March 12, 2010

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.)


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Atheists are a varied lot, to be sure. Some subscribe to the survivalist/neo-Darwinian framework you've touched on. Some come up agnostic on the genesis of morals in the human being. As an epistemology, the agnostic position gives enough latitude to reason without overt evolutionary/creationist positions dominating the field.

That said, neo-Darwinian's such as Richard Dawkins provide a minority viewpoint in atheist circles. In fact, to quote Michael Ruse on the likes of Dawkins:

"...Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science)... Dawkins misunderstands the place of the proofs, but this is nothing to his treatment of the proofs themselves. This is a man truly out of his depth."

And one more:

"The paradox is that Dawkins should be more modest. He stresses that we are the product of Darwinian evolution, and hence there is no good reason to think we have the power to penetrate into the mysteries of the universe. Our abilities are to get out of the jungle and live on the plains. In a way, the Darwinian is back-to-back with Saint Paul: we peer through a glass darkly."

Ruse does not deny Darwinism in any of this, but he does put a humbling cap on Dawkins's participation on the subject.

Transferring that to morality, it is entirely untrue that fashionable atheists are ipso facto relativists in matters of morals. If Darwinism is true, so be it. However, the very fact that human beings are empathic, altruistic creatures, and that that empathy/altruism duology is reflected in the natural world, too, upgrades the relativity of morals to an observable form of common absolutism. Moral frameworks and instincts reduce the margin for needless suffering. Yet, suffering still exists. The only way that I can personally work this out is to suggest that it's not morality that is relative, it is our common experience of suffering that is relative. No matter what moral ism, ought, or ology we hedge ourselves in with, those abstractions do nothing to diminish the fact that we all suffer in a gradient fashion; i.e., some more than othres. And there's nothing anyone can do about that.

In fact, when a person really takes a look around at our world (religious or not) one thing becomes undeniably clear: survival requires the suffering of another. Because you eat, something else suffered. Because you have a house, the land suffered. Because you drive a car, the atmosphere suffers. Because living necessitates consumption which necessitates suffering on sliding scales, the question of relative morals is shuttled out of the lime-light into the reality of relative suffering. The end of one thing is the means of another. That's pretty absolute. Our morality only provides us with an intellectual scheme for how we account for that reality, and how we might take action to play well with others and decrease the relative suffering we inflict on ourselves and the world at large.

Theophilus said...

Thanks for the article, Dr. V. It is manifest that evolutionary ethics cannot get us beyond tit-for-tat morality--fit for animals, but not rational ones.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello Kane,

Thanks for your comments. I’m going to (hopefully) further the discussion by agreeing with you on some points and disagreeing with you on other points.

Yes, atheists are a varied lot, but in this week’s column I’m primarily dealing with atheism when wed to neo-Darwinian evolution and when objective ethics (i.e., real and binding trans-cultural, trans-personal moral principles and values) are deemed illusory. This is a pretty standard understanding of the atheistic survivalist/ neo-Darwinian view of the world (it’s also Ruse’s understanding), and so it should not be diminished as merely that which “some subscribe to.” (Dawkins too holds that there is no actual real evil and no real good, just “pitiless indifference.”)

Speaking of Michael Ruse, I appreciate his criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ work. I especially like Ruse’s comment that Dawkins makes him (Ruse) “embarrassed to be an atheist.” (This comment appears on the cover of The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicut McGrath.)

Let me address some of the specifics of what you wrote. You wrote: “it is entirely untrue that fashionable atheists are ipso facto relativists in matters of morals. If Darwinism is true, so be it.”

My reply: I don’t know about the “fashionable” bit, but I do think that, philosophically, if atheistic neo-Darwinism is true, that is, if ethics and values are ultimately mere guidelines for survival—and thus illusory in any deep and binding sense—then, once one is enlightened about this, all that’s left for ethics is that they are wholly relative to culture, personal preference, and/or sheer power.

An atheist (fashionable or not) probably will not like the above-described logical implication of his/her position. But, I contend, the logical implication is the case, like it or not.

To be sure, an atheist may set up agreements to further his/her likes, but this runs into the problems—including relativistic problems—of contractarian ethics, problems that I have discussed in an earlier column (see “Morals by Agreement?” February 11, 2010).

Atheists may not want to be relativists in matters of morals, but the fact remains that their philosophy, when wed to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, and when logical consistency is emphasized, pushes them in this direction.

Continued below…

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hendrik’s reply to Kane, continued:

Kane wrote: “the very fact that human beings are empathic, altruistic creatures, and that that empathy/altruism duology is reflected in the natural world, too, upgrades the relativity of morals to an observable form of common absolutism.”

My reply: Not at all. Philosophically, if atheism is true and it’s wed to neo-Darwinian theory, it means merely that some/ many people merely have a subjective/ cultural preference (a socio-biologically ingrained predisposition) such that the well-being of others is sought, i.e., they are empathic and altruistic. But the fact remains that some/ many people also have a subjective/ cultural preference (a socio-biologically ingrained predisposition) such that domination over others is sought, i.e., they are not empathic and altruistic.

Last week I watched (once again) the movie Schindler’s List. Think of people like Amon Goeth, the murderous SS commandant of the camp in which Oskar Schindler’s Jews lived. (Spoiler Alert: For those who haven’t seen Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler is a German businessman who ends up saving the lives of 1100 Jews, whereas Amon Goeth and fellow Nazis end up killing six million Jews.) If atheism is true, the “observable form of common absolutism” of which you speak basically boils down to—is essentially relative to—whether Goeth or Schindler has the most power. Happily, Schindler (and the Allies) won, not Goeth (and the Nazis).

Continued below…

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hendrik’s reply to Kane, continued:

Re: Your comments about suffering. If atheistic survivalist/neo-Darwinism is true, then there is no deeply real right and no deeply real wrong, so suffering just is. Suffering would be morally neutral. Most of us don’t like suffering; quite a few of us like to inflict it onto others; many of us simply don’t care as long as we and our loved ones are not suffering. If atheism-coupled-with-neo-Darwinism is true, the judgment that suffering is wrong/bad would (again) basically boil down to whether Goeth or Schindler wins. In the absence of real right and wrong, real good and evil, right reduces to might.

I believe that there are objective moral values (e.g., that people actually have intrinsic moral worth) which we—whether Christian or atheist or whatever—intuit (know via rational/moral insight). As I argued in my column, however, atheism, when wed to neo-Darwinian evolution, undermines this intuition when we persuade ourselves that what we intuit is illusory, a mere aid to the survival of our group, nothing more. (Our moral knowledge is first-order knowledge that atheistic survivalist/neo-Darwinian evolutionary ethics, a second-order theory, attempts to debunk.)

Why should I care about the larger group once I realize people really don’t have intrinsic moral worth? (See Ted Bundy's answer here.) Sure, I’ll care about the ones I love and like, but why should I care about, say, the poor? When asked about what should be done about the poor, one of my ethics professors (an atheist and proponent of contractarian ethics) replied: “Let them starve.”

So the philosophical question is acute for the atheist who favours neo-Darwinian evolution: Why not let the poor starve, if they really don’t matter? Why not let them starve, if survival of the fittest is the rule of life? Why not let them starve, if letting them starve has no foreseeable negative impact on our lives (or even if it does)? Why not be like Amon Goeth (or Ted Bundy or Josef Fritzl), if I like being that way and I can get away with it?

It seems to me that atheism when wed to neo-Darwinian evolution greases the philosophical tracks to let us slip in the relativistic Goeth-Bundy-Fritzl direction. All we can say on this view: We don’t like it. To which Goeth-Bundy-Fritzl and co. say: But we do! Enter: Power/ might-makes-right. This is a philosophical problem for atheism, especially in the context of neo-Darwinian evolution. (For more on this theme, see the last section of the movie Expelled.)

Clearly, atheism runs against the very apparent fact that people actually have real moral worth. This, it seems to me, counts against atheism as a philosophy. I’m not saying atheists don’t intuit the reality of this worth; I’m not saying that atheists can’t act morally; rather, I’m saying atheism has trouble accounting for the reality of this worth and tends to undermine our knowledge of it.

I’m not a Bible scholar, but I suspect that the Bible might call such an undermining a factor that’s involved in the hardening of the heart or the suppressing of what’s true.

My next column is a continuation of my critique of atheistic neo-Darwinian ethics. Stay tuned.

Best regards,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks Landon O. and 春天來嚕 for your kind comments!

Best regards,

Kane Augustus said...

Dr. V,

I always appreciate your mercurial mind.

Yes, you're right that atheism (and this is the part I overlooked) when wed to neo-Darwinian survivalism can lead to might-makes-right. In fact, it would seem that the Darwinian maxim, "the strongest survive" is a clear-cut case of the mightiest living and setting up their moral framework to ensure that continued survival.

Unfortunately for the 'strongest' the weak have proliferated at a rate they cannot keep up with. So there's lots of so-called 'weak' in the species who are claiming a piece of the moral pie, so to speak.

So saying, our prefrontal cortex, being as developed as it is, and in charge of regulating behaviour rams our square survival instinct into a round moral hole. In other words, the strong and the weak have to work out how we're all going to fit.

Enter politics. Enter philosophical ethics. Enter some efforts in science. All these forefront fields have, from the modern era on, taken on one shining ingredient that helps even the neo-Darwinian survivalists temper their mechanical and indifferent take on morality: humanism.

Even neo-Darwinian survivalists have craddled the credos of humanism. I doubt we could say as much of Ted Bundy. Dawkins, as much as I think he's a raging buffoon, is tempered in his quackery by the humanist philosophy. Others in the recent spate of neo-atheism (Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Onfrey, Stenger, etc.) are also humanists, even if they're neo-Darwinist survivalists.

Pointing this out, though, doesn't suggest that your evaluation is wrong. I think you're right: applying reductio ad absurdum to atheistic neo-Darwinian survivalism relativises morality to a random and manipulative race to assert one's own survival at the cost of other's lives.

If we add humanism into this, as we really have to if we're going to accurately picture sane atheists, then a trinitarian philosophy comes to the fore: atheism + neo-Darwinism + humanism. Now, instead of disbelieving survivalists, we end up with disbelieving survivalists who see, understand, and act positively on the value of human life. Everyone's survival becomes paramount, from the lowliest to the most genetically fit person: they're all worthy of dignified, harmless treatment, each with their own unique place in the world.

Thank you for writing back and re-inforcing the context of your original article. Sometimes I take hold of an idea and run in a different direction. I'm a divergent thinker, and that can wreak havoc on the philosophical enterprise if not kept in check. I hope you don't mind me expanding on morality by observing a triune worldview within current atheistic literature.

Looking forward to your reply,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello Kane,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

First, I must say that you are too kind in your reference to my alleged “mercurial mind.” Though I appreciate the kind comment, the fact remains that from where I sit, I would describe what I’m working with as a “mired-in-thick-sticky-tar mind”! I’m glad, though, that some interesting stuff is able to leak out of the ooze. (I've had some years of alcohol abuse. I give God the glory for putting such abuse behind me, but I think there is some damage that remains. Hopefully, healing continues.)

Second, I agree that atheists can and do intuit (as most of us do) the objective moral worth of humans, and I agree that atheists can and do hold to the three-part philosophical view that you describe (i.e., atheism + neo-Darwinism + humanism). Nevertheless, there is, it seems to me, an internal philosophical tension in this “trinitarian” view, a tension that has a corrosive effect on humanism.

If atheism is true, then the truth of atheism coupled with neo-Darwinism seems very much to work against the alleged knowledge that humans are special and have real moral worth. On the atheist hypothesis (especially of the physicalist, materialist, wholly naturalist sort), the existence of real moral value is odd, not to be expected, implausible. (I’m with Nietzsche here: if there is no God, then there are no real culture- and individual-transcending moral values or binding moral principles.) Also, atheism-coupled-with-neo-Darwinism, if true, keeps telling us that what we think are real moral values are really mere guidelines and instincts that have been useful for survival. As Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson write, “Ethics is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Also, as Nietzsche writes, “Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual.”

The idea, then, is that, given the truth of atheism plus neo-Darwinism, the essential ingredient of humanism—i.e., the view that people are special and have real worth—has been fobbed off on us, whether by genes or herd-instinct or whatever. Once the humanist comes to realize this, all that he/she has left, philosophically, is “enlightened self-interest.” And this, I contend, makes ethics essentially relative to—reduces ethics to—mere subjective preference, mere culture, mere power. (For more argument, see my previous ethics-related columns.)

On a Christian metaphysics, however, our understanding that people are special and have real worth has a much better philosophical fit. Indeed, on the Christian view, this understanding about people's real worth has not been fobbed off on us, whether God created us via special creation, evolution, or whatever. The Christian God is understood (minimally) to be the Good. If the Christian God exists and created people in His image, then we should expect that people have intrinsic moral worth. Significantly, it turns out that people do have intrinsic moral worth—and we recognize this, whether we are Christian or not. Therefore, the worth of people and our knowledge of this worth count in favour of the existence of the Christian God as an explanation for this worth (as a part of a larger cumulative case argument for God). Moreover, and what’s relevant to the discussion at hand, on a Christian metaphysics our intuitive knowledge of the intrinsic moral value of humans is reinforced/confirmed, not undermined.

In summary, humanism, which is based on our intuitive knowledge of human moral worth, is undermined by atheism + neo-Darwinism, but supported by the Christian God + whatever way God created. I find this interesting, philosophically.

William Lane Craig has some good material on this topic. See chapter 6 of his recent book On Guard (David C. Cook 2010) plus see his contributions to Is Goodness without God Good Enough (Rowman and Littlefield 2009).

Thanks for your comments, Kane. This is important stuff.

Best regards,