Evolution Can’t Explain Morality

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/20/2013

If you argue that morality evolved, you may end up saying that one “ought” to be selfish.

Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation about morality and whether evolution is an adequate explanation for morality. Many of you know that I have argued for a long time that morality—the existence of moral things, “oughts,” the notion of moral actions and moral motives, the reality of morality—is a very powerful evidence for the existence of a moral God, whose character is the moral standard of the universe. I won’t suggest that this is without problems, but I think it best answers the existence of morality. Those who are physicalistic, naturalistic, or empiricistic in nature—physicalistic are those people who want to define everything in purely physicalistic terms that can be understood by chemistry and physics; those who are naturalistic want to explain everything solely in terms of natural law without any appeal to transcendent law or supernatural things or beings; those who are empiricistic want to explain everything in terms of that which you can access by the five senses—are going to try to find ways of understanding morality that falls within the purview of their belief system without having to make an appeal to a divine being. But I don’t think that works.

One way to go about this is to argue from effect back to cause, looking at effects and asking ourselves what is the simplest, most elegant solution that is an adequate explanation for the effects that we see. Not the simplest solution, but the simplest which is also adequate. This is also known as Ockam’s Razor. I don’t think the evolutionary explanation is adequate. That goes something like this: In order to survive, animals develop. Through the process of natural selection, naturalistic forces mold certain behavior that we call moral behavior which simply functions to allow the organism to exist and continue to survive. Actually, not the organism, but the species, because in some cases it requires sacrificing individual organisms so that the larger species can survive. This is all that morality ends up being.

That which we think is morality, or that which we call morality, turns out to be a description of animals conditioned by their environment to act in certain ways that benefit the survival of the species. We have just given that conduct a label. We call it morality. That is offered as a sufficient, adequate and complete description of how the behavior that we call moral behavior actually came about.

My response to that is it isn’t an adequate explanation at all, because the category of things that we call moral is not adequately engaged by mere descriptions of past behavior. That morality entails a look forward to the future, not just to the past, not just looking backwards to what we have done, or what was done by certain individuals, which they happen to call moral. But it is a look forward into the future about how we ought to behave. Since morality is prescriptive, not descriptive, and if it is normative—if it talks about how we ought to behave—and the evolutionary description of moral behavior doesn’t engage that very fundamental, core element of morality, then it hasn’t explained it and morality still needs to be explained.

There was another bit of step by step reasoning that I used to show, I think, very clearly that what evolution might describe couldn’t possibly be what we understand morality to be. My basic point is this: what naturalists explain when they seek to explain morality in naturalistic, evolutionary terms is not morality at all. They are explaining something different. I get to that by asking a series of questions. Instead of looking backward, I look forward, and I ask a question of moral behavior like “Why ought anyone be unselfish in the future?” for example. The question came up yesterday regarding an observation that was done with chimpanzees. There was a group of chimpanzees which had, in a sense, punished one member for being selfish by withholding food from that member and therefore teaching that member moral behavior. Apparently, the moral rule that undergirded the lesson was that the other chimpanzee ought not be selfish. That’s a moral statement and the question I’m going to ask is “Why ought the chimp (or human) not be selfish?” I’m looking for a justification there.

The answer is going to be that when we’re selfish, it hurts the group. But you see, that answer isn’t enough of an answer because that answer itself presumes another moral value that we ought to be concerned about the health of the group. So, I’m going to ask the question, “Why ought we be concerned about the health of the group?” The answer is going to be because if the groups don’t survive, then the species doesn’t survive. Then you can imagine the next question. “Why ought I care about the health of the species and whether the species survives or not?” You see, the problem with all of these responses that purport to be justifications or explanations for the moral rule, is that all of these things that are meant to explain the moral rule really depend themselves upon a moral rule before they can even be uttered. Therefore, it can’t be the explanation of morality. When I ask the question “Why ought I be concerned with the species?”, the next answer ends the series. The answer is, “I ought to be concerned with the species because if the species dies out, then I will not survive. If the species is in jeopardy, then my own personal self interests would be in jeopardy.”

So, in abbreviated form, the reasoning goes like this: I ought to be unselfish because it is better for the group, which is better for the species, which is better for me. So why ought I be unselfish? Because it is better for me. But looking at what is better for me, is selfishness. So all of this so-called description of where morality comes down to, gets reduced to this ludicrous statement: I morally ought to be unselfish so that I can be more thoroughly selfish. That is silly. Because we know that morality can’t be reduced to selfishness. Why do we know that? Because our moral rules are against selfishness and for altruism. They are against selfishness and for the opposite. When you think about what it is that morality entails, you don’t believe that morality is really about being selfish. Morality is about being unselfish, or at least it entails that. Which makes my point that this description, based on evolution, does not do the job. It doesn’t explain what it is supposedly meant to explain. It doesn’t explain morality. It is simply reduced to a promotion of selfishness which isn’t morality at all.

Morality is something altogether different. We may debate about all that moral views and understandings entail, but one thing we can all agree on, I think, is that when we are looking for a definition of morality, we know it isn’t about selfishness. It is about not being selfish, just the opposite. That’s why these explanations don’t work. They either smuggle morality into the equation by describing the behavior that is meant to be explained by evolution so they depend upon morality to do the job, or else the descriptions and explanations end up being reduced to selfishness, which isn’t what we’re trying to explain. We’re trying to explain why one ought not be selfish, not why one ought to be selfish.