Does Evolution Explain Morality? Part 1

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]

  • “Moral values are not objectively real”

    Ah, but the ways we can judge the value of those values is objective. Scientific testing and observation can tell us if actions, performed in response to moral choices, cause harm or benefit. That is objective.

    “it does not provide the rational ground for why someone should act morally”

    I think it does. Acting morally is how we survive and thrive. Being a social omnivorous species, that’s the only real way to be in order to survive.

  • A very readable summary. I await the next post in this series.

    You have the gift of communication !!

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)
    India

  • Wintery Knight

    I wrote a post over on my blog about people who believe that morality evolved who press the problem of evil. I got a commenter who left a long comment who contradicted himself using his arbirtarily changing evolved standard to judge God for the evil in the world:

    He said:
    Morals arose in our species through evolution as a social species. … There is no absolute morality any more than it is relative.

    And then a bit later he said:
    I do not hold god to any standard.

    And then he committed a contradiction here:
    To reiterate, I don’t believe in a god. Thus, the statement for us atheists is a non sequitur. But any person or god that would order genocide can not be considered good.

    I replied and explained the contradiction to him here.

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  • Bill Pratt

    Wintery Kinght,
    I read your post and response to the one commenter. Very good stuff. You have an excellent understanding of the problem of evil and the failure of evolution to provide a rational basis for moral behavior. As I continue my series of posts on evolution and morality, you will see many of the weaknesses of evolutionary ethics discussed. I hope you’ll keep checking out the posts.

  • Bill Pratt

    morsecode,
    If we are to survive and thrive, then why not rape? It spreads genes far more efficiently than monogamous relationships.

    Also, you claim there are not objective moral norms and that we should use scientific testing to tell us if an action is harmful or beneficial. How do you know what’s harmful and beneficial for all of mankind if there is no objective moral law? If you say that you aren’t speaking for all mankind, but only for yourself or your group, then you are not judging objectively. You’re right back to moral relativism again.

  • “If we are to survive and thrive, then why not rape?”

    Because in the act of rape you are causing harm. People don’t like to be harmed. So, you will be harmed or even killed in return. Which would lead to no more survival or propagation of your genes.

    “How do you know what’s harmful and beneficial for all of mankind if there is no objective moral law?”

    Because the scientific method can show us, objectively, what causes harm and what gives benefit.

  • Bill Pratt

    “Because in the act of rape you are causing harm. People don’t like to be harmed. So, you will be harmed or even killed in return. Which would lead to no more survival or propagation of your genes.”

    You still have not defined harm. What is harm? Second, what if a man could rape a woman and know he wouldn’t be caught? Maybe they are the only two people left on a remote island. Is it still wrong for the man even though he knows he will not be caught?

    “Because the scientific method can show us, objectively, what causes harm and what gives benefit.”

    Again, define harm and define benefit. In order for science to show you anything, you first have to agree on the definitions of these terms. You can run all kinds of experiments and collect all kinds of data using the scientific method, but how do you interpret the data?

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  • Harm:

    1. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.
    2. the occurrence of a change for the worse

    Read medical journals to find all the ways that harm can be caused, either physically, emotionally or mentally.

    “Second, what if a man could rape a woman and know he wouldn’t be caught?”

    Is there still harm taking place? Yes. Then it doesn’t matter.

    Furthermore, your island theory is flawed. The act of causing another harm puts you at risk for having harm done to you by that same person. The study of rape and rape victim also shows that it harms the victim emotionally, to the point that they may attempt to abort any child from such an event, kill the rapist, or harm or kill themselves.

  • Bill Pratt

    OK, so harm is physical, emotional, or mental damage to a person. Why is harming other people wrong or immoral? Is that a rule that is true for all people? What would you say to the person who likes to cause damage to himself and others? It seems like you are setting up an objective and absolute standard that any action that harms someone is immoral, but you said you don’t believe in objective morality. Please explain.

    If your one objective moral law is to not harm other people, then you have other problems. What happens when we perform surgery to remove a person’s limb in order to save their life? According to your theory, we are causing physical harm (removing a limb is physical damage no matter how you want to look at it), so our action is immoral.

    There was a case a few years back where a dentist was sedating his patients and then sexually molesting them while they were asleep. They never knew about it, and so it didn’t cause them physical harm. According to you, the dentist did not act immorally. Nobody was harmed.

    In fact, lying to a person is completely OK under your system, as long as they never know you lied to them. If they find out, then you acted immorally because you harmed them emotionally, perhaps. But until then, nothing is wrong with the lie.

    Stealing from someone is also OK, under your system. Again, as long as they don’t know you stole from them, no harm was done.

    I must assume that you are very much against abortion, because killing a fetus is the definition of physical harm.

    I must also assume that you are against homosexual sodomy, because it clearly physically injures the “receiving” partner. Nobody debates this.

    You must be against getting drunk from alcohol, because that is scientifically proven to cause damage to your body.

    Are you sure that not causing physical, emotional, or mental damage is the only objective moral law? There seem to be a raft of problems.

  • There is an objective reality and there is an objective way of seeing that universe, the scientific method. That can help us determine our morals. If you want to call that morality objective, fine by me. But objective is not necessarily the same as an absolute morality, which you seem to be arguing for.

    “If your one objective moral law is to not harm other people, then you have other problems.”

    No I don’t. The surgery argument doesn’t work, because not performing surgery would lead to more harm. This is why it’s not absolute. If it were, we would never be able to heal anyone.

    My morality focuses on avoiding the most harm and giving the most benefit. Obviously amputating a limb if it will save someone’s life fits that.

    “They never knew about it, and so it didn’t cause them physical harm.”

    Sure it did. What universe do you live in? Harm exists, regardless if there is knowledge of it by the victim.

    Remember, there is an objective reality. I’m not a post-modernist that thinks that reality is only what you know, or some other preposterous idea.

    “In fact, lying to a person is completely OK under your system”

    If you harm someone with your lie, then it is immoral. If you don’t harm anyone, I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s not about finding out. It’s about the harm. Period.

    Same for stealing.

    “I must assume that you are very much against abortion, because killing a fetus is the definition of physical harm.”

    Beyond a certain point in gestation, yes, I am against abortion. Ideally I’d like to eliminate the reasons people feel they need to get abortions.

    “I must also assume that you are against homosexual sodomy, because it clearly physically injures the “receiving” partner. Nobody debates this.”

    I do. Have you never heard of ‘lubrication’?

    “You must be against getting drunk from alcohol, because that is scientifically proven to cause damage to your body.”

    Against it? Yeah. I’ve been ‘drunk’ once in my entire life. But, as you can consume alcohol without getting drunk, I don’t condemn drinking completely.

  • Bill Pratt

    “Harm exists, regardless if there is knowledge of it by the victim.”

    How can science measure harm to a person if the person doesn’t know about it? Don’t you have to have the person be harmed and then observe what damage has been done to them? What sort of scientific experiment can show that harming a person that doesn’t know about that harm actually harmed them?

    “Beyond a certain point in gestation, yes, I am against abortion.”

    Why beyond a certain point in gestation? You claim to follow science and science has clearly shown that life begins at conception. All of the DNA, all of the chromosomes are in place at conception. The only thing needed for the fetus to grow is food, water, and air. There is no scientific debate about when life begins; there is only philosophical debate, but that shouldn’t interest you under your theory of ethics.

    As I read your responses, it seems you have stated that science is the arbiter of right and wrong. Let me ask you: how did you come to that conclusion, because science clearly can’t prove science, as that would be circular? You are setting up an objective moral law of “avoiding the most harm and giving the most benefit.” If you believe this objective moral law, which cannot be proved by science, then where did you get it and how do you know it’s true? How do you react when Christians tell you their objective moral laws? I recall in an earlier post that you were quite hostile toward Christian morality, calling it “medieval” or something like that. Why is your objective moral law right and Christians’ wrong?

  • “How can science measure harm to a person if the person doesn’t know about it?”

    It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that the harm did not take place. It just means we don’t know that it took place.

    Discovering harm doesn’t mean that the harm suddenly begins the second we discover it. It existed regardless if we found it or not.

    “You claim to follow science and science has clearly shown that life begins at conception.”

    Perhaps. But life and human life are two different things.

    Sperm are also alive. Is destroying them the equivalent of killing a human? No. Neither is the destruction of some cells the equivalent of murder.

    But like I said, I’d like to see abortion end. And the only way that will happen is to make it so no one ever needs to get another abortion. Which means better birth control and better sex education.

    “it seems you have stated that science is the arbiter of right and wrong.”

    Sort of. The scientific method is the best tool we can use to determine if things are right or wrong.

    Science is a tool we have developed that has been shown, consistently, to be accurate. We can tell, through repeated testing, that it’s correct.

  • Bill Pratt

    “It existed regardless if we found it or not.”

    I don’t think you understand my question. Science relies on observation. If you can’t observe harm, then you can’t measure it. If you truly believe there is harm to a person even when we can’t measure it, then you don’t truly believe that science is the only way to understand morality. You say that science is the only way to measure harm, but by your own words, you don’t really believe it. Please describe a scientific experiment to figure out if people who do not know they’ve been lied to actually suffer harm. Just spell out the experiment for me, using the scientific method. If you do that, I will quite pestering you about this!! 🙂

    “Neither is the destruction of some cells the equivalent of murder.”

    I think we almost agree on this one, but you’re not quite going along with me yet. Scientists agree that human life begins at the joining of the sperm to the egg (conception). Here is one quote:

    Dr. Hymie Gordon, professor of medical genetics and a physician at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, said: “I think that we can now also say that the question of the beginning of life – when life begins – is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.”

    Quote from Hank Hanegraaf, Fatal Flaws

    So after conception, by the scientific method, we know we have human life. Will you not join me in condemning abortion based on the scientific evidence?

    “Science is a tool we have developed that has been shown, consistently, to be accurate. We can tell, through repeated testing, that it’s correct.”

    I agree science is a great thing, but you didn’t answer my questions.

    You can only use science to test for harm after you have determined that harm is wrong. You didn’t use science to determine harm is wrong. You assumed it was wrong before using science. So how did you decide this? My guess is that you just intuitively knew it, based on your moral conscience. But regardless of how you decided, you didn’t use science to decide. That is impossible.

    So again, if you were able to come up with your moral law (do no harm) without science, then aren’t Christians allowed to come up with their own moral laws? Since you can’t use science to argue against Christians’ moral law and argue for your moral law, how would you argue? Why is your objective moral law right and Christians’ wrong?

  • Wes

    I’m curious what a defender of optimistic humanism would say about some of our entertainment which involves harm, like the ultimate fighting “sports”. Are they wrong by definition? What about football or basketball, where harm is not the intent but it happens regularly and is expected. Does that make these sports wrong?

    If you are raising children, how do you decide what discipline constitutes “harm”? The point of discipline (for kids or adults) is to use harm as a deterrent to undesired behavior. Would an O.H. only sanction positive reinforcement?

    What if someone felt they were strengthening their species by killing the less-well-adapted, or those who should not reproduce? Would this harm be acceptable for the greater good (survival of the fittest, improvement of the gene pool)?

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  • Matt

    What if I play Robinhood and steal from the rich to give to the poor. The exchange of materials is the same for both parties but the poor benefit more (they find a good use for it) from them than the rich, who would scarcely miss it. Haven’t I done good by the “benefit is good, harm is evil” theory?
    What about mutual consent but out of wedlock sex? Both parties enjoy it, so do you call that a good deed? I don’t believe I do.