I’m not a huge Michael Ruse fan. Scratch that, I’m not any kind of Michael Ruse fan. However, after seeing a friend criticize this for supposedly being consistent about moral realism/anti-realism, I’m starting to wonder if Ruse has a point about morality. This is because there are several different questions we could be talking about when we talk about “moral realism” or “objective morality.” Here are two of them:
(1) Is morality reducible to what somebody (or bodies) says or thinks is moral?
(2) Is morality reducible to something contingent and local to planet Earth?
There’s an obvious way to say “no” to both questions: if moral truths are written in some Platonic realm. There’s also an obvious way to say “yes” to both questions: if morality is reducible to what humans say or think is moral. But there’s a famous moral view that says “yes” to (1) and “no” to (2), namely the sort of divine command theory endorsed by William Lane Craig, which makes morality reducible to what God says.
Now here’s Ruse:
How does a non-realist like me proceed? One could be some kind of social contract theorist and think that a group of wise old people sat down one day and made up the rules of morality. This seems to me to be unsatisfactory both as history and philosophy. I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that 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. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)
So what does this make of morality? Sure, it is something that is part of our psychology. Frankly, who would ever doubt that? If you like, the controversial part is that it is only part of our psychology. I think that is the world into which David Hume pushed us. 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. As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.
So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong. That is not a matter of opinion.
This sounds puzzling, but maybe Ruse wants to say “no” to (1) and “yes” to (2), by making morality rooted in human psychology (though not, apparently, in a way that’s open to straightforward scientific study). And it’s not really obvious saying “yes” to (2) in this way requires you to say “yes” to (1). Just because a fact is psychological doesn’t mean it can be changed by getting people to agree to say something different about it. If that’s right, it’s wrong for Craig to insinuate that on Ruse’s view, morality would be changed “if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”
My gut inclination is to want to say “no” to both (1) and (2), to follow G. E. Moore and Russ Shafer-Landau if not Plato. But maybe Ruse (if I understand him correctly) has the right approach, “no” to (1) and “yes” to (2). That could be right even if Ruse doesn’t have the most plausible view of this sort. Russell Blackford has complained that “too many people assume that the only alternatives are a very crude moral relativism or a naive moral realism.” And I’ve been thinking of picking up Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, which I’m told treats morality as a kind of technology (and facts about technology aren’t automatically changed by what people say or think).