Is Evolution A Sufficient Explanation for Morality?

A recent comment brought my attention to a blog post about morality, which you can find here.  The author is atheist and makes the argument that morals have evolved. I am responding here because it seems this view is accepted by many that I have encountered. A key passage from the post include:

There is evidence that humans—and other animals—have an evolved morality, at least in the tribal sense. That is why there are strong similarities in the answers to morality test questions across different cultures; murder is wrong, thievery is frowned upon. It’s good to know that we are inclined to behave well toward each other in our tribe, but we should not pat ourselves on the back. We are not so naturally altruistic towards those outside of our tribe.

In response, I must first compliment the author for the several passages (not quoted here) that mention the positive role of religion in establishing morality. Too many atheists and critics focus on the small number of points of disagreement and then want to throw the baby out with the bath water. This author notes the positive role religion has played.

Second, I must also note that the Christian position is NOT that atheists are immoral. Quite the contrary, the moral argument for the existence of God says that all people, atheist included, are indeed moral. That is the major premise of the argument. Our claim is that atheism, as a system, has no sufficient grounds for the morality. It seems almost every time this issue arises, we have to keep repeating that we are not claiming the atheist is immoral.

Third, the claim that morals are from evolution suffers from one of the same problems that evolution in general does, which is that it describes what currently exists, and the cause changes to support any current situation. If stealing is acceptable, it is because stealing helps the individual survive. If stealing is not acceptable, it is because it helps the tribe survive. This is what I tend to call the Atheist of the Gaps theory, for whatever current situation is the case, it must have been there to help evolution, and evolution becomes non-falsifiable.

Fourth, even if morals did result from evolutionary processes, they can only explain survival, and cannot explain right and wrong, good and evil. Morals would then be merely functional for survival, and whatever equalled survival would be considered the right thing to do. Again, like evolution in general, we are not told why we ought to survive as opposed to become extinct. Why would survival be good and extinction bad? If actions to support survival equal moral goodness, is extinction something that is a moral act of evil?

Further, if current behaviors support survival, and are therefore morally good, we have no moral standard that transcends existing behaviour to measure actions against. If we find the behavior, and it helps survival, it must be good. We can find every conceivable behavior among the animal world — there would be no moral distinction between a praying mantis eating her mate and a human doing the same thing. Many parents abuse their children and, like the praying mantis, might ought to be killed. Yet we all know this is a moral evil, not just a survival instinct.

Fifth, the evolutionary explanation for morality suffers from a case of only being meaningful within a worldview that is already basically moral. If we place the viewpoint within a very different worldview, then there is nothing wrong with killing people who drag down our society and do not help our society survive.

Sixth, the author rightly points out that we are not so naturally inclined toward those in the next tribe. But if morals are merely what helps our tribe survive, then we are right and good to kill the next tribe if they encroach on our survival. It does no good to say that mutual cooperation helps mutual survival, sort of an inter-herd instinct, for our herd may have evolved a better moral, which was to kill the next one. The evolutionary answer must have a sufficient explanation for what happens if one herd’s morals are to successfully cause the extinction of the other, then multiplying their number.

Seventh, the evolutionary theory of morals is subject to the is/ought problem. It can only describe what is the case, not what ought to be the case. If a tree drops a limb and kills the bratty neighbor kid, we do not hold the tree to be morally culpable, but if I were to kill the bratty neighbor kid, I would be arrested. But I have free will, you say? Well, no, not if God does not exist. If God does not exist, all we have are natural processes, the universe is totally a result of natural processes, is causally closed, and my mind and my actions are all determined by pre-existing causes, and I have no choice but to act as my chemistry and physics have determined me. As Hume pointed out, people start with describing what is the case, but subtly sneak in what ought to be the case.

Eighth, if morals are in my tribe as a result of how we have evolved, and the next tribe’s morals are there because of how they evolved, then I have no right to criticize the next tribe, for their morals are just as good as mine. The evolutionary, tribe-based, herd instinct theory of morals gives up the right to criticize anyone outside of your tribe. I suspect the atheists who are so fond of criticizing theists and holding us to be immoral would not want to give up this idea. But if they are to say morals are for survival and due to helping  a tribe, then religion must have evolved in some tribes and is therefore a good thing for their tribe, and we must let religion be.

Ninth, if evolution is the source for morality, then we have no basis for saying a new morality could evolve and replace the one we have now. We cannot then say that any current moral act will always be good or evil, since the next tribe may have just evolved a better morality.

In summary, the evolutionary theory of the source of morality fails. The only adequate explanation for transcendent morality is a transcendent moral standard, one that is not a natural physical force, and has volition. This we call God.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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26 Responses to Is Evolution A Sufficient Explanation for Morality?

  1. Thank you for your kind words about my post.

    When time permits, I will respond to each point you have–very thoughtfully–laid out here and, critically, I’ll respond to your conclusion, to which I whole-heartedly disagree. This will most likely take a form a pingback post.

    If you’ll allow me a cursory response, I’d like to make one provisional point. Even though I believe that we have an evolved nature to behave well towards each other for the purposes of group survival–the start of a moral system–I make the case that our evolved morals–despite them being rather helpful–are not sufficient for a comprehensive moral framework. I continue to highlight that religion helped us build a better moral framework, but that it is equally inadequate, and in desperate need of refinement. I conclude by arguing that the refinement can be made through the discerning study of our history and literature–including holy books–and the pursuit of philosophy and science and reason.

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve already refuted most of the points you make on this post months ago but yet you’re still at it again making the same old lame fallacious caricatures of atheism and secular morality. Do you really stand by divine command theory as the foundation of your ethical system even though it is riddled with problems? It’s one of the worst theories out there for ethics. I’d be more than willing to debate you on morality any time.

  3. Bob Vance says:

    Basic sociology would tell you that a civilization requires a code to live by – i.e. morailty. A group in harmony survives over a group in chaos. One of the earliest written documents, the Code of Hammurabi, is a Babylonia Law book. It lists most of the laws, including the ten commandments, found in the Bible’s OT. It predates the Bible by centuries which shows that morality existed before the Bible. It’s not hard to imagine early man banishing from their group those who would commit murder or steal, which back then would probably equate to a death sentence.

    • humblesmith says:

      Neither this post nor the moral argument for the existence of God say that the Bible is needed for people to know morality. Quite the opposite, for, as it says in the post, all people are indeed moral. The question becomes the grounds for morals. Christians claim basic morality is in the fabric of creation due to the nature of God. The post above deals with whether morals could have evolved from pure matter and chance, and shows how this is not reasonable.

      • Mike says:

        Except of course the fact that hundreds of millions of people are incapable of making moral decisions because they’re physiologically and neurologically deficient. Some “creation”.

  4. Bob Vance says:

    I think it is reasonable. Civilization would not have evolved without morality. Have you ever been to the Museum of Natural History in DC?

    The chance of a single human surviving without basic tools and weapons would be slim given the predators that would not hesiitate to eat us. Forming groups provided protection and allowed us to develop tools and weapons which allowed us to form larger groups. Larger groups are able to provide better than small groups, via hunting and farming and gatherering. This is social evolution. The larger the group the more important rules become. Traits such as empathy and compassion would be favorable traits as they would insure stability in the group. Intelligence as well as strength would increase survivability.

    A bit scrambled but I wanted to respond before I had to leave….

    • humblesmith says:

      Several of the points in the post have already dealt with your comment. Start at point #3 above.

      And FYI, nearest I could tell by reading Hammurabi, I did not find the Ten Commandments. There are several laws against stealing and murder, but this is nothing new. There is nothing about only worshipping YHWH, not taking His name in vain, nothing about the sabbath. But as I’ve previously stated, this is beside the point of this post.

      But I do appreciate your comment, thank you.

      • Mike says:

        That’s because the code of Hammurabi came out before YHWH was invented. YHWH slowly grew from one of many gods and idols to being the only god the Jews worshiped. But that was several centuries after the code of Hammurabi was made.

        • humblesmith says:

          This is off topic, but since I sort of started it, I’ll leave it without response or deletion.

          • Mike says:

            Thank you for your act of Christian mercy, but I did make a few arguments against your moral position that I’d like you to respond to if possible.

          • humblesmith says:

            The only comments in this post do not deal with the post. So far, it stands.

            The only other comments I see here are, first, in relation to your statement about my rejection of Divine Command theory, that I cannot have a God-based objective moral standard. As I said, this is off topic and does not deal with the post. But if I recall correctly, in the post where I did deal with the true basis for morality, I made a clear distinction between God willing a command where He could have willed something else (Divine Command) and God creating according to His nature, which is not a free will command on God’s part. This is indeed God based, and not Divine Command, regardless of your repeated assertion.

            The only other comment here was about people who are incapable of making moral decisions because they are physiologically deficient. I assume this is supposed to be a negative mark against God’s creation, but this is not true. Christian theology teaches that God made creation good, but mankind marred it with sin. So you are correct, there are people who are physically and mentally deficient, but this comment not only agrees with sound Christian theology, it says nothing of the inability of evolution to produce morality, which is the topic at hand.

            As for Hammurabi, a simple reading of it shows a clear distinction between it and the Ten Commandments. They are very different.

            I make the simple request that if you have comments, please include them in the posts that deal with those topics.

          • Mike says:

            I do think divine command theory is relevant to a discussion that denies alternative sources of morality. DCT may be interpreted many ways, but all versions declare that what god commands constitute objective moral values and duties regardless of whether he chose them or they flow from his nature. So that doesn’t make a difference.

            When it comes to the mentally ill and you tying it into Adam’s fall, I’m curious, when did this fall take place, where did it take place, and what evidence do you have that it did take place? (Hint: the bible doesn’t count as evidence.) I think this is very relevant to your post since you seem to deny that evolution ever occurred, which is problematic b/c it is upheld by tons of evidence. That means suffering and disease existed for millions of years before humans evolved.

            If the purpose of life is to know god, it would seem at odds with god’s plan that he’d build into the design the very impediments that prevent one from actualizing the whole purpose of the plan. In light of this fact, the purpose of all our lives we’re being told by Christians is fundamentally flawed.

  5. Bob Vance says:

    #3 – Groups that accepted stealing would not flourish as well as groups that punished it. Eventually, over time, all groups would learn that stealing is bad for the group. Stealing, like murder, are bad for society. A group cannot arbitraily change that. It would be a universal truth. That covers most of your other points.

    As I said, the Code of Hammurabi is not a religious book as is the Bible. I think that would explain the lack of references to a God.

  6. Amado Mathis says:

    Within the wide range of moral traditions, religious moral traditions co-exist with contemporary secular moral frameworks such as consequentialism , freethought , humanism , utilitarianism , and others. There are many types of religious morals. Modern monotheistic religions, such as Islam , Judaism , Christianity , and to a certain degree others such as Sikhism and Zoroastrianism , define right and wrong by the laws and rules set forth by their respective scriptures and as interpreted by religious leaders within the respective faith. Polytheistic religious traditions tend to be less absolute. For example, within Buddhism , the intention of the individual and the circumstances should be accounted for to determine if an action is right or wrong.

    • humblesmith says:

      Actually, Christianity holds that basic morality is not based on the scriptures. While it is true that the scriptures are our only infallable moral compass, it is not true that morality is founded upon God’s commands. Rather, God is moral and everything He creates is moral, therefore morality permeates humankind and all of creation. I have written much about this….merely select the “morality” category on the right side of the main page.

      • Mike says:

        So if our only “infallable moral compass” instructs us to condone slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stone to death homosexuals who act, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs, then I am a very immoral person for not doing these things, and so are us all.

        • humblesmith says:

          Mike, I’m just curious if you’ve read the rest of the book, or just picked a few proof texts? To continue to make such claims without explaining what is actually being said in the bible is nothing short of an intentional falsehood or not having read the text. I’ve addressed most of these in the blog already so I won’t repeat myself here. But I am still looking for a skeptic who has read and responded to Paul Copan’s book “Is God A Moral Monster?” Just curious since I’ve not found one yet.

          • Mike says:

            I’d be happy to entertain your questions.

            No I have not read the entire bible, but I’ve deeply researched all those horrible passages and they are all indeed meaning what they say – at least in the context they were written. If you disagree with the content of those passages in a modern context, you’d then be admitting that morality is relevant to people, place and time, In other words, you’d admit to being a moral relativist.

            It’s funny you should mention Paul Copan because he’s been thoroughly refuted – even by other Christians. I’m not sure if you read the response “Is God A Moral Compromiser?” by Thom Stark of Copan’s book but he destroys his arguments one by one. Here’s a link to the full book below:

            http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf

            There’s a plethora of criticism of Copan out there online, just google it. And read Thom’s critique, it’s very entertaining. Copan’s an insincere liar, and Thom calls him out on it.

          • humblesmith says:

            I will, thanks. Meanwhile I’d suggest reading the text your criticizing, learning a bit of the significance of biblical dispensations, and the timeline where these events occurred. They lay the context, and without context you will continue to make the same mistakes.

          • humblesmith says:

            I read enough of Stark’s book to know what he’s doing and where he’s coming from. First, he’s quite liberal, and significantly defending redaction criticism, which I’ve shown on this blog that it has signficant errors, and is in the process of crumbling from it’s own weight. Second, his writing is replete with persuasion…..I’m not sure if he intended to have a scholarly tone and failed, or didn’t care. But nevertheless, if he’d just left out the rhetoric, the piece would have been significantly shorter, perhaps less than half the length. Thirdly, he makes some very broad claims. He cites, I think, three sources for his broad archeological claims. I’d have to research these, but I’m suspicious of whether three scholarly sources would make such sweeping claims as Stark did. Third, he kluges together some biblical passages out of their contexts to make a point, without citation, a technique which would not pass at any university. Fourth, and more to the point I was trying to make, Copan’s claim was that since the Canaanites appear again later in the text, they did not wipe them out completely as described. Stark seems to be claiming that 1) this does not matter, for the command was still given, and 2) biblical redactors kluged together conflicting accounts without changing the original source. As to 1), I’ll grant him the point, as long as we discuss the situation surrounding the command in Duet., which Christians are well equipped to do. As to 2), Stark’s answer, even if it were true, just pushes the problem back to the original source document, which I did not find where Stark addressed. Saying that the two accounts conflict because the editors were accurately quoting earlier sources does not answer the question. The fact remains that Canaanites show up later, and cause worse damage than if they would have been executed entirely when God said to do so. Stark fails to deal with this basic problem.

            In summary, he wrote a book-length review, the tone of which is a diatrabe, not a respected scholarly tone. The statements only work if you accept his very liberal premises, and he does not deal with the basic problem. If this is the best that the critics can do, I would again urge you to read the Bible for yourself, and Copan’s book, instead of misleading reviews.

            In light of fairness, Copan has responded to Stark:

            http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/06/is-god-a-moral-monster-revisited-preliminary-replies-to-thom-stark/

            http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/06/richard-hess%E2%80%99s-response-to-thom-stark/

            http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/06/matthew-flannagan%E2%80%99s-interactions-with-thom-stark/

          • Mike says:

            I personally find Stark’s critique of Copan’s interpretation of biblical slavery my favorite part and none of those links address it. Copan says “stay tuned” for a response. I’ll be sure to hold my breath.

            Stark is very fond of ad hominem but I still feel he’s successfully refuted the majority of Copan’s arguments. You say “he kluges together some biblical passages out of their contexts to make a point, without citation”. Can you give me examples?

            I notice the Canaanite conquest is very popular on Christian blogs whose authors feel an urgent need to justify. I’d hate to have to be in that position, but if you want to debate god’s genocidal commands, I’d be happy to entertain.

            As to Stark’s point which is shared by many critics, if the OT is accurate and depicts Yahweh’s desires, then the command to genocide itself is enough to call god a moral monster. Copan seems to concede that OT morality is less than ideal, and so if you agreed with him, you’d have to essentially believe god is indeed a moral compromiser, who issues second-grade morals that were designed to be “good enough” but far short of what’s ideal.

            “The fact remains that Canaanites show up later, and cause worse damage than if they would have been executed entirely when God said to do so.”

            Wow. Who would think that failing to kill every last member of a tribe down to the last child would be the immoral thing to do? I guess only under the bible’s warped sense of ethics.

  7. Mike says:

    If you’re talking about passages like Hebrews 8:13 & Romans 7:4-6 which seem to indicate that mosaic law is no longer valid, then you’d have to believe that god does indeed arbitrarily determine what is moral and what is not. And since Jesus never condemns homosexuality, I suppose you could argue that it’s moral. The point being, you believe they were once moral based on what? Scripture? Divine authority? Doesn’t that mean the 10 commandments are also nullified too?

  8. lukeprog, you’re a kid. kid’s are supposed to run around and question reality and life and god. everybody knows this. you’re asking god to give you questions to answers that didn’t even exist 50 years ago. if you ask me it’s about trust. right now you’re young and strong and invincible and there’s no reason not to trust yourself. but like most things in this short miserable life, you’ll learn you can’t even trust yourself. every whim, ache and desire coming from your body is a clear signpost but to what I’m afraid only you can discover yourself. You’re questioning things, great but you’re no intellectual giant. neither am i – no big deal. you have a lot of life ahead of you. I came to the same exact conclusions when I was your age. let me know how your quest for morality without god works out.

  9. Shauna says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this topic to be really something which I think I would
    never understand. It seems too complicated and very
    broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post,
    I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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