Many people are satisfied with the idea that morality comes from evolution. This is somehow supposed to satisfy the masses, but it seems to miss the point of morality. What does it mean to for morality to come from evolution? It means that somehow moral behavior was a reproductive advantage and that’s why we have moral behavior now. (Additionally, immoral behavior was a reproductive disadvantage.) So, we care for others and help other people because that’s natural behavior we inherited from our genes.
The appeal to evolution is often used in debates about God’s existence. Some theists argue that morality requires God, and some atheists will reply that moral behavior would indeed exist without God thanks to evolution.1 I agree that the evolution line of argument is unconvincing for the following reasons:
- It doesn’t tell me that intrinsic values exist.
- It commits the naturalistic fallacy.
- It doesn’t tell me that being moral is rational.
Update (7/18/2010): I admit that evolution can explain why behavior that looks moral exists, but evolution doesn’t itself explain why behavior that looks moral is really moral. We can agree that cooperation and caring for others evolved if it increased our reproductive advantage, but that doesn’t mean that cooperation and caring is always morally right or rational. Additionally, we might have evolved the ability to do moral philosophy and to discover that moral behavior is rational. That in and of itself doesn’t prove that moral behavior I really rational. We need a separate argument from evolution to know that it is truly rational to do the right thing and that morality itself really matters.
It doesn’t tell me that intrinsic values exist.
Many people want to know if anything really matters. If something really matters, then it has intrinsic value. For example, it seems to make sense to want to be happy because we think it’s intrinsically good to be happy. If happiness has intrinsic value, then we would have a reason to want to help other people be happy—it would really be a good thing to do.
However, if we evolved moral behavior, then we still don’t know if happiness really matters or not. If we evolved morality, then we would naturally care about people; but we might not know the best way to benefit people. If happiness has intrinsic value, then one legitimate way to benefit people is to help them attain happiness. If happiness doesn’t have intrinsic value, then it might not be entirely clear how we could best benefit others.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
Update (7/16/2010): The naturalistic fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that occurs when we assume that something ought to be the case just because it is the case. The main argument that evolution explains morality is just that it describes why moral behavior exists. In other words:
- We care for others because of our genetics.
- Therefore, we ought to care for others.
This argument simply doesn’t work. Why? For one thing it also works for immoral behavior:
- We commit horrible crimes because of our genetics.
- Therefore, we ought to commit horrible crimes.
In conclusion, the fact that we can describe moral behavior as being caring for others and that caring for others happens thanks to evolution does not make caring for others rational (something you ought to do).
It doesn’t tell me that being moral is rational.
I would like to explore the issue of moral rationality further. Sure, it might be that evolution will explain why we care for people from their genetics, but evolution will also explain why we are so immoral. We often choose to harm other people when we expect to be benefited by doing so. What’s so much better about being moral than immoral? If we evolved to care for others, then we might still wonder—Is it rational to care for others? Why shouldn’t I choose to be immoral when doing so can benefit me? The simple answer is—if we evolved moral and immoral behavior, then morality wouldn’t be any more rational than immorality unless intrinsic values exist.
Some people want to argue that caring for others is rational insofar as it encourages cooperative behavior that would be justified from rational self interest. The problem here is that what is justified selfishly is not necessarily what is moral. It can be within our self interest to be cooperative with some people and to harm others. Many rich people enjoy exploiting the poor precisely because it is in their self interest—in the very least exploitation is sometimes in the interest of the rich.
Without intrinsic values, immoral behavior is irrational usually only when we fear that we could be punished. If fear of punishment is the cornerstone of morality, then Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is correct that we need to submit ourselves to people who have a right to violence (such as the police) and adopting a totalitarian state could be the best way to prevent immoral behavior.
If intrinsic values exist, then we have a reason to want to be moral and care for others even when we don’t want to. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then evolution will not give anyone a reason to want to be moral or care for others except when doing so would be in one’s self-interest. Of course, doing what is in one’s self-interest is what we would expect people to do when morality has no significance. In a world without morality, people would still be rationally caring and cooperative to the extent that they think it will be mutually beneficial to do so.
Evolution alone is not a good explanation for morality because we want to know why it is rational to be moral, but evolution doesn’t answer that question. Evolution alone (without intrinsic values) would require us to admit that morality has no significance and we are rationally cooperative and caring only when we are personally benefited for doing so.
Finally, nothing I said about intrinsic value has anything to do with God. The atheistic defense of morality involving evolution is inappropriate, but there could be a better response. I have my own response in my free ebook, Does Morality Require God? I think the appropriate response to the assertion that morality requires God is that intrinsic values, if they exist, probably have nothing to do with God.
This post was updated 7/16/2010 and 7/18/2010. I made minor changes and added the section on the naturalistic fallacy.