The Big Problem with Morality Based on Evolution …

I’ve been working my way through David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”, and while I’ll review it later, one point he raised in it summed up my problems with the claim that we have a morality because we evolved a morality, and why I accuse those who claim to derive morality that way of, in fact, basing their morality on their own personal self-interest, which isn’t right. While he said a lot more about it, it comes down to this: if the explanation for our moral sensibilities are that they evolved because they benefited the species, then our moral sensibilities have no authority on us. Simply put, if our moral sensibilities have evolved, then we have no reason to actually follow them if we can choose otherwise.

This is actually pretty obvious, and to deny this is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something evolved and was beneficial in doing so doesn’t in any way mean that it still is, in fact, beneficial. After all, take the oft-cited — by Dennett at least — example of our sweet tooth. It was beneficial, but now isn’t as beneficial anymore … and, in fact, is actually more often detrimental to us. So we should train ourselves to ignore our sweet tooth. But then it is quite possible that we really should train ourselves to ignore our moral leanings as well; maybe being moral had a benefit once, but maybe ignoring morality works better now.

But it gets worse. In the above paragraph, we were judging how useful the sweet tooth is or how useful morality is by personal benefit (even if for morality you’d generally count the individual benefits of living in a moral society as well). This is the obvious line to take if you follow from an evolutionary explanation, because that’s the reason we have them according to evolution. But note that it doesn’t follow that because we do have moral faculties that evolved that we ought to justify the authority of morality by that standard. All evolution says is that we have these faculties. In order to move to evaluating whether or not we should act morally on the basis of personal self-interest, you have to add the argument that this is how we ought to evaluate moralities and moral faculties, right down to the usefulness of moral faculties and whether we should be moral at all. This is why, for example, it can be rightly claimed that evolution does not support eugenics; while evolution describes the process, you need to make that normative link to saying that we ought to try to emulate evolution in dealing with people. The same thing applies here: if you want to justify us using our moral faculties or that our moral faculties are giving us the right moral answers using the fact that they have evolved, you have to add to the fact that they evolved for our personal benefit that it is moral and proper to act according to our personal benefit, and to judge morality accordingly. And that is Egoism, no matter how enlightened you try to make it.

Thus, evolutionary arguments for morality can only end in one of two places. Either you end up with an evolved faculty that we have to wonder about just as we wonder about our sweet tooth, and thus a faculty that we have no necessary reason to follow, or else you base it on what evolution did to produce that faculty and end up arguing normatively that what we ought to consider moral is that which most benefits us personally. Anything else moves quite beyond evolution and our evolved faculties, and leaves us evaluating our moral faculties on a basis that is neither demanded by evolution, nor is the basis evolution itself used to produce those faculties.

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