In the last entry in our series on the existence of God, we discussed the argument from morality – the argument that the presence of a moral law points to the existence of a moral law-giver.
One attempt to refute the moral argument suggests that a naturalistic explanation of morality can be given by the theory of evolution.
Given a world in which the resources necessary to support life are scarce and danger is all around us, people will have to compete to survive. Those that compete well will survive and reproduce more people like themselves; those that compete poorly will disappear. Groups of people that “play by the rules” are more likely to survive and reproduce than are groups of people that do not. Natural selection, then, will favor those forms of behavior that we call moral, because they have survival value. Over time, this process will lead to a moral instinct in human beings, a natural inclination to act “morally upright.”
However plausible this explanation may be for some elements of morality, there are other elements of morality that cannot be explained in this way. Altruistic behavior, by definition, is not in one’s own interest. The extreme of altruism – giving up one’s life so that others might live – cannot be the result of conditioning through natural selection. Those who give up their lives for others are eliminated from the gene pool. This sort of extreme self-sacrifice is a trait that natural selection not only does not encourage, but should even eliminate from society. The selfish are more likely to survive and reproduce than are the selfless. Even the foremost advocate of evolutionary theory, Richard Dawkins, recognizes this. In The Selfish Gene, he writes:
“My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”
Furthermore, even if it were possible to explain our moral instincts using evolution, this would not explain morality as much as explain those instincts away. We tend to believe that we are subject to moral obligations – that we ought to act in certain ways. An evolutionary explanation of those beliefs would entirely undermine them; it would tell us why we have those beliefs but it would give us no reason to think that they are true. In fact, it would do the opposite; it would explain why we have those beliefs even though there is no such thing as morality.
In fact, survival of the fittest would suggest that we should not follow those evolutionary moral instincts, because if most everyone else in a society is following the rules, I can get ahead if I do not follow that morality. So if we believe that there really are moral principles that bind us and other people, then this appeal to evolution will not satisfy us.
Next time, we’ll look at what the famous philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, says about God-given morality.