Monday, December 14, 2009

Can Evolution Explain Morality?

The standard theist answer is an emphatic no. They’ve repeated the answer countless times without really looking at the evidence. The first problem is that the claim is confused about several different distinctions. Let’s separate some questions:

Can the theory of evolution give us an account of how natural selection might have worked on humans (and other animals) to endow them with a moral sense? Yes. Even since Darwin, people have put forward ideas about how evolutionary forces could have selected for certain kinds of cognitive constitution in early hominids over others. The answer will depend on what we mean by moral sense. Perhaps the question is: Can evolution give us an account of why we care about each other, or why to do good things for each other, why we are generous or compassionate, why we have a sense of justice? Yes, it does. Barbara Kind, Frans de Waal, Marc Hauser, Patricia Churchland, Philip Kitcher, and many others have given careful accounts, supported by empirical observations, of how the process of evolution might have selected for individuals with some behaviors, preferences, and sensitivities and not others. As with any scientific theory, more empirical research and investigation will make progress on figured out which theory best accounts for the facts.

Can the theory of natural selection make us want to be better, more moral people? No. The theory is neutral in this regard. It just tells us what we are. But the process of natural selection does appear to have left us with some very strong desires to be better, more moral people. So evolution has made us want to be moral. But it has also made us favor foods that have very high calorie densities. In the wild, nuts with their high fat content were an important find when food is scarce. But I shouldn’t be following that same preference by ordering another slice of calorie rich cheesecake.

But can divine command theory make us want to be better, more moral people? No, it can’t. What believing that God commands X and forbids Y can do, especially if it is coupled with a threat of punishment or the promise of reward, is give you some incentive to engage in more behaviors that appear to be moral. But acting for the sake of reward or out of a fear of punishment isn’t moral behavior. That’s save-your-ass behavior. That’s utterly selfish, amoral behavior. Moral behavior requires other directed, other concerned, non-self interested motivation. Kant argues that in order for an act to be morally good, it must arise from the right sort of principled motivation that recognizes the autonomy and value of another person as a self-governing being. Real moral actions are one’s that transcend concern about yourself and that recognize others as beings who make choices, employ reason, and have freedom. Following orders from God either because he issued them or because of fear of punishment actually thwarts individual responsibility, freedom, and reason. Even if God commands that we act in selfless ways that acknowledge the rational autonomy of others, doing so isn’t moral if your motivation is that God commanded it.

Socrates showed us in the Euthyphro that whatever God commands, the question of whether that commandment is the morally right thing to do is a completely separate matter. Deciding either to do what God commands (because you are free) itself is a decision that concludes “What God commands is good.” And that is a moral decision that must be made on the basis of grounds other than the mere fact that God commanded it.

Can evolutionary theory tell us what we ought to do? Not really. It can tell us what we are and how we are built. It can tell us what sorts of behaviors are favorable to survival, and so on. But whether or not you ought to do any of the things that you are built to do is a separate question. You’ll have to have some better reasons to do it than the mere fact that we are biologically inclined to do some things rather than others. Biology may have endowed us with inclinations that themselves are immoral. This is the infamous is-ought problem. But the mistake is thinking that this problem is confined only to naturalized accounts of ethics. The is-ought problem is everyone’s challenge, especially for those that think morality comes from God.

Thinking that God wants us to do some things and not others can’t tell you that you ought to do it either. First, the diversity of religious views and the countless instances of doctrinal in fighting over every moral and religious question makes is obvious that there are no clear answers about what God wants us to do, especially among the people who are most convinced that we should do what God commands. Second, even if someone (mistakenly) concludes that God clearly wants us to do this and not that, whether or not you ought to do what God commands remains to be seen. It doesn’t become something you ought to do merely from the fact that God commands it, or you’d be busy right now committing genocide against the Midianite men, women and boys, but saving 32,000 virgin girls for your own use (Numbers 31), or wiping out the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Prizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. (Deuteronomy 7 1-2). You’d be fulfilling the command to perform human sacrifices (Leviticus 27: 28-29, Judges 11:29-40, II Samuel 21: 1-9.) Or you’d enslave other humans (Exodus 21: 2-6). Or you’d be following God’s commandment to punish witchcraft, heresy, violating the Sabbath, adultery, blasphemy, and back talking your parents with death. (Exodus 22:20, 31: 14-15, Leviticus 20:10 and 24: 16, and Exodus 21:17). If women seriously thought that we ought to follow God’s commands, then they’ he’d this one: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let wives be to their own husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22). (I wish my wife believed that, then I could order her to go make me a sandwich right now.)

Moral philosophers have offered us a number of powerful theories about what we ought to do based on reasoning about morality. These accounts do have the potential to show us what we ought to do. Here are very short statements of just ten of them. There are many more and there are in depth background discussions of each in the authors’ works. One point to note is that none of them mention God. Another is that these philosophers are making an earnest effort to give a reasoned, principled, consistent, and convincing account of why we should do some things and not others.

1. Treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means. (Kant)

2. A man [should]be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be content with as much liberty with others as he would allow them against him.(Hobbes)

3. “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. . . . The principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being.” (Singer)

4. Eudaimonia, or flourishing, for humanity can only be achieved by acquiring virtue with regard to that which sets us apart, or our capacity to guide our own behavior by reason. Fulfillment can be achieved by living well according to this essential nature over the span of a whole life. (Aristotle)

5. Act according to that principle that will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.(Mill)

6. Only have aversion for those things that are in your control If you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. . . .If you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. (Epictetus)

7. “Man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself, rather than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, or a cauliflower; nothing exists prior to this plan; there is nothing in heaven; man will be what he will have planned to be." (Sartre)

8. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. (Epicurus)

9. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. And social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that : a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Rawls)

10. Refraining mutually from injury, exploitation, and putting one's will on a par with others, may lead to a certain degree of good conduct among individuals. But to make it a fundamental principle of society is a will to the denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay. (Nietzsche)

Many people think that it is a serious blow against atheism and evolutionary accounts of human origins that they cannot explain morality. The problem is that in many regards, evolutionary theory does explain morality. But even if moral behavior was a mystery from an evolutionary standpoint (it isn’t), we still wouldn’t have any grounds to prefer a divine explanation for moral behavior. Adding God to the discussion just doesn’t do any explanatory work for us in helping us understand what is right and wrong, what the human moral conscience is, or what we ought to do. We will all encounter challenging, morally complex situations. And in order to get through them, we will have to think about the reasons we have for various actions. And we will have to decide which reasons are better and which are worse. Thinking that God commands something won’t help us decide if it really is morally good to do that. That is, no one can escape the burden of moral responsibility for their actions. And the only tools we have for solving those dilemmas are our powers of reasoning. Some of the very best reasoners among us about moral matters have been philosophers advancing theories of morality. Those accounts do much more towards answering the question of what we ought to do. And they can supplement the evolutionary accounts that we are developing about what sorts of creatures we are. The answer to the lead question is that evolution and philosophy can explain morality, but appeals to God cannot.


Anonymous said...

This is what is called wisdom. Knowledge is not wisdom. To know ”I don’t know anything” is wisdom. That is the meaning of the oracle of Delphi’s declaration.
Somebody asked, ”Who is the greatest wise man of the world?” and the oracle said, ”Socrates.”
The person went to Socrates and told him,” Have you heard it or not? The oracle of the temple has said that you are the wisest man in the world.”
Socrates is reported to have laughed and said, ”You go back. There must have been some mistake because just today, this morning, it has happened to me that I don’t know anything. How can it be?
If you had come yesterday I would have believed you, because I used to think that I know, but not now. This morning – this very morning – something tremendous has happened to me: all knowledge has appeared as futile. I am awakened. The sleep of knowledge is no longer there; I am no longer dreaming. And now I know only one thing for certain: that I don’t know anything.
”You go back and tell the oracle that something must have gone wrong. The oracle has always been right and true, I know, but this time the oracle has committed an error. You go and put things right. And it is me, Socrates himself, saying that I am the most ignorant man of the world. How can the oracle say I am the most wise? No, it is not possible.”
The man was puzzled, he could not believe it, but he went to the oracle and said, ”There must have been some mistake, sir, because Socrates denies it. He says, ’I know only one thing: that I don’t know anything.’”
And the oracle said, ”That’s why we have declared that he is the greatest wise man of the world. That’s why! Precisely that’s why we have declared it! Go and tell him. If you had asked yesterday, we would not have said so. He was as foolish as anybody else. Now he is not a fool at all – he is not fooled by knowledge. He has awakened.”
Knowing that you don’t know, you really become a knower. That is wisdom. Wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom is awareness.

Bowling4Mac said...

Evolution cannot provide an explanation for morality. Yet. I suspect at some point someone will come up with a rational explanation for morality in humans which will make intuitive sense even to the layman in the same way that Darwin explained the link between simple animals and humans such that the layman could understand.

Theism only provides an "explanation" for morality in the sense that theism says that we should believe that god gave us morality because theism says so. And we should believe that theism is correct because theism says so. This is no more satisfactory than me telling you that morality was given as a gift to humanity by my dog Rex in Rex's previous life as a cat in the year 102 BC. The only difference between the two claims is that billions of people believe, or at least say that they believe, the first one while only I say I believe the second one. This also means that the average person is more likely to believe the first explanation because humans have a habit of acting like sheep and humans also have a habit of caving in to peer pressure.

The important things to bear in mind are that a) theism does no better job than evolution at really explaining morality and b) we don't need theism in the absence of an explanation for morality any more than I need a colonic irrigation because I do not have an explanation for morality. Neither will help me in my search for an explanation of morality.

Until someone explains to me in a manner which makes intuitive sense why humans have morals I am content to admire my own good moral behaviour without knowing where it originates from. Why should my lack of knowledge about the origins of morality be worrying to me?

Steve Martin said...

Evolution explain morality?

With each passing century, the numbers of people being murdered, or killed in war grows larger.

The hearts of humans have not evolved one bit.

This century will not be any different than the last, other than being even bloodier.

But this broken world with it's broken people, ae exactly why Christ came into the die for it.

Every now and then, someone hears that message of forgiveness and reconcilliation and actually comes to faith.

BallBounces said...

"Can the theory of evolution give us an account of how natural selection might have worked on humans (and other animals) to endow them with a moral sense? Yes."

Of course it can give an account. It can give an account for anything. Inclination to rape? Evolutionary explanation. Inclination to monogamy? Evolutionary explanation. Inclination to murder? Evolutionary explanation. Inclination to altruism? Evolutionary explanation. Evolutionary explanations do not go beyond the "what is is because of evolution". It's a yawning "whatever" explanation.

But is it convincing?. Absolutely not.

BallBounces said...

You say that evolution "selected" moral sense, consciousness, self-consciousness, etc. etc. but cannot even come close in even surmising how a thoughtless, non-conscious, amoral, directionless process could or would do such a thing. Exactly how did that first mutation occur that produced the first glimmer of moral sense? Not to mention that even if you could, since it is an amoral process doing that creative act, it would be ludicrous to believe that the morals it came up with were objectively valid. It's simply incomprehensible when you go beyond the "evolution did it" level.

BallBounces said...

"how natural selection might have worked on humans... to endow them with a moral sense? Yes... how evolutionary forces could have selected for certain kinds of cognitive constitution in early hominids over others."

1. "endow". Is an illegitimate concept to associate with an impersonal mindless process. Evolutionary arguments are generally filled with such language -- it is a classic bait-and-switch -- it makes evolution act as a surrogate creator.

2. select/selected. There is no selecting going on. Selection implies a mind making choices. The sea does not "select" some items to drag out with the tide and leave others. It Just Happens. Likewise, darwinism is not a description of choice or selection for purpose but a mere description that some things live and some things die -- nothing more.

The term "select" can be used metaphorically, but then it is no longer scientific expression. I would like to see the theory of evolution expressed in purely a-teleological terms -- if it can even be done.

BallBounces said...

" Biology may have endowed us with inclinations that themselves are immoral."

1. The only possible criteria for morality under darwinian assumptions would be "aids propagation". At a personal level, rape would be moral if it results in pregnancy. At a social level, killing and eating the rival tribe would be moral because in that darwin-crazed brain of fighting for scarce resources, this enhances the survival-of-the-fittest.

Yet no darwinist to date is willing to truly go "where the science leads".

The moral imprint on the human heart is inexplicable in darwinian terms.

2. Why suddenly revert to the term "biology" here? Shouldn't this be "evolutionary forces have resulted in..." Let's give darwinism credit where credit is due!

BallBounces said...

"But acting for the sake of reward or out of a fear of punishment isn’t moral behavior. That’s save-your-ass behavior."

Jesus certainly wasn't acting to "save his ass" as you have so elegantly put it when he went to the cross for you and me -- this makes Jesus the crowning example of the kind of true selflessness you are looking for in humans -- and will never find if you look elsewhere.

BallBounces said...

You have argued, in effect, it is not a moral act if you do it because someone has commanded it. It is only moral if you do it on your own terms. Let's say you ask your child to help with the dishes. According to your thesis, if the child wants to play with his toys, but does what you have asked out of love for you, this is illegitimate -- it only becomes legitimate if he is doing the dishes on his own terms -- which makes what you have suggested an ultimately self-centred morality.

I believe you have left out the impulse of obeying someone's commands or directive out of love and trust for the person, rather than fear or any other motivation. I suspect you are going to argue that Jesus' obedience to his Father was bogus because it was, well, obedient to someone else, but, Jesus did so from love.

Love -- another sublime emotion for which darwinism can offer only the most dreary and mundane of explanations. Mindless, dead, molecules-in-motion produced... love. You can believe that if you want.

Darwinism is insufficient to explain the complexities and sublimities of life. And the let's-all-imagine the one-little-teeny-tiny-mutation-after-another theory just doesn't cut it.

There's something more going on.

BallBounces said...

" without really looking at the evidence."

Matt -- it's not because we haven't looked at the evidence, it is because we have.

Both atheists and theists have their "man behind the curtain". It's just that ours is more plausible, sufficient, explanatory, and, well, satisfying, than yours.

And, experientially knowable.

BallBounces said...

Matt --PS - my commendations on an excellent, exceedingly well-structured, lively site.

Anonymous said...

rkball wrote: "Both atheists and theists have their 'man behind the curtain'. It's just that ours is more plausible, sufficient, explanatory, and, well, satisfying, than yours.

And, experientially knowable."

You forgot 'imaginary'! Only the most apt adjective EVER when describing god(s).

ball wrote: "The only possible criteria for morality under darwinian assumptions would be 'aids propagation'. At a personal level, rape would be moral if it results in pregnancy."

Among other ridiculous ideas you've posted here this one just screams IDIOT! Since you clearly don't understand the Theory of Evolution why do you bother trying to discuss it?

(hint: that 'rape' you claim is the logical conclusion to "where the science leads" doesn't take into account that we're a 'pack animal'.)

Joe Agnost

Matt McCormick said...

RK's not really offering much by way of arguments; there are a lot of simple pronouncements and repetitions of his conclusions without much by way of reasons to think any of it is true. And lots of the conclusions are mistaken, I think. But no one will be benefited by this degenerating to name calling, Joe.

Anonymous said...

Matt wrote: "But no one will be benefited by this degenerating to name calling, Joe."

Fair enough... but my comment wasn't riddled with insults - only one little one, and I posit that it was called for.

I mean, I consider it quite insulting that Mr. Ball suggests that rape is the logical conclution to the ToE. He is implying that "darwinists" are morally vacuous... I'm sorry - but what he wrote screamed "IDIOT" loud and clear...


Matt McCormick said...

Yep, RK's thinking leaves a lot to be desired. I would love it if I could get input that takes the argument offered in the post seriously and tries to offer constructive criticism to the reasoning there instead of flagrant non-sequiturs, preaching, and dogmatism. I've tried to give a very clear account of what evolutionary explanations can and cannot do with regard to morality, as well as the inadequacy of appealing to God to explain or justify morality. That's been largely ignored and straw man positions with very little connection to mine have been (poorly) attacked.


Bowling4Mac said...

"With each passing century, the numbers of people being murdered, or killed in war grows larger.

The hearts of humans have not evolved one bit"

---Steve Martin

Thinking about the Iraq war in particular (this being the only war I have both lived through and had a lot of exposure to) I would have to agree with your statement.

And this makes me think that the progression of science (and we all know science has come a long way in recent times) clearly does not necessarily improve the moral behaviour of human beings across the board. I want to put to one side the argument of why one set of moral beliefs is better than another and who gets to decide and so on since we all have common sense and we all know it is undesirable from societies point of view if we harm each other etc. etc.

I think it's important to separate a few debates that are going on in this forum which may overlap to some extent but which do not follow one another closely enough for us to make sweeping conclusions across all these debates.

Firstly, there is the debate of whether Darwinism explains morality to an extent which satisfies us. The broad conclusion here is more on the no side than the yes side. But as I said before I think psychological studies in recent years are showing some promising signs of shedding more light on this phenomena of morals. This first debate is a relatively open and shut case. The theories that currently exist either do intuitively explain morality or they don't. There isn't much room for debate either way.

Secondly, there is the very broad debate of Religion vs. Atheism. I am an atheist and I would guess, although I may be wrong, that the majority of people following this blog are atheists. But I am very very glad to have people who are clearly religious following this blog and contributing because without their input into the debate it would be meaningless and I would not have had my eyes opened to a lot of ways of looking at this topic. This broad debate is of corse not settled by the above debate of morality, despite what the trend of our discourse suggests. I see the above morality issue as a small part of the overall debate.


Bowling4Mac said...


Much more pressing an issue is the subject of violence being directly linked to religion. Indeed many famous atheists (I hate to name names to denounce such persons wider views) blame the current USA vs. Iraq vs. Israel vs. Palestine… crusades on religion per se which seems a bit unsatisfactory. It makes more sense to blame humankind itself for, after all, the suicide bombers from the east and the rush-to-war-first-ask-questions-later politicians of the west are still human despite their obvious lack of an ethically sound way of thinking at the time of their transgressions.

This debate of whether you can attribute mass violence singularly to religious beliefs, which I would single out as vitally important, has obvious connections to the two above. Violence is a moral issue and morals are an important issue even outside the religious debate. Tying violence to religion, I am suggesting, is not only unhelpful but dangerous. It is absolutely pivotal that we as ethically minded people draw the right conclusions in this particular debate. I have already decided that religion (and in particular christianity since this is the only religion I could practically adopt in the area I live) is not for me. But does that mean I have to subsequently believe that Darwinism will ever be capable of explaining morality? No it does not. For I am a rational person and until the evidence presents itself I feel no need to defend Darwinism in this area. Likewise, does my atheism lead me to declare war on religion because I don't like to see people blowing themselves up in the name of it? No it does not.

My measly grasp of psychological theory (which lets not forget is a science) leads me to believe that suicide bombers did not blow themselves up because they believed the literal word of the Koran. I believe their motivation was much stronger. They were members of gangs of thugs and murderers who did these things because the only thing they had in their lives of any meaning was the sense of brotherhood among petty thugs. These people are social outcasts with the same needs as the rest of us. Just one of them needs to have a desire to kill Americans and the rest will follow. But the word of the Koran is not an effective motivator of such a group. American over-indulgence, ignorance and apathy are far better reasons to instil hatred in these young men and lead them to commit acts of murder. Why do you think these boys mothers and grandmothers are overcome with joys when they hear the news of the "success" of the bomb plots? Because these societies witness western atrocities on Al Jazeera on a loop and this is what inspires young boys to commit such acts. These boys are just doing what comes naturally to them as human beings. They want to be heros. We are stupid if we believe our sense of moral right is stronger than that of the people of the middle east. In their eyes they are doing a perfectly ethical deed by blowing us up because they believe, wrongly, that what defines the west is politicians who want to nuke the middle east and a public who is far too busy enjoying being a consumer to give a crap.

I cannot blame religion for suicide bombings anymore than I can blame Soccer. There will ALWAYS be those among us who have the inclination to kill. I think the most effective way of preventing such people from ruining life for the rest of us is to be clever about it and use psychological understanding to channel their impulses to the good.

M Andrews said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I resent how these new age evolutionists think that natural selection can explain everything. They are deluded. Natural selection can only select from a population; natural selection does not actually create something new. Also, natural selection cannot act on something that is immaterial like morality. The ones who think it can pray to the God of naturalism that's why they think so. Naturalism is their God. Living things are not just sacrificial lambs for natural selection like the evolutionists and natural selectionists would like us to believe.

Erik said...

It seems that Rk's points have not been addressed, but one point he made I find very cogent. In the blog it was written that "But acting for the sake of reward or out of a fear of punishment isn’t moral behavior. That’s save-your-ass behavior. That’s utterly selfish, amoral behavior. Moral behavior requires other directed, other concerned, non-self interested motivation." RK then said that many people try to keep to the behaviors commanded in their religious text out of love for the one who made them. This would seem to defeat the original comment. Certainly if one were obeying out of some moral fear of punishment it seems to not be really morally praiseworthy (which is why I do not care for Anselm's wager because God, if real, woul=d know the real motivations). But if one obeyed out of a desire to love and honor their deity, this would be the very definition of what you said that moral behavior is oriented towards others.
RK seems to have made a good point there. Is there more you can add to refute?

Anonymous said...

"Many people think that it is a serious blow against atheism and evolutionary accounts of human origins that they cannot explain morality. The problem is that in many regards, evolutionary theory does explain morality."

Evolutionary theory provides explanations of how we came to believe in morality. The problem is none of these explanations track back to the truth of the moral beliefs. They all say we believe things because it helped survival reproduction, not because they were true.

Many philosophers have argued that evolutionary theory poses a real problem for the moral realist. They include Sharon Street, Richard Joyce and Mark Linnville. The first 2 I believe are atheists. Mark Linnville is a Christian.

I believe this problem for moral realism is insurmountable for the atheist who accepts evolution. Specifically if evolution and naturalism are true then our moral beliefs must be unreliable. This is because moral truths - unlike other truths never have any physical or empirical indicia.

Here is a blog where I spell out what I mean:

If anyone is interested in this topic I would love to here their comments.

Lisa Montsion said...

Just curious does anyone know who lived the longest in the world probably a women. I wonder why women live longer then men.