical/descriptive claim at all. Rather, it is a normative claim to the effect that we ought to consider the interests of everybody - "all count in the moral calculus". Similarly, the claim that all humans are made in "the image of God" is not an empirical claim. So it is not threatened by the scientific account of our evolutionary origins. Presumably the claim instead reflects the nature of our rational agency, that humans - like God, and unlike the other animals - are capable of rational reflection, love, and so forth. Again, evolution says nothing about any of this, and creationists are foolish to believe otherwise.

Second, as I've previously argued, the purpose of a free agent's life cannot be externally imposed by any outside authority - not even God. The fact that we're part of a "Divine project", or have a purpose to God, does not entail that we have an objective purpose we're obliged to fulfill. Follow the link for the full argument.

Third, I think it is ethically dubious to promote concern for blasphemy over human welfare. If I hurt another person, this is wrong precisely because I hurt another person, not merely because the action constitutes blasphemy against God. Humans are not merely "sacred relics". We are people, not objects, and I think it an ethically repugnant consequence of the view Kleiman expounds that it fails to uphold this distinction. The more morally upright position is that persons have moral value in themselves, and not merely because it was bestowed upon them by some external source (i.e. God).

Any suggestion to the contrary, as I have argued before, is morally bankrupt:
I'd be fairly surprised if anyone was genuinely willing to embrace the consequences of this view. For suppose God were to tomorrow trumpet from the skies: "Behold, ye little mortals, the Jews have fulfilled the purposes I had for them. I value them no longer." Would that suddenly make it true that Jewish people are worthless? Would that make it morally permissible to hurt or kill them? Absurd!

The worth of a human being is not conditional upon their reflecting God's "image", or having his blessing. If God decided he didn't like Jews or gays, that would make them no less morally important. It's simply a mistake to tie God and morality together in such a way. The worth of a person derives from their humanity, not the blessing of divinity.

Next, consider the anti-evolution side to Kleiman's argument:
Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?

Much here depends on what it means to say that we are "fundamentally like animals of other species". We are made of the same sort of physical materials, and developed via similar evolutionary processes from a shared common ancestor. But I don't see how any of that has moral relevance. Clearly the end result is something quite different. As I said above, we have evolved something that no other animal has: rational agency. This is something of the utmost moral importance. We, unlike other animals, can recognize and act on reasons.

So, why shouldn't you act like an animal? Presumably there are reasons against it. Perhaps in doing so you would harm yourself or others, or suffer the opportunity cost of failing to instead engage in other - more worthwhile - activities. Why shouldn't you beat me up? Because I'm a person and have intrinsic moral worth in virtue of my humanity, which you can recognize in virtue of your humanity, and thus we have the capability to co-exist harmoniously in a manner that serves all of our interests. (I grant that's a somewhat rushed and superficial response. See my essay "Why Be Moral?" for a more rigorous argument.)

At the end of the day, there simply isn't any good reason to support creationism. If you think it's good biology, then you're scientifically ignorant. If you think it's good ethics, then you're philosophically ignorant. Like Lindsay says, "Real respect requires us to call each other out on wishful thinking and bad reasoning. The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons." We do them no favours by pretending otherwise.


  1. The biggest problem with the anti-evolutionists is showing exactly how it is a problem for morality. The real issue seems to be that there is a model where God isn't necessary (which isn't the same as saying God isn't involved). This frightens some who fear this would lead people away from God. So they attack evolution.

    Some evolutionists, of course, don't exactly help matters, arguing more or less the same thing.

    But as you said, it isn't exactly clear how there is a conflict. Certainly I've never read a cogent argument showing a conflict.

  2. >The worth of a human being is not conditional upon their reflecting God's "image".

    1) there is a question whether one can make a plausible argument about somthing that the other side argues cannot exist by definition. (although it does undermine the cause and effect part of the argument since there is no "cause" or "effect" in that scenario)

    2) If you were lets say a vegetable (or pig if you want somthing more sentient) you might have utilitarian value because you can be eaten by a human - however one would not expect a vegetable(pig) to see it that way. Noting that a normal vegetable/pig doesn't see it that way is not proof it is not true.

    3) "The worth of a person derives from their humanity, not the blessing of divinity."
    there are issues with this since the use of "humanity" is both arbitrary and extreemly convenient to you and me.

    Otherwise I basically agree there is no fundimental conflict and it is a bit of nonsense to argue
    1) believing in evolution must involve imorality
    2) believing in evolution must involve being athiestic

  3. Richard...

    When I read your post, I immediately thought "practical-reasoning Kantian a la Korsgaard or Herman."

    But we all know you are more in the utilitarian/consequentalist vein.

    So, my question is, why don't you buy the whole "practical reasoning and the moral law as being constitutive of my practical identity" family of argument.s

  4. Richard, I find are your argument rather confusing. Kleiman's post is essentially about civil discourse and, in particular, about how one can go about building (for instance) a strong and broad-based anti-torture discourse in society. So there is no "pro-creationist side of Kleiman's argument" and certainly no "anti-evolution side of Kleiman's argument" -- just a reflection about how one can work with such people for the common good, and that requires looking at what might be done toward a common ground. The responses that have been given to this in the blogosphere are (IMHO) utterly absurd trigger-finger responses from people who aren't bothering to think through the actual argument being made before they criticize it. For instance, Kleiman doesn't say that focusing on morality "makes creationists...less ignorant" -- as far as I can see, this is your misreading, and involves the addition of completely gratuitous suppositions. His point is that there is practical advantage to focusing on morality, because there are things that can't wait for this sort of dispute to be resolved, particularly given that they can be resolved in the meantime by encouraging others to be consistent in the right sorts of ways.

    I responded to these kinds of misreading here (you may have to scroll down a bit).

    (I'm also unclear as to why you are treating the 'Image of God' doctrine as one about externally imposed worth; this is virtually never the way the phrase is actually interpreted -- quite the opposite. Indeed, one of the clear absurdities in responses to Kleiman has been a failure actually to take the trouble to determine how the Image of God thesis is interpreted in practice. Instead, they just proceed on assumptions about the nature of the thesis that can easily shown to be based on ignorance -- unfortunately, Lindsay's post, which is indeed one of the better posts, succombs to this same failure. What has irritated me about this exchange is how various defenders of reason have leaped into this discussion in ways that show that they have taken no trouble to inform themselves about the facts. And in this case it is simply inexcusable. Not only is the Image of God thesis a thesis that persons have a value in themselves, historically it's easy to see that the latter thesis is a secularization of the former. This is very explicit in someone like Kant.)

    Sorry about the rant-like nature of this comment. Your main argument is interesting, though. I'm not really clear why, though, you say a free agent cannot have an externally imposed purpose -- human society works in part by the constant external imposition of purposes, whether the agent in question will or nill. Whether I will or nill, I am a taxpayer in Canada -- that's an externally imposed purpose, one of many, with attached obligations. I certainly don't pay Canadian taxes out of the goodness of my heart; rather, I pay them precisely because my place in society comes with an externally imposed purpose (to be a source of income for the government of Canada), and the consequent obligations, moral and legal, that are involved with having that purpose. I could certainly choose not to comply, but that really doesn't change the fact of the matter.

  5. Brandon, you can call it a "misreading", but I built my post on quotes that suggest otherwise. Perhaps Kleiman wrote his original post in a misleading manner that failed to convey what he wanted it to. But then I'm not sure why you think that's everybody else's fault rather than his. I've simply responded based on what he wrote, rather than my mind-reading skills. Sorry if the latter aren't up to scratch.

  6. Richard, nowhere in Kleiman's post does he say anything remotely resembling what you attribute to him except for the quotation that you mention at the top of your post. But this clearly does not imply anything about whether creationists are ignorant or not: it implies simply what it says, namely, that (to paraphrase slightly) 'rather than dismissing them as ignorant, we should acknowledge that the larger argument is really about morality'. This does not, contrary to what you seem to be suggesting, imply anything about the level of ignorance; it simply states a proposal for action by those who are not creationists. It is certainly true that there are aspects of Kleiman's post that are less clear than they could be; but this is not one of them. No mind-reading is necessary. It is everybody else's fault, at least to that extent; instead of reading what Kleiman's post said, they read into it ghosts of their own imagining, based on vague verbal associations. It does happen, and I see no reason to reject my original conclusion that it happened here.

  7. Your "paraphrase" conveniently ignores the whole "cut them some slack" aspect of Kleiman's suggestion.

    It's also odd that you suggest "there is no 'pro-creationist side of Kleiman's argument' and certainly no 'anti-evolution side of Kleiman's argument'". I provided direct quotations of the arguments in question, so I'm not sure how you can deny their existence.

  8. (Having said all that, I care more about the arguments themselves than whether some particular blogger did or did not intend to make them. I intend my post as a response to the arguments, not as a personal criticism of Kleiman, who I don't know and don't much care about. I'd be much more interested in discussing the substance of the arguments.)

  9. So put 'cut them some slack' in -- what does it change? Nothing. The claim is still a proposal to those who are not creationists, and does not imply anything about whether the creationists are right or wrong, rational or irrational, well-informed or ill-informed. Nor does it imply that anyone should support creationism; rather, it simply implies that one should change the mode of one's resistance to it.

    You provide two arguments that you call the 'pro-creationist side' and the 'anti-evolutionist side'; but there is nothing in Kleiman's post suggesting either label. What you actually present is

    (a) Kleiman's description of some of the moral claims derivable from the Image of God thesis;

    (b) An incomplete bit of the argument about the implications of 'middle-school Darwinism'.

    In the context of Kleiman's post, neither (a) nor (b) is used as a pro- or anti- anything; they are both subserving the larger argumentative function of supporting the thesis already noted, i.e., that the larger argument is about morality. (b) can't even be considered 'anti-evolutionist' unless you consider all evolutionists to be 'middle-school Darwinists'. Given that the 'middle-school' here almost certainly indicates that we are primarily talking about popular conceptions of evolution, rather than any deeply informed view of evolution, this seems a stretch.

    In other words, the structure of Kleiman's post is this:

    I. A Query Raised: Why is the anti-evolution crowd so vehement?

    II. Kleiman's Proposed Answer: For them it is not really about biology but about morality.

    III. Reasons for the Answer
    IIIa. Moral Implications of Genesis
    IIIb. 'Middle-School Darwin' Problematizes the Moral Implications of Genesis.

    IV. Implications of II and III
    IVa. For our approach to the dispute itself
    IVb. With regard to torture

  10. Kleiman doesn't merely claim that the debate is about morality rather than biology. He further asserts that, because of this, creationists can't "justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to" evolution. He then presents two arguments which might be thought to vindicate the creationist on this point: one which aims to support the idea that Genesis supports good morals, the other making claims about the adverse moral consequences of evolution. To these arguments I applied the straightforward descriptive labels "pro-creationist" and "anti-evolution", respectively, and those labels do accurately capture the thrust of those arguments. The aim of my post was to point out the flaws in those arguments.

    So I think I've responded to a perfectly straightforward and reasonable (even obvious) interpretation of what Kleiman wrote. But here's the thing: it doesn't matter either way. I really couldn't care less what Kleiman intended -- like I said, I'm interested in the substance of the arguments, not their origin. If he meant to argue something else, I just don't care. I'm responding to these arguments. They could have fallen from the skies for all I care.

    So enough of this tedious tangent already. If you like, just mentally replace every mention of "Mark Kleiman..." with "Suppose that somebody were to argue..." If anyone has an objection to the substance of my arguments about evolution and morality, then I'd be interested to hear that. Otherwise, not so much.

  11. Another key problem with the "why don't we act like animals" argument from creationists is that most animals don't murder (their own species, that is), and that even the tiny sparrow will defend her nest and offspring against the larger and more vicious raven -- why don't we act like other animals?

    Great question. They seem to understand that morality is in their personal interest, and though they fail to attend church, they stick by their morals. That's not a great argument for those who attend church and plot to murder their fellow species members.


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