It’s important to note that my debating partner is, generally speaking, a highly intelligent person. Her IQ is certainly well above average, and she works in higher education—a point which made her answer to one of my questions all the more stunning.
I clarified the fact that if the world of physical elements is all there is then the way the world is is the only way the world could possibly be (AKA materialism necessarily means determinism). All the atoms in the universe have evolved how they have evolved and it is what it is. Once she affirmed this, I then asked the inevitable follow-up: If there is no reality beyond the physical elements and every aspect of everything and every person was predetermined by the course of evolution, how can there be any such thing as moral accountability? On that view, both criminals and saints do what they were biologically conditioned to do. One can’t choose her behavior any more than she can choose her height.
Her answer was that we have evolved to have morals and to punish people with bad morals because without morality society would break down and this would hinder the process of further evolution.
“So,” I asked, not wanting to believe that was her whole answer, “morality just boils down to pragmatism?” She replied with a quick “Yes,” and summarized by saying that we must help each other or society would break down.
Her confidence was like that of a man who triumphantly exclaims to a friend he’s found a fool-proof solution to losing his car keys. He’ll lock them in the car. Then he’ll always know where to find them! He is right. He will know where they are at all times. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t thought through the issue enough to realize that the problem created is much greater than the one solved. In much the same way, my intelligent interlocutor was right. Society would break down without morality, but then if morality is only a means of keeping society running, it’s not really morality.
The reason why this puts philosophical sand in my underwear is not just because I don’t believe what she believes, but because I know she doesn’t believe it. If, after writing me about moral pragmatism, she came home to find her house had been broken into and that the burglar had also raped and murdered one of her children, she would not clutch the child’s limp body and scream, “No! If this continues, society will break down!” Like all sane human beings, she would rightfully cry “Evil!” and “Injustice!” But evil and injustice can never be defined by what makes for an orderly society. (The twentieth century has some notable examples of despots who committed staggering injustices precisely as a means to keep an orderly society!)
One of the most important lessons to be learned from the idea that morality is just what works is in the huge gap between the incoherence of the argument and the intelligence of those who propose it. Such a gap occurs because there is something that highly perceptive people often go to great lengths to keep from perceiving.
Everyone wants to run from God in one way or another. As Lewis says, talking about man’s search for God is little different from talking about the mouse’s search for the cat. But the attempts of evasion by the intellectually elite are more ironic than most because in order to continue their evasion they have to undermine the principles of well-examined premises and logical integrity which supposedly make them intellectually elite. This is why a plumber who knows he’s not the most morally upright man is more trustworthy than a professor who tries to deny the existence of morality.