In this post, I want to address the question of the uniqueness of human beings when it comes to moral judgments. In other words, is man the only "moral animal." From a Christian perspective, he is, since he is created in the image of God, God being a moral being. Animals, not possessing that image, are not moral animals.
I think the point here is that unless you assent to theism, you have no justification for viewing man as qualitatively different from other animals, a view which, as I have said before, leads either to acknowledgment that men can be treated like animals, or the imperative that animals must be treated like men. The only thing that keeps us from this is the view that man is made in the image of God. If you don't believe that, then there is nothing rationally keeping you from allowing for inhuman treatment of humans and nothing rationally standing in the way of the saying that animals are morally equivalent to men--and nothing that prevents you from preferring the first view to the second.
The conversation started over at Secular Right, John Derbyshire's blog. Derbyshire was addressing the abortion question from a purely emotivist perspective and I had criticized that approach to moral questions because it disables you from making any moral judgments, since, under the theory of emotivism, all moral judgments are based on personal emotions, and one person's personal emotions can therefore have no more moral authority than anyone else's.
In short, under emotivism, there really are no moral judgments: there are only expressions of feelings.
But another commenter on the blog, Andrew Stevens, addressed the question from the perspective of "moral realism": the idea that there are objective moral criteria which one can employ in moral judgments. But Stevens is also an atheist. And so the question in the comments section of my post became whether an atheist could consistently be a moral realist.
So there we are. I addressed three questions to Andrew and he has responded. So let's get to the action (my original questions in italics, Andrew's indented)...
First, is your moral metaphysic applicable only to humans? If so, why?
This is an excellent question. No, it is not simply applicable to humans. Animals with brains have evaluative beliefs as well. Survival is good, "I ought to eat this," and so forth. Because their capacity for reason is limited (see answer to your second question), they probably have access only to very basic intuitions.First, lurking in Andrew's first paragraph here, I think, is the assumption that any animal with the capacity to reason or engage in evaluative thinking (I think those are one and the same thing) is a creature to which a moral metaphysic is applicable, which is just to say that it is a moral creature--one that we would be obligated to treat with moral concern. In short, it would have what we would now call "rights"--and there is no reason to believe anything other than that these rights are substantively the same as those enjoyed by humans.
My theory is that the moral sense evolved because to be able to recognize and do what one ought to do is good for the survival of intelligent social animals (although "good for survival" is only the explanation for their existence and not their normative force). The mathematical sense evolved for similar reasons. Originally, it was just to help survival, but it is far more high-powered than that. (Biographically, it was trying to explain mathematics, not morality, which first lured me away from a materialist worldview.)
But I would challenge the notion that there is any animal (meaning "brute," not "rational" animal) that is rational in any sense that would justify treating it in the same way as a human being. I don't know exactly how far Andrew takes this, but I would assume he has to go some distance in this direction, otherwise I am not sure what point he is trying to establish (not that his answer is any more vague than my question, I suppose).
I also wonder what it is about "rationality" that warrants any moral respect at all. Upon what basis do we lend rationality any sort of moral worth in the first place? You could certainly image creatures who were intellectual, but not moral. I'm thinking here of the Martians in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, or the same beings in Edgar Rice Burroughs books: they are creatures who are "rational" in the sense of having an intellect, but they are not moral creatures in the way that humans are.
And anyway, the theist is not commanded to treat rational creatures with moral respect. He is simply responding to the explicit moral command of the being who created him, who we obey because he is the primary moral authority, that we treat fellow men with moral respect. And if the question becomes why, then, anyone who is not a theist has any obligation to act accordingly, the answer would simply be that each man knows this command not only by some sort of special revelation (the Bible, for example), but that this understanding is built into every man by virtue of the fact that he was created in the image of God.
In other words, even if you don't know that men should be treated with moral respect because you have been told directly by some divine authority, you know it directly from your conscience, and indirectly, by virtue of reflection, through intuition.
Andrew then outlines a naturalistic view of how the moral sense developed: namely that it did. He admits that "'good for survival' is only the explanation for their existence and not their normative force," a point which it seems to me is telling. In what way does explaining the geneology of something lend itself to answering the question why it has moral force? It seems to me all of these types of justifications for moral judgment in an atheistic worldview fail for this reason: they are how answers to why questions.
To chronicle the mechanism of how moral judgements developed is not an answer to the question of why they have any moral force. One is addressing a question of fact, and another is addressing a question of the intellectual obligation to respect moral imperatives. They simply have nothing to do with each other. For something to have survived because it has survival value says nothing about its moral claim on us. If I simply explain by which my car was made, it tells me nothing about where I should drive it.
So I guess the next question for Andrew is, how does an atheist justify preferential moral treatment of human beings, and upon what basis does the possession of "rationality" constitute moral worth? And how does the history of moral development contribute to an answer to these questions?