Does Evolution Explain Morality? Part 7

In the previous post, we found significant problems with survival ethics, the ethical theory which claims that “morality is easily explained by evolution and the tendency for biological life to survive and reproduce.”  But there are more problems.

Survival ethics are merely descriptive, not prescriptive.  They describe the behaviors of the past that led to survival of the human species.  I may be thankful that people followed these rules in the past, but how am I to decide whether I ought to follow these rules in the future? 

As Francis Beckwith explains, “After all, some people in the past raped, stole, and murdered. And I know of many people today who have feelings to rape, steal, and murder. Perhaps these behaviors are just as important for my existence and the preservation of the species as the ‘good’ behaviors.”  Unless there is an objective moral law that is over and above survival ethics, there is absolutely no possible way to determine which behaviors that have been produced by evolution are the good ones and which are the bad ones.

One response available to evolutionists is that those societies that have allowed atrocities, such as Nazi Germany, have not survived, and so evolution did indeed cull them out.  This response fails for two reasons.  First, brutal and tyrannical regimes have existed since the dawn of mankind and they continue to exist today.  People of the nineteenth century were basking in the afterglow of the Enlightenment and were confident that mankind’s scientific discoveries and progress were leading them to a golden age.  Yet within the first half of the twentieth century two world wars were fought when brutal regimes rose to power.  To argue that we are now reaching some sort of evolutionary nirvana where corrupt governments can no longer arise seems incredibly naïve, to say the least.  History is replete with dictators and despots and there is no end in sight, unless you are a Christian theist who knows that Christ himself will usher in the end of times. 

Second, if the evolutionist uses the failure of brutal regimes as evidence they are morally wrong, then this indicates that any brutal regimes that do survive are proved morally right.  In other words, only survival is a criterion for rightness, but this lands the survival ethicist right back in social Darwinism, which survival ethicists decry.

A second possible response to the point that evolution has produced those who rape, murder, and steal is to say that we should only rationally obey moral feelings that the majority of people hold.  A few bad apples are not to be heeded.  Here again, there are numerous counter examples that can be given. 

The majority of Europe was under Nazi rule during World War II, so by this criterion Europeans should have adopted the majority view of German nationalism. 

During the heyday of the Soviet Union, millions lived under its brutal hegemony, so it would have been impossible for anyone in that nation to hold the view that their government was behaving immorally. 

Slave ownership was an almost worldwide phenomenon just a few hundred years ago, so how could a person living during that time claim that owning slaves was morally abhorrent?  They could not unless there was an objective and universal moral law that was true for all people at all times; survival ethicists deny this view, however. 

More examples could be given, but neither moral truth nor any other truth is determined by a vote.  If everyone in the world believed that two plus two equals five, then everyone in the world would be wrong.  No philosophical theory can overcome the laws of mathematics or our intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, so we should always be cautious when we are told that whatever the majority says must be right.


Evolutionary ethical systems suffer from numerous problems that are not easily resolvable.  In stark contrast stands the ethics of Christian theism.  Christian theism holds that the universe was created to glorify God, that history has a purpose and that it is moving toward a climax where good will defeat evil once and for all. 

God created human beings to have intimate relationships with him.  Out of God’s perfect moral nature flow his ethical commands to love him and to love one another.  He is the transmitter of moral laws; he has the authority, as the ultimate standard of good, to demand obedience; he has placed an innate knowledge of morality in us; our conscience seers us when we disobey his laws; he knows our motives and intent even when other humans do not; he is spirit and has created immaterial souls and values for his creatures.  Every single moral intuition we have is explained logically by God’s existence.  In fact, if there is even one objective and absolute moral law, God must exist.

The nineteenth century German atheist Frederick Nietzsche pronounced that God is dead and he predicted that the twentieth century would be the bloodiest on record.  He understood that any ethic without God as its source would lead to moral chaos.  Fyodor Dostoevsky, the famous Russian novelist, has said that if God does not exist, then all things are permissible.  It was obvious to these men that without God, ethics have no foundation.  A house with no foundation collapses into rubble and morality is no different.  How can a perfectly holy, just, and righteous God be replaced with a mindless, irrational process such as evolution without devastating consequences?

The contemporary western world is unaware of the danger of evolutionary ethics because it is living on the borrowed foundation and capital of Christian theism.  Evolutionary ethicists maintain a following only because  their theories cloak themselves with a veneer of Judeo-Christian morality.  Take away that veneer and their ethical systems collpase.  Our only hope is to hold tight to the one who made us, the Alpha and the Omega, the Creator of all things, the Lord Jesus Christ.

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • Wintery Knight

    Is this the last one? I want to blog on the whole series when it’s done.

  • Bill Pratt

    Yes, this is the last one. It was a bit long…

  • Pingback: Is prescriptive morality rationally grounded on atheism? « Wintery Knight Blog()

  • Wes

    Majority opinion is not the best way to arrive at truth in general, not just moral truth. A majority believed that the earth was flat, that the earth was the center of the universe, etc. There needs to be another way to determine truth, moral or otherwise, than popular opinion.

  • Bill Pratt

    Wes, the majority would agree with you. Does that mean you’re wrong? I’m really confused now!

    You set yourself up for that. I just couldn’t resist…. 🙂

  • abizedene

    hh. luv it..

  • Nrfalcone

    Its completely possible to be moral and not base it on an existence of a god. It just requires an awful lot more thought that most people (of all kinds) just don’t want to bother with. That’s not to say that Christian morality doesn’t have its good points, as it has some of the best points. I just find it hard to believe that a higher power has to do with what is considered “right” and “wrong”.

  • Nightvid Cole

    You have no good argument that atheists cannot rationally hold morality. Attacking specific moral ideas put forth by atheists does not prove your point. (I, an atheist, could do the same thing: Pick on some proposed ethical claims of Christians and declare them untenable, but this would do nothing to prove that Christians cannot rationally have morality. And for that matter, the fact that there are crazy people in Australia does not mean that Australians cannot rationally believe in logic!!!)

    Additionally, your claims about souls and “implanted” moral faculties run counter to an increasing body of scientific evidence, and I’m wanting to know why you choose to ignore it. If it isn’t clear what evidence I’m talking about, start by watching some of Andy Thompson talks on evolution and altruism and also one by Patricia Churchland on mammal studies. For empirical evidence that dualism is false, check out V S Ramachandran on split-brain patients, among other things.

    “AHA!” you say, “But empirical data can only be used to derive descriptive conclusions, not prescriptive ones, therefore naturalistic morality makes no sense!”

    Not so fast. The problem here is that you assume that nothing can explain prescription unless it is a derivation of a prescription, which is to say, only a prescription can explain a prescription. But this has an infinite regress problem and is thus an untenable position.

    Also, a description of a prescription, while not itself a prescription, can be the final component of an explanation of prescription, in the same way that a description of a leaf, while not iself a leaf, completes a scientific explanation of leaves. In order to argue that science cannot explain prescription without invoking anything supernatural, you must show that the content of an explanation cannot be a posteriori identical to a prescription, NOT just that the explanation is not iself a prescription.

    For these reasons, I find the moral argument empty and unconvincing.

  • Andrew Ryan

    He said it’s not the best way to arrive at truth. He did not say ‘if the majority believe it, it must be false’.