In The Nature of Nature , Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse offers us his take on ethics: “Ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators.” (—Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, 1985), p. 855)
Wilson has since dropped off this vine, so let’s just go with Ruse:
What kind of metaethical justification can one give for the love commandment or a Rawlsian justice-as-fairness? I would argue that ultimately there is no justification that can be given!
That is to say, I argue that at some level one is driven to a kind of moral skepticism: a skepticism, please note, about foundations rather than about substantive dictates. What I am saying therefore is that, properly understood, the Darwinian approach to ethics leads one to a kind of moral nonrealism.To be blunt, my Darwinian metaethics says that substantive morality is a kind of illusion, put in place by our genes, in order to make us good social cooperators. I would add that the reason why the illusion is such a successful adaptation is that not only do we believe in substantive morality, but we also believe that substantive morality does have an objective foundation.
An important part of the phenomenological experience of substantive ethics is not just that we feel that we that ought to do the right and proper thing, but that we feel that we ought to do the right and proper thing because it truly is the right and proper thing. As John Mackie (1979) argued before me, an important part of the moral experience is that we objectify our substantive ethics. There are in fact no foundations, but we believe that there are, in some sense, foundations.
There is a good biological reason why we do this. If, with the emotivists, we thought that morality was just simply a question of emotions without any sanction or justification behind them, then pretty quickly morality would collapse into futility. I might dislike you stealing my money, but ultimately why should you not do so? It is just a question of feelings. But in actual fact, the reason why I dislike you stealing my money is not simply because I do not like to see my money go, but because I think that you have done wrong. You really and truly have done wrong in some objective sense. This gives me and others the authority to criticize you. Substantive morality stays in place as an effective illusion because we think that it is no illusion but the real thing. Thus, I am arguing that the epistemological foundation of evolutionary ethics is a kind of moral nonrealism, but that it is an important part of evolutionary ethics that we think it is a kind of moral realism. (pp. 858-59)