Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Moral Argument from the Absence of Species Groups

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,"Theoretical moral arguments for God's existence can be understood as variations on the following template:
  1. There are objective moral facts.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, (probably) God exists."
The secular response to this argument is two-fold: First, that the God of Christianity is a moral monster, and second, that God is not the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts. Neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his book, "The Moral Landscape," argues that objective morality can exist apart from God by redefining "good" as whatever increases the "well-being of conscious creatures."

In this post I will put forward my reasons for thinking that objective morality that governs interactions between fellow humans cannot exist without a higher power.

Here are two examples of morals that govern interactions between members of the human species: Don't hunt fellow humans (but it is OK to hunt a deer), don't inflict pain on fellow humans (but it is OK to inflict pain on a parasitic worm that is infecting a human). Further, while it might not be OK to hurt a deer just to hurt a deer, it is certainly OK to sacrifice a deer in order to prevent a human from starving.

This perspective is flawed from a purely biological perspective. The category of "human" doesn't exist in nature. Every individual organism is defined precisely by it's genome. Change one base pair, and the identity of that organism has changed by one base pair. Change one hundred base pairs, and the identity is changed by exactly that much. We can keep on changing base pairs by n+1 until myriads of different genomes are realized.

All (or at least almost all) living organisms that have ever existed on earth are members of a single genetic ancestry, descending from a single common ancestor.

Sure, in order to conduct studies in, say, population biology, or evolutionary ecology, we assign species names to groups of similar organisms that live in a certain area and procreate with one another. But if we stretch that out over millions of years, we find that this definition is completely useless--all organisms would actually be considered a single organism. This is because as you shift the time-period that is being examined forwards and backwards, "similar organisms that live in a certain area that procreate with one another" will apply to all members of the tree of life, depending on what point in time you look at.

It's actually impossible to define "humans" with biology. The only definition that works is to assign each individual an identity that corresponds exactly to each one's unique genome (although there may be a handful of cases in which simple organisms have truly identical genetic 'twins').

Because of this, there is no objective difference between killing a 'deer' and killing a 'human'--and neither one is actually a deer or a human. One is an individual organism that falls in its unique place along the evolutionary spectrum, and so is the other individual.

The same dilemma holds true for other potential factors that would distinguish what we consider 'human' from 'non-human'--for example, intelligence. Are mentally disabled 'humans' less 'human' than a very intelligent 'killer whale', or 'chimpanzees', which are fully capable of utilizing language?

There exist no objective "lines in the sand" that distinguish groups of individual organisms from other groups of individual organisms--if any lines were drawn, all species would become identical by shifting the time-frame forward and backward. Everyone has parents, but no one has a truly identical twin. Every individual occupies a lonely twig on the tree of life.

Because of this, it is impossible to establish an objective definition for the human species, and further, it is impossible to establish objective morals that govern the interactions between 'humans' and 'non-humans'--killing a certain 'deer' would be on par with killing a certain mentally disabled 'human'.

Unless, of course, you had a higher being that, say, selected an allegorical Adam and Eve (a group of organisms--probably more than two), and designated that branch of the Tree of Life as 'Human'. If this were the case, there would be an objective difference--a magical line in the sand--an invisible wall between species.

In conclusion, if a higher being handed down objective morality, it would solve the problem of a lack of objective speciation. And it is an important problem to solve--if we don't everyone else is just another deer.


  1. Many non-human animals favor their own kind over other species. Is this evidence that a higher being also endowed them with that discriminatory proclivity?

    1. That seems like evidence for evolutionary altruism to me!

      My point is that 'species', from a biological standpoint, is a spectrum.

  2. It's possibly based on a false dilemma because objective morality doesn't exist. I've addressed the problem with Sam Harris here, just before launching into my own opus about morality in which I arrive at natural reasons to not destroy or harm fellow humans (and animals).

    I'm not sure that need objective speciation. Dogs and wolves get on just fine without it, sometimes interbreeding, sometimes not interbreeding and only rarely eating each other. My cat is a hybrid between a wild cat and a domestic cat (a breeding process which involved a number of dead domestic cats - but mine is quite a few generations beyond that). I do believe that the universe can get along very well with it's metaphorical shades of grey.

    1. That is a valid response! If we don't think that objective morality exists, all moral arguments are bunk. I'm still working on what I think on that front.

  3. Aside from the argument that premise 1 is false, there are a couple of other issues.

    1. You shift immediately from mentioning the assertion that morality could be defined relative to "conscious creatures" to discussing the distinguishing of species groups. I think it's a mistake to discard this perspective without discussion - the materialist argument is based on the premise that 'humans' are not a special category at all, which is why a different category, 'conscious creatures', is needed for a useful moral analysis. To refute this argument, you must establish why 'humans' should in fact be the category we use - simply asserting this is so is insufficient.

    2. "But if we stretch that out over millions of years, we find that this definition is completely useless."

    Here I'll point out that moral decisions are not made over millions of years - instead they are made with timeframes of moments, or at most a single lifetime, over which determining species is relatively easy (assuming you have dealt with issue #1). Genetics notwithstanding, humans are just as capable of arbitrarily "designat[ing] that branch of the Tree of Life as 'Human'" as God would be, and a materialist would argue that we have done just that.

    Additionally, this simply changes the context of the same argument - how can we objectively determine 'consciousness' any better than 'human-ness?' At best we could work out a measurable continuum, wherein we would still have to pick arbitrary dividing lines.