The subject of today’s post is the genetic fallacy.
The genetic fallacy can be very similar to the ad hominem fallacy. The difference is that an ad hominem attack is directed at an individual person, but a genetic fallacy occurs when an attack is made on a group the critic’s opponent belongs to. It is also a genetic fallacy when is an attack is made on the origin, or the genesis, of an argument.
A very interesting example of the genetic fallacy is exposed and refuted by Dr. William Lane Craig on his website in Q & A #36: Our Grasp of Objective Moral Values. “Q & A #_” is a weekly feature on reasonablefaith.org in which Dr. Craig’s answers questions made by his online audience. In Q & A #36, an inquirer named Carmen made the following statement within her question:
… [O]ur moral values (proximate factors) could be linked to our or to our group’s reproductive fitness (ultimate factors) as our recognition of moral values evolves. We respond to morality but it is the underlying reproductive fitness that directs evolution. I cannot see how one can ever recognize morality as objective if our perceptions have been colored by the inevitable link between proximate and ultimate evolutionary factors.
To put it another way, Carmen was arguing that the origin of morality is (at least possibly) evolution. Our ancestors found that certain behaviors gave them a survival advantage, and that is where our notion of morality comes from. If this is the case, she argued, then morality is not objective–independent of how we think or feel about it–as Dr. Craig claims in his version of the moral argument.
Dr. Craig revealed and explained the fallacy with crystalline clarity of thought:
… [T]o infer that because evolution has programmed us to believe in certain values, therefore those values are not objective is a logical fallacy. This was the point I made in the article against Michael Ruse, when I said,
The reasoning of Ruse is at worst a text-book example of the genetic fallacy and at best only proves that our subjective perception of objective moral values has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then such a gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm.
The genetic fallacy is committed whenever someone tries to invalidate a view by explaining how that view originated or came to be held. People commit this fallacy, for example, when they dismiss your belief in democracy by saying, “You believe in it only because you were born in a democratic society.” That may, indeed, be the explanation of why you believe in democratic government, but that in itself does absolutely nothing to show that your belief is false. (Compare “You believe that the earth is round only because you were born in a scientific age!” Does that make your belief false?)
Now you might say, “All right; I see that objective moral values can exist even if we’re programmed by evolution to believe in them. But, still, why should I think that they are objective, given the evolutionary story?” The answer is, “Because you clearly apprehend them and the evolutionary story gives you reason to doubt your moral sense ONLY IF naturalism (atheism) is true.” The objection begs the question because it presupposes that naturalism is true.
It may not even be the case that the origin of morality is evolution. It could be that we just happened to evolve a sense that can detect an objective moral law, in much the same way our other senses apprehend other features of the real world around us. Even if it were demonstrated conclusively that we evolved into moral creatures, this could not disprove the existence of objective moral values and duties. This confuses ontology–where something comes from–with epistemology-how we know something to be true. After all, it might be argued that a Transcendent Lawgiver (best explained by God), may also be the All-Wise Creator and Designer of the universe and everything in it, including humans and moral laws and duties. Such a Being might have may have intentionally introduced an evolutionary mechanism so that the ancestors of humans would progress into beings capable of knowing His transcendent, objective moral law. He might even have encoded an apprehension of objective moral laws into the very structure of human DNA, causing this moral law to be written on our hearts, so to speak.
I do not say in this post whether such an argument would be valid. This post is about the genetic fallacy. I only offer it as a possible example of how the way we know things (epistemology) differs from the origin of those things (ontology).
In closing, it should be noted that I have only used small snippets of the Q & A that were relevant to the genetic fallacy. I strongly encourage readers to click on the link above to read the entire Q & A. Indeed, I encourage all of you to follow the articles, podcasts, videos, and other resources on the reasonablefaith.org website.
And as always, stay tuned to Think on These Things blog. In the next post, I will describe the non sequitur fallacy.
Ecclesiastes 7:19 ESV
Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.