A common atheist argument for the existence of morality I have heard is that it develops through the natural process of evolution. I have heard two versions of this: that our morality is completely accounted for by evolutionary processes, or that evolution formed our morality, but society had a major influence as well. One version minimalizes the role of society and culture, the other very much emphasizes it. After one of these two origins we see two additional versions emerge. One in which this leads to an objective morality, and another that says morality doesn’t really exist, but instead what we call morality is merely the canonization of what has evolved. I mostly want to address this latter idea in this post, but will also might touch on the former. This idea has several problems which I will expound upon here: 1.) the mechanism problem, 2.) the sufficiency problem, 3.) what I call the scope (or expectation) problem, 4.) the scientific limitation problem, 5.) the problem of genuine altruism, 6.) the right-wrong/good-evil problem, 7.) the epistemology problem, and 8.) the implication problem.
First let us look at the problem of mechanism. The atheists’ idea here states that morality naturally arose through evolution via the mechanism of natural selection. But we have to ask if this is sufficient to produce a system of morality like we have now (note I did not say a system of morality period). In order for natural selection to drive a feature to persist and grow to be the dominant feature in a population or whole species, it must create a sufficiently significant advantage given the ecological and/or environmental pressures to make those individuals able to produce a greater number of offspring than those that don’t have that feature. In short, it must confer a significant enough reproductive advantage over the competition. If the atheists’ idea is correct, then it must be clearly demonstrable that having a system of morality like ours (again, not just having one period) leads to increased reproductive fitness. To put it another way, little Timmy-good-shoes and Prudish Penny needs to be poppin’ out more babies than the local high school quarterback and the cheerleader with daddy issues (unless that’s who little Timmy-good-shoes and Prudish Penny are, though….)
Now, increased group cooperative behavior does indeed lead to increased reproductive fitness, and though that does require some moral behavior (e.g. – sharing of resources), it does not completely coincide with and is not as extensive as the morality we see today. But I will address this more in the sufficiency problem (spoiler alert).
But, let’s grant for a moment that morality does indeed impart a significant enough reproductive advantage. Once that advantage is achieved, will it be spread to the next generation? In order for evolution to truly happen, there needs to be a genetic component, otherwise there’s nothing to pass on to the next generation. Thus far, however, a morality gene has yet to be discovered. Even if it were, that says nothing about the system of morality we see today. A simple morality gene could code for moral behavior, but not morality itself, or specific tenets of morality. In order for our system of morality to have evolved, you would need more than just a moral behavior gene, but a “do not steal” gene, a “don’t commit adultery gene”, etc.
And thus we segue way into the sufficiency argument. This asks and addresses the question: is evolution a sufficient means by which our system of morality comes about? Evolution and natural selection are all about the propagation of genes from one generation to the next. It is not a force that seeks the good of the whole species or takes the whole species into account through what it does. If it did, that would imply a mind behind the curtain directing it, and that would defeat the atheists’ argument right then and there. Evolution is a blind force that does not have an end goal in mind; or you could say it’s very very short-sighted. As such, and this corresponds to what we see in nature, any action or drive not related to the propagation of an organism’s genes will be weeded out by natural selection. This is because actions taken to propagate genes you do not share (e.g., those in your offspring, sibling, or other family member) benefits the propagation of genes not your own, and those without that inclination will breed more, spreading the more selfish genes more effectively, and thus the less moral behavior wins out.
Now, some might raise the objection what if that other organism the first one is helping out in turn helps the first organism out? Ignoring the ad hoc quality of that objection, it still does not address the issue of how that behavior got started. It assumes not only does it already exist, but that it is widespread enough to have worked its way into genetically unrelated individuals so that it can take place. But in evolution things start with one individual and go from there. And so we go right back to the same problem.
In nature as a whole, though, we see intraspecies cooperative behavior in family groups. Individuals show cooperative, even altruistic and self-sacrificial behavior; but for family, those who are carrying and propagating the same genes you have (to some degree at least.) And this leads us to the next problem, that is the scope, or expectation, problem.
If one thing gives rise to another, it has to be within the scope of what that first thing can produce. Amphibians gave rise to reptiles, not dung beetles. Dinosaurs gave rise to birds, not squid. Etc., etc. This is especially true within an evolutionary context. What we observe with evolution and what we expect are products that occur within a certain scope, the limits of what the precursor can produce. In the preceding paragraph I pointed out what type of moral behavior we see in nature. Altruistic, selfless behavior is done for the purpose of gene propagation. Based on this we would expect to see a very different type of morality. Our system of morality is based on selflessness not just to people related to you, but (and especially to) complete strangers and even to your enemies. This, needless to say, is extremely contrary to natural selection or evolution. Giving aid to one’s competition would decrease your own fitness, and the supposed “moral gene” would be weeded out.
But, even if the above were not true, that there were a moral gene and evolution and natural selection were completely capable of producing the system of morality we have today, we would not be able to properly determine this scientifically. In order to scientifically assess anything, both sides must be addressed. This means that the alternative, that there is an objective morality that is non-naturalistic in both nature and origin, would have to be investigated. This poses a problem for science since it can only deal with things of the natural, physical world. Metaphysics is off limits to and beyond the abilities of science. So, even if evolution did produce our system of morality, it can’t address the whole problem. The best it could do is to determine evolution did not produce it; but this gives us, at best, an incomplete picture of things.
Another problem with the atheists’ idea is that of genuine altruism. Altruism does occur in nature, but, as stated above, for those sharing genes with a particular organism. Genuine altruism, to ideals or people completely unrelated to you is not only actually existent, but also considered the epitome of morality. This genuine altruism and self-sacrifice is contrary to evolution and natural selection, as explained above. Here we arrive at a contradiction. If this is considered the epitome of an adaptation, but simultaneously lead to decreased fitness, then something is wrong with the whole idea. Either morality is not derived from evolution, or our idea of evolution is wrong. The former of the two is the more parsimonious idea, by far. Now someone might object that this idea within morality came about secondarily, as a result of culture and society. But, this is a completely ad hoc argument, and the burden of proof is on the atheist to a.) demonstrate that morality is just the product of evolution (something we’ve seen is quite hard to do based on what I have written up till this point), and b.) that this aspect of morality did not evolve. Basically, on what grounds does the atheist claim that this is a secondary feature brought about by culture and society? What method are they using to pick apart what evolved and what came about through society? They might then argue that it’s because genuine self-sacrifice and altruism lessen species’ fitness so much is proof that it came about as an invention of society. But this is self-justifying, it appeals to itself in order to prove itself true.
We’ll skip ahead to one of the lesser arguments against this idea. We’ll return to the right-wrong/good-evil problem when I address the implication problem, since they’re so closely tied together. Now I’ll write about something called the epistemology problem with the atheists’ idea. Morality is more than an instinct, it is a state of awareness of what should and should not be done for reasons that extend beyond ourselves. At some point morality would have to transcend from being a raw instinctual behavior to something we are consciously aware of. Now, in modern times morality is intimately tied to religion. Even when morality is present in non-religious people, those morals were derived from that culture’s religious tradition. Our modern set of moral values here in the West is ultimately derived from the Judeo-Christian ethic. In other words, derived from the religions of Judaism and Christianity. Regardless of what Atheists would like to believe, things they consider moral (and aren’t based on a social issue like abortion or gay marriage) they believe to be so because Christianity and Judaism have ingrained it into our culture. Now, if morality is evolutionarily derived, then it would have preceded religion in its invention. Here we have a problem. We have a bunch of primitive humans that have made the transition from purely instinctual morality to being aware that their actions are right or wrong, and that they should or should not do certain things. But why would they feel compelled to do so? Without morality being rooted in religion there are no ultimate, divine consequences to wrong behavior, no transcendent duty to do the right thing. What motivation would primitive man have to love their neighbor, not lie, not steal, etc., when stealing their neighbor’s food and lying about it later would clearly be of more advantage to them and their family group? Unless we imbue primitive man with more advanced concepts of societal stability and doing things for the greater good of the species, it makes little sense why primitive man would consider moral behavior as advantageous over the alternative.
Now we come to the problem of implication, in which I’ll also address the right-wrong/good-evil problem. If morality evolved, then, simply, there is no objective morality. All morality is something that is just inherent in our society and genes, but there is no reason outside that to follow it. With no objective morality, there is no moral duty, nothing to really truly make something we do truly wrong. An action may be disadvantageous for one of us, or the species as a whole, but so what? It is not really wrong. It’s just disadvantageous.
But even if we grant that things could be wrong under this version of morality, then a whole suite of other behaviors that we consider to be morally wrong becomes morally right. Genocide of a lesser race, or those with inferior genetics, such as the Nazis thought they were doing, becomes not just right, but the epitome of moral good. Sterilizing those that carry inferior genetics, and any pragmatic eugenic measures become morally good. Also certain other things we commonly consider to be morally wrong would be morally right, and things we should do, like polygamy, adultery, and lying. If done to further evolutionary fitness, then these would be morally right, because they would be in the scope of what evolutionarily-derived morality would dictate.
In all, we can see that the idea that morality is derived from evolution a highly problematic one at best. This is not to say that evolution could produce some version of morality, but that the morality we have could not have come about that way, and must be nonphysical and objective in nature.