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Does Evolution Explain Morality? Part 5

The final ethical system we will analyze is known as the immanent purpose view.  This view holds that “there is no reason why something rather than nothing exists, that there is no purpose for human history, that there is no life after death, and that humans are the result of a blind process of evolution.”   The major difference between immanent purpose and optimistic humanism is that immanent purpose seems to hold to objective moral virtues.  Within life, there is objective good to be attained and total moral relativism is false.

The objective good, however, is not what Christian theists would consider to be the objective good.  Some proponents of this view believe that values exist and are part of the “furniture” of the universe, but these values are floating and unattached to any deity.  Others propose that the objective moral good can be “defined by or reduced to natural, scientific properties which are biological, psychological, sociological, or physical in nature.”   The following discussion will focus on a particular view within the immanent purpose umbrella which I call survival ethics.  

Followers of survival ethics claim that what is morally right is what furthers human survival; it is a utilitarian ethic which places the end (as in ends and means) of survival in the seat of absolutism.  Whichever behaviors contribute to human survival are considered virtuous and whichever behaviors do not are morally repugnant.  They argue that every person wills life and not death and that survival is therefore foundational to the human animal.  Since all types of animals naturally reproduce and populate the earth, this behavior must be the cause of morality. 

Why be moral?  If we are moral, then we will survive and survival as a goal is wired into humans and all other animals.  Journalist Robert Wright explains that “if within a species there is variation among individuals in their hereditary traits, and some traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then those traits will (obviously) become more widespread within the population.  The result (obviously) is that the species’ aggregate pool of hereditary traits changes.”  

According to survival ethicists, morality is easily explained by evolution and the tendency for biological life to survive and reproduce.  Although this view sounds almost identical to social Darwinism, followers of this view, such as Robert Wright, tend to recoil in horror if they are compared to social Darwinists.  They claim that even though evolution caused morals to develop, a person has a moral duty to rise above the brutality of nature and follow a more virtuous path.

In our next post, we will examine whether immanent purpose, and in particular, survival ethics, can explain what we know about morality.

[quotation references can be provided on request]


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  • Wes

    When you say, “what is morally right is what furthers human survival,” do you mean the survival of each individual or of the human race? For example, is it moral in this system to hurt your own chance for survival if it increases the chance for survival of a group, like a soldier diving on a live grenade to save a group of (or even one) friends?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Wes,
    Darwinian evolution ultimately works on an individual basis, as beneficial genes are only passed on if an individual organism reproduces. So, I take survival to mean survivial of each individual, not of the human race. Now, if an individual’s genes allow it to survive and thrive, then it is certainly possible that others in the community will also survive and thrive due to that one individual’s behavior, but it must come back to the individual.

    When you ask Darwinists to explain self-sacrificial acts, they usually point out that the soldier’s sacrifice must further the genes of his friends (who are his community), but the very genetics that caused that soldier to sacrifice himself to save his friends are lost because of his sacrifice, so it’s difficult to see how this kind of behavior can be propagated to the next generation.

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