Is Morality the Product of Evolution

25 08 2009

ArrowsLast week, we considered the question of whether religion could be explained by evolution alone, and this week we will do the same with the question of morality and ethics. I hear quite often in discussions with skeptics that morality is simply the product of evolution, something that has just helped our species to survive. Let’s begin by considering that possibility and find out what would be true of ethics and morality if it were merely a trait or mechanism that evolved to aid our survival as a species.

The first thing that would be true of morality would be that it would not be objective in nature. In other words, what we consider to be moral or immoral would not be a fact independent of our belief in the same. Murder would not be objectively wrong or evil, nor would rape, racism, or a whole host of other actions that we deem to be wrong, or even evil. In the same way, actions like helping the poor and needy, rescuing a drowning child, or being kind would not be objectively good things. It is possible, given evolution, that we could just as easily live in a world where killing the disabled or even people with certain characteristics would be considered to be good, or preventing the torture of animals would be evil.

After all, as the famous evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Wonderful life: the Burgess Shale and the nature of history (the name is a takeoff of the holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life”) said that if we replay the tape of evolution “a million times…I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.” (289) He believed that because evolution involves chance mutations and that there is no telos (purpose or end goal), that if evolution were to be rerun, it would produce different results each time, including that Homo sapiens would not be a part of the other permutations.

We could equally extrapolate out for morality that it would turn out different each time, if it evolved at all! So, we could quite likely see a world where acts that we consider evil might be considered to be good and vice versa. Richard Dawkins, in a post debate radio interview, he would be OK with the idea of rape being acceptable if evolution had turned out differently. Dawkins replied that he would not like to live in such a world. In other words, Dawkins believed rape to be objectively evil, wrong despite what evolution would lead us to believe.

The second thing that would be true of morality, given evolution, would be that it would be possible for each person to evolve in a slightly different way such that we would each see morality differently from other people. In other words, morality would be person-subjective. No one would be able to say that their evolutionary view of morality was “better” than another person’s. So, if I evolved such that my morality allowed me to steal from others, the one from whom I have stolen could not say that I have done anything really wrong. It may be wrong to them to steal, but they would be in no position to impose that morality on me.

The third problem is also an epistemological problem (a how we know problem) in that evolution would not necessarily lead us to be able to distinguish truth as evolution (according to evolutionary experts) only puts our bodies in the right place at the right time so that we can survive as an entity and as a species. Now, I have problems with this view that evolution has this “goal” of survival as evolution is a blind process and has no goals or direction, it just is a process. However, even if evolution were capable of creating within us the ability to get our bodies in the right place at the right time, it would not necessitate that we would do so in a manner that would be considered moral or ethical. The fact is that we would not really have need for objective morality, just a need to make sure that we survive.

Morality, according to philosopher J.P. Moreland, implies a design or telos to our existence. Why, you might ask? Moreland uses a couple of illustrations to make the point. First, Moreland uses the example of an automobile carburetor, the part of the car that used to (carburetors are not found in many modern cars with fuel injectors) that would atomize gasoline so that it could be ignited by the spark plugs. Moreland asks whether there there could be a bad carburetor. Those of us who used to drive cars with carburetors would answer that yes, there could be a car with a bad carburetor, in fact, I a lot of time trying to start cars with bad carburetors. How do we know the carburetor is a bad one? Because we know how a carburetor is supposed to work, we know how it was designed to work. When it doesn’t work according to the design, we know it is bad.

So, are people designed to work a certain way, or are we the product of a blind chance process operating by selection? The answer obviously has implications. If it is the former, then there is a design according to which we are to live our lives and when we don’t live according to that plan, we are acting in a bad manner. However, if we are the product of a blind process, then there is no plan or design and no wrong way to live. Even if we are living in such a way that would lead to the extinction of the species, we can’t even say that this behavior is bad since the system is not “designed” for our survival, survival is merely a byproduct of how the system has worked out.

Moreland also uses an example of playing a game of Monopoly. He tells his opponent that the rules of the game are that his opponent can do anything he wants when it is his turn. He can make a sandwich, turn on the TV, ring a bell, or anything else he wants. His opponent begins his turn by loading up properties with hotels. Moreland counters by tipping over the board and ringing the bell. His opponent is confused by that move and proceeds to load up the properties with hotels once again. Moreland counters by wiping the board clear and turning on the TV. On and on it could go and since there is no ultimate purpose to the game with these rules, there is no right or wrong to the moves. The same is true of our lives, if there is no ultimate purpose, then there is no right or wrong behavior. We can either tip the board or put on the hotels and either move is just as “meaningful” or “meaningless” as the other. If life has no ultimate meaning, it has no ultimate morality and if it has no ultimate morality, then it has no ultimate meaning either.

These are the reasons that I believe that morality and meaning cannot be ultimately explained by evolution. Life has too much evidence of design, and design begs for a designer.

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