Is Morality Based on Evolutionary Ethics?


A veritable cottage industry of books on the evil of religion has grown within the last two decades. Sparked largely by the terrorist acts of 9/11, the old view that in some way religion was good for the world was replaced, with the help of several charismatic “New Atheist” authors, with the notion that religion is inherently evil and regressive and should be abolished. Indeed, the “New” in “New Atheism” is precisely because of this shift in posture.  

You would be hard-pressed to walk into a major chain bookstore today and find a display for the latest Christian bestseller (you would also be hard-pressed to find a bookstore to walk into). Instead, you might have seen in the last several years books with titles like The God Delusion and Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins; God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens; and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, just to name a few of the most popular.  

Interesting side note: Fans of Richard Dawkins refer to those who use Dawkins’ name in their published refutations (ostensibly to increase their popularity and profits) as “fleas.” Dawkins was once reported to have said, “Alister McGrath has now written two books with my name in the title. The poet W. B. Yeats, when asked to say something about bad poets who made a living by parasitizing him, wrote the splendid line, ‘was there ever dog that praised his fleas?”i Yet I can’t help noticing how many faith buzzwords, especially God, appear in Dawkins’s and others published pieces. There is no more popular nonfiction genre today than the one which dawns allegedly edgy barbs against traditional theistic beliefs. But I digress. 

As I mentioned previously, human nature abhors a vacuum. People need a way to live, a system of ethical belief that grounds moral action, both a fount and a measuring stick. When both are missing, life becomes unlivable quickly and disastrously. But the human spirit perseveres and seeks new founds and measuring sticks for ethics and morality.  

A bad Christian dad-joke gets to the heart of this new quest. A Christian Sunday School class was given a clue: what lives in trees, eats nuts, and has a long bushy tail? Only one child had the nerve to raise her hand and respond. “Well … it sounds an awful lot like a squirrel, but the answer must be Jesus. The answer is always Jesus!” In a humorous example, we see the issue of paradigmatic frameworks: how you view the world will guide your answers to all of its questions! And from within the framework, even absurd conclusions often appear entirely rational simply because they are consistent with foundational misunderstandings. And even if it isn’t rational, you believe it anyway because the people in your in-group do.  

When it comes to the study of ethics and morality, we used to look to religion and outside of ourselves. But today, unsurprisingly, the bushy-tailed tree-dweller is not Jesus but science, and the answer lies within, not without. The answer lies, we are told, in our evolutionary past. And to this, the New Atheists give a resounding Amen! 

Let’s explore the quest for evolutionary ethics below, Sam Harris’s attempt at a second quest, and the ultimate destination of evolutionary ethics.

The Scientific Quest for Evolutionary Ethics

Scientifically-minded religious skeptics have looked long before the last couple of decades for an alternative to divinely-grounded metaethics. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky in their book Science and the Good describe how the scientific quest for morality has been largely a “tragic” one. The quest began in the early modern period (early sixteenth century) as an attempt to counter religious and political conflict that seemed to rage endlessly in Europe. Society, which was growing ever more pluralistic as international trade and travel became more possible, needed a way to cut through the subjective opinions on ethics to come to a more objective standard. Scientists wanted to do for morality what they had done for the physical sciences, which was to clarify and verify its claims, or rather, to clarify by verification. Leaving the realm of speculation, they thought, society would progress into peace. 

Of course, studying the natural world scientifically is certainly much easier than studying morality and empirically verifying what is good or evil. The answers to these questions involve power, and they give influential control over human beings to a new priesthood in a godless cosmos. In its early stages, they did not yet realize that the questions could end in only one of two ways: lowered expectations or becoming what you sought to eradicate.  

On becoming what they meant to eradicate, philosopher Michael Ruse speaks of the modern secular “religion” of Darwinian evolution. Into the vacuum of meaning left by religion was poured a sacralized version of Darwinian evolution, complete with a creation myth, morality, purpose (Sisyphean though it may be), and even a post-millennial utopianism—the idea that humans should, are, and will continue to progress. However, it is this idea of human progress that fellow atheist philosopher John Gray lambasts as illusory. The term progress assumes a value system and a designed meaning and telos to humanity that cannot exist in an atheistic worldview, for in a world of blind chance and indifference there is no meaning, purpose, or end goal. Besides, Gray believes that humans have shown themselves to not progress even by their own scales of value, writing that  

The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust. 

Gray asserts that the secular belief in the myth of progress—that we are going somewhere—is simply a vestige of the Christian dogma that still permeates the West. It is his well-grounded fear of our myth of progress—and how it has already infected the technological spheres—that leads him to issue a warning against our perceived mastery over our human nature (and, therefore, morality): “We should recognize that, if we redesign nature to fit human wishes, we risk making it a mirror of our own pathologies.” 

This makes the second point, the lowering of expectations, all the more disastrous. In all the scientific inquiries into morality, as helpful as they have been, we have found only potential ways in which moral feelings may have arisen through an undesigned, passive, aleatory process. What we know about our counterintuitive moral feelings is even more speculative. These harder moral impulses that call us to seemingly act against our best interests get to the heart of what novelist Ian McEwan called “our mammalian conflict—what to give to others, and what to keep for yourself.” 

What many enthusiastic naturalists and materialists fail to realize is that they are no closer to answering the most important questions of ethics and morality: What is the good? How do we know? Why ought we pursue the good for others and ourselves? Why ought we not pursue evil if it benefits us personally?  

Interestingly, contemporaries of Darwin knew the limitations of evolution to define morality. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the forgotten biologist and contemporary of Darwin who hypothesized evolution independently of Darwin, did not reduce humans to biology or evolutionary processes. He could not fathom how morality could derive simply from “accumulated ancestral experiences of utility.” Similarly, English Biologist St. George Mivart (1827-1900) saw the writing on the wall concerning evolutionary ethics. In Hunter and Nedelisky’s words, Mivart asserted that 

while it was possible to give evolutionary accounts of how animals came to behave in ways that are pleasurable, valuable, or conducive to the thriving of their species, such behavior, to count as genuinely moral, would additionally have to be done with the intention of doing what is right because it is right. 

Even Thomas H. Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog,” wrote in 1893 that evolution “is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” In fact, the quest for morality took a serious blow here, for Darwinianism taught that morality developed with no ontology and no purpose by an accident of history. Not only can it give no better reason; it can give no reason at all. 

Ultimately, Hunter and Nedelisky write, those seeking to understand morality through an evolutionary past would be disappointed. With the adoption of a view that the authors refer to as disenchanted naturalism, the vast majority of moral scientists agreed: “moral reality simply does not exist, except as an arbitrary construct of social, psychological, and biological life.” 

So, in a sense, morality as it exists in the disenchanted naturalist perspective is, shall we say, like the global sport of football. Football is a game created by human beings. By the standards we set for it, one can be good or bad, they can progress or regress. And by establishing a system of scoring, we can judge who won and who lost, and from there can measure winning strategies. But there is no ontological or transcendent value to football. Scoring one point is no more morally right or good than scoring zero. It’s entirely arbitrary as far as deciding what one should do or what is good. And, in the end, there is nothing stopping anyone from declaring that real football is played mostly with your hands, and that other versions of “football” will henceforth and forevermore be referred to as soccer. Individuals may have strong opinions on which version is superior, but that is all it is. Morality in this perspective is just a game we created. We might object when someone redefines parts of it, but it was a malleable and arbitrary fabrication in the first place. In the end, there is no correct or incorrect, proper or improper, just or unjust way to play football, only traditions and their adherents. 

The scientific quest for a secular morality has led to moral skepticism. This is not a critique of science; rather, it is an observation that not everything can be studied with the scientific method. This is unsurprising because, through the thoroughgoing reductionism of the atheists seeking a new morality, they set out looking for nature and found it, something others might call a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “morality” discovered in the laboratory could have resembled only a product of our wiring, interpreted as a sleight-of-hand trick that our brain mastered over millennia. This is not because it is true, but because the scientific method is fatally limited in what it can tell us about transcendent values. When moral scientists made the jump from stating moral truth cannot be known to moral truth is not real, they ceased to be moral skeptics and became moral nihilists. This, say Hunter and Nedelisky, is the tragic end of the scientific quest.  

Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape

While many scientists do now believe that science cannot ground a system of morality, there are a few who suggest that science will eventually provide us, somehow, the answers to questions like What is good? and Why we should follow the good?  

One such individual is neuroscientist Sam Harris. While he has not been able to offer these explanations yet, he is sure that one is coming. Harris is an interesting and intriguing thinker. While he believes in our ability to discover morality, which developed from our evolutionary past, he denies that we have the free will to choose to be moral. He is an atheist with a materialist spirituality. But when it comes to the content of his moral paradigm, he is very traditional. He is essentially a utilitarian or consequentialist who believes evidence from natural-law consequences can provide us with the empirical data to differentiate right from wrong. And some of the scientists who previously fell into moral nihilism have been converted by Harris’s claims, most notable among them being Richard Dawkins. 

As a basic example of Harris’s moral construct, consider tossing someone who can’t swim into a deep lake. The physical laws of the universe will pull that person, who cannot breath under water, closer to the earth. After a minute or so of panicked suffering, he or she will die. Suffering is bad and dying early is bad, but happiness and flourishing is good. Therefore, it would be best that we not toss people who can’t swim into a deep lake.  

Harris suggests the actions of natural laws upon our decisions and our reactions to those events, which can be studied through the field of neuroscience, make his morality objective. The natural laws will provide a reliable consequence, and our brains will respond to those consequences. The best consequences should produce the feeling of well-being in our brains.  And that is good. What you do not need—or rather Whom you do not need—in this scenario is God. He is laid off for redundancy.  

Questioning Harris’s claims, philosopher Mitch Stokes raises the objection that our worldviews define matters of well-being for us. In that case, different worldviews may lead to different brain states—ones that irreconcilably conflict with other worldviews. For example, Harris believes that religions are dangerous, and yet many people enter into the most sublime well-being by attending religious services. And beyond that, some worldviews may value things that would not result in brain states of happiness but would nonetheless be considered good, such as entering into another person’s suffering and lowering one’s well-being to raise theirs.  

Another question Stokes asks is why we should assume it is better to flourish than to suffer. Additionally, why do we get to flourish at the expense of another’s suffering? Beyond the obvious conflicts between humans that will arise, there also is the question of animal suffering. The typical answer is to animal suffering is that, while we should minimize suffering, it is most important to minimize human suffering because we are more rational and conscious than other animals. This begs the question of how we might morally consider the intellectually challenged, or those merely declared intellectually (and morally) inferior for nefarious purposes. These unsettling possibilities bring to mind the eugenics of Social Darwinism and the polygenism of scientific racism.  

This pecking order of rationality has its limits, though. Stokes cites William Lane Craig’s thought experiment of a greatly advanced alien race visiting earth and harnessing human beings for farm labor and a source of food, like in the famous Twilight Zone episode where the extraterrestrial holy book entitled To Serve Man—which humans understood as meaning the alien creatures had arrived to be their faithful servants—is found to be, in fact, a cookbook. “What could the atheist say to show them,” Craig says, “that human beings have intrinsic moral value? That they ought not do this to human beings?” 

In the end, Stokes rightly finds that what Harris has promoted is what is prudentially good for the subject in question but not what is good in and of itself. And as we know, what a subject perceives as good is not always good (and is something which one may change his or her mind about dozens of times over a lifetime). One might enter a state of euphoria because of the misfortune visited upon another. One might relish the freedom of abandoning one’s family. One might suffer by looking in the mirror and seeing a body they hate that isn’t really there. If the best we can do is base our morality on perceptions—including how we perceive the consequences of physical laws of the universe—then I fail to see how this is objectively moral or good.  

Uncomfortable Conclusions to the Scientific Quest

All of us want there to be an objective moral standard by which to judge injustices. For instance, we want to affirm that the Nazis were really as bad as we know they were. We do not want to believe that they were merely one race of animals attempting to be more dominant over others in a brutal but natural impulse known as survival of the fittest. And yet, well-meaning atheists often do not realize that their philosophical presuppositions preclude them from believing in objective morality and being able to make truth claims. When they are pushed to their logical conclusions, though, they will often admit it. Former Unbelievable? podcast host Justin Brierly once asked Richard Dawkins about his views on morality. Below is their interaction: 

Justin Brierly: But when you make a value judgment, don’t you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say the reason this is good is because it’s good, and you don’t have any way to stand on that statement? 

Richard Dawkins: But my value judgment itself could come from my evolutionary past. 

JB: So therefore it’s just as random in a sense as any product of evolution. 

RD: Well, you could say that. But it doesn’t in any case – nothing about it makes it more probable that there is anything supernatural. 

JB: Okay, but ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six. 

RD: You could say that, yeah. 

Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg does not share Dawkins’s optimism. Dawkins thinks the human race got lucky, but Rosenberg, a moral nihilist, points out the flaw in this thinking. “A million years or more of natural selection ends up giving us all roughly the same core morality, and it’s just an accident that it gave us the right one, too?” he asks. “Can’t be. That’s too much of a coincidence.” He continues, 

The only way out of the puzzle is moral nihilism. Our core morality isn’t true, right, correct, and neither is any other. Nature just seduced us into thinking it’s right. It did that because that made core morality work better; our believing in its truth increases our individual genetic fitness. 

In the end, write Hunter and Nedelisky, what you are left with is not morality in any traditional sense of the term.  

Rather than a condition of being, morality is a state of mind; rather than objective and true, it is functional and manipulable; rather than constitutive of an objective human flourishing, it is useful for fluid conceptions of human well-being. 

Despite cries to the contrary, then, the study of evolutionary ethics finds what philosopher Alvin Plantinga predicted. Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism posited that if evolution is true, then one could not be a naturalist (or a disenchanted naturalist, as Hunter and Nedelisky might say). Naturalism as a metaphysical philosophy about reality believes it can answer real questions about truth. However, if our brains are the products of evolution, then we cannot trust anything we believe we know, for our species would not be developing to find truth but to survive—with a piecemeal brain that formed through accident of history after accident of history. And this is Rosenberg’s contention against the optimism of Dawkins. There is no right and wrong, only what nature has seduced us into thinking for survival or genetic fitness. This is the telos of evolutionary ethics.  

This reminds me of a conversation I had with an atheist friend some years back. We were discussing morality and I asked him if he could truly call a hypothetical attack on his own mother while she slept at night a moral wrong. He said, “Well, I would react like it was, I don’t think I could stop myself. But no, it’s not really morally wrong.” He understands what Dawkins does but refuses to admit: that subjective morality (which is what a randomly generated belief from a natural evolutionary past would be) is not morality at all. It would be merely an opinion that carries no binding obedience.  

My friend admitted he also could not condemn Nazis, saying “we might be thinking they were perfectly morally justified if they had won and conquered us, and that would be legitimate since society is the force that decides morality.” Then, he added, tellingly, “But I hope that others don’t agree with me. I don’t want that.” He felt that he was right and that as an atheist this was the best he could do with morality. But for society to hold together, there needed to be some sense of the sacred to inform a robust morality, an obligation to do good, and the idea of a people.  

My friend was grasping toward what skeptical philosopher Loyal D. Rue once called a “noble lie,” a false but necessary belief that might take the edge off the “monstrous truth” of nihilism. Interestingly, he does not think this is a task for science’s limited capabilities. “It remains for the artists, the poets, the novelists, the musicians, the filmmakers, the trickers and the masters of illusion,” he said, “to winch us toward our salvation by seducing us into an embrace with a noble lie.” This noble lie needs to be “beautiful and satisfying,” somehow motivate us “beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, race,” and convince us that the “universe is infused with value.” It is not true, but it is necessary, Rue believes.  

Isn’t it interesting that those who decry belief in “myths” suddenly find the world in need of one? Where, oh where, are the better angels of our nature when we need them most?  

Can Atheists Be Good Without God?

Can an atheist feel moral feelings and perform moral actions without belief in God? Of course! And history bears this out.  

Is a religious person perfectly moral because of a belief in God? Of course not. History bears the scars of immoral religious actions.  

But can you be good without God? No, because without God, categories of good and evil are meaningless.  

The point here has not been to discuss who can and cannot be moral. The point has been to ask whether one can ground morality as we generally understand it in anything other than a transcendent Moral Lawgiver. Can we ground its creation, its existence, its purpose, or its oughtness? Based on these findings, it is fair to say that only God—and, I believe, only the Judeo-Christian God—can support the considerations held herein.  

We have also asked if any secular morality is truly good news for the world. In the end, we must conclude no. Utilitarianism becomes little more than justified selfishness in practice. Of course, most do not think their own cultural utilitarianism fits that classification today, but that is the rub: Those benefitting from immoral gains rarely recognize it at the time. If Christianity is truly the fulfillment of all things—all of time, all of philosophy, all of the Old Testament, all of world religions—then the same could be said of secular morality, as well. Unsurprisingly, most of the secular moralities we have discussed in this series owe their implicit ideas of the good from Christ, whose influence in the West is so pervasive that almost no one seems to notice anymore. Like air, we all breathe it, yet rarely see it; and like air, we will miss it when it’s gone.  

For the secular moralists unnerved by the nihilistic dead end of their beliefs, Christ beckons you to come back to from whence you came. Like you, Christianity is concerned with flourishing, though we call it shalom, the original flourishing. There is one key distinction, however: Flourishing itself is not the goal. Rather, it is a consequence of the goal inaugurated miraculously in Christ’s incarnation: union with God. 

Can Morality Exist Without God?

Does the “Euthyphro Dilemma” make God-based morality impossible?

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Alex Rosenberg,Alvin Plantinga,atheism,Charles Darwin,Christopher Hitchens,ethics,evolution,good without God,materialism,morality,naturalism,Richard Dawkins,Sam Harris,science

Abdu Murray

Abdu Murray is an international speaker and author on the intersections of the Christian faith and the questions of culture.