What’s the Moral of the Story?
by Lewis Waha
Maybe you remember from your earliest school years the common refrain, “What’s the moral of the story?” Depending on the story, we’d say something like, “Slow and steady wins the race,” or “You shouldn’t cry wolf.” The moral of the story is more than just a recounting of the events in the narrative itself. It’s not just a description, but a prescription intended to give guidance. This distinction between description and prescription isn’t just for bedtime or the childhood classroom; it is an abiding aspect of ethics that in turn supports the existence of God.
How so? Well, the existence of objective moral reality has long been thought to depend on the existence of God. Now many nontheists, and in particular philosophical naturalists, defend views of objective morality to the contrary. I became acquainted with a couple of them in a book I recently read, God & Morality: Four Views. What the volume’s two naturalist views had in common was their starting point: that which can be objectively observed from evolution. They read the story book of nature to get a prescription out of it. That story has often been boiled down this way: we inhabit a physical universe that is all ultimately accidental matter in motion. How can we get objective moral prescriptions out of this story?
Intrinsic Goals on Naturalism?
One way is to look for intrinsic goals or ends, called telos, in nature. Naturalist philosopher Evan Fales’ approach is to find intrinsic, teleologically organized systems (ITOSs). The classic example Fales gives of an ITOS is an oak tree. An acorn is a natural object that has the intrinsic end of developing into an oak tree. On Fales’ view, for the acorn to grow into an oak tree and flourish is simply what is good for it.
Drawing ethics from intrinsic ends or teloi has a long historical pedigree. But there’s an ontological challenge for the naturalist.  Physical matter is thought to lack intentionality; no lump of matter can be intrinsically “about” or “of” something, such as an end. If there are intrinsic ends, then something more than matter must exist…
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