The Evolutionary Naturalist & His Ethics.
The view that ethics is no more than the result of biological forces can be seen in the words of top thinkers. Philosopher James Rachels explains that “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbor, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behavior is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favored” (1). Naturalist philosopher of science Michael Ruse would agree, he explains that morality is no more than the “ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are our other adaptations… Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond this” (2). Biologist Wilson likewise opines that human moral inclination is found in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system,” which is essentially a “device of survival in social organisms” (3).
However, not all naturalists would agree with these views. For example, philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that “moral realism is true” (9). Likewise Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, affirms the objectivity of moral values and duties (10). A study further affirms that 56,4% of philosophers hold to moral realism (11). And since a sizeable percentage of philosophers identify as naturalists (49.8%) it would necessitate that many of these naturalists affirm the objective nature of moral values and duties.
The Implications for the Naturalist on Denying Moral Realism.
The implications of such a view are well worth considering. If we are to agree with the naturalist and thus do away with a transcendent moral law (a law that could only be established by an external source such as God) then morality becomes subjective preference. If there is no binding standard on humanity then what constitutes “good” or “evil” is merely personal opinion. We have thus moved from any sense of moral realism into the shaky realms of moral subjectivism. The likes of Ruse, Wilson, and Rachels cannot escape this implication because by grounding morality in evolution (that their naturalism dictates had no external agency guiding it or being involved in it in any way) they are left to identify what is morally right or wrong based upon human and societal opinion. This is, however, a result of their metaphysical naturalism for evolutionary theory itself has no bearing on the ontological nature of morality. So, essentially, the fact that I hold the culling of Jewish children in Auschwitz to be a moral atrocity is only because it is my opinion that it is wrong. Alternatively, a psychopath could find much enjoyment in watching men, women, and children being horrendously gassed to death in the gas chambers. That, to a psychopath, would be a “good” thing and I would be in no position to dispute his view in any objective sense. All considered it would be no different to the psychopath favouring a vanilla milkshake over my favouring the chocolate flavour. Except when it comes to Auschwitz we are dealing in human lives, not milkshakes. Ravi Zacharias realises this and asks, “How in the name of reason can we possibly justify differentiating between good and bad on the basis of feeling? Whose feeling? Hitler’s or Mother Teresa’s? In other words, there must be a moral law, a standard by which to determine good and bad” (6).
To drive this point home consider the words of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins explains that “if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention …. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference …. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (4). According to Dawkins, Hitler was just dancing to the music of his DNA.
Does Evolutionary Theory Undermine Moral Realism?
The moral realist holds to objective morality by arguing that human beings perceive a realm of objective moral values. The moral realist may ground this in God since God provides that transcendent standard which is binding on all humans and cultures at all times in history. Therefore, to murder someone in order to gain access to his possessions would be morally wrong. It would be both wrong now within the West as well as in an African or South American tribe existing thousands of years ago. The rightness and wrongness of an action is therefore not dependent on human opinion. However, as I pointed to above, the ontological nature of moral values and duties is a question of philosophy, not of science or biology. Scientist and physicist Deborah Haarsma explains that “Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn’t equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed” (5).
Thus, given evolution, the theist might show that he isn’t threatened by a naturalistic explanation of morality since if God established the evolutionary process then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose that he would bring his human creatures to the point of knowing what would be right and wrong. This proves to be a line of thinking that philosopher Paul Copan has seen, “if morality reflects the influence of biological evolution, this still doesn’t discount God as the source of humans’ basic moral awareness. It doesn’t follow that God has nothing to do with morality simply because evolution plays a part. If the evolutionary process produced moral beliefs such as, “Love your neighbor,” why couldn’t this be the result of God’s guiding hand?” (7).
However, an evolutionary explanation likewise wouldn’t undermine the objective nature of morality since it, as a scientific theory, doesn’t speak to it. Moral values and duties could very well exist independent of how humans came to know them (which is the question of moral epistemology) whether through special creationism or evolutionary creationism. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig admits that the believer “could agree with everything the unbeliever says about that: we come to an understanding of morality through biological evolution, societal conditioning, parental influences, etc. All of that is irrelevant to the question of whether objective moral values and duties exist…” (8).
This considered the skeptic would do well to caution against dismissing moral realism due to evolution. This is because to do so would be committing the genetic fallacy. For example, objective morality might very well exist independent of how humans came to know them within the evolutionary process. This would also apply to belief in God. For example, a transcendent God may still exist independent of how human beings came to believe in him whether that be through family upbringing, reading a book etc. How someone came to know about a specific thing says nothing about that things existence.
Evolution and the Moral Argument.
The moral argument reads as follows:
1. If God does not exist then objective morals and values do not exist.
2. Objective morals and values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Now, the naturalist might object to this argument by saying that objective morals and values do not exist (premise 2) because evolution merely fobbed off an illusion of them onto humans. This is because, he argues, the illusion of morality would enhance our survival as a species. However, as we’ve already established the naturalist is factoring in a philosophy rather than making a scientific claim. Evolutionary theory itself, much like the theory of gravity, says nothing about the ontological nature of moral values and duties. And as we’ve established objective morality may very well exist independent of how human beings came to know of them through the evolutionary process. So, to undermine their objective nature would be committing the genetic fallacy, a fallacy any thinker should wish to avoid. However, the naturalist might then proceed to argue why he thinks there are better reasons for denying that objective moral values and duties exist. If so then the theist and the naturalist can lock horns over that question through discussion and argument (which is beyond the scope of this article). But as far as the moral argument goes, premise 2 remains sound even given the fact of evolution.
1. Rachels, J. 1990. Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. p. 77.
2. Ruse, M. 1989. The Darwinian Paradigm. p. 268.
3. Wilson, E. 1998. Consilience. p. 268.
4. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. p. 132—33.
5. Interview with Dr. Deborah Haarsma in: Religion, Science and Society. 2015.
6. Zacharias, R. 2002. Cries of the Heart. p. 67.
7. Copan, P. “My Genes Made Me Do It”: Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution? Available.
8. Craig, W. 2013. A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible.
9. Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos. p. 105.
10. Craig, W. Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. Available.
11. Bourget, D. & Chalmers, D. 2013. What Do Philosophers Believe? Available.