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Richard Carrier Moreland Naturalism

The Carrier Theory of Value and the Ethical Adequacy of Metaphysical Naturalism(2001)

Richard Carrier



In the May/June, 1996 issue of Promise, J.P. Moreland publisheda paper called “TheEthical Inadequacy of Naturalism” (pp. 36-39). In it he repeated anumber of fallacies and falsehoods about Secular Humanism that must berefuted, and in the process I will describe my naturalistic meta-theoryof moral value.

Do We Live in a Sick Society?

Moreland opens with the old saw that “our society is in a state of moralchaos.” This is meant to convince us adpopulum that there is some new problem that he can then blame onsecularism. He fails to mention that this has been said in every centuryof human civilization for which we have any appreciable amount of socialcommentary, going on four thousand years now. It is nothing new.[1]In fact, when we look objectively at history, Americans are more moralas a society today than any society at any time ever in human history,apart from our free democratic cousins around the world, who, like theEuropeans, tend to be far less religious than we, yet somehow enjoy farlower rates of crime and greater economic equity and social justice. Butfocusing solely on us, what do we really see? We see an amazinglyprogressive culture that has crawled out of an age of violent expansionand bigotry, and is starting to show incredible promise as an enlightenedsociety.

Never before have millions of people voluntarily supported internationalhuman aid projects on a vast scale, without regard for political bordersor religious affiliations, such as the Red Cross or Second Harvest. Weeven give aid to our enemies. We lead not only the world, but allpast history, in hours devoted per capita to volunteer humanitarian work.Education is regarded for the first time in history as an inalienable right,and is universally provided, even for women and minorities, and literacyis almost a thing of the past. The poor have government-funded medicalcare and millions of people are calling for more, out of pure compassionfor their fellow human beings. For the first time in history, women havefull political rights. Free speech and freedom of religion are not onlyregarded as fundamental to our national character, but are ardently andthoroughly defended by all social classes. Slavery is defeated, and allforms of racism and hatred are almost universally loathed rather than accepted.For the first time in history, people actually have compassion for theplight of animals–even the ones they eat must be humanely killed. Forthe first time in history, when men went to die in Viet Nam, millions ofpeople actually stood and protested an unjust war and stood for peace,despite being beaten and killed for it. In contrast, before our time, thereis no recorded case, ever, of any comparable mass Christian action againsta war. Today, even poor Americans live as well as Medieval kings once did,amidst a sea of free parks and libraries, subsidized public transportationand 911 response teams, with luxuries galore, from sanitized water to portableorchestras in a box.

Let’s compare today with past centuries. Despite complaints about highrates of crime now (which have actually declined steadily since Clintontook office), compared to any other century our crime “problem” is extremelyminimal, and has never been greater than it was eighty years ago anyway.In past centuries bandit clans and pirates threatened nearly all ruralroutes and seaways, and travel was always a risky venture; kidnapping wasso routine that many people prayed they wouldn’t be snatched; robbery wasso routine many people hid their money in mattresses or socks. Even themost effective civilizations, at their peak, could stave off only someof these ills, compared to the safety of our current society, and onlyfor small regions and for short spans of time…or for select social classes.Children were legally beaten. The rights of women and minorities, not tomention the incarcerated or mentally ill, were all but nonexistent, andslavery (and the oppression of native peoples) was defended as God’s Will.Whereas now people protest even if a single soldier might lose his life,in all past eras war was the natural course of things–indeed, until recently,it is hard to find any adult in history who did not suffer through one.And there was never before our era any concept of a ‘war crime’. Nor wasthere any concept of ‘workplace safety’ for that matter. I could go on,but the point is clear.

The true picture of life in past times is always bleak. No one today,who knew the facts, would trade this century for any other. No woman woulddare do without feminine hygiene products and civil equality. No man woulddare walk into the disease-infested cities of the past or risk maimingor death in a pointless war or a gruesome industrial accident, or worse,risk finding himself a slave in the Antebellum South, or an aborigine onthe Trail of Tears. And if you hate political corruption today, you haven’tseen corruption until you’ve flipped through a history book. But even inthis century we have witnessed unprecedented progress. Whereas tens ofthousands could be killed in the Miami race riots of the 1930’s, even theworst riots of today are a walk in the park by comparison. Once, minoritieslived among us abused and mistreated, most living in a level of povertythat would disgust any human being today. Millions of blacks lived in fearevery day of their lives of being murdered, or worse.[2]All this has changed, now only pockets of resistance remain tainted bythis past evil, such as inner city slums, or Appalachian hovels. But menlike Moreland don’t seem to notice these real problems in their condemnationof society. These issues never come up. Rather, his best example is thestaged-and-scripted buffoonery of the Jerry Springer Show, which is asharmless as any other circus, and hardly indicative of reality for theaverage American.

This is not to say modern society is all peaches and cream. We havea lot of progress to make, a lot of maturing left to do. Humankind is ayoung race, only four thousand years civilized (that’s only 200 generations),now slowly reaching young adulthood, petulant and naive, faulty and proneto missteps, but not the child it has been through all past ages. Humanbeings are more conscientious now, more educated now, more freethinking,more cosmopolitan and more compassionate now than ever before. And thoughwe are centuries yet from where we ought to be, it is quite dishonest toportray our current existence as somehow a moral decline. We lookin vain for the ‘Golden Age’ we are supposed to have declined from. Andthough I agree with Moreland and others that progress is being hamperedby a sort of spiritual aimlessness, I do not believe they have the solution.Christianity clearly can’t sell itself anymore–it rests on poor factualfoundations and is a house divided against itself, with hundreds of sectswith radically different ideas about how society should be, and surveyafter survey shows that Christians are no more moral than non-Christians(cf. the Secular Web library on Moralityand Atheism), so even when sold it does not have the curative effectclaimed for it. In contrast, Secular Humanism isn’t getting the press itneeds, in order to have the extensive influence on people that Morelandmistakenly thinks it already has. And what people really need isnot being given to them, nor is Moreland asking for it. Philosophy is nottaught in school, as it ought to be. Churches are on every corner, notFreethought Houses. Every Sunday, believers go to be preached to in silence,not to actively discuss and debate the important issues of philosophy.No one is being given the tools to think analytically about life and morality,to critically examine and make an informed choice about spiritual direction.And yet, instead of encouraging and fighting for this, people like Morelandare selling what is essentially a snake oil quick-fix: believe on Christand all will be well, hang the Ten Commandments in schools and societywill improve itself, just pray and you’ll cure every social ill.[3]

Does Believing in EvolutionMake Us Immoral?

After launching with an attack on contemporary society, Moreland echoesa common polemic that we act like animals because “we are taught all weeklong in public schools that this is exactly what we are–animals,” thustying his imaginary ‘problem’ to its supposed secular ’cause’. But he presentsno evidence or any real case for this hypothetical connection between teachingevolution and immorality. Never mind that most criminals are high-schooldropouts or otherwise poor scholastics, and thus could hardly have absorbedmuch in the way of what evolution really means. Never mind that scientists,who study evolution more than anyone, show no signs of being any more immoralthan anyone else, including Creationists. Never mind that crime today isno worse than when the Scopes Monkey Trial shook the nation. Never mindthat humans far more often behaved like depraved animals before Darwinwas even born (need I mention Torquemata? Custer? Southern slave masters?).Never mind that staunchly religious countries where evolution is nottaught are bastions of misery, violence, and evil (think of Nigeria orAfghanistan, to say nothing of Serbia or Haiti). No, Christians like Morelanddon’t want to confuse you with the facts. They would rather engage in thefallacy of “poisoning the well” by arguing that evolution must be ‘factually’false because believing it makes people ‘morally’ bad. Such nonsense isreminiscent of Luddites predicting that the automobile would bring on theApocalypse. It flies in the face of the simple fact that society has actuallymorally improved since Darwin, in almost every aspect of life.

So the evidence refutes Moreland and certainly offers no support forhis claim. But does evolution even imply the conclusion that weare ‘just’ animals and thus have no value and no reason to be moral? Thissort of question is full of flawed assumptions. For instance, even animalshave value, and exhibit moral behaviors (such as altruism, compassion,tolerance, cooperation, etc.), so even if we were to conclude that humanswere ‘just’ animals it does not follow that we have no value or that wecan throw morality to the wind. But the biggest fallacy of all here, frequentlyused by Christian fundamentalists, is a modo hoc fallacy, the argumentthat “X is just Y” when in fact it is not. Humans are obviously animals.We’ve been classified as such since Aristotle invented the science of taxonomy.But just as a cat is categorically different from a bird, so are humanscategorically different: among less significant distinguishing attributes,we possess the ability of self-awareness and a capacity for abstract thought.In other words, unlike all other animals, we can understand the full consequencesof what we do, and are aware of what other beings think and feel. Unlikeall other animals, we can comprehend what it means to be moral and adducereasons to be so. Thus, far from being ‘just’ animals, we alone have theability to adopt and live a moral life. Anyone who reasons that we shouldact like ‘other’ animals because we, too, are an animal, is forgettingthat as every species acts in its own way, so should we: thus, even asanimals, we ought to act like human beings. It is in this, our uniquelyhuman qualities, that our unique value lies. Indeed, humans have evolvedto live in social communities where moral behavior is an essential component.To borrow Moreland’s own words, “To live in disregard of morality and virtueis to live like a fish out of water, i.e., to live contrary to our properfunctioning.” So evolution does not take anything away. It merely explainswhere it came from.

Values in Metaphysical Naturalism

Moreland says “naturalism…is the view that the spatio-temporal universeof physical objects, properties, events, and processes that are well establishedby scientific forms of investigation is all there is, was, or ever willbe,” and this breaks down into three elements:

First, naturalism begins with an epistemology, a viewabout the nature and limits of knowledge, known as scientism. Second, naturalismcontains a theory, a causal story, about how everything has come to be.The central components of this story are the atomic theory of matter andevolution. Third, naturalism has a view about what is real: physical entitiesare all there are.

This characterization is not entirely accurate, but I will grant itfor the sake of argument.[4] Moreland’s objection to ithere is that it does not accommodate value statements. For values haveto be, he says, non-natural properties of things, i.e. “By a non-naturalproperty I mean an attribute that is not a scientific, physical characteristicof physics or chemistry,” yet such things “are just not scientificallytestable, physical properties” and naturalism cannot easily explain howthey came to exist. But this is not true, as we shall see.

To begin with, a ‘value’, Moreland says, is intrinsically normative,meaning it is “valuable in and of itself” and “something we ought to desire.”This is misleading. First, of course, there are non-normative values: weeach value some things because they are special to us, while others couldn’tcare less. I doubt my one and only oil painting has any intrinsic value,but it has personal value to me. But even when we limit discussion to normativevalues, Moreland doesn’t have it quite right, for all ‘normative’ reallymeans is ‘true for everyone’ (in his words “something [everyone] oughtto desire”), as it derives from ‘norm’, referring to what is normal orstandard. Even if something had value for some reason apart from itself,so long as it ‘ought to be’ valuable to everyone, it would have normativevalue. For instance, funding a court system for administering justice isnormatively valuable, but not in and of itself: it has value becausejustice has value. Its value is both normative and derivative.

Now, once values exist, it is an easy matter to see how countless furthervalues can be deduced and derived from them. So what really concerns usare fundamental or core values, values that are not derived fromany others but are basic and primary. How naturalists understand core valuesvaries richly: there are many ways they can be conceived. For convenienceI will present only my own personal view here throughout, even though thereare naturalists who disagree with me (just as there are Christians whodisagree with Moreland).[5]

The Carrier Theory of MoralValue

A value is an ever-present desire, to be distinguished from fleetingor momentary desires. When anyone harbors in their character an enduringdesire for something, that is a value, and the object of this desire issaid to ‘have value’.[6] So when everyone oughtto hold a permanent desire for something, it has normative value. On closeanalysis, I believe there is only one core value: a desire for happiness.All other values are derived from this, in conjunction with other factsof the universe. In the end, all normative values are what they are becausethey must be held and acted upon in order for any human being tohave the best chance of achieving genuine, enduring happiness. When wesay “you ought to value x” we mean that, if you do, you will improveyour chances of an enduring happiness, and if you do not, you will decreasethose chances. I also believe that all moral behavior is the natural byproductof possessing two particular values: compassion and integrity. How peoplecome to have these values ingrained in their character is a different matterfrom why they ought to seek to so ingrain them. In short, the first storyinvolves human psychology, socialization and parenting, and mental development,and is a story about becoming a mature, healthy person. The second storyinvolves the logical connection between having those values and achievinghappiness. The two stories are interrelated, but I will only focus on thelatter here.

To understand the connection, we must understand happiness. By happinessI do not mean mere momentary pleasure or joy, but an abiding contentment,a persistent, underlying sense of reverie that makes life itself worthliving. Moreland agrees with me on this point, very elegantly stating thecase:

Now, happiness or the good life has come to mean a lifeof pleasure and the possession of consumer goods. But historically, happinessor the good life meant a life of eudaimonia–a state of ideal humanflourishing and proper human functioning constituted by a life of characterand virtue lived the way human beings were meant to live.

This happiness is rarely possible, and certainly impeded, amidst loneliness,fear, purposelessness, destruction, misery, insanity, or chronic severestress, among other things. In contrast, happiness is found, secured, andimproved amidst love, good friendships, security, purposefulness, creation,joy, sanity, and peace. These are by no means complete lists, but theywill suffice to make the point. It should be obvious to anyone of any experiencethat these connections are all true: the more you have from the secondlist, the more often you will know true happiness, whereas the more youhave from the first list the less often this will happen. Even if one getslucky and finds a little happiness amidst misery, there is nothing securein this, nor is it a lottery anyone really wants to play, and all the whileit is tainted and troubled, and thus incomparable to the genuine good life,the perfection of which is unachievable, but is surely approachable: itis a goal one always benefits from aiming at, and would never benefit fromavoiding.

Immoral behavior is risky.[6.5] Like playing RussianRoulette, having unsafe sex, smoking cigarettes, or driving drunk, youmight get away with it, but it is a gamble, and you can never to your dyingday be sure of escape. Everyone else will be gunning for you–not justsociety in general or your victims in particular, but everyone who, byobserving and assessing your character, loses respect and trust in you.Not only that, but the repercussions of your actions will make your lifedifficult. They can wreck everything from your friendships to your health.And yet they produce nothing but fleeting and momentary benefits–no significantfeelings of personal achievement, or of self-worth, hardly anything thatcan be called contentment or satisfaction with life. You will come moreand more to live in fear, you will more and more find yourself alone andunloved, and even when loved, it will not be for who you really are, andthus it will not be truly satisfying. In short, immorality is bad for you.You will have a very hard time finding any bad person who does not livewith chronic anger, disappointment, difficulty, depression, or paranoia.They will try to replace the hole in their lives with luxuries and distractionsand power trips, but it is never enough, and they ultimately can know onlyfleeting and hollow pleasures, never happiness.

In contrast, moral behavior is beneficial. Though people often complainof how morality places restrictions on them, in actual fact all it preventspeople from gaining are momentary pleasures, not happiness. For moralityis actually conducive to happiness, like any other discipline that trainspeople to avoid excess or needlessly dangerous risks. Like brushing yourteeth, the moral mindset teaches you to think of the long term, ratherthan creating even more problems for yourself later by acting on impulsenow. Moral people will naturally make more and stronger friendships, winmore genuine love from others, have less to fear, and find more in themselvesto love and appreciate. They will set up fewer traps for themselves, liveless self-destructive and more creative lives, and enjoy greater security.Their life will have meaning and value, from their own perspective, aswell as from that of others. Indeed, the moral life is actually easier.Every lie, every crime, requires a never-ending labor of cover-up, tellinglies to cover the lies, committing crimes to hide the crimes, to the pointwhere one can easily get lost in the complexity of one’s own devices, andsink into a quagmire of ever-magnifying ruin. But if one acts morally,everything is done. No cover up is needed. It is easy to remember whatyou’ve told people when you know you’ve always told the truth, and younever have to run as the police appear when you know you’ve done no wrong.And what sacrifices you have to be make to be good are in the long runtrivial, such as the loss of material goods, which have no relation toreal human happiness anyway.

Since cultivating a genuine sense of compassion and integrity will leadto habitual moral behavior, these character traits, these values, are goodfor you, because you need habitual moral behavior to know real happiness.Thus, even if you don’t realize it, even if you don’t quite understandit, you want them. In truth, everyone would want these qualities to bea part of them, if only they came to see how their pursuit of momentarysatisfaction is futile, and came to discover how wonderful real happinessis in comparison. These habitual behaviors are even more desirable, infact, since having these values makes moral behavior enjoyable, thus removinga lot of what people dislike about it. If you really have compassion forothers, then you share in their happiness and sadness, and thus anythingyou do to alleviate their suffering or bring them joy makes you feel good,through empathy. And if you really have a passion for your personal integrity,then you will be happy when you stick to your guns, and preserve your self-image;it will feel good that you made your personal values meaningful by makingthem manifest and undefeatable. You will be in your own eyes a success,not a failure, whereas if you falter you will suffer to one degree or anotherfrom self-disgust or disappointment. And thus, merelybeing moralin and of itself contributes to a lasting happiness.

It is important to stress the role of self-worth, for this is more importantand more powerful for maintaining happiness than any other factor. Amidstall other forms of misery, fear and pain, a strong sense of self-worthcan preserve happiness like a sturdy ship in a storm. Though happinesswould be greater with the impediments removed, the man of genuine self-respectwill always be happier than he would be in the same circumstances withoutit. This has been demonstrated by psychologists,[7] andmen like Immanuel Kant foresaw the same conclusion: in chapter IV of hisGroundworkof the Metaphysic of Morals, he argues that the only reason toadopt his moral point of view is that it will bring us a greater senseof self-worth. In particular, he argues that we should “hold ourselvesbound by certain laws in order to find solely in our own person a worth”that compensates us for every loss, for “there is no one, not even themost hardened scoundrel [who] does not wish that he too might be a manof like spirit,” for through the moral life one gains “a greater innerworth of his own person.”[8] As Kant understood, a strongsense of self-worth is not possible for the immoral person, but easy forthe moral one. This is because immoral behavior inevitably leads to overtself-loathing–unless this is psychologically suppressed, yet even thatis damaging, the cause of numerous mental disorders. In contrast, onlymoral behavior leads to self-respect, an essential component to a senseof self-worth as well as mental health.[9]

How Naturalism Accounts forValue

Moreland argues that “Intrinsically normative, non-natural propertiesare not known by the methods of science.” But by now we should see he isbegging every question here: values need not be intrinsic to be normative,nor need they be non-natural. And when we start talking about natural humanvalues, such as a value for happiness, instead of the pie-in-the-sky somethings-or-otherhe has conjured up, we see at once he is entirely wrong: such things arenot only known to science, but are extensively measured and studied bypsychologists and sociologists.[10] Moreland is alsobuilding a straw man when he assumes something has to be an object of scientificstudy to be accepted by naturalists. To the contrary, a metaphysical naturalist,like any other philosopher or theologian, can use his worldview to fillin the blanks with speculation, until such time as an investigation candetermine the truth, but he fills those blanks with ideas that are derivedfrom and rationally consistent with the sound findings of the sciences.Moreover, much of the naturalist’s knowledge comes from essentially non-sciencesources, such as daily experience, and narrative and analytical history,etc. Rather, he merely places the highest authority in the findings ofscience, for science is far more thorough and rigorous than any other modeof investigation.[11]

Moreland’s main objection stems from his lack of imagination. He complainsthat he “cannot find out that mercy is a virtue by some laboratory experiment”and declares that values “could [not] come to be present by strict physicallaws.” But one could (if one needed to) demonstrate scientifically, inthe lab or in the field, that mercy is an inevitable by-product of compassion,and that compassion is essential for human happiness, and therefore oughtto be sought by all human beings, for all human beings desire happiness.Thus, science can indeed demonstrate that a value is ‘normative’, contraryto Moreland’s doubts, just as science can demonstrate proper ‘normative’behaviors for growing corn. And one certainly can explain how valuesphysically exist and come about: they are mechanically represented in thestructure of the human brain, and are physically constructed to generatecertain emotional and emotive responses and behavioral tendencies. Theyare coded genetically, modified by physical interaction with the environmentand internal brain activity, and the capacity for all this was developedthrough billions of years of neural evolution.[12]

Moreland doesn’t even consider that humans evolved to be moral animals,but thinks the fact that human happiness is dependent upon moral behaviorsuggests a God arranged it that way. But if God were arranging things likethat, wouldn’t the universe itself exhibit moral affinities? Inother words, why don’t evil people become sick, or their bullets miss moreoften? Why don’t innocents become uninjurable or heroes gain supernaturalpowers with which to fight crime or natural disasters? Why doesn’t lovephysically heal others, or crops grow in accordance with a society’s neighborliness?Why aren’t Bibles containing the correct moral guidance, the life-savingtruth, indestructible? In fact, the universe exhibits zero valueaffinity: it operates exactly the same for everyone, good man and bad alike.It craps and lavishes awards on both with total disregard. The only placeany sort of value effect is ever seen is in human thought and action, andonly when humans are psychologically developed a certain way. It thus standsto reason that values do not come from the design of the universe, butthe adaptation of Homo sapiens to that universe. After all, theonly place values are ever found are in human thought, thus it seems anobvious conclusion that values are a product of human thought.

I will even argue that the link between morality and happiness is inevitable.There are two reasons for this:

  • First, no highly-sentient animal has a good chance of survival if it findsitself in a hostile social environment of its own creation, and so it isnatural that it would evolve the means to avoid creating such an environment,and would evolve the ability to create a friendly and beneficial environmentinstead, which means one of peace, reciprocity, cooperation and trust.It is not by accident that humans have mastered the Earth and are the onlyspecies to go beyond it: we are highly adapted for social cohesion andmutual aid, and that makes us nearly unconquerable. Of course, as our ‘design’is the result of an essentially blind and imperfect process, our innatemoral abilities are as flawed as our bodies, but like our bodies they areperfectable and improvable. It doesn’t take much to see we aren’t helpingourselves by polluting and dragging society down with our immoral deeds,and that we have much to gain by training our moral sentiments.
  • Second, the moment you become self-aware, you adopt a whole new array ofproblems, from loneliness and difficulties with self-image, to a realizationof your own mortality. Some means must be developed to cope with theseproblems if the advantages of self-awareness are to be enjoyed. The mostobvious, and clearly the best trait for this is a moral outlook: throughsuch, one can enjoy the benefits of sympathy among happy people, one canestablish meaning and purpose through adopting a stable and satisfyingself-image, and even accept the prospect of death without anxiety, andsimply love life, manifesting those values the universe would not.

This is just the short list. The adaptive advantages of morality are immense,and thus it makes complete sense that this should arise in accord withthe needs for human happiness. Indeed, I cannot think of anything superiorto it.[13]

What About Moral Suicide?

Though Moreland doesn’t bring them up here, others have: the inevitable’what if’ questions, posing bizarre circumstances as challenges to a moralsystem of thought. I will deal with two examples of this genre. For instance,the inevitable question is always pulled out and dusted off, “But what’sthe evolutionary or even personal advantage of jumping on a grenade foryour buddies?” That is, since many people believe suicide is sometimesnot only morally proper, but even morally obligatory, and suicide seemsto provide no advantage whatever, evolution cannot account for this view.But suicide does provide advantages, for even animals engage inself-sacrifice, and it is not hard to fathom why: preservation of the speciesis aided by it. Humans have more than a species to preserve: we have builta monumental cultural structure, of knowledge and ideals and artistic creation,that is itself even more valuable than the bodies that carry it around.It is not hard to understand why some people would be willing to die forit. It is the one thing that makes the human race above all others so preciousand valuable, perhaps unique in the cosmos.

But personal psychology must be looked at to really understand the valueof moral suicide: a life of cowardice and failure is hardly worth living,and when we realize that a situation confronts us in which the only choicesare death or misery, death is preferable. There are indeed things worsethan death, such as destroying those you love, or abandoning the very idealsthat make your life meaningful. And there are things worth dying for, topreserve the life of someone, or something, you love more than life itself.And the moral suicide makes sense within metaphysical naturalism, sincedeath is the end of all fear and pain, of all sensation whatever, and thereis nothing to fear from the end of fear itself. One can certainly dislikethe prospect of death, and all the more so because a happy life is so valuable,but this need not entail anxiety over this: many things are unlikable yetstill necessary to happiness, and we do them with little trouble to ourselves,and when there is no longer any prospect of happiness, death becomes anacceptable alternative. In short, the naturalist lives for love of lifeonly, which certainly keeps him from risking death, but when the prospectof that love is to be destroyed, or its basis ruined, lest you die, deathis a sensible choice.

Finally, one should not assume everyone’s moral beliefs are correctabout suicide. Very often an act of suicide is held up as moral when infact it is not–very often it is, at best, an act above and beyond thecall of moral duty (a ‘super-moral’ act); or worse, pointless; or worstof all, immoral. The circumstances obligating total self-sacrifice areextremelyrare. Even the circumstances that merely justify it, without obligatingit, are not at all common. Metaphysical Naturalism can accommodate theconcept of the moral suicide well enough, and it does so to a perfectlyrational degree, without demanding or expecting too much from people. Indeed,this is a point that can apply to many irrelevant objections to naturalmorality: if something does not make sense as a moral belief on this view,then it probably isn’t a moral view after all. Evangelical Christianslike Moreland would have us believe that abortion or homosexual sex areimmoral, but we hold they are not. Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, wouldhave us believe that forgiving any and every crime seven or a hundred timesis moral, or that surrendering all your wealth and time to succor the pooris moral, but we hold that these are at best super-moral, and that it isimmoral to expect such behavior from anyone.

What About Weird Aliens and PsychopathicRobots?

Consider another question in this genre. I have argued that values becomenormative (and thus ‘moral’) by being essential or substantially conduciveto individual happiness, which all humans desire. But what about peoplewho don’t want to be happy? What about psychopaths? What about weird aliensthat evolved differently than us? What about cold-hearted sentient robots?And so on. Of course, there may be some race of alien monsters who couldnever be persuaded by anything we had to say. One thinks of movies likeAliensor Starship Troopers.  But this has nothing whatever to dowith how we as human beings ought to live. Morality is necessaryfor our happiness, even if it isn’t for other beings. But my theory ofthe evolution of a moral species would also apply to alien races, so thatwe can expect most alien races to have evolved similar basic moral valuesas our own simply due to convergent evolutionary forces. Likewise, robotscould be modeled on humans, avoiding any question of an alienating difference.But apart from that, rare exceptions, which are clearly abnormal, do notinvalidate a normative rule. For instance, there are certain normativeprocedures for growing corn, but given some truly rare and abnormal climaticconditions these rules might not apply. So the fact that there might besome people who don’t want to be happy would not affect the normativityof moral values for the rest of us, only for them.

Are psychopaths just this sort of person? Psychopaths or ‘Sociopaths’certainly seem to be an exception to the rule: conscious beings lackingany values in common with other human beings, by which the truth of moralstatements would be established. Hence, I allow for the “monster” as anexception to my theory about moral meaning, granting the hypothetical caseof a conscious being so alien to normal human existence that it is beyondgood and evil, in the same way as a spider or a shark. But this would alsomean this being was worthy of no more compassion or respect than such dangerousanimals (hence the way they are treated in Aliens and StarshipTroopers is more than appropriate). They would be incapable of earningthe full status of moral dignity, and they would be the closest thing togenuine demons as there can be. Most systems of Christian theology acceptthe existence of such beings: devils are condemned to be evil, and are,unlike us, incapable of escaping the company of Satan by an act of freewill.

But does such a monster really exist? What, after all, is wrong withpsychopaths? Do they not care if they are miserable? Or do they for somereason actually achieve happiness through immoral behavior? Several leadingexperts who have worked with and attempted to treat psychopaths reportthat they put on a front, that in fact they hate themselves and existenceand live generally miserable lives, constantly wracked with paranoia andloneliness. Some could even be brought to openly admit this–and not onlythat, but admit that they hated the fact that they couldn’t escape theirsociopathic behavior patterns and couldn’t share the emotions that othersenjoy. Though several thus admitted they would gladly accept any treatmentthat would fix them, no such treatment is known. To this date, there isno cure for the disease, which is partly genetic (it is shared by moretwins than chance predicts, and is far more common among men than women)and partly produced from certain inept parenting environments (for thosewho are curious, the key cause is a steady environment of inconsistentrewards and punishments). But this means my theory holds even for psychopaths:moral behavior is essential to even their happiness, but due to a mentaldisorder they are incapable of developing the mechanisms that produce moralthought, and so are trapped in misery.[14]


Contrary to J.P. Moreland’s claim, I have shown that Metaphysical Naturalismcan more than adequately explain and justify a moral view of life, anddo so in a manner completely consistent even with Moreland’s definitionof Naturalism. Also, I have shown that, in order to sell theism and refuteits prime opponent, he has exaggerated the problem, for there is no moralcrisis today any greater or more serious than any previous time in history.And finally, his attempt to show that Naturalism cannot meet the needsof our maturing society has failed. To the contrary, Naturalism providesthe most sensible, most confirmable, most adaptable, and most universalvalue system, one that is sensible and effective, and ideal for progressinto a new age of enlightenment.[15] Secular Humanistshave always said that a practical philosophical education and lifestyleand a healthy family life are essential to healing moral deficiencies inany society. This is entirely true. Believing on Christ has nothing todo with the matter.

Copyright 2001 by Richard C. Carrier.Copying is freely

permitted, provided credit is given to the authorand to

the Secular Web. No material herein may be sold forprofit.

[1] For the oldest examples of this genre, see SamuelNoah Kramer, “The First ‘Sick’ Society,” HistoryBegins at Sumer, 3rd rev. ed. (1981, pp. 259-69). But most relevantfor our present situation, see Stephanie Coontz, TheWay We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992)and TheWay We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families(1998). Relevant for how the contrasting Christian-style myopia can actuallybe harmful to our future progress is Virginia Postrel’s TheFuture and its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterpriseand Progress (1998). Examples of Christians who prefer to ignorethis reality and act as if our present woes are something new, are CharlesColson, in HowNow Shall We Live? (1999) and David Myers, TheAmerican Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000),although their proposed ‘solutions’ are partly correct: we do indeed needpeople to be more philosophically skilled, introspective, and spiritual,and less shallow and materialistic, but Secular Humanism is far betterat this, given our current state of knowledge and enlightenment, than anyother worldview. See also note 7 below.

[2] Inevitably, someone will challenge this. To documentmy impression of history would require an immense log of evidence: as anhistorian, I’ve read enough horror to know what I’m talking about. ButI ask of anyone who thinks I’m wrong: show me any century of human historyin which an entire society existed that was morally better than contemporaryAmerican or Quasi-American society. I’ll add these ‘claims’ as appendixes,examining the evidence, if anyone can present any. I will not accept anyform of oppression, such as of gays or religious or racial minorities,as signs of a ‘moral’ society. Signs of morality are simply this: compassionand integrity, on a wide social scale.

[3] For similar views, and evidence for human moralprogress, reaching its peak today with no sign of decline, see “IsGod a Criminal?” (The Secular Web, 2001) by BillSchultz. And since I mentioned them, I’ve shown in “TheReal Ten Commandments” (The Secular Web, 2000) that these are hardlya good moral prescription for society, and are certainly not the best ofmoral advice for modern Americans.

[4] See the Secular Web’s libraries on Naturalismand Materialism.Among the errors in Moreland’s characterization are the fact that quantummechanics and relativity theory are more fundamental components of ourworldview than the atomic theory, which is but one derivative part of these.But this sort of thing is not relevant to his point. What is more relevant,though not to me or my theory, is his assumption that all naturalists arecommitted to physicalism. As they are not (many accept the existence ofnatural, non-physical things, e.g. “abstract objects”), one should nottake Moreland’s definition as of anything but a sub-class of naturalists.

[5] For more on my ethical and metaethical views, see”Whatan Atheist Ought to Stand For” (The Secular Web, 1999) and “DoestheChristian Theism Advocated by J. P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason tobe Moral than Secular Humanism?” (The Secular Web, 1998). Also relevantis “Our Meaning inLife” (The Secular Web, 2001), and the first part of my Opening Satementin “IsThere A Secular Case Against Abortion? The Carrier-Roth Debate” (TheSecular Web, 2000). For views similar but not necessarily identical tomine, cf. Barry Arnold, ThePursuit of Virtue: The Union of Moral Psychology and Ethics, 1989;Owen Flanagan & Amelie Oksenberg, eds., Identity,Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, 1993; and:N. Dent, The Moral Psychology of the Virtues, 1984; David Carr,Educating the Virtues: An Essay on the Philosophical Psychology of MoralDevelopment and Education, 1991. For the whole range of other views,see Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, & Peter Railton, “Toward Fin deSiecle Ethics: Some Trends,” The Philosophical Review, 101:1 (Jan1992), pp. 115-89, or their later book MoralDiscourse and Practice: Some Philosophical Approaches (1997), whichincludes the former article.

[6] I am following the technical definition as usedin psychology, cf. s.v. “values,” TheBlackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (1995), but note thatI am being very brief and using a highly-simplifying vocabulary.

[6.5] Indeed, it is this fact that, in conjunctionwith a defining convention, allows us to identify what behaviors are immoral.By ‘defining convention’ I mean whatever convention a human society hasestablished for itself to categorize actions as belonging to a moral sphere.For instance, eating ice cream does not belong to the moral sphere–itis neither moral nor immoral. It happens to be the case that most humanconventions keep the categories of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ behavior evennarrower than the category of all normative statements. For instance, itis generally not regarded as immoral to smoke, even though it is normativelywrong to do so. This fact is merely one of language, and does not affectmy theory: smoking is just as wrong whether we call it immoral or not.What we do choose to categorize as immoral, however, is a full sub-categoryof all normatively wrong acts. This means my theory encompasses allconventions regarding what is moral or immoral, insofar as those conventionsonly include truly normative propositions. For instance, Moreland’sethics categorizes homosexual sex as immoral. But on my theory this isnot normatively wrong and thus cannot be immoral as he claims. To the contrary,suppression of homosexual emotions is proven to be destructive of humanlife and happiness and it is thus immoral to suppress them. In contrast,most people do not regard smoking as immoral, merely stupid, but Mormons(and some Muslim and Buddhist sects) actually do categorize it as immoral.Either way, it is still wrong, and the use of the term ‘immoral’ here merelyhas a different rhetorical effect, but entails no real distinction. Naturally,all this assumes the obvious fact of scaling: some things are more or lessmoral than others, and in the grand scheme of things smoking is hardlythe worst of sins.

[7] See Ruut Veenhoven, Conditionsof Happiness (1984), a masterly work of socio-psychology, whereinhappiness is treated in great detail, e.g. defined, scientifically measured,etc.; Michael Argyle, ThePsychology of Happiness, 2nd ed., (2001), which comes with an extensivebibliography on the issue; and Alex Michalos, GlobalReport on Student Well-Being: Life Satisfaction and Happiness (1991),which is an example of linking happiness-research to a therapeutic programme.Also relevant is philosophical literature that draws on the same sortsof data, e.g. Richard Warner, Freedom,Enjoyment, and Happiness: An Essay on Moral Psychology (1987);or Russell Gough, CharacterIs Destiny: The Value of Personal Ethics in Everyday Life (1997).Some Christian writers even agree with this view, e.g. David Myers, ThePursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being,and Enduring Personal Joy (1992). In fact, every recommendationMyers makes is patently secular, except for the role of spirituality, whichis also available to the secularist, differently conceived: see my essays”DoReligious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other? A Reply to WilliamReinsmith,” Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines(Fall, 1996) and “FromTaoist to Infidel” (The Secular Web, 2001).

[8] For more on Kant’s view, see the relevant part ofRobert Wolff, TheAutonomy of Reason: A Commentary on Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysicof Morals (1986).

[9] I explain the dynamics of this at greater lengthin my other ethical works listed in note 5 above. Notehow this eliminates even the possibility of ‘secret violations’: as yourconscience will always convict you, it is literally impossible to hideany crime from yourself. The consequences to self-respect and mental healthcannot be ignored. Moreover, a person needs moral character to live a goodlife easily, but a fully-informed moral character has side-effects thatactually eliminate many fleeting urges for immoral action, e.g. a moralperson rarely has much interest in theft, since material possessions areof trivial value to them. For instance, a person of informed moral characterknows that it is detrimintal to happiness to have too great a care formaterial things, or even worse, to base one’s happiness on their possession,whereas it is beneficial to happiness to care less about objects than moresubstantive sources of pleasure, such as peace and friendship and satisfyingwork.

[10] e.g. Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky, Choices,Values and Frames (2000); Herbert Hyman, TheValue Systems of Different Classes: A Social Psychological Contributionto the Analysis of Stratification (reprint, 1993); Andrew ReidFuller, Insightinto Value: An Exploration of the Premises of a Phenomenological Psychology(1990); etc.

[11] To understand what science is, see my essay “TestYour Scientific Literacy!” (The Secular Web, 2001).

[12] I am only defending my own view here, and thusignoring Moreland’s irrelevant critique of other views, though one perhapsdeserves attention: Moreland claims that if values are indeed non-naturalproperties that just ’emerged’ by some natural means, this would not ‘fit’naturalism. Maybe not. But he too quickly jumps from this to the conclusionthat God is necessary for this to happen. In fact, non-deistic spiritualreligions, like Taoism, have just as easy a time explaining the emergenceof non-natural value. In Taoist metaphysics, the one core value is thebrute underlying fact, the very cause of existence itself, even more fundamentalthan any gods or other thinking beings that might come to be as a resultof it.

[13] The adaptive benefits of moral action, and thedisadvantages of immoral action, have long been understood and documentedby cultural anthropologists, as any standard college textbook on the fieldshows (e.g. Carol & Melvin Ember, CulturalAnthropology, 9th ed., 1998). For more specific treatment, seeJohn Cook, Moralityand Cultural Differences (1998), which shows how anthropologistsoften wrongly equate cultural and moral values but otherwise have the basicstory right; and Italo Pardo, ManagingExistence in Naples: Morality, Action and Structure (1996), asan example of a modern field study on the issue. Related to this matter,Moreland goes off on a long tangent attacking the concept of a ‘human nature’,but what he says sounds like so much sophistry. Whatever he thinks he istalking about, when I use phrases like ‘human nature’ (and I haven’t here),I mean the qualities sine qua non a human being. Regardless of variationswithin and among species and the nature of animals as atomic-chemical systems,it is obvious that in order to be called a ‘human’ one must possess certainqualities, all the things we call ‘human beings’ clearly possess thosequalities, therefore a ‘human nature’ exists. QED. Finally, on my viewsof what defines ‘personhood’, see my debate on abortion, cited in note5 above.

[14] See Dennis Doren, Understandingand Treating the Psychopath (1996) and William Reid, John Walker,& Darwin Dorr, eds. Unmaskingthe Psychopath: Antisocial Personality and Related Syndromes (1986).

[15] See the Secular Web’s libraries on SecularHumanism and Moralityand Atheism. It should also be added that Christian theism does notreally accomplish what Moreland thinks it does, as demonstrated in theSecular Web’s library on MoralArgument and Divine Command Theory.

A different issue: It might be noted that I have only addressedhere the metaethical question guiding Moreland in this particular case,and not spent much time answering a different question, namely “What actionsare morally right or wrong?” Though I have answered this in other essaysof mine (see note 5 above), a more explicit discussionof how this question is answered within the construct of the Carrier Theoryof Moral Value is appropriate here. All moral statements are hypotheticalimperatives, known as conditional propositions. This establishes meaningfor moral auxiliary verbs like ‘ought’ or ‘should’. In general form, “Youought to be moral, if you want to find true, lasting happiness and toavoid various forms of misery.” The particular form is complex butalways derived from this, e.g. “You ought to tell the truth, because doingso has effects A, B, C, … etc., and not doing sohas effects a, b, c, … etc., and you desire A,B, C, … etc. and do not desire a, b, c,… etc.” It is this that gives moral statements a standard hypotheticaltruth value, allowing them to be verified or falsified. Hence, an empiricalinvestigation can ascertain whether lying does indeed have effects a,b, c, … etc., and truth-telling effects A, B,C, … etc., as well as precisely when (e.g. one can account empiricallyfor white lies and other forms of moral deceit, for the actual level ofrisk or reliability in producing said effects, and so on), primarily atask well-suited to sociologists and anthropologists; and whether everyonedesires the one and not the other (the physical fact that establishes normativity),a task well-suited to psychologists. Thus, ethics falls within the umbrellaof scientific investigation, and ethicology could conceivably become abona fide branch of scientific research.

How should this system be classified?Within the Carrier Theory, morality is most like a technology, and onecould call it a technology of happiness: like techniques for farming corn,there is more than one way to do things, but there are better ways andworse ways, possibly even one best way, and this varies by circumstance,but in all cases it is the nature of the universe itself that determinesthis, and not human opinion. That a good moral technology is better atsecuring human happiness than a poor one is a fact independent of my oranyone’s opinion. Thus, Carrier Theory is an objective rather than a subjectiveethical system, even though it derives entirely from the existence andnature of conscious being (and thus ethics does not exist apart from theexistence of conscious beings). Likewise, it is a realist theory, sincemoral propositions are real facts about humans and the universe, whichcan be discovered by objective empirical inquiry. At the same time, itaccomodates moral intuition, which is like any other skill (a farmer canintuit correct actions in corn farming, in direct proportion to his skilland experience, and the correctness of his over-all knowledge). It incorporatesboth deontological and teleological ethics, since integrity relates tothe former and compassion to the latter.

A note on good and evil: I believe a distinctionmust be made between moral good & evil and mere good & evil, e.g.cancer is an evil, but not a moral evil (no immorality produces it, noris cancer in any sense ‘immoral’). Moral good & evil is good &evil that can be related in some significant way to moral propositions,as discussed above. But this is a subset of all good and evils, which aredefined simply, by human convention everywhere, as benign or malignant:i.e. that which has benign effects on human beings is good, that whichhas malignant effects is evil. Too many theists pretend that atheists cannotuse a vocabulary of good and evil without subscribing to an objective ethicalsystem, but this completely ignores what the words good and evil actuallymean in regular human discourse. In contrast, the Carrier Theory fits humanconvention like a glove: why should there be any connection between moralgood and general good, or moral evil and general evil? Why, in other words,is a malignant act immoral, and a benign one not so? Because compassionand integrity both relate to human goods, e.g. the compassionate want tobe benevolent, while discarding one’s integrity has malignant effects onthe individual.

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