The following essay was written by Jim Madden and the views/arguments contained within do not necessarily reflect the views of Mike Gene. Mike Gene hosts such essays simply to provoke thought and promote discussion and communication.
Often proponents of ID will argue that a certain kind of teleology is necessary for objective morality. A good example of this can be found in Ben Wiker's book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists:
If we, as a part of nature, are ultimately derived from purposeless material forces, morality should be defined as moral Darwinism has defined it. If, on the other hand, we are ultimately the result of an intelligent designer, morality must follow that design. (p. 30)
In my reflections below, I raise some concerns about the claim that ID can play a role in grounding an objective morality, but considering a distinction between two types of teleology made by traditional philosophers.
In his Physics, Aristotle gives us a basic definition of what later became know as the "final cause" as the "end or that for the sake of which a thing is done" (Physics 194b33). When we apply the notion of final cause to an individual (as opposed to an action), two modes of final causality come into play. On the one hand, something may be said to have a telos or end (a final cause), in virtue of its exhibiting functional design: the purpose or function in virtue of a which a system of parts have been arranged by an intelligent agent. Computers, automobiles, tables, chairs, etc. are all objects exhibiting functional design. The parts of a computer are so-arranged to produce a system that can perform a task determined by the engineer who conceived of the machine, e.g., word processing. Functional design is thus a partial explanation of a system because it provides the end or intention of the designer's activity; this particular functional design is the end the artisan pursued. It is therefore apt to consider the functional design of a system as a final cause in the sense that it tells us why an intelligent agent acted to produced a system.
The presence of functional design in a system trivially entails intelligence on the part of the agency that acts as its efficient cause, but that of course does not imply that there cannot be both real and merely apparent manifestations of functional design. Justified ascriptions of functional design are often made in cases wherein it is exceedingly improbable that a particular functional arrangement of parts would come about by either the laws of nature or chance occurrence. In other words, we sometimes help ourselves to functional design when there are in principle "gaps" in non-intentional modes of efficient causal explanation (some particular system simply cannot be explained in terms other than functional design), or in cases in which an account that does not make recourse to intelligence is wildly improbable. In short, highly complex phenomena that cannot or at least very likely cannot be explained in terms of unintelligent causes do give sufficient evidence of functional design. Nevertheless, it is important for our subsequent discussion to note that one may have sufficient evidence of the presence of a functional design without knowing, to any high degree of specificity, exactly what the functional design of a system is. For example, I can imagine being shown a fabulously complex piece of computer technology that would give obvious evidence of functional design, without having a clue as to what end its designer actually intends for its proper use. Moreover, it might even be the case that I lack the intellectual wherewithal to understand the purpose of such a machine, even if a pedagogically deft computer scientist attempted to explain to it to me. A successful argument to the effect that a certain system possess functional design does not further imply that one who grasps that argument knows what that functional design actually is.
We should also note that a system possessing functional design need not be a substantial unity, i.e. it need not have intrinsic properties or capacities that are irreducible to the properties or capacities of its parts. Take the case of a philosopher who is an eliminativist about artifacts in the sense that he denies that such things are, strictly speaking, bona fide individual substances, but merely collections of parts. On such a view, talk of 'table,' 'computers,' 'stones,' etc. is really just shorthand for sets of parts systematically arranged. All facts about such pseudo-substances can be reductively accounted for by facts about their collections of parts. Thus, an eliminativist would argue that artifacts have no place in philosophically strict ontology. My intent is not to recommend such a radically eliminativist view, but simply to note that one can accept a strong reductionist thesis about a certain kind of "substance" while nevertheless ascribing functional design to the system to which it is supposedly reducible. For example, one may believe that there are strictly speaking no computers, and yet conclude that the systems of working parts to which they are reducible are nevertheless manifestations of functional design. In short, functional design is had by systems, not substances.
Bearing this point in mind, contrast functional design with what I call substantial purpose: a good or state of flourishing that defines a natural kind in terms of a common disposition to engage in a characteristic set of activities that achieve such an end. For example, we might identify consuming insects and producing tadpoles as the substantial purpose of a frog since these are the natural results of the characteristic activities of a frog that both identify something as a frog and constitute its good; something is a frog inasmuch as it is disposed to these activities that constitute what is good for frogs. Now, substantial purpose is not explanatory in terms of determining the type of efficient causation necessary to bring about its possessor, or at least no directly so. Rather, substantial purpose directly explains by determining what something is by showing what it naturally does that is best for it.
The presence of functional design does not entail substantial purpose. Although my computer possesses a great deal of functional design, it can be neither benefited nor harmed, since it has no intrinsic interests. The proper functioning of a computer is not good for the computer, but for the user or designer of the computer. Thus, the computer is not disposed toward a certain capacity that constitutes its good. A machine has no interests of its own. The very notion of a "good" or "bad" for an artifact is derivative of the benefit or harm that comes to the external agent. If all we know of a something is that it exhibits a high degree of functional design, we have no grounds for concluding that it likewise possesses any degree of substantial purpose.
Another way to put this point is that substantial purposes, unlike functional design, are had by substantial unities and not systems. If something is merely reducible to its parts such that it is not a substance in its own right, then it is has no substantial purpose; there is no good for it, since there isn't, strictly speaking, such a thing. Thus, our hypothetical eliminativist philosophers would not recognize substantial purpose in a computer or any other artifacts; all such things are reducible and therefore do not represent legitimate natural kinds disposed to characteristic goods.
Functional design cannot offer any grounding for an objectivist morality. The reason an objective proof of theism would be helpful in defending an objective ethical theory is because in light of such a proof we would have very good reason to believe that the natural order of things is aimed at the ultimate human good. Natural dispositions characteristic of human nature might then be used as objective measures of the propriety of human conduct. Such an account of morality requires that creatures possess substantial purposes, i.e. they must be disposed toward characteristic activities that constitute their ultimate good. (This is just how the natural law/virtue ethics tradition has always thought about morality.)
The problem for ID is that it can only deliver functional design and functional design offers no proof whatsoever of substantial purpose. As I mentioned above, reducible systems (even if they are functionally designed) are not susceptible to intrinsic harms or intrinsic goods. Their harm/good is always derivative of the harm/good of the agent they serve. Thus, even if ID could prove that the human organism is a functionally designed system, we would not thereby be given any reason to believe that there is such a thing as an objective human good that might be used as a normative standard. A successful ID program would give us no objective basis for moral judgment.