Tim Barnett of Stand to Reason offers what he thinks are four objection to “evolutionary morality.” I will argue that two of Tim’s arguments apply to his own theistic view, and boil down to an appeal to a double standard, and the other two are simply bad arguments. After, I will show how the Euthyphro dilemma takes the theistic moral foundation into murky waters, and the appeal to God to ground morality either makes God irrelevant or leaves the concept of “moral goodness” void of content. The “insurmountable problems” that face secular morality may be equally strong for Tim, and for the Christian foundation for morality.

The four objections Tim gives are (1) the naturalist can’t derive an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’, (2) if evolution keeps evolving, then evolutionary morality would keep evolving too, (3) evolution doesn’t explain morality, it only explains why we think morality exists, and (4) the naturalistic view of morality ends up undermining all moral beliefs.

My response

(1) The theist also tries to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here is why: the statements “God exists” and “God issued a set of 10 commandments” are both ‘is‘ statements. And an ‘ought’ is derived from them (without rational justification). Every fact or ‘is’ statement the theist says about God can be challenged: “Why should I care about that…. why should I follow that rule…”, ad infinitum. Therefore, the theist cannot answer the questions, “Why are God’s commands morally good?” or “Why is God good?” without reasoning in a circle, appealing to an infinite regress, or assuming a brute fact about the goodness of God — all of which are rationally unjustified responses.

(4) Moral beliefs on theism are undermined. Common responses to the evidential problem of evil end up forcing the theist into a position of “skeptical theism” which undermines their ability to have justified moral beliefs. The so called “epistemic humility theses” posits an epistemological chasm between human understanding and God’s reasons for allowing evil; that is, theists claim humans are not in a position to know why God would allow so much evil in the world. It’s the philosophical equivalent of saying, “God works in mysterious ways.” But here’s the problem: if the theist doesn’t have justified beliefs about God’s reasons for action, his intentions, means to his desired ends, or actual end goals, then they don’t have justified beliefs about the “moral facts” that are a reflection of his nature. In order for the theist to resist the atheist’s argument from evil (i.e. there is pointless suffering caused to millions of people and animals, and therefore it’s unreasonable to believe in an all-powerful and all-good God), the theist ends up committing themselves to an epistemological view that undermines the justification of their moral beliefs.

So (1) and (4) both apply to Tim’s theistic view as well. And the other two objection simply miss the mark.

(2) The fact that secular morality reflects human nature, which is possibly an arbitrary and contingent product of evolution, doesn’t undermine the factual basis of secular morality. There can still be objective facts about changing things. So long as the things exist and have measurable qualities, objective facts can be known. Consider the facts about primate nutrition 7 million years ago. Presumably there was a set of facts about what was healthy, and unhealthy, to eat, way back then. And those facts were based on the types of bodies that primates had, in relation to the macro-nutrients available in their environment. But over time, those facts changed, because the basis of the facts — the truth makers — changed. Human nutrition is different today than primate nutrition was 7 million years ago. But it’s reasonable to think that there always has been facts about nutrition, and what constituted a “healthy” meal, opposed to an “unhealthy” meal, along the evolutionary timeline.

So the basis of the facts can change without taking away objectivity. Therefore (2) is simply not a good objection to secular moral realism.

(3) is a straw man of secular moral realism. Tim claims that evolutionary morality “explains morality away.” But this is only true of the anti-realist moral views, such as the error-theory held by Michael Ruse. But for the moral realist, Tim’s objection doesn’t apply. Tim has only misrepresented moral realists. His presentation of secular ethics is one-sided, and unfair. Upon listening to Tim speak, if the listener didn’t know about moral philosophy and the state of debate among contemporary ethicists, they’d think that the only views held are either theistic morality on the one hand, and Ruse’s “illusory” evolutionary anti-realism on the other. However, that’s a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation. Most philosophers are moral realists, and disagree with Ruse!

So (3) is not even an objection to secular moral realism.

Problems with theistic morality

Tim’s theistic view faces a serious objection. The Euthyphro dilemma asks the question, “Does God command something because it is good? Or is something good because God commanded it?”

The first option — God commands things that are already good — means that God is not the foundation of moral values, but is more like a middleman. This would render God irrelevant to the actual basis of morality.

The second option — a command from God is only good because God commanded it — makes God’s moral rules arbitrary. It would have been possible for God to command the opposite, and make rape good instead of loving our neighbor. But this ends up undermining the “objective” basis for morality. Neither option will do.

So some theistic philosophers offer a third option: God simply is goodness, and his commands are a reflection of that goodness. So morality isn’t independent from God, nor is it arbitrary. But here we’re faced with a second dilemma: Is God loving, honest and merciful because those properties are good? Or are the properties of being loving, honest and merciful good because God has them?

What matters here is the direction of explanation. The first option — that certain properties are already good, and so God has them — puts the foundation of goodness in something independent of God, and once again, God would be unnecessary to have a moral foundation. The second option — that certain properties are good only because God has them — means that God’s so-called “goodness” is logically prior to his properties. And therefore his “goodness” cannot be explained in terms of any of his properties! This means that the concept of “God’s goodness” is completely void of content. It’s a “featureless property.”

Asking critical questions can lead us to a point where either God is irrelevant to the foundation of moral values, or the concept of “goodness” becomes meaningless and isn’t something that we can justifiably understand. On these considerations, it’s difficult to see how a theistic grounding of morality helps us at all.


Tim Barnett, “Four Problems with Evolutionary Morality” http://www.str.org/podcasts/four-problems-evolutionary-morality#.WUuLNhPysY1