Thursday, October 21, 2010

Objective Morality from Evolution

Naturalism (atheism) seems to lead to the conclusion that objective morality does not exist. But in a world fraught with moral battles (fight for human rights, women's rights, civil rights, fight against genocide, etc.), atheism's amoral world seems to invalidate all such endeavors. But it would be an atheistic anathema to admit the necessity of God in order to have morals. Because of this, it has become fashionable (and perhaps necessary) to try to get to an objective morality apart from God. But is this possible? Many try to do this by attempting to ground morality in evolution. An example of such an attempt can be found on this NY Times article.  How would Christians respond to this?


Daniel Kim said...

There are multiple ways of addressing this issue. I think there are 2 or 3 really good counterarguments against this view. One is to point out the fact that human morality of compassion is currently working against human evolution.. (which was discussed at the second half of another post Morality and God. So to try to ground morality in evolution lacks explanatory power, because in order for someone to reasonably ground morality in evolution, he must show that morality is evolutionarily beneficial. But that is a much harder thing to do, because although there are some instances where altruism gene of a single individual can save the species, we would have to admit that the vast majority of our compassion (e.g., letting the handicapped to live and reproduce, even people with genetic diseases, making sure that the powerful do not kill off the weak, etc.) is actually working against natural selection.. well, evolution does not always produce a perfect system, so we can't say that evolution surely could NOT have produced these moral behaviors.. but at least we can say this: it's an extremely weak argument to try to ground behavior A in theory B if theory B actually favors behaviors not-A. Therefore, if you are trying to ground morality in evolution, you would have to do a lot of hand-waving. If you want a fuller explanation of this counterargument, please read the "Morality and God" link above.

But let's move onto another type of counterargument, which I think is a more philosophical/fundmental one that exposes the fact that the author is engaged in circular reasoning (i.e., begging the question).

Daniel Kim said...

If you read the NY Times article (link provided in the main post), you will recognize that the author is trying to ground morality in evolution by showing that many of the moral behaviors are also found in other animals. And the author notes that human beings were probably moral before the onset of religion a few thousand years ago. I think that's true, so I'm going to grant that. But the problem is that it does you no good to simply point out that animals also behave morally. In order to actually ground morality on evolution, you must answer the question: why do you think chimps sharing food with one another is actually GOOD? The author seems to simply assume that it's actually a GOOD thing that the chimps are sharing food, and then says that morality can be ground in evolution. But that would be missing the point. The author, just like Christopher Hitchens during his debate with William Lane Craig, seems to be confusing the "need for objective morality" with "moral behavior". Sure, chimps can behave morally also. But that's not what the Moral Argument is about. Moral Argument does NOT argue that without religion, without God, then people will BEHAVE immorally. It simply says that without God, there is no foundation upon which to call anything good or evil. So it does you no good to say, "hey, look! Chimps are doing good stuff too!" Theists would simply say: "I know that.. But why do YOU call that thing 'good'?" And true atheists would also say to the author: "what good?"

To give an analogy, let's imagine that we're trying to show that mathematical truth (i.e., 1+1=2) is objectively true in a metaphysical way.. apart from whether or not there is any evolved life that can understand it. And then an evolutionist comes along and says, "No, math comes from evolution. Look, this parrot and these chimps can also do this math correctly. Therefore it's something that arose from evolution." What would you say to this? You would say: how do you know that those animals did the math "correctly"? The fact that you can recognize their answers as correct answers means that there is some metaphysical reality to which you're comparing their answers. Math is not a mere behavior. Likewise, the author is confusing the argument, thinking that morality is just a behavior.. That's why he thinks that he has answered the question "where did morality come from?" by pointing to similar behavior in animals. But he's begging the question... because if morality is nothing but behaviors, then that's all it is, it's not good or evil, it's just behavior.

Hope that makes sense. Comment with any questions that you might have.

Charles Chu said...

Good solid response.

I think there is definitely a large group of atheists who adhere to a natural explanation to 'moral realism' rather than denying moral objectivity altogether. I believe this is a more popular view nowadays as atheists don't want to admit that they do not have any "morals".

And this leads to the following response I believe atheists would have with regards to the following quote from your post:

In order to actually ground morality on evolution, you must answer the question: why do you think chimps sharing food with one another is actually GOOD?

A natural explanation would simply be to attempt to reduce good to something observable and natural. That moral features can be reduced to non moral features of the world.
With this, a common example would be to reduce good to pleasure. Or to reduce good to happiness. I believe these are some reductions that have been tried and considered from various philosophers.

Suppose that the author believed this to be his explanation in order for something to be Good.

How should one response then?

Daniel Kim said...

Okay, good question.

The premise is that Good=Pleasure... Now, I would simply start by asking if the person himself believes this premise.. I would start by asking this, because by the very asking of it, the person would guess where I'm going with this, and would have to come up with some disclaimers.. (I think people would be smart enough to know that if they say "yes, good is whatever is pleasurable", they would get themselves into a lot of trouble...)

So if I were to ask, "So you really think whatever pleases me is by definition good?" What do you think a possible reply might be?

Anonymous said...

All energy in the Universe is designed to seek maintenance and expansion. Otherwise it would have been replaced. That is the nature of evolution. That is the basis of morality.

Typically self-interest is not in conflict with other-interest BUT only if the self knows their true interest.

It's not just like you can decide it. Things that expand your energy presence and awareness are good and things that hurt it are bad.

"Deep down" we all know this, it is in our DNA to want to survive and reproduce our energy forms(and by reproduce I don't just mean have babies, any energy influence i.e. social influence is one form is reproduction)

If you hurt other energy beings they will defend themselves, even in subtle as of yet undetermined ways from their deepest unconscious level. That is the physical reality of karma.

Atheists should read about eastern religions. I believe they spring from an earlier time when what ever terminology evolved into words like "spirituality", "God" meant exactly what words like "physical", "science",... mean today.

Daniel Kim said...

I'm sorry, I tried re-reading the above statement multiple times, but I can't really understand what this person is saying -- only very vaguely. If someone can interpret this and get rid of the jargon for the rest of us, that's great. Otherwise, I think we can safely ignore this without offending anyone...

And we can continue to discuss the topic of objective morality from biological evolution, if anyone has more questions.