On the Compatibility of Materialism and Moral Realism
Moral realism is the view, held by most humans, that there exists a certain number of objective moral facts which human beings ought to fulfill, like “Don’t steal!”, “Don’t murder!, “Be honest at work!” and so on and so forth.
I believe there is a serious problem trying to reconcile the existence of objective moral facts with God’s will, called the Euthyphro dilemma: is something good because God tells it (in which case morality is arbitrary) or does God say that something is good because it is good (in which case morality is independant of God).
However, there are also two problems concerning a materialist, evolved morality.
The first is ontological and concerns the nature of the things we’re talking about.
I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.
It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.
Likewise, I can believe that the computer I’m currently using is identical to a bunch of electrons moving through an appropriate material (Okay, my knowledge of informatics is not particularly good :-) )
But what about the fact: “It is always wrong to rape a woman”. It clearly exists, therefore it should be reducible to a bunch of particles.
But I fail completely to see the candidates. Someone might mention the chemicals within her brain associated with pain. I see two problems with that:
- this distorts the meaning of the moral imperative: “you ought not to rape a woman” becomes an ensemble of chemicals and electrical currents going on inside her particular brain.
- You cannot deduce from that pain that you ought to act against it or avoid it, this is the famous naturalist fallacy described by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
- Since for materialism, pain itself is identical to particles in interaction with energy, why ought we to allow certain reactions to happen while avoiding others?
Remember, a materialist cannot say “because they’re meaningful” or “because they’re painful” for in this case he would either be hopelessly circular or become a dualist, recognizing the difference between the neural processes and the subjective experience.
Materialists like to embarrass theists with the Euthyphro dilemma, which is in fact a problem for believers in God. But they tend to overlook the formidable difficulties facing the grounding of their own morality. Moral facts seem much more at a home in a world where mental facts exist besides matter.
My conclusions are by no means absolute and I welcome all challenges!
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