Note: This is a long post. As with any post like this, I will initially just present the point of view without any criticism to it. But I think it’s a topic that is of potential interest in a backhanded sort of way.
In my previous posts on “what is morality?” I went over the many difficulties of trying to define morality. We found that we do not view morality as:
- Subjective or a personal preference
- Purely utilitarian
- Solely about happiness, well-being, or non-suffering
- A personal construct, nor a societal one
My final conclusion was that morality was something that had to be accepted on faith.
Now remember back to the very beginning of this thread where I talked about C.S. Lewis’ “proof” that God exists. Lewis’ argument was that the so-called “problem of evil” argument used by atheists to “disprove” God is actually self-undermining. This is because it starts with the assumption that there was some reality so ordered that ours was ‘evil’ by comparison. But how could we know of such a reality if it is not ours? Therefore, there must be a memory of a (or, I would add, a vision of a future) reality that we are comparing our reality to. Therefore, there is one piece of moral (or just) order fundamental to our universe that the problem of evil insists upon as its premise. So the problem of evil argument fails because it essentially starts with the assumption that morality exists and therefore we can conclude a greater God-like good exists.
I like this argument, but I confess, I find it insufficient. I will grant to Lewis that the most common way that an atheist makes the problem of evil argument does assume there is an objective morality (and thus an objective “God” in some sense) and so is a self-contradictory argument. But I think the “problem of evil” argument can give way to another argument that is much stronger.
Essentially, the argument is this:
Morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes – Michael Ruse
Under this argument, morality (and justice) is understood to be a self-contradictory concept and therefore doesn’t exist at all. The reason the world seems so “evil” to us is because we are all steeped in this illusion. But actually there is no such thing as morality and thus also no such thing as evil. Our sense that the world should be somehow different than it is is itself the premise that is wrong. So Lewis’ argument fails (so goes this arguement) because it’s built on the same incorrect premise as the problem of evil argument. Both arguments are incorrect.
There is even a name for the view that morality is an illusion: error theory.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to attempt to outline the basics of Error Theory, a topic that ironically (as we’ll see in future posts) will be of more interest to Theists than Atheists.
The arguments of Error Theory are somewhat similar to the arguments I made in my previous posts. Essentially it recognizes that there is no way to actually explain morality in a logically coherent way from within a naturalistic or materialistic world view. 
First, it should be noted that Error Theory does not deny the usefulness of our moral beliefs – only the factual content of them. Further, it makes no Richard Dawkins style claims that human beings are innately selfish. Indeed, the arguments for Error Theory depend in part upon the observation that human beings are indeed sometimes altruistic. Error Theory is meant to (in part) explain our altruism.
Morality is Ought Not Want
Error Theorist Richard Joyce, in his fascinating book The Evolution of Morality, uses his keen intellect to make short work of several popular arguments that attempt to explain morality in (as he shows) incoherent ways.
The first basis for his argument is the observation that doing something because ones wants to is psychologically different from doing it because one ought to. (p. 50) Joyce tells the story of having been fed by a friend who insists that he has no obligation to finish all the food given to us, yet he go on to finish the food anyhow, insisting he wants to eat it all. Ought – the basis for morality – is something different from want.
Joyce illuminates this idea through a thought experiment of a community of people that have complete inhibitions against all anti-social behaviors. They live in peace and harmony and never commit violence. All are friendly and loving. Yet none of them are – in our view – in any way making moral judgments. For they simply want to live in this utopian way, so they have no need for the concept of a prohibition such as “one shouldn’t kill” or “one shouldn’t steal.” The concept of a moral judgment is meaningless except in a reality where one might want to kill or steal but also understands that one ought not to. Morality (as well as Ethics) is fundamentally about what one ought to do regardless of what one wants to do. (p. 50)
The above observation undermines a philosophical position known as non-cognitivism. A.J. Ayer “famously claimed in the 1930s that the judgment ‘Stealing money is wrong’ does not express a proposition that can be true or false, but rather it is as if one were to say ‘Stealing money!’ with the tone of voice… indicating that a special feeling of disapproval is being expressed.” (p. 53.)
By Ayer is not correct about this because he is missing that morality is not merely about personal desires. While saying something is ‘morally wrong’ does express a personal feeling or attitude of disapproval (Ayers is half right), it also expresses a belief in the factual existence of a normative standard that everyone (in that context) ought to be following.
In short, our views of morality assume a sort of outside authority that we are subject to, and therefore our moral imperatives have a sort of ‘clout’ beyond mere personal feelings of disapproval.
Joyce observes that to claim something is “’morally correct’ or ‘virtuous’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘just’ is (putatively) to draw attention to a deliberative consideration that cannot be legitimately ignored or evaded.” (P. 57-58)
Our moral language (and therefore moral thought) is not just a claim about personal attitudes, it’s an assertion of the objective existence of some sort of moral clout that we are all subject to. Joyce considers the difference between reporting one’s personal attitude (“I am enjoying this food”) and a moral judgment. He uses the humorous example of an anti-hunting activist shouting out to a group hunters “Your activities arouse negative emotions in me.” We perceive this as being different from him shouting “Fox hunting is morally wrong! Your actions are evil!” In the first case, no ought is implied unless the hunters happen to care about the activists inner states. In the second an ought is implied regardless of how the hunters feel about the activist personally. (p. 58)
And how will the fox hunters respond to in both cases? Most likely, they will march on by either way. However, the reasons are different in each case. In the first case, the activist is merely reporting how he feels, so the hunters are correct to wonder “and so?” In the second case the hunters will likely believe the activist’s moral claim is false. Though the outcome here is likely the same, the key point is that there is a linguistic (and thought) difference assumed between expressing a moral judgment and reporting one’s personal tastes.
Rewards and Punishment
Might we see moral judgments as practical advice about the rewards or punishment that will come from ignoring a moral rule? In other words, might morality be a form of utilitarianism? I wrote about the possibilities and problems of a purely utilitarian morality in a previous post. As I suggested, this approach seems worthwhile to me because morality does on average provide utility, and therefore morality is in general good advice. 
However, Joyce takes this view to task by pointing out that if moral clout was based solely on advice about rewards or punishment then if one had some special reason to not care about the rewards or punishment (say, special ability to circumvent a punishment or being a masochist and finding pleasure in the punishment) then the “ought” in the moral judgment would by definition have to be retracted. But this isn’t how we perceive moral judgments. Our perceptions are that they apply even if the person has some special way to circumvent the punishment or lacks desire for the reward. (p. 58-59) (See the example of Jack and John below.)
As Joyce puts it, when we say it is morally wrong to do something, we include people that don’t care about consequences and even people who went to their graves unpunished. (P. 59) Moral language (and therefore our perceptions of morality) is not merely dispensing practical utilitarian advice.
Is Morality about How to Avoid Self Harm?
Joyce next considered the idea that morality is really advice about how to avoid ‘self-harm.’ Again, I personally think that morality is good advice about how to avoid self-harm. However, the reason I believe that is because I believe in both a God and an afterlife. If you aren’t pre-assuming those two — and Joyce does not — then how exactly do we even define ‘self-harm’ in a rigorous way?
And is avoidance of self-harm really our main concern with morality? For example, does the fact that we feel torturing some else to be wrong stem from the fact that we don’t want the torturer to do themselves harm? Or is it more realistic to assume that our concern really stems from the fact that we don’t want them to harm someone else? An even more devastating problem for this view is the fact that morality includes the belief the moral infraction deserves punishment. Joyce points out the inconsistency of inflicting more harm on someone for having already inflicted harm on themselves. (p. 59-60) (i.e. Why punish the torturer once we stop him? He’s already harmed himself sufficiently.)
Indeed, any attempt to turn morality into merely ‘advice’ fails the moment we try to imagine a moral judgment like “don’t kill innocent people” being merely good advice in which a response of “But I really enjoy killing innocent people – in fact, it’s my main project in life” would require that we retract our advice. (p.60) This is because moral imperatives are usually perceived as being inescapable. (p. 61)
It is this this combination of both being inescapable and having authority (i.e. moral clout) over us that defines our perceptions of what is a moral judgment and what is etiquette. We do not consider etiquette to be the same as morality, but we do consider it to be inescapable in some sense. Etiquette is not etiquette if people are free to publicly choose to accept it or ignore it at will. But we have no delusions (or usually we do not) that they are anything but a cultural constructs that are convenient. And we generally accept that cultures can make differing (and even mutually exclusive) rules of etiquette. (i.e. burping at the table.)
We do not feel the same way about morality. The moral imperative of “do not kill innocent people” is not merely believed to be a matter of etiquette. We imbue it with not only etiquette’s inescapability, but with some sort of authority or clout beyond mere inescapability. (p. 62)
Joyce explores the short comings of this moral intuition via a hypothetical cult in Idaho that sincerely believes that you morally ought to dye your hair purple. They are not merely suggesting this as a piece of good advice because if you don’t because the Great Purple Lizard God will seek vengeance. They honestly believe that their moral rule that ‘everyone must dye their hair purple’ applies to you whether or not you agree with or believe in their cult.
Joyce believes this example suggests why we only choose moral rules that culturally and institutionally we are prepared to not allow to be shrugged off this easily. (For fear of breaking the moral illusion, apparently.) But it also suggests why there is a strong motivation for us to perceive moral imperatives as having some sort of authority beyond mere inescapability of the rules of etiquette. We would be shocked if our moral rules were so easily challengeable as the Idaho cults or as the rules of etiquette.
Moral Etiquette: Can We Have Morality Without Clout?
But what if we did assume morality was, like etiquette, somehow inescapable, but without any sort of authority or clout? Could we make sense of morality as merely being good on average? (This is known as a reliable contingent relationship, or in other words, an indirect but real relationship. P. 200) This is a question I will address more below. (Under the section “Why Do We Have Morality?”) But let’s first consider whether we even could reasonably perceive an inescapable but clout-less imperative as “morality” in the first place.
We do accept that in certain situations, say in the privacy of one’s own home, that there is nothing particularly wrong with violating etiquette so long as it doesn’t cause you to also violate it in public. In the privacy of her own home, a person may knowingly choose to eat with her hands instead of her fork and act in all sorts of boorish ways. She is fully aware that she is violating etiquette, but she also knows that she is in a situation where ignoring etiquette does matter (i.e. has no consequences since we are assuming her boorish acts will not translate into public boorishness). (p. 202)
Could morality be the same as etiquette and still be what we mean when we speak of morality? Joyce suggests that if this were true, then we should have no problem with someone violating morality in a situation where morality doesn’t apply to them. For example, Joyce imagines a man named Jack that really wants to murder a man named John. One day Jack finds himself alone with John at the edge of an abandoned well-shaft in the middle of a dark and lonely moor. He realizes that if he were to murder John right now, he’d never be caught. And, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the only person Jack will ever really want to murder is John, so this one private violation of cloutless morality — in a situation where morality doesn’t apply — won’t translate into any further violations of morality in public settings. (p. 203)
Joyce points out that this does not seem to be what we mean by morality. So the concept of ‘clout’ (or outside authority) seems is required to make sense of what we mean by moral judgments.
Might Moral Clout Stem from Being Steeped in a Moral Framework?
Now perhaps we might argue that the perception of this ‘clout’ comes from being steeped in a particular moral normative framework. Perhaps we might accept that this normative framework (as in the case of the Idaho cult) only seems to have clout if you are part of the normative framework yourself.
But “…the price of accepting this is to acknowledge that the authority of morality is an illusion, that people who genuinely don’t care about it are as a matter of fact legitimately free to ignore it as we are all free to ignore [Idaho] cult members telling us to dye our hair purple, that if we were able to see things as they really stand we’d recognize that it may be perfectly reasonable for a person to scoff “Morality schmorality!’ [As in Jack murdering John.] Insofar as we are motivated to avoid this conclusion (even if this motivation is just the result of our being immersed within a particular normative framework), we are motivated to try to make some sense of moral clout.” (Emphasis mine. P. 63)
In other words, if ‘Moral Clout’ stems from merely choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to accept a normative framework, then in fact it doesn’t exist at all. It is an illusion.
Public and Private Morality
In my own thoughts on morality I suggested that morality is usually (or maybe even always) about what is ‘right’ for everyone (inescapability) and thus I wasn’t sure there was really something like private morality. Joyce follows a similar logic here. He points out that morality is what he calls “other-regarding.” (p. 66) and deal primarily with “actions” and “persons.” (p. 65) The bulk of what we perceive a moral rules are therefore about our relationships with each other. (p. 66)
Joyce considers the idea of Robinson Crusoe having a wholly “self-regarding” moral system such as “Going to the southern part of the island is forbidden.” If we found such a personal morality, Joyce suggests that due to the moral clout involved in such a system, we might well regard it as a ‘moral system.’ But he notes just how bizarre we’d feel over finding such a system in the first place. Whereas an ‘other-regarding’ moral system requires no explanation, a ‘self-regarding’ one would cry out for explanation. Therefore, morality is primarily ‘other-regarding’ and not a personal matter. (p. 66)
Even private moral judgments, like deciding to not cheat on a test, have a public side. Imagine a student privately deciding to refrain from cheating by telling himself “cheating is wrong.” But he is also aware that this consideration might be brought into the public sphere if he were later caught cheating. So there is a sense where a private decision to not cheat because it is “wrong” is really an acceptance that were one to cheat, they would deserve punishment from others. So moral judgment is not just a single act that occurs in a person’s mind, but is an “ongoing process, often spread out over time and over multiple people.” (P. 115-116) This brings us to the concept of ‘deserts.’
Joyce considers the relationship between a moral system and the concept of ‘deserts’ or punishment. When we truly believe something is a moral matter, we believe a violation of that moral rule deserves a certain response. The level of this response obviously various depending on the culture and the moral rule in question. The desert might be an angry or unhelpful response to rudeness or it might be capital punishment as a response to murder. But the idea of deserts is central to all moral systems.
In fact, minus a concept of deserts, it would be difficult to even consider a moral system a moral system in the first place. (Note my example of premarital sex in my previous posts. Those that were crying out for personal morality here were really asserting that this was no moral rule at all and that our hypothetical ‘Christians’ were merely wrong about that moral rule.)
Joyce uses a thought experiment to help us grasp how important deserts are to morality. He asks us to imagine a community of social creatures that, like us humans, have moral imperatives that govern their interpersonal relationships, like ‘Don’t steal for self-gain’ or what have you. Further, again like us, they sincerely believe that these rules are not mere suggestions but are inescapable and apply to everyone regardless of one’s desires.
However, unlike us, they don’t subject violators to any sort of criticism. It’s not because they don’t understand criticism (they do criticize each other for foolish acts like locking one’s keys in the car) but they simply don’t believe that violations of morality demands any sort of criticism.
Further, they even will take actions to protect the community. For example, if someone kills people, they may feel the need to lock the person up for the good of the community. They may even feel that locking a person up might help the person learn to not kill in the future. But they do not feel that such actions are demanded by some sort of outside moral authority. Consequently, though they do lock the murder up and maybe even dislike him for having murdered people, they simply have no concept that he deserves what he is getting. (p. 67)
Joyce points out that though they are like us in every way but one seemingly tiny (and purely mental) difference – that of deserts — that this essentially stipulates that they will be unlike us in a great many profound ways.
The first profound difference would be that these creatures could not possibly have the concept of justice. For example, if these creatures found out that someone was locked up for a crime they didn’t commit, they would have no sense that the person didn’t deserve what happened to them. (Perhaps they’d merely say, yes, he was locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. But that was the best rational decision at the time based on the facts available.) If we protested over this, they would simply not know what we meant!
These creatures would also entirely lack a sense of guilt. For guilt is really an inner sense that one deserves some sort of punishment! In fact, they’d have nothing like we call a ‘moral conscience’ at all. They couldn’t even enjoy the typical Hollywood movie where the just deserts are eventually distributed in the final scene. (p. 67-68)
Justice and Moral Equilibrium
Joyce asks us to consider a story about a crocodile that killed someone and then fled the scene, never to be heard from again and thus never to kill again. How do your feelings towards this story differ from an equivalent story about a human being that killed someone then then fled the scene never to be heard from again and thus never killing again?
Joyce suggests that if we introspect on this, we’ll see that our moral sense of deserts and justice form a sort of internal idea of a kind of “moral equilibrium” existing in the world. “When a wrong is done this equilibrium is upset, and the administration of the appropriate punishment is seen as the procedure that will effect its restitution. This restoration of balance appears to give us satisfaction, and we are proportionally unsettled by the idea of wrongdoers going free.” (p. 68)
As previously mentioned, in fiction a significant part of many tales is the enjoyment of watching an evil villain (or even just a rude person) get their deserved comeuppance; and this often (maybe even usually) happens outside the legal sanctions of society. So this enjoyment we receive from seeing the world’s “moral equilibrium” come back into balance can hardly be said to be a parable about good advice on how to act. This sense of “moral equilibrium” is so strong that we continue to feel it even in situations where we feel that, all things considered, it is best to not administer the negative consequence. (i.e. What does it mean when we say something like, “He deserves punishment, but it’s better we don’t in this case because…”) Even in the case of a religious “turn the other cheek” we still believe that punishment will be doled out accordingly by a supernatural being on Judgment Day. (p. 68-69)
Why Do We Have Morality?
But how are we to make any sort of rational naturalistic sense out of this idea of a ‘moral equilibrium’ existing in the world that has an inescapable outside authority over us? Joyce finds it difficult to imagine how we could make any rational sense out of these ideas without invoking the supernatural. (p. 68)
But if our views of morality are inherently rationally suspect, why did evolution endow us this false sense to begin with?
Joyce argues that the reason evolution endowed us with an illusory sense of moral equilibrium is because it was not possible to endow us with the correct long term calculations necessary to benefit ourselves through cooperation. If we truly tried to decide “well, is this a good time to cooperate [because in the long run it will be] also in my self-interest” that we’d too often miss on the kinds of long term benefits that a cooperative society can offer, say increased reputation.
Therefore, it was necessary for our biology to endow us with the illusion that certain kinds of actions demanded our desire. “When a person believes that the act of cooperation is morally required – that is must be performed whether he likes it or not” then a motivation exists to not do a cost-benefit calculation on certain actions that have probabilistic long-term only benefits that we can’t realistically foresee what the true cost-benefit analysis really is.
“The distinctive value of imperatives imbued with practical clout is that they silence further calculation, which is a valuable thing when our prudential calculations can so easily be hijacked by interfering forces and rationalizations.” (p. 111.) Therefore, ‘moral reasoning’ is not truly the intellectual affair we try to imagine it as (p. 113) and usually is actually a way of restricting our possible rational calculations in irrational (but helpful) ways. (p. 121) But this also explains why morality is “other-regarding.” For morality is really an illusion meant to motivate us (but not compel us) towards certain kinds of adaptive social behaviors. (P. 117)
This whole concept of illusory morality rationally hangs together even though it’s true that it ‘gets it wrong’ at times. For morality to ‘work’ all that is needed is for it to on average – probabilistically — provide adaptive fitness – a point we’ve already conceded that it does. Certainly, at times our sense of morality steers us very wrong in terms of adaptive fitness. (Joyce uses the example of Thomas More’s moral convictions.) But so do all of our natural reward systems. We might crave to eat a poisonous food or desire sex that will make us powerful enemies or get us killed. (p. 118)
Joyce argues that to make this adaptive system all work, our brain needed to have us experience morality as factual even though there is no fact behind it at all. And this is how we experience morality – as fact. To us it is a brute fact that killing babies is wrong. Militant Atheist Sam Harris – who is a neuroscientist — found that when scanning brains, we see moral judgments the same as facts. (See here and here.) That is to say, we experience morality as facts. (p. 124) 
Joyce argues that we actually project our moral emotions into the real world. When we come upon the scene of a suffering animal we might feel pity. But we’ll experience the animal as ‘demanding pity’ or being pitiful. (p. 125-126) “…it seems as if this is a feature of the [scene], that your pity is a response to this property,… and that someone who looks on indifferently, feeling no pity, is missing something and thus is subject to [moral] criticism.” (p. 126) We do not even experience morality as stemming from authority figures. For example, most people do not feel that it’s okay for even God to steal. (p. 130)
But Joyce insists that (as per his full argument as I summarized above) that the world does not actually contain any real moral facts at all. (p. 129) Therefore morality is in some sense a useful illusion rather than a ‘sense’ that detects some factually real feature of the world. (p. 130) In other words, morality is helpful to us but only serves this purpose “if [our moral judgments] seem like they are depicting a real of objective moral facts…” (p. 131) So Joyce is arguing that our moral sense is an illusion that possess positive utility compared to the truth.
Joyce cites the ‘intractability’ of disagreements over moral arguments as evidence that there are no real moral facts. “No moral judgment has ever been made by a human being for which there has not been another perfectly intelligent and informed person disposed to interpret it as false, pernicious, biased, and narrow-minded. And the striking thing is that we have no agreed-upon means of settling such disputes. … As a result, persistent disputes abound with no hope of resolution. … But even when a degree of toleration is achieved, each party often continues to interpret the other as mired in false ideology and/or selfishness (though confident that they themselves are seeing things clearly and correctly)…” (p. 131)
 a naturalistic or materialistic world view… Of course later I’ll argue that it all depends on what you mean by “materialism.” But for now, I’ll accept what I perceive as the most common understanding of that term: a reality devoid of anything but what we already see and know about that specifically has no afterlife and therefore no God. See my posts on atheism for further discussion.
 therefore morality is in general good advice… I’m sure many are aware of Socrates claim that morality is about what is in one’s best interest. I have always felt that this was a direction worth pursuing. However, I also agree with Anthony Gottlieb’s assessment that Socrates was being naïve when he made this claim. The idea that morality is ‘statistically’ in our best interest seems to be the real truth. But this thought might be worth pursuing more in a future post.
 we experience morality as facts… Sam Harris even tries to use the idea that we experience morality as facts as a sort of proof that morality was real and objective. (See links in body of post.) Now that we’ve read this post, you can hopefully see that given his militant atheistic world view, there is no way to make rational coherent sense out of this claim.