In previous posts, we have built an understanding of seven aspects of morality that seem to be true. Following those posts, we examined a popular ethical system in the early 20th century known as social Darwinism, and we found that it utterly fails to explain what we know of moral norms. But social Darwinism is an easy target which most people disavow these days. Ethicists who base their systems on Darwinian evolution dismiss social Darwinism as an unfortunate mistake that later evolutionary ethical systems have corrected.
So in this post and the following series of posts, we will examine two modern ethical systems that are both derived from Darwinian evolution. These systems are more sophisticated than social Darwinism and attempt to avoid that system’s mistakes.
First up for analysis is optimistic humanism. This system uses Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the source of morality, but it does not use evolution for the justification of adopting the moral life. Optimistic humanism recognizes that just because the natural and unguided process of evolution produced moral feelings or instincts in mankind, it does not follow that human beings should therefore adopt the moral lifestyle, which would entail obeying all of the moral impulses that evolution “created.” This view recognizes the “is/ought” fallacy and seeks to avoid it. Just because moral feelings or impulses exist does not mean that we ought to obey them.
Optimistic humanists believe, according to philosopher J. P. Moreland, that “there is no reason why something rather than nothing exists, there is no purpose toward which the cosmos or human history is moving, humans are modified monkeys which have resulted from a blind process of chance mutations, and real, irreducible moral values do not exist.”
Why should a person be moral? According to optimistic humanism, it is because leading a moral life will give you personal satisfaction. Proponents of this view offer several ways of defining personal satisfaction. Atheistic philosopher Kai Nielsen says that “there can be purposes in life even if there is no purpose to life.” He speaks of each individual developing a life plan that may include career goals and social goals. Meaning can be found in “things like love, friendship, caring, knowledge, self-respect, pleasure in life.”
Humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz explains, “The humanist maintains as his first principle that life is worth living, at least that it can be found to have worth. . . . The universe is neutral, indifferent to man’s existential yearnings. But we instinctively discover life, experience its throb, its excitement, its attraction.”
Nielsen seems to believe that there is a subjective choice to be made to live the moral life and that there is no rational reason that can be given for making this choice; it is simply a personal choice and that is all there is to it. Once a person is in the moral framework, then the way that person determines right and wrong is to reflect on the world’s morality and build a coherent system. In his words, you “start with considered judgments and then you try to get them into a coherent pattern with everything else you know, with the best theories of the function of morality in society, with the best theories we have about human nature.”
To summarize, optimistic humanism asserts that human beings can create or adopt their own values within their lives and adapt these values to their life plans and goals. Moral values are not objectively real and are indeed only tools to be used by men as they see fit within a moral framework. According to optimistic humanists, even though evolution is the source for our moral instincts, it does not provide the rational ground for why someone should act morally; but this does not mean that mankind cannot subjectively choose to live the moral life. They agree that no reason can be given for why someone ought to choose the moral life, but all other ethical systems suffer from the same problem.
In the next post, we will analyze optimistic humanism and see whether it adequately explains our seven characteristics of morality.
[quotation references can be provided on request]