Atheistic Darwinian Evolution and Ethics


By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, March 11, 2010)

Atheistic Darwinian evolution and ethics

In my previous column I quoted serial killer Ted Bundy, who asked: “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer?”

Bundy’s answer: It isn’t. In fact, according to Bundy, it’s not wrong to kill humans at all if it gives you pleasure, because morals are wholly subjective, i.e., just a matter of feeling or taste, nothing more.

On the blog version of this column, an atheist proponent of Darwinian evolution answered Bundy’s question as follows: “That’s too easy, Doc. We evolved by preserving our species.”

This particular atheist’s answer is a typical response of many persons who are atheistic evolutionists. Here’s my reply (which I set out in my blog, worth repeating here):

I’m not convinced that it’s as easy as you say. I think that, yes, the value we place on human life would help us evolve (assuming an unguided, wholly naturalistic evolutionary process) by being useful in guiding actions that help preserve us.

However, now, once we realize that we have simply evolved (wholly purposelessly, by natural selection acting on genetic mutation) it would seem that we should also realize that standards of right and wrong, i.e., our values, are mere guidelines for the preservation of our group. That is, we should realize that ethics aren’t about an objective good that is deeply real or deeply binding; ethics are merely a set of helpful rules that culture has handed down to us to help us survive.

In other words, as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse writes, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction…and any deeper meaning is illusory.” So ethics, it seems to me, could vary from culture to culture, if the principles and values help a group or society, one way or another, to survive.

But things become problematic at this juncture. Enter: the evil regime problem that I mention in my column. That is, we end up having no deeply real good or deeply binding basis for disagreement with groups led by the likes of Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, etc. After all, they are merely doing what helps them survive. Their values primarily concern their survival, not ours.

Enter, too, the evil individual problem that I also mention in my column. That is, we end up having no deeply real good or deeply binding basis for disagreement with the likes of individuals such as Karla Homolka, Ted Bundy, etc.

Ethics, it seems, end up being reduced to personal preference and power, and we have no grounds for criticism other than our personal preference and power. Morality reduces to might makes right.

Phillip Johnson (a lawyer and Darwin critic) has an insightful comment that’s relevant here: “[M]any people have made an effort to build ethical systems out of an evolutionary background—one of the things that has evolved is the human need to form societies; societies need rules; we as rational beings can recognize the need for rules.

“You can even see how certain rules and standards like promise-keeping, for example, or parents caring for children, would enable a tribe to provide better and to do better in competition with other tribes. And so you can get a grounding for ethics in that sense in the evolutionary process itself.”

So far, so good. But Johnson quickly (and rightly) adds the following: “[T]he problem [with evolutionary/ survivalist ethics] is that while promise-keeping can be justified on an evolutionary basis, so equally can genocide, you see, because what genocide just is is the replacement of one gene pool with another. You wipe out the tribe down the way and your gene pool survives….”

It seems to me that we find genocide and serial killing wrong because we have a deep moral intuition (i.e., moral/rational insight) of the following objective truth: that people have real intrinsic moral worth. And I am very inclined to think that people in general, whether atheist or theist or whatever, can and generally do recognize this worth.

I have found that a couple of my good friends who are atheist/agnostic tend to agree with me on this. We agree that people have real intrinsic moral worth and deserve respect (i.e., shouldn’t be tortured for fun, murdered, raped, etc.); where we differ is in how to explain that worth. We differ on how to account for it, not on that it is the case. I tend to think it’s due to being made in God’s image; my atheist friends disagree.

My friends who are atheists/agnostics and I have a deep disagreement here, to be sure. But there’s also some very important common ground. I believe that this common ground allows us to work together and respect each other and others as we work to maintain and protect and encourage what’s good and excellent in our world.

Nevertheless, a philosophical problem remains, and its implications should be faced squarely. My belief that people are made in God’s image reinforces my intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic moral worth. However, the atheistic neo-Darwinian view that people are accidents of a purposeless nature undermines and weakens the intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic moral worth.

After all (and again), as the atheistic evolutionist Michael Ruse makes clear, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction…and any deeper meaning is illusory.” Ruse means that the intuition that people have real intrinsic moral value is false.

Shouldn’t the atheistic survivalist-evolutionary view, then, tend to favor, morally speaking, the fittest and strongest? Shouldn’t the atheistic survivalist-evolutionary view, then, reinforce the subjective pleasures (the enlightened self-interest) of the powerful?

In other words, the atheistic survivalist-evolutionary view seems to provide strong philosophical support for Ted Bundy’s subjectivist view of ethics. And this is troubling.

Please let me be clear. I haven’t argued that atheists are bad or cannot be good (in fact, most of the atheists I know impress me as caring, good people). Rather, I have argued that atheism—especially when wed to neo-Darwinian evolution—lacks the philosophical resources to lend credence to the moral judgment that some actions which violate or destroy people are truly bad and some actions which help people flourish are truly good.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, CanadaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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