Evolutionary Ethics & Theology – Some Considerations

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The Evolutionary Naturalist & His Ethics.

The view that ethics is no more than the result of biological forces can be seen in the words of top thinkers. Philosopher James Rachels explains that “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbor, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behavior is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favored” (1). Naturalist philosopher of science Michael Ruse would agree, he explains that morality is no more than the “ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are our other adaptations… Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond this” (2). Biologist Wilson likewise opines that human moral inclination is found in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system,” which is essentially a “device of survival in social organisms” (3).

However, not all naturalists would agree with these views. For example, philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that “moral realism is true” (9). Likewise Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, affirms the objectivity of moral values and duties (10). A study further affirms that 56,4% of philosophers hold to moral realism (11). And since a sizeable percentage of philosophers identify as naturalists (49.8%) it would necessitate that many of these naturalists affirm the objective nature of moral values and duties.

The Implications for the Naturalist on Denying Moral Realism.

The implications of such a view are well worth considering. If we are to agree with the naturalist and thus do away with a transcendent moral law (a law that could only be established by an external source such as God) then morality becomes subjective preference. If there is no binding standard on humanity then what constitutes “good” or “evil” is merely personal opinion. We have thus moved from any sense of moral realism into the shaky realms of moral subjectivism. The likes of Ruse, Wilson, and Rachels cannot escape this implication because by grounding morality in evolution (that their naturalism dictates had no external agency guiding it or being involved in it in any way) they are left to identify what is morally right or wrong based upon human and societal opinion. This is, however, a result of their metaphysical naturalism for evolutionary theory itself has no bearing on the ontological nature of morality. So, essentially, the fact that I hold the culling of Jewish children in Auschwitz to be a moral atrocity is only because it is my opinion that it is wrong. Alternatively, a psychopath could find much enjoyment in watching men, women, and children being horrendously gassed to death in the gas chambers. That, to a psychopath, would be a “good” thing and I would be in no position to dispute his view in any objective sense. All considered it would be no different to the psychopath favouring a vanilla milkshake over my favouring the chocolate flavour. Except when it comes to Auschwitz we are dealing in human lives, not milkshakes. Ravi Zacharias realises this and asks, “How in the name of reason can we possibly justify differentiating between good and bad on the basis of feeling? Whose feeling? Hitler’s or Mother Teresa’s? In other words, there must be a moral law, a standard by which to determine good and bad” (6).

To drive this point home consider the words of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins explains that “if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention …. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference …. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (4). According to Dawkins, Hitler was just dancing to the music of his DNA.

Does Evolutionary Theory Undermine Moral Realism?

The moral realist holds to objective morality by arguing that human beings perceive a realm of objective moral values. The moral realist may ground this in God since God provides that transcendent standard which is binding on all humans and cultures at all times in history. Therefore, to murder someone in order to gain access to his possessions would be morally wrong. It would be both wrong now within the West as well as in an African or South American tribe existing thousands of years ago. The rightness and wrongness of an action is therefore not dependent on human opinion. However, as I pointed to above, the ontological nature of moral values and duties is a question of philosophy, not of science or biology. Scientist and physicist Deborah Haarsma explains that “Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn’t equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed” (5).

Thus, given evolution, the theist might show that he isn’t threatened by a naturalistic explanation of morality since if God established the evolutionary process then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose that he would bring his human creatures to the point of knowing what would be right and wrong. This proves to be a line of thinking that philosopher Paul Copan has seen, “if morality reflects the influence of biological evolution, this still doesn’t discount God as the source of humans’ basic moral awareness. It doesn’t follow that God has nothing to do with morality simply because evolution plays a part. If the evolutionary process produced moral beliefs such as, “Love your neighbor,” why couldn’t this be the result of God’s guiding hand?” (7).

However, an evolutionary explanation likewise wouldn’t undermine the objective nature of morality since it, as a scientific theory, doesn’t speak to it. Moral values and duties could very well exist independent of how humans came to know them (which is the question of moral epistemology) whether through special creationism or evolutionary creationism. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig admits that the believer “could agree with everything the unbeliever says about that: we come to an understanding of morality through biological evolution, societal conditioning, parental influences, etc. All of that is irrelevant to the question of whether objective moral values and duties exist…” (8).

This considered the skeptic would do well to caution against dismissing moral realism due to evolution. This is because to do so would be committing the genetic fallacy. For example, objective morality might very well exist independent of how humans came to know them within the evolutionary process. This would also apply to belief in God. For example, a transcendent God may still exist independent of how human beings came to believe in him  whether that be through family upbringing, reading a book etc. How someone came to know about a specific thing says nothing about that things existence.

Evolution and the Moral Argument.

The moral argument reads as follows:

1. If God does not exist then objective morals and values do not exist.
2. Objective morals and values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Now, the naturalist might object to this argument by saying that objective morals and values do not exist (premise 2) because evolution merely fobbed off an illusion of them onto humans. This is because, he argues, the illusion of morality would enhance our survival as a species. However, as we’ve already established the naturalist is factoring in a philosophy rather than making a scientific claim. Evolutionary theory itself, much like the theory of gravity, says nothing about the ontological nature of moral values and duties. And as we’ve established objective morality may very well exist independent of how human beings came to know of them through the evolutionary process. So, to undermine their objective nature would be committing the genetic fallacy, a fallacy any thinker should wish to avoid. However, the naturalist might then proceed to argue why he thinks there are better reasons for denying that objective moral values and duties exist. If so then the theist and the naturalist can lock horns over that question through discussion and argument (which is beyond the scope of this article). But as far as the moral argument goes, premise 2 remains sound even given the fact of evolution.


1. Rachels, J. 1990. Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. p. 77.

2. Ruse, M. 1989. The Darwinian Paradigm. p. 268.

3. Wilson, E. 1998. Consilience. p. 268.

4. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. p. 132—33.

5. Interview with Dr. Deborah Haarsma in: Religion, Science and Society. 2015.

6. Zacharias, R. 2002. Cries of the Heart. p. 67.

7. Copan, P. “My Genes Made Me Do It”: Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution? Available.

8. Craig, W. 2013. A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible.

9. Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos. p. 105.

10. Craig, W. Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. Available.

11. Bourget, D. & Chalmers, D. 2013. What Do Philosophers Believe? Available.


2 responses to “Evolutionary Ethics & Theology – Some Considerations

  1. Unguided and purely random chemical processes reacting with inert matter cannot even account for the creation of life itself, let alone the “evolutionary” development of conscious thought deliberating such concepts as “ethical” and “moral” values. Evolutionists who deny the existence of a supremely intelligent Creator are surely bordering on insanity!

  2. Questions

    1) Since you are a Christian, do you think all of the divine laws and punishments found in the divine writings of Christianity are equally “moral,” “factual,” “objective?” If not, why not?

    2) How does one determine if a particular moral fact is “objective” or not?

    3) Does adding the word “objective” make that “moral fact” any more moral or real for the rest of humanity?

    4) Does it require supernatural intuition to determine what values people hold dearest relative to the alternatives? For instance people value…

    a) being healthy rather than chronically ill or in pain

    b) being mentally healthy, rather than losing oneʼs memories and ability to concentrate

    c) eating rather than starving

    d) having at least a little money rather than living in abject poverty

    e) being sociable and having some friends rather than being shunned or living in total isolation from other humans and their society or their creations

    f) living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having oneʼs life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc., taken from one at someone elseʼs whim

    g) living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having oneʼs life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc.,taken from one via natureʼs whimsical disasters, pandemics, genetic mutations, or day to day accidents

    5) Does it require a supernatural explanation for a species like ours to value the above things over the alternatives presented above? We share a long shared biological background, large brains, similar sensory organs, similar nerves that record similar feelings of pain and pleasure, and a similar psychological need to feel wanted and belong, rather than mocked and shunned, and a hunger to be in the presence of other members of our species like our family and others who stimulate us physically, verbally, and mentally. Hence, joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are reduced. (Two notable exceptions would be psychopaths—who usually show signs while very young that they have a much diminished sense of empathy; or, complete hermits who attempts to isolate themselves from the family or society in which they were raised.)

    6) Does it require a supernatural explanation to see where the above recognitions lead us in terms of making laws, even developing an insurance industry? We all know life is a risky business. Painful, joyless experiences occur no matter what oneʼs belief system. For instance, it has been said that “in a cosmos without God anything is possible,” but even in a cosmos WITH God, anything is possible. So we seek ways to avoid the worst and accentuate the best. We make laws, hire police, as well as develop ways to increase our happiness, i.e., music, drama, parks, arts. And courts to argue continually over how far most people in a society ought to be allowed to go in pursuing their anger, vengeance, as well as their pleasures, based on how such pursuits affect the lives of others in that society. In a similar vein, senators, governors, city councils and courts pass regulations regarding city planning, safety and health in order to help us avoid other things we dislike, such as debilitating accidents, illnesses, foul water, and natural disasters.

    No doubt thereʼs both an attraction toward being sociable and the opposite, i.e., self-centered impulses as well as the possibility of being irritated by others or acting aggressively toward others. That is the old evolutionary trade off seen in all large-brained mammalian species, even the most sociable ones. There is also the fact that a species with large brains can grow addicted to nearly anything, which can lead to some very anti-social behaviors. The brain does not discriminate concerning what kinds of behaviors feed it the chemicals that give it internal pleasure. Not to mention other jury-rigged features of the mammalian-brain-mind, like the numerous cognitive biases we are all born with and subject to. Luckily, studies in behavioral and cognitive psychology have allowed us to grow more cognizant of such limits to sociability, and also, most intelligent brain-minds throughout history have pointed out the obvious benefits of mass civilization over mass barbarism. With civilization we can extend our curiosity and imagination beyond the stars, while with barbarism we can merely stick spears in each other and tremble in fear of what lies over the nearest darkened hillside.

    7) Concerning the alleged unbridgeable gap between moral values and moral obligations, is it easy to distinguish between them in real life where we grow to feel an obligation to protect/preserve the people or things we have come to value?

    8) Is “morality” a single thing qua thing, in and of itself? One might easily question that assumption and consider the word and concept known as “morality” as an enormous generalization and simplification of multiple influences that we sum up in the word, “morality.” For instance, how much of “morality” is due to parents continually telling their children to “do this, not that,” and imprinting such lessons via repetition, example, rewards and punishments? Parents are annoyed or upset by many things children do, some of which includes a child’s behavior toward inanimate objects (destroying them), but also a child’s behavior toward other children and toward their parents. Hence, children are fed a diet of lessons that become part of who they grow up to be within their family and culture, which helps explain why “moral” behaviors come to feel so much a part of us, since such training begins before we are consciously weigh choices in a deep fashion. After the mind and body mature we learn to analyze consequences, not only of our interactions with material objects but with other human beings, see point 4) for the obvious benefits of civilization over barbarism that don’t seem to require a supernatural intuition. Also, a sense of what is “moral” is also built round or influenced by shared pain and pleasure receptors, and by shared reactions to similar psychological pains and pleasures, such that we intuit a shared connection with others, biologically and psychologically, and how they would like to be treated and not mistreated, which helps guides the development of basic moral agreements as well as the making of laws. (Does it require a supernatural intuition to admit that incredibly few people like having their lives or belongings or health taken from them at the whims of another human or at the whims of nature? Or that incredibly few would disagree that having lots of friends is better than having lots of deadly enemies, including both human enemies and ones in the natural world at large?)

    9) Christianity’s trump card seems to be the magnified sense of obligation some Christians feel–so high a sense of obligation that they risk their lives (and/or their families lives) for their religion and its necessary spread (as they view matters). Or they risk their lives to help others in need who are sick or in need of protection. However, some non-Christians, or unorthodox Christians, or people of other religions/mystical persuasions, or no religious beliefs, also risk their lives to help and heal others, to keep them from harm. (Among non-theists, there’s Doctors Without Borders, a group that claims no religious affiliation that I know of, and many major charities claim no religious preference, and government still remains the single largest charitable re-distributor of wealth to help the impoverished and sick and to aid education and preserve the local and international peace, and help protect people from scams and poisonous food and drugs.)

    See also https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-moral-question.html

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