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.