Morality and Ethics from an Evolutionary Standpoint By David G. McAfee

Morality and Ethics from an Evolutionary Standpoint

By David G. McAfee 

               Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection can be used to explain many of the otherwise inexplicable traits of modern humans from mate selection, to social interactions, and even child rearing. What many people don’t realize is that such a theory can also explain the sense of ‘morality’ among humans in absence of a theological (and therefore supernatural) definition.

                Morality is always changing; for example, a few hundred years ago, it would have been perfectly acceptable to own and sell human beings as slaves. Yet today, this practice is condemned as, many would argue, universally immoral. This development, progression, and fluidity of cultural ethics and norms are precisely what make biblical teachings a poor, stagnant, moral compass for today’s society. Not only does the Holy Bible condone acts which our modern society would find completely unethical such as rape, murder, and slavery, but it also condemns acts like homosexual orientation and working on Sundays- acts that, today, could be considered normal and completely separate from “morality.”

                Homo Sapien is a social animal by nature, much like some other primates in the animal kingdom; it is only natural that, in order to live and thrive in a society, there must be some level of cooperation amongst the members of the group. This basic, evolutionary, fact is what undoubtedly led to the eventual formation of what is “moral” and what is not. If our ancestors had not realized the importance of communal cooperation, they may have become a weaker species which wouldn’t have survived on a long-term timeline. In other words, if our primitive common ancestors had decided that it would be beneficial to murder one’s own family member, have incestuous relationships from which less capable children could be born, or acting outside of societal rules- humanity, as it exists today, may not have become a reality.

                 In order to ensure that others in the society followed these same ethical values, social contracts may have- at one time- not been enough. And promising eternal damnation or rewards in the afterlife based on behavior in this life was probably a useful way to keep people in line- in addition to the obvious benefits of dissuading revolution from the oppressed. But today, in modern America for example, our values have grown and groups advocating for religious morality have become in opposition to twenty-first century morality; such groups include religious extremists, the Ku Klux Klan, Jihadists, Crusader, Nazis, and anti-abortion terrorist organizations. We have in place a system, however, in which people are employed by the government to investigate, arrest, prosecute, and detain offenders based on the violation of laws which are as fluid as our cultural ideals- and can be amended as such. This system eliminates to need for a punishment/reward system like the ones often presented in ancient Holy Texts.

Evolutionary Morality

Evolutionary Morality

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10 responses to “Morality and Ethics from an Evolutionary Standpoint By David G. McAfee

  1. I concurr with much of what you’ve written here.

    I just started Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

    He proffers that the old saw about science not being able to explain morality, that morality is the provenence of religion, is utter bullshit. so far it’s a great read.

    • Dromedary, the is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief. In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy. Related to moral truth–if a justified (answering the question of Ethics–“How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?”) moral standard doesn’t describe anything in reality, to consider it “true” commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).

  2. Krishnamurthy Prabhakar

    I agree with you. It is an opium to keep the masses under control to accept their deprivation as divine. dr.kp

  3. Darwin saw how morality could evolve, but it is only in the last couple of decades that anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have been gathering sound evidence for it. What is moral is good for the group. It is therefore what the group ought to do. An ‘is’ can be an ‘ought’. Moreover, we can see that God was the group, when we lived in small groups up to the size of the tribe, then, in larger societies, it had to be segmented off into congregations, the supernatural nature of God was emphasized, and then it could still be useful to kings and emperors for controlling large populations voluntarily, in the imperial age. Curiously enough, it also let’s atheists and unreligious scientists to live life as a sincere Christian, by accepting that Christ’s main teaching were his practical socially moral teachings which identified God with the least among us, even our enemies — Secular Christianity.

    • I think morality does evolve- simply because it is based on instinct. i had a chocolate lab puppy I took home at 7 weeks. About a year later I pulled out a shotgun and he went nuts- started darting around the yard and barking at birds. He was clearly instinctively wanting to retrieve. If guns and labs have only been hunting partners for a century or so, it’s an amazing tribute to evolution that somehow dogs can instinctively recognize a gun. So other instincts/ethical and ultimately moral behavior can also evolve. I admit it will be scary when a newborn instinctively prays to a cross…

  4. Perhaps the moderator will moderate let’s into lets! 🙂 MM

  5. I agree, of course, especially about why religious texts are so poor at describing moral behavior. But I want to mention that, although it may have been socially acceptable to own slaves as little as two hundred years ago, it was never moral. Modern culture is fluid and adaptive, but I think that it just means that we are simply getting closer to finding what is moral.

    By way of illustration, (surely a controversial one) I think that eating meat is immoral. If I am correct, then future generations will look back and ‘tsk tsk’ us for our barbarism. If I am correct, and if eating meat in the future IS seen as an evil, then it has always been evil, but we have not yet learned this lesson. Of course, I don’t mean that morality is driven by perception, but that we have different ways of perceiving morality.

  6. Fellow rationalists, yes! Supernaturalists, when they use reason and facts rather than the poor parts of the morality of their fables, follow the presumption of humanism- covenant morality for humanity [Google!] rathher than as they aver that we live off theirs!

  7. I think people over time have had a hard time distinguishing between useless (by contemporary standards) memes and what we hold now as “moral truths”. What I find amusing is the existence of certain moral principles that predate religious texts. Theists see them as innate functions of God’s children and rationalist see them as biological mechanisms that are the reason human kind has proliferated throughout the lands as science has progressed.

  8. Pingback: A Christmas Gift for William Lane Craig – Five Reasons Your Specific God Probably Doesn’t Exist | The Secular Writings of David G. McAfee

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