Morality and Evolutionary Biology
Nov 23, 2010

Morality and Evolutionary Biology

A frequent criticism of atheism is that it has no basis for its morality without the existence of deity. One response that is sometimes given is to look to examples of altruism in primates and other species and argue that evolutionary biology is a source for our morality. I find both approaches somewhat lacking.

We should delineate at the onset the difference between descriptive and normative morality. In a descriptive sense, asking what the origin of morality is means trying to describe why we as humans or societies hold certain moral values and not others. In the normative sense, we try to prescribe the origin of what we will claim morality ought to be not necessarily describing what it is.

From the descriptive standpoint, whether one accepts evolution or religion as the reason for our morality is equivalent to ones belief on the origin of our species. If one accepts an atheistic world where we evolved the only possible source of our morality in a descriptive sense is evolutionary. Evolution (if stated as exclusive from a deity) is a complete theory in the sense that all human tendencies - including our moral ones - ultimately derive from it. Although this conclusion is immediate one can delve deeper and consider how a certain moral value held in all human societies, such as some level of altruism, has merit as an evolutionary successful strategy thus emphasizing the evolutionary basis for descriptive morality. Likewise, from a creationist view, the fact that we are moral must come directly from our creator as the sole possible source.

Things become much more interesting when we consider the normative question of what morality ought to be not merely what it is. This becomes often a matter of definition and one usually seeks motivation for ones definition. One possible motivation is using evolutionary biology as an analogy for what morality ought to be. Another is to take a religious text as the prescription. Thirdly we might consider any of the various philosophical traditions in ethics and morality. Our perhaps motivate it at least in part from various scientific considerations such as psychological, neurological or anthropological. The point is that while we are essentially forced to accept evolutionary origins for describing human morality, a normative view is certainly not locked to this perspective.

That all said, I don't actually find evolutionary biology to be a compelling motivating source for normative morality. The reason is that in evolution while altruism certainly exists and exists in some startling ways, the dominate theme is selfishness at least outside of ones immediate family or tribe.  Morality on the other hand focuses largely altruistically and in a sense can be seen as a codification of this tendency of the human psyche and asymmetrically discusses altruism over selfishness. Most moral theories don't advocate for the kind of violence that is manifestly present in our evolutionary history, for example. While it is somewhat aesthetic, I think this asymmetry between selfishness and altruism precludes evolution as an exclusive normative motivator, we must bring other considerations into question.

The question then turns to: what should be our normative basis for morality? For me this question is as of yet unanswered. I would say we should not be overly restrictive in our search. We can look philosophically, neurologically (looking at neurological responses to moral actions, say), psychologically, anthropologically (comparing different cultures for commonalties, for instance), indeed evolutionarily and any other thing one can think of I am sure there as many. The more various methods converge on particular moral values the more motivated we can be to accept such a value in a normative way. While it will always be a matter of definition, we should seek to motivate the definition so it is meaningful.

Finally, I wish to return to the descriptive sense to note that for most people this discussion is abstract and irrelevant. The average individual (as distinct from the origin of morality in humanity) derives their morality not from some normative theory or other that they have internalized, but from the influences of society and our innate tendencies. As a child we learn a sense of right and wrong that is nuanced beyond our natural tendencies and this is cultivated by our culture and experiences. Even the previous descriptive question of the origin of human morality, let alone the normative questions, is outside of the everyday experience of morality. One consequence of this is that neither a religious person or a nonreligious person should be arrogant about the sources of their morality as most people derive their morality in much the same way as just described regardless of whether they are or are not religious.

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