The Moral Argument: Evolution is an Answer to the Wrong Question


In my last post I touched briefly on the moral argument, and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since. What has  been particularly bothering me is one common response to the moral argument. In fact it’s the only response I’ve reliably seen atheists provide for why the moral argument doesn’t work, other than nihilism. A nihilist, as I mentioned before, has nothing to fear from the moral argument. After all the moral argument essentially states that either moral truth exists, or nihilism is true. It then follows that with an argument that the best explanation for moral truth is God, or minimally that the “cause” of moral truth is supernatural in nature. If you’re a nihilist you might completely agree with the reasoning of the moral argument and still reject the supernatural since you don’t believe that moral truth exists.

I’ve known and accepted this long before I ever made much of a serious attempt to discuss the moral argument with atheists. I knew that there was little I could say to a nihilist on the subject other than to try and convince them that moral truth does exist. However what I’ve found is that there are not nearly as many nihilists as I would have imagined. Most of the atheists I have had discussions with do live their lives, and make statements that line up with, the idea that moral truth exists. They write blog posts about the evils of religion, point out abuses of power within the church, and rail against executions, persecution, and mental or physical abuse. Some even say that religion is entirely pointless because you can be a good person without it. I found this all very curious. These atheists behaved and spoke as if there was an objective standard of good and evil. They judged individuals and religions by this objective scale. I’ve certainly heard Christianity be referred to as an “evil” religion many times. These judgments were not couched by phrases such as “I believe that,” “In my opinion,” “I personally believe,” or any other relativistic phrase that would imply that these were simply personal perspectives. No, these people spoke and wrote as if the evil of, say, an apostate from Islam being stoned to death was objectively bad and that every right minded individual should agree with them on that point.

Naturally my next step was to ask them why they believed that some things were right and some things for wrong and that we should all agree on those points.  Not to say I didn’t agree with them; I applaud their desire to destroy evil and advance good. But I believe that goodness can be defined in relation to the character of God; what did these atheists, most of them materialists who rejected anything supernatural, base their idea moral truth on? In other words, why did they believe that we should do some things and should refrain from doing others? Their response was almost universal in content: evolution. Having empathy towards others and punishing those who do wrong is good for the survival of the species. Your “conscience” is the finely tuned result of millions of years of evolution selecting for behaviors that would maximize the humanity’s survival. Though our morals often urge us to do things that are personally destructive (such as leap into a burning building to rescue people, or even merely give up money to feed the poor) the actions we are driven to do are, on the balance, helpful to the overall survival of the human race. In their view evolution has explained why morality exists, and there is no need of a “god” to throw his seal of approval on it.

Now I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I certainly believe that doing the right thing is beneficial for humanity as a whole. I also believe that a virtuous society will be more prosperous than a morally decrepit society.  And I agree that because of this natural selection may have weeded out those who reject such morality. It certainly is possible, and is far from unreasonable. However the problem is that this response is answering the wrong question. Evolution may be an fine explanation for why we feel like there is an objective right or wrong. However it doesn’t explain why we should follow those feelings.

By way of example, imagine that an accomplished mad scientist created a pill that, when consumed, would manipulate the architecture of our brains to such an extent that we felt we should follow his every order. This pill made the inner compulsion to obey the mad scientist just as strong as our inner compulsion to help those in need, or to refrain from hurting others. Now let’s say that a woman named Jill has consumed such a pill at a young age, and has served the mad scientist all her life. Now another scientist arrives, examines Jill, and explains to her that the reason she feels it is right to obey the mad scientist is because of the pill she took as a child and the effect it has had on her brain. In other words, there is a completely natural explanation for some of the moral impulses (the ones that drive her to obey) she experiences. With this knowledge in hand we would likely encourage Jill to no longer obey the mad scientist’s orders. Now certainly she still feels that it right to obey the mad scientist, but she now understands that those feelings are purely the result of the architecture of her brain. She can now resist such impulses, and safely ignore any guilt she may feel for disobeying the mad scientist’s commands. Or she can continue to follow them, but with the knowledge that there is no reason she should,  and that she only obeys because she finds happiness by following those impulses. What wouldn’t make much sense at all is if she went around trying to explain to everyone else that the only reason they obey the mad scientist is because their brains have been modified by a pill, and at the same time told them that they should keep obeying the mad scientist and that anyone who doesn’t is evil. Yet this is essentially what I have seen many atheists attempt to do. They proudly inform us that our moral impulses are the result of the architecture of our brains, honed by millions of years of evolution, and then they tell us that we have a responsibility to follow those impulses and condemn anyone who does differently. Evolution may explain why our moral impulses exist, but if morality is solely the result of our brain architecture then there is no good reason why we should follow them.

One response to this is that following our moral impulses we will ensure the continued survival of the species, and the survival of the species is good. But by what standard do we say that it is good for the human species to survive? Surely this impulse, more than any other, is the result of natural selection. We believe that it is good for humanity to survive because evolution has crafted our brain architecture to produce this result, and culled those whose brain architecture produces anything different. We are very much like Jill in this case, only the mad scientist has been replaced by our own DNA. From birth we have swallowed the “pill” that forces us to value human survival. Now that we’ve seen through the illusion we can either follow that impulse out of convenience or rebel against it. And many people have rebelled against it. There are environmental groups that believe the human race must be diminished in size, to become less successful as a species in order that other creatures may survive. Some very radical environmentalists believe it would be better if every human was wiped from the face of the Earth. There some who consider life itself to be a kind of joke, and consider death and nonexistence as superior to life. Nihilists believe that the survival of the human race is just as meaningless as everything else. The point I’m trying to make is that evolution does not give us a reason to value the continued survival of the human species: it merely explains why we might feel that it’s good for our species to survive.

Once this is understood the choice becomes clearer. Either there is more to morality than merely impulses that are the result of purely natural evolutionary processes or we must abandon the idea of good and evil existing as anything more than personal opinion. Either some things are good and bad apart from humanity, and apart from any individual brain architecture, or else morality simply exists on the level of your skin color, or whether your hair is curly or straight. And just as you can’t say someone is “evil” for having curly hair or fair skin, you can’t say that they are evil for preferring rape or murder: both are simply physical aspects based on their genetics. This is the choice we have: either we admit that there is an extra-natural dimension to morality, or we become nihilists. But let’s not have any more nonsense about evolution “disproving” the moral argument. The moral argument is about why we should be moral; evolution can only explain why we might want to.

As for why the existence of moral truths may point to God, I may talk about that on Friday.

About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at

Posted on March 5, 2014, in Apologetics, Christianity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 53 Comments.

  1. Good post, you make an interesting argument, and I think your analogy with the mad scientist is useful.

    Perhaps because the ‘why and should’ with regards to Christians are both ticked by the same agent, the god God, you’re assuming it would be the case in the natural world. It’s not. There are biological reasons why we are pre-disposed to acting with empathy, it has allowed us to flourish as a co-operative, social animal. But when it comes to the ‘should’ that’s a matter of sheer logic. I treat other people badly, they treat me badly, life is miserable. It’s as simple as the Golden Rule, a basic conclusion about treating others that most societies have come to.

    The sense of ‘should’ that comes to us pre-packaged is a combination of the natural biological co-operative empathy instinct, and the environmental influences, chiefly from our culture, acting with that. For this reason, some people think stoning apostates is morally good (cultural indoctrination) while others think it’s abhorrent (empathy and Golden Rule logic). Those of us who find the idea ‘evil’ believe this is similar to your notion of absolute moral truths because there is no logical reason to do it – it offends our sense of empathy and can only lead to more violent society and less freedom for ourselves.

    Hope that makes sense. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Unfortunately I’m afraid your response makes perfect sense, but only from a nihilistic point of view. Would you self identify as a nihilist?

      I know you really don’t like it when I dissect your comments, but I’m afraid that I feel I have to. Call it a compulsion.

      What you’re essentially saying here is that you do believe the reason we feel things are right and wrong are based off of purely biological reasons, which is what I outlined in my post. But then you say that we should obey these instincts because of cultural indoctrination and self-interest. “I treat other people badly, they treat me badly.” In other words, the only reason to be good to people is if I am in a position to benefit from it. By this logic there was nothing really “wrong” about anything Stalin did during his time in power, because he was never negatively effected by his actions. Alternatively it means that if someone exploits their workers, causes massive environmental damage, and retires to a mansion for the rest of his days before dying peacefully he hasn’t done anything “wrong.” The idea that we should follow our moral instincts out of self-interest means we should only follow them as long as we believe we can’t get away with doing otherwise, and can abandon them as soon as we feel we can.

      I also must take issue with your apostate example. You say that stoning apostates is “cultural indoctrination” while opposing such actions is “empathy and Golden Rule logic.” But to a fundamentalist Muslim, it is your own empathy for apostates that is the result of cultural indoctrination by Western ideals which have taught you to value human rights, which he may consider a purely social construct. He may also say that he stones the apostate out of empathy and Golden Rule logic: this person is consigning themselves to hell, and he may believe that he would want people to stone him too if he ever became an apostate. By what standard can you say that your reasons for disliking stoning is more logical than his reasons for liking it? And even if stoning apostates is cultural in nature, how is disliking stonings different from disliking middle eastern food, or finding middle eastern traditional dances distasteful? If its simply a matter of differing cultures then there is no real difference between the two: they’re both a matter of cultural preference. If, however, some things are objectively right and wrong for all people then you have grounds to say “This stoning is evil, and must be stopped. It would be evil if everyone on Earth thought it would good. It is evil now, and it was evil then.”

      Sorry for the dissection, but it’s what I do. I’ll try to keep it on my own blog.

      • “I’ll try to keep it on my own blog.” Also, I’m not sure what you mean by this. If I do a post on a related topic would you be annoyed if I link?

      • Oh I just said this because the last time we had a real discussion about matters of morality it was either on your blog or Arks or both (I can’t remember) and I didn’t really like how it turned out…I kind of felt like I was starting a fight on someone else’s lawn. I’m fine if you link.

  2. Please don’t apologise, I’ve never considered that you’ve ‘dissected’ my comments, I usually find your responses frustratingly irrelevant to anything I’ve written, so it’s good that at least we seem to be having the same conversation this time.

    “The idea that we should follow our moral instincts out of self-interest means we should only follow them as long as we believe we can’t get away with doing otherwise, and can abandon them as soon as we feel we can.” You’ve lost a few threads of the discussion here, and the most vital missing piece is empathy. Most of us have the natural ability to empathise with what other people are going through – we imagine their situation and feel their pain. Someone gave me a link to an interesting Ted Talk today where is was suggested that we are at an empathetic high point in the history of humanity because we ‘live’ so many other people’s experiences through books, tv and newspapers. It’s gives us a heightened understanding of the experiences of others – humans and animals. We look at violence and wars and the horrible consequences, the questionable political motivations; and we read the stories of people on all sides. It’s impossible to paint groups of people goodies and baddies.

    Another thread you’ve dropped, or misunderstood, is about creating a better world for ourselves and those we love, including offspring if we have any. By behaving like Stalin, or even the ruthless, exploitational businessman you suggest, we may gain materially but I’m afraid I can’t imagine life would be pleasant. The delusional notions that often come with power, and the disconnect that’s part of it, are relevant to those examples, but I suppose it’s a bit off topic overall. Anyway, my point is that living by standards where murder or exploitation are okay for your immediate gain is illogical in terms of trying to make the world a better place for everyone. I don’t like to be murdered and exploited, therefore why would I do it to someone else? Why would I promote such a behavour in a world where other people I care about (or others whose lives I can imagine) would suffer? Every person in existence comes under the ‘could have been me therefore I feel their pain’ banner. I don’t see that an particularly self-centred. Much less so than making behavioural choices based on ‘if I don’t behave according to confusing rules in an old book, a benevolent god will condemn me to suffer eternally.’

    Your point about my dislike for stoning being cultural indoctrination does stand. However, I think it’s much more probable based on common sense and empathy to leave their indoctrination and logically come to the conclusion that it’s wrong, than it would be to leave my indoctrination and come to the conclusion that it’s right.

    However, your point about stoning is generally bizarre. As a Christian I’m assuming you think that at some point stoning was morally right, as your god God commanded it, but now it’s morally wrong, because it’s killing? Where does an example like this fit in with your view on absolute morality?

    • I could do my dissection routine again, but I think we’re missing some important points. Forgive me then if I don’t do a point by point response to your comment and leave out some of your thoughts. I think this will get my point across better.

      You value empathy. I also value it greatly. However the question at hand is what exactly is happening when we feel empathy for another person? Let’s say that I open up the newspaper and read that a student was shot to death by a gang member during a mugging. Upon learning this I feel empathy for the bystander. I feel bad that he was killed. I also feel angry at the gang member who performed the killing. I feel that this was an evil act. Unless I’m a psychopath or have a low level of empathy for others in general it’s understandable and expected that I would feel this way.

      Once empathy is felt the question at hand is what exactly is this feeling, and what does it mean for our lives? As a believer in moral truth I believe that empathy is part of our moral sense: our conscience, if you will. I believe that this feeling of empathy is informing me about something real about reality: that the actions taken by the mugger were wrong, and that what has happened is evil. From this perspective our conscience acts like any of our other senses. Just as we know that the stars exist because our eyes show us they do, we know that some things are wrong because our moral sense (our empathy, among other things) shows us that this is so. Sometimes our moral senses can deceive us, just as optical illusions or mirages can deceive our eyes. Culture has an effect as well, but when you get down to it morality is something that is discovered, that is objectively real, and crosses all cultures and tastes.

      However there is another perspective that provides a different explanation for empathy. In this view empathy is an emotional response that comes as the result of our brain architecture, and has developed over time in order to enhance the survival of the species. From this point of view empathy does not tell us anything about reality other than how we emotionally feel about things. Empathy is like nausea: both change how we react to physical events, and both arguably increase the likelihood of human survival. From this perspective the empathy I might feel for the muggers victim just shows that, because of the architecture of my brain, I personally feel bad when others are killed in certain contexts. When I say that the killing was “wrong” I can only mean that I didn’t like it. If someone else actually finds glee in the killing I can’t say that person is “wrong” to do so, any more than I can say they’re “wrong” for preferring spaghetti to salmon, or for enjoying Jazz. Empathy is merely one among many subjective emotions that are the result of my brain architecture and cultural upbringing. I may prefer that people behave in such a way that maximizes human happiness, and thanks to evolution most other humans may also prefer that as well, but in the end a society that promotes tolerance, human rights, and justice is no “better” than one that promotes hatred, inequality, and corruption: it merely is the society that I prefer over others.

      Now what I hear from you, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, is that you believe that some forms of morality are superior to others: that a society that promotes human happiness, or preserves the environment, or protects freedoms is better than a society that does not. But as far as I understand you reject the idea that empathy actually informs us about aspects of reality (moral “truths”) and instead embrace the idea that empathy is a kind of instinct that came about through evolutionary processes. All I’m saying is that those two positions appear to be contradictory.

      • That makes sense, I understand what you’re saying. However, you’ve yet to explain to me how this is any different for you. I’ll ask again: “As a Christian I’m assuming you think that at some point stoning was morally right, as your god God commanded it, but now it’s morally wrong, because it’s killing? Where does an example like this fit in with your view on absolute morality?” Am I to understand that you get a sense of morality from your god but that he moves in such mysterious ways that he can change his mind and you will never understand him? Kind of messes up any point you were trying to make about absolute morality.

        “a society that promotes tolerance, human rights, and justice is no “better” than one that promotes hatred, inequality, and corruption: it merely is the society that I prefer over others.” It’s a society that the majority of humans prefer. Our moral understanding of life shifts throughout time depending on circumstances. If we’re still around in 1000 years time there will undoubtedly be things we take for granted as perfectly acceptable that will be abhorrent to future society – and if we could be transported there and presented with the benefits of a culture making the changes, we would understand why. Eating animals is an obvious one on the list – and the Bible will still be ‘wrong’ about that, as it is on stoning, slavery and homosexuality.

      • I enjoy that fact that you’re willing to continue to engage, but I feel that your response avoids the point of my comments.

        When it comes to stoning, I don’t know exactly how I feel about it. My moral senses tell me that stoning is wrong: however it does appear that stoning was a recommended form of punishment in the Old Testament. This is something I’m still trying to figure out: is stoning not as bad as my moral senses seem to indicate, or am I incorrect in believing that God ever commanded that people be stoned? It’s a thorny problem: is my senses wrong, the Old Testament inaccurate, or is it something else I haven’t thought of? However you must notice the important piece of this inner debate: I’m starting from the assumption that there is an objectively correct answer: that stoning is right or wrong, and that this is something I can discover through logic, reflection, and education. If morality is simply an emotion I’m pre-programmed to feel then there isn’t much point to my agonizing about it. If that’s the case I can simply say “I don’t personally like stoning, but perhaps others don’t feel the same way. It’s all subjective anyway, so there is no need to bother about finding the ‘right’ answer.”

        As for the second half of your response, you seem to be implying that my argument is somehow hurt by the idea that a majority of people believe the proposition you’re holding. However my argument hinges on a simple idea: is that belief correct (that is, does it conform to actual reality) or is that belief simply a feeling that we have that isn’t based on anything except our brain architecture? If it is simply a feeling then it doesn’t matter one way or another what kind of society we have: any and all societies are equal as far as morality is concerned because morality is just a matter of inbred taste. However if there is a moral dimension to reality, then a certain society would be better than another even if nobody preferred it.

        As for the idea that a majority of humans prefer such a society, I’m afraid I’d have to say that the statement is contentious at best and is likely wrong. Ask your average citizen is China whether tolerance towards minorities or those with different ideas is something that should be preferred: ask the same question of many in the middle east, Indonesia, sections of Africa, and even some communities in Eastern Europe or my own country of America. Considering that China and Indonesia are some of the most populated countries in the world you may find yourself outvoted when it comes to an idea of what a preferred society is.

        And naturally your argument that moral understanding shifts throughout time is an interesting one. First, I find it fascinating that you use the phrase “moral understanding” instead of “moral preferences.” We can only have an advancing understanding of something if it’s real: if it’s an objective part of reality that can be argued about and studied and better understood over time. However if our morality simply stems from evolutionary brain architecture and culture then we can’t really say that our understanding of morality changes with time, just our experience of it. So the question is this: has our moral understanding advanced because morality is an actual, objective part of reality, or is morality in the end simply a feeling we have?

  3. This is an interesting discussion. Morality however, is so much more complex than feelings, like empathy. We have the ability to ignore our feelings and use some wisdom instead, such as helping somebody with painful physical therapy or not giving a drug addict money. We may have all the empathy in the world and yet we manage to resist giving in to it in favor of doing what we perceive is going to be more beneficial to somebody in the long run. This often costs us something, discomfort, rejection, disapproval. I cannot understand how evolution could evolve us to feel empathy and yet morality sometimes requires us to ignore it.

  4. All I’m saying is that those two positions appear to be contradictory.

    What you are saying…or what you are not saying in actual fact is that morality comes from your god and has nothing to do with evolution whatsoever.

    Please explain Divine Command Theory, Mark.

    • I don’t appreciate people telling me what I’m saying. I can usually figure out my own thoughts well enough.

      I personally do believe that the source of morality comes from the character of God. You don’t have to believe this in order to believe that moral truth exists: you could, for example, believe that morality exists as a kind of Platonic form. However I don’t believe that evolution has nothing to do with empathy or our moral senses. If moral truth exists than living a moral life should, on average, bring about more prosperity and happiness than living a non-virtuous life. If this is true then natural selection may select for those who are more empathetic or have a heightened moral sense. I have no problem if this is true. The point of this post is not to disprove or prove the role of evolution in the existence of our moral sense, but to discuss why evolution does not tell us whether our moral senses actually tell us anything about reality or not.

      As for Divine Command Theory, I don’t hold to it myself and I don’t think it’s relevant to this particular post. If you want we can talk about it when I make a post about how objective morality might work.

      • Ah, but it is relevant, in any discussion that includes or alludes to evolution, as you believe your god is the source of morality, ad this is where ultimately you reasoning is leading to.
        Yet your god behaves like a monster, and this behavior is justified by Christians under the auspice of DCT.
        And anything humans do pales by comparison.

        You argument always have the premise “goddidit” lurking in the background, thus your arguments swill always be slanted toward that end.

        Whereas a more honest approach, one that includes simple common sense will quickly arrive at the conclusion that no external; intervention of any sort is either present or required.

        But , of course, an approach as honest and open as this will kill your argument stone dead in an instant.

        This is one reason you are wont to ‘dissect” the answers of someone like Violetwisp.

      • You’re saying that Divine Command Theory is “relevant in any discussion that includes or alludes to evolution”? Okaaaaaay…Yeah, no, it really isn’t. Even if I believed in Divine Command Theory it wouldn’t be relevant to this post. Kind of random that you think it is.

        You say that my “god” behaves like a monster. Does this mean that you believe in objective morality? Do you believe that our moral senses tell us something real about reality, and that one of the real things it informs us about is that god behaves like a monster? If so, I’m glad that you accept that moral truth exists and I’d enjoy having a conversation with you about whether or not the god I believe in is a monster. But if you don’t believe in moral truth, then when you call my god a “monster” you’re really just saying that you don’t personally like the things my god supposedly does. Which is fine, but I don’t know why your personal preferences should be binding on me, any more than I should prefer your favorite flavor of ice cream to my own. So which is it: do you believe that some things are objectively right and wrong and that by that standard my god is a moral monster, or do you believe that morality has no objective basis and your comments are just personal opinion?

  5. Well, firstly, I don’t believe in gods. Yours or anyone else’s, Mark. So the idea of Divine Command theory is pure nonsense and I only raised it as it is a favorite of Apologists like WLC.

    Whatever morality ethics empathy etc etc we have is a result of evolution. Plain and simple.
    make of that what you will.
    If you need a god to justify your morality then I feel sorry for you.

    • I’m not sure why you keep bringing up Divine Command Theory, but alright. Glad we can table that now.

      I hear you say that whatever morality we have is the result of evolution, and I think you really believe that. However, at the same time, I have heard you mention on multiple occasions that the Christian God is evil, and that certain things (such as stoning apostates) are wrong. That’s what’s confusing to me. If you personally dislike the things that some people do or people claim God does that’s understandable, but why should your ideas of right and wrong be binding on me? Why should I conform to your tastes? If your moral senses gave you insight into objective reality it would make sense, but if your moral senses are the result of your brain architecture and evolution then your coming over here and calling my god “a monster” makes about as much sense as you coming over here and saying “Vanilla ice cream is terrible so nobody should like it!”

      I’m not sure what you mean by needing god to justify my morality. From my point of view God makes the more sense as the grounds of moral truth than, say, a Platonic Form would. You can disagree with me on that if you like, but considering you don’t believe in moral truth at all I’m not sure why you would feel sorry for me choosing God over Forms.

      • What you incapable of grasping, and I truly believe this is the result of years of indoctrination, is that I do not believe in gods…yours or anyone else’s.
        And the evidence presented so far by theists and every other person of a religious bent can be dismissed out of hand.
        However, the reason I object to such claims is that theists especially are commanded by their fictional narrative, the product of human an minds , to proselytize., causing emotional trauma to children especially.
        Look at yourself. You believe the earth is only 6000 years old.

        You think Islam is a false religion yet are perfectly at home with Christianity and believing dinosaurs co-existed with humans.

        That you believe you can offer a truly cogent argument on morality while still holding with the above views is incredulous.

        Apply common sense…not theistic philosophy or apologetics.

        Once you establish the bona fides of YOUR christian god then we can talk turkey.

        Until then…you have not a leg to stand on.

      • So you’re telling me that you can reject my argument out of hand not because of any flaw in my logic but because you already know that God doesn’t exist? That’s a pretty strong statement. You are so certain that God does not exist that you feel that any evidence presented that seems to support God must be rejected from the start. How are you so confident that God does not exist? You must have some pretty compelling evidence that God does not exist. What evidence do you have that is so strong that you feel it trumps any possible evidence for God?

        Also, I’m not sure why you would come to the conclusion that someone who believes the Earth is young and disbelieves in Islam cannot come to any cogent belief about morality. I don’t see how the two are related. Can’t people who may be wrong about some beliefs still hold other beliefs that are correct? Or do you believe that in order to be trusted someone must not hold any incorrect beliefs whatsoever?

        As it stands I’ve presented an argument for why evolution alone does not explain the existence of morality, and an argument stating that the only two logical choices are to believe in moral truth or nihilism. Since then I’ve pointed out that many of your comments seem to indicate a belief in moral truth, yet you appear to deny that any such thing exists. Your response is telling: instead of actually engaging any of my arguments you’ve “disproved” my argument by pointing out other beliefs I hold that may or may not be true. Imagine if you presented a compelling argument for the existence of morality in a naturalistic system (which would be nice to see in any case) and I responding by pointing out that you’re an atheist and then pretended that I didn’t have to say any more to refute you. That would be ridiculous: and yet it’s all you’ve done to me in this case. Please critique my argument as it stands: if you’re incapable of doing so I’ll request that you refrain from commenting further on this thread.

      • So you’re telling me that you can reject my argument out of hand not because of any flaw in my logic but because you already know that God doesn’t exist?

        Don;t be silly.
        I reject out of hand because of evidence: The total lack of verifiable evidence that you have to back up claims for your god.
        Thus any other claims you make that are inevitably based on this god can be summarily dismissed likewise.

        So to reiterate. First. Don’t preach philosophical arguments to to me.
        You believe in the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans.
        That is a very very tall order to swallow, and goes against the grain of every scientist on the planet.
        So. Demonstrate the bona fides of your god and we can talk turkey, okay?

      • This is a strange response as I haven’t yet made any claims about the existence or non-existence of morality based on belief in my God. So far I’ve stuck to using plain old logic and reasoning. As I’ve said many times you don’t even necessarily need a God to explain the existence of morality: Platonic Forms could work too. Since this is the case, I don’t know why you reject my line of reasoning in this post (and these comments). If I’ve asked you to take anything based on the existence of my God please point out what it is.

        As for showing evidence for the existence of God, I have only a few ways to do it and all of them will take some time to lay out properly. Apart from my own personal experiences of God (which I shouldn’t expect to be particularly persuasive to anyone else and thus won’t present them as hard evidence for God) I believe that the argument from morality and the argument from reason both show powerful evidence for the existence of God. In this blog post I’m laying out the foundation of the first step of the moral argument: discussing whether or not moral truth exists. If it exists then we can continue and I can discuss why I think the existence of moral truth is evidence for the existence of God: if you reject moral truth then obviously the moral argument will not be persuasive to you. The question I keep asking you, and which you seem to be particularly resistant to answering, is whether or not you believe in moral truth.

      • You see, and immediately you prove the point by stating in your reply that once you have established your view on morality you will then work mass -backwards to demonstrate your god.
        It doesn’t work like this, as you are approaching this whole issue on the premise hat your god is real, otherwise you would have no reason to even raise the issue, now would you?

        So. lets’ back up and do it honestly.
        You believe morality is derived from your god.

        Produce verifiable evidence of your god then we can proceed.

      • I don’t know where you get the idea that this issue is based “on the premise that your god is real.” Actually the premise is based on the fact that we experience moral sensations, and that logically those sensations either corresopond to reality or are merely evolutionaraly useful illusions. Name one thing in this post that assumes that God must exist. Point out one line that requires that presumption to be logical.

        Either do that or engage with my argument in purely logical terms. Or, alternatively, stop commenting before you make yourself look silly.

      • I am talking about your premise. Your premise for everything is your god.

        This is where you believe you derive your morals.
        If you do not believe this then please say so.

        Meantime…provide verifiable evidence of your god and then we can talk morals all night.

      • This is getting tedious. Really, you couldn’t find one sentence? An actual quote? I mean I knew you wouldn’t but I figured you might, you know, try.

        You seem to think that my argument is

        1. God exists

        2. Therefore Moral Truth exists

        In reality what I’m arguing is

        1. Evolution cannot provide foundation for the existance of moral truth, only the exestance of moral feelings.

        2. Therfore you should either believe that moral truth exists independently of evolution or you should be a nihilist.

        I’ll give you one last chance Ark. Either actually engage with my argument or stop wasting my time. Unless I get an actual criticism of the argument I’ve presented (or actual evidence that I’m starting with God as a premise) I’m going to be sending your comments to the trash where they belong.

  6. Just reading through your conversation with Ark. I think you make reasonable points on this post and in the comments, and I kind of understand where your confusion lies. But given the contradictions in the Bible, I don’t think Christianity gives any clearer idea about the reality of this notion of ‘moral truth’ than we do looking at the evolutionary model. Our sense of morality is obviously relative to our circumstances – for example, there is, in fact, a reasonable argument for stoning in primitive societies. In times where you don’t have facilities to contain dangerous people (a murderer for example) and you can’t offer any kind of therapy to help them control their behaviour, for the safety of your community, death may have been the only option. With stoning, everyone is taking joint responsibility for the action. Any kind of death penalty in this day and age is immoral, because we have many other ways to deal with problematic behaviour and we have evidence to show us that mistakes are often made. So, I guess I would have to say that there is only our best guess at the least harmful and most useful course of action in any situation, but that this is dependent on a whole host of mitigating circumstances. There is no moral truth but usual most humans given the same evidence will come to similar conclusions because of how are brains have formed.

    • This is a great comment, and there is so much I want to say in response that I’m going to simply make a blog post about it. Hopefully it will come up later today, keep an eye out.

      • Okay, I can guess where you’re going with it. But I hope you clarify why belief in your god God gives access to a clear moral ‘truth’. Euthanasia is an excellent example of a subject where there is no right or wrong – every case would have to be weighed on the individual circumstances, with the ultimate decision down the person who’s suffering.

      • You know a funny thing happened: I started writing the post, and then I got an idea that just snowballed and the next thing I knew I had about 800 words and still hadn’t gotten anywhere near responding to your comment. So I guess I’ll just put my thoughts here instead.

        Firstly, at this point I’m not arguing for Christianity. I’m simply arguing that the way your approach things makes it appear as if you believe in moral truth, yet you deny that our moral senses are anything more than the product of natural selection and culture. I can understand why you might have some real problems with Christianity, but I’m not asking that you become a Christian. With that in mind, I think your response is interesting because it highlights the contradiction I keep observing.

        For example, your make the argument that stoning was arguably morally acceptable in more primitive societies where the facilities to contain dangerous people didn’t exist. However you don’t consider stoning people morally correct today. The implication, I believe, is that if moral truth existed then stoning people would either be right or wrong and would stay that way regardless of circumstance.
        However I would say that this is a very crude understanding of moral truth. While the circumstances may have changed in your example I would say the moral value you hold hasn’t: respect for human life, justice, and the idea of joint responsibility. You believe that human life is valuable and should be protected. In the primitive scenario the only way to protect innocent human life may be to kill someone who wants to harm or destroy it: in the modern scenario there are other alternatives. Since human life is valuable you reason that even the life of a murderer should be preserved if viable alternatives exist. The circumstances change but the moral truth is question (human life is valuable) remains the same.

        You often talk about using reason and logic to come to moral conclusions. This makes perfect sense if morality is something that is real and we can discover. If there is indeed a “good” that exists, and if there divergence from this good is “evil” then we can argue about what the best thing to do is, and whether it’s right to stone apostates, or anyone, or whether euthanasia is ever justified or not, or whether homosexual marriage should be legalized, or whether it’s ever okay to discriminate. And people who believe that there is a right answer will come to different conclusions for different reasons and that’s okay. We can all argue about it and try to understand what the best way to achieve “the good” is.

        However if our sense of right and wrong is an illusion created through natural selection then it’s not much use to argue about what is right or wrong, or ask whether certain circumstances justify certain acts. It’s all just a matter of opinion. Do you feel it’s okay to harm others? Yikes, I’ll stay away from you because I feel like others should be protected, but I won’t try to argue with you about it. I mean, why should I consider my preferences to be better than yours? Why should I claim that my brain architecture is the right one and yours is wrong? Why should I try to convince you to support LBGTQ rights, or to be nice to people? That’s like trying to convince someone who hates mayonnaise that they actually like it. It’s pointless. You have what’s right for you and I have what’s right for me and it’s all subjective in the end anyway.

        You claim that you fall in the second camp (“There is no moral truth”) yet talk as if you’re in the first camp (“Any kind of death penalty in this day and age is immoral”).

        You don’t have to be a Christian to believe in moral truth. Heck, as I’ve said before, you don’t even have to be a theist. I’m just wondering which camp you are really in, and I’m wanting you to examine whether how you behave matches us with what you say you believe.

  7. Yes, I see what you mean, it is kind of confusing because of the vocabulary. I did go through a phase of avoiding using the term ‘morality’ because in general I think it’s a misleading label. But for ease of communication I’ve slipped back into using it. The labels you use, like ‘moral truth’ and ‘nihilism’ are in general meaningless to me – I think they come with a whole cart load of assumptions from the days of ignorance in which they were conceived.

    The use of the death penalty in this day and age is unjustifiable. We can contain people who pose a threat to others in safe areas; there are a number of interventions that be used in an attempt to rehabilitate criminals and let them return to open society; and we know that our criminal justice system can make significant mistakes. This is logic, these are sound reasons. I can’t think of any reasons why someone should be killed for a criminal act. I don’t need to use the word ‘immoral’ to explain this.

    None of this rides on a ‘moral truth’ that human life is precious. It’s a simple understanding that everyone has similar experiences in life, and I don’t want other people to suffer, and most people don’t want other people to suffer. It doesn’t have to be anything grander than this. If you feel comfortable labelling this is ‘nihilism’ then feel free, but I think that view comes from an overthink in the early days of society losing religion. I don’t believe the world fits into those either/or predefined boxes.

    • Then I’m left with a very confused understanding about what you actually believe. Again you seem to embrace moral truth (you argue that the death penalty is objectively wrong and you give logical reasons as to why, all riding on the idea that it is wrong to unnecesarrily take human life) yet you reject that moral truth exists (you say that you believe all this simply because you personally don’t want anyone to suffer and that’s it). I can understand that you personally don’t want anyone to suffer, but if that is merely a feeling and doesn’t actually say anything about reality then why anyone be bound by your desires? Why should anyone feel obligated to feel the same way you do? If a psychopath decides that he likes causing suffering just fine and he’ll do it to anyone he likes what right do you have to say that he shouldn’t? As long as he doesn’t harm you or anyone you know then you don’t really have a say. Yet on your blog I’ve seen you call out people for doing things you think are wrong. The arizona discrimination bill comes to mind. I believe the title of that post was “Woe to Those who Make Unjust Laws.” Yet apparently you believe that justice doesn’t actually exist, and merely describes a state that you and many others might happen to like.

      What I really want to know is what you actually believe about the nature of right or wrong: if you reject the labels I’ve provided then what can you offer yourself? I can understand why you don’t want other people to suffer, and why other people agree with you on that: but why you believe that actually matters is what’s curious to me.

      • “I can understand why you don’t want other people to suffer, and why other people agree with you on that: but why you believe that actually matters is what’s curious to me.”
        I’m concerned that such a natural instinct seems ‘curious’ to you. Aside from that, perhaps it’s part of the human condition to feel bound to the other parts of the existence that we share. It could be as simple as seeking out happy chemicals that we’re more likely to experience when other people are experiencing happy chemicals.

        “Woe to those who make unjust laws” was an ironic quote right back at Christians from the Bible. Perhaps if I’d never met a gay person affected by discrimination, or never watched a tv programme or read a book depicting their lives, I wouldn’t be so incensed by things like that.

        Anyway, we’re probably going round in circles. I still don’t understand why you think the Christian belief system makes this any clearer.

      • When I say that it’s “curious” to me I simply mean that I find it curious that you seem to believe that morality simply consists of personal feelings that are the result of brain architecture and culture and at the same time believe that morality actually matters. The two beliefs seem contradictory to me and I’m still trying to figure out how you hold both of them at the same time.

        You say that “perhaps if I’d never met a gay person affected by discrimination….I wouldn’t be so incensed by things like that.” Alright, let’s say that you never met a gay person affected by discrimination. Would that make discrimination against gays any less wrong?

        Again it all comes down to the “should” question. You keep telling me reasons “why” you feel some things are right and other things are wrong, but you haven’t provided any reason why people “should” feel the same way. I believe people should do certain things because there are moral truths that they should stay conformed to (such as respecting the value of human life, the concept of justice, etc.). Why do you believe that people should do some things as opposed to other things? It can’t be because you personally feel that they should…or is that what you believe?

        Again, I’m not even at Christianity yet. However I do think that recognizing that there are moral truths does make things clearer. It doesn’t yet reveal what all those truths are but it allows us to begin our journey to discover what those truths are.

      • “I find it curious that you seem to believe that morality simply consists of personal feelings that are the result of brain architecture and culture and at the same time believe that morality actually matters.”
        I remember when I was a Christian in my school days arguing with my atheist Physics teacher about his choice to spend his life teaching, rather than (if he really believed this was all there was to life) going out and living like Madonna. Because surely if the god God didn’t exist people would all go and pursue exciting and crazy lifestyles! I think trying to fit our imagination of the atheist understanding of life into a Christian head results in a good deal of confusion. I can only assume a similar process is driving your questioning here.

        1. I have an instinct (from nature and nurture) to behave empathetically towards life on the planet.
        2. Logic, experience and evidence all show me that my life (and the lives of those I empathetically feel for on this planet) are all nicer if I treat other life on this planet nicely.
        3. Therefore I should treat all life on this planet nicely.

      • You misunderstand my motivation. I’m perfectly aware that people who don’t believe in moral truth can live moral lives. I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t even expect you to go crazy if you are a nihilist. What I don’t understand is how you can logically hold that that our moral senses are merely the result of brain architecture and culture and they are at the same time somehow important and binding on others. That someone is “bad” if they do something that goes against your moral instincts (as you put it) and someone is “good” if they follow them. I’m trying to understand by what logical right you can say that someone is wrong if they do things that reduce the amount of “niceness” (as you put it) on the planet.

        Have you ever read “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”? It’s an essay on ethics that’s written like fiction. I put a link below. If you have time read it and let me know what you would do if you were in that particular situation. That might help me understand your position a little better.

        Click to access rprnts.omelas.pdf

      • Okay, I’ll try and remember to come back to this when I’ve got time to read it. I’m still not clear why you didn’t accept my ‘should’ explanation. What part of that doesn’t result in a sense of obligation? If something is natural to me and logically the best course of action, I’m obliged to follow it. Unless I’m insane.

      • It certainly results in a sense of obligation, but not any obligation that is binding on others. It’s just a feeling that you happen to have. If someone comes along with no such sense of obligation and starts hurting people I would say that he’s wrong to do so and is still obligated to be moral regardless of whether he feels obligated or not. I’m just wondering what you would say in a similar situation: it seems to me that you would call the actions of such a person wrong as well (lets say he’s the selfish and shortsighted industrialist we talked about in one of the early comments, or someone who is openly a bigot). If so, why should that person feel obliged to follow the same rules that you feel obliged to follow? And what is really “wrong” about him having different values than you anyway?

  8. What I don’t understand ……

    It’s not a crime to say ”I don’t know”, Mark, but it would seem highly irresponsible to credit all these “I don’t knows” and “I don’t understands….” to a deity, simply because we haven’t worked out the scientific reason as of yet, don’t you think?

    • If you’re quoting from my response to violetwisp’s comment, I was simply saying that I don’t understand her metaphysical position on morality. It seems contradictory to me and I want to know more about what she believes. This is clear from the comment itself.

      Which makes me wonder if you’ve gone absolutely insane. What in blazes are you talking about? What exactly am I attributing to a diety here? And what scientific reason could be “worked out” someday to explain violetwisp’s personal metaphysical beliefs?

  9. Brandon McGinnis

    Mark, I really enjoyed this post. Clear and concise. I applaud your patience with Ark. A lesser man would have said something mean by now. Bravo.

  10. I’ve always disliked the use of the word morality because that’s generally confused with arbitrary religious dogma. A woman may be considered ‘immoral’ for not wearing a veil, despite head coverings not being directly related to genuinely ethical concepts.

    We, mankind, invented, or if you prefer, ‘discovered’ ethics. As such it exists as the reflection of our study of the human condition and society. Millenniums ago we decided that it was in our benefit to codify these beliefs and laws were created. There’s nothing that need be supernatural about this process. It’s simply yet another method that benefitted the survival of our species. As we developed we realized that survival alone wasn’t enough, so we expanded on the concepts of rights and human dignity. Most recently even animal rights. And still there’s no necessary god-connection.

    • Indeed, morality can be hard to define. I like to define it as “what is right and what is wrong” myself, but that’s vague enough to cause a whole bushel of other problems.

      “We, mankind, invented, or if you prefer, ‘discovered’ ethics.”

      I’m aware that this is your stance, and I’m aware of what follows from it. However simply stating your position does nothing to defeat the idea that mankind did not invent morality but that morality exists in an objective form outside of humanity. Can you provide an argument, instead of a statement of belief? How would you convince someone who disagreed with you (like myself, for example)?

  11. Easily. Dogmatic morality differs from religion to religion, from culture to culture.
    I do think we could make an argument for ethics standing alone and that would depend on eudaimonic balance- one’s rights balanced by the rights of the next being.
    Still, none of this relates to a supernatural being, much less a specific supernatural being like an Abrahamic god. Religious ‘morality’ because of its arbitrary nature doesn’t genuinely relate to ethics.

    • It is true that religions often differ on their idea of what is good, but that has little to do with the question of whether there is a good to be had at all, or whether good is a purely human invention.

      For example, if morality is a human invention than the concept of “human rights” is also an invention and can be discarded if neccesary. If, however, there are objective standards of morality that exist independent and unchanged by mankind we can say that human rights might possibly be one of those objective standards. The point I’m trying to make here is that people should be consistant in what they believe, and if you believe that morality is a human invention then you should recognize that the concept of human rights, cruelty, compassion, etc., are also human inventions and merely illusions created through the natural process of evolution: much like my mad scientist’s pills in the post above. The question is, which do we have a surer belief in: the existance of human rights, or that morality is an invention with no basis in actual reality? For myself I find it harder to believe that human rights don’t exist. Perhaps you may find the other option more believable. That’s fine, just be sure to be consistant in those beliefs.

  12. I see a confusion in definitions. Because something is invented doesn’t mean it’s a fantasy. A philosophical concept isn’t a fantasy or less real because it was created by man. It’s simply a study or the framing of a concept.
    That’s what I meant earlier about ethics being a eudaimonic balance of rights (& powers/responsibilities). Slavery was always ethically wrong from that framework because one side had benefits at the expense of the other side. No magic pill necessary, rather, we have a mathematical equation. One we can juxtapose on any period of history and come up with a picture regarding quality of life for the populace.
    That’s the only effective way to approach ethics, everything else suffers from tremendous biases and errors of all varieties; Some being very obvious.
    Have you ever noticed how some people are terribly outraged that some cultures eat animals that we keep as pets? Technically that means they’ve created an arbitrary list that says we can eat cows, chickens, lamb, goats, rabbit, fish etc- but not cats, dogs or baby seals- Logically, that’s failed reasoning. I leave you with Segismundo’s monologue:
    “We live, while we see the sun,
    Where life and dreams are as one;
    And living has taught me this,
    Man dreams the life that is his,
    Until his living is done.
    The king dreams he is king, and he lives
    In the deceit of a king,
    Commanding and governing;
    And all the praise he receives
    Is written in wind, and leaves
    A little dust on the way
    When death ends all with a breath.
    Where then is the gain of a throne,
    That shall perish and not be known
    In the other dream that is death?
    Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
    The fears that his riches breed;
    The poor man dreams of his need,
    And all his sorrows and tears;
    Dreams he that prospers with years,
    Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
    Dreams he that rails on his foes;
    And in all the world, I see,
    Man dreams whatever he be,
    And his own dream no man knows.
    And I too dream and behold,
    I dream I am bound with chains,
    And I dreamed that these present pains
    Were fortunate ways of old.
    What is life? a tale that is told;
    What is life? a frenzy extreme,
    A shadow of things that seem;
    And the greatest good is but small,
    That all life is a dream to all,
    And that dreams themselves are a dream.

  13. I wouldn’t define myself as either of those. If you want a label, I’d say I’m a Post Kantian Moral Universalist.

    • Universalism is typically a realist philosophy of morality: would you consider yourself a realist Universalist or a non-realist Universalist?

      • A measured realist. I have to qualify this because of the variety of experience.
        e.g. Black eagles always lay two eggs. The first hatches around a week or ten days before the other. Once the second hatches the older sibling will peck at the other incessantly, until it dies. Dolphins sacrifice their offspring which they instinctively believe can’t ‘make-it’. So we have to make room for adaptive animal morality when considering things like brood control.

      • That’s an interesting approach. My own philosophical instinct would be to say that such things are examples of the fallen nature of the world itself, so that now even nature is at least partially in deviation to the Good. But then, I am a Christian and that does inform my ethics.

      • But is ‘fallen’ entirely accurate? The baby black eagle knows there are only enough resources for one of them. Is its self-preservation unethical?

      • I think it’s debatable whether a young, newly hatched black eagle “knows” that there are only enough resources for one of them. This may not even be the case in reality, as there may be sufficient resources for two baby black eagles at this particular point in time. But as for the central question, I have struggled with that myself. I believe self-preservation is important, but I’m not sure it as a motivation makes all things ethical. If I was on a boat stranded in the Pacific with three men, and there was only enough for two, I don’t believe it would be ethical to throw one of the men overboard, or to kill him and eat him. Still it is a thorny problem. I have decided that if I was ever in such a scenario where one of us must die so that the others can live I would choose to sacrifice myself. Though, again, this is from a very Christian perspective: “no greater love has man than this, that he lay his life down for his friends” and all that.

      • Your thinking formats are very interesting. Although very good, you sometimes let yourself wander. I hope you don’t mind if I make a suggestion.
        I think you can take your mental organizational skills to new heights if you take the (free) Stanford course:
        Your ability to reason deserves a certain refinement which I think that will give you. Please don’t think I’m being condescending- on the contrary. I think most people can’t process the information in that course. I just think the mathematics of it will help you de-clutter.

      • Perhaps, and I do enjoy free educational opportunities. I look forward to looking through it. I may get back to you with my thoughts, if I don’t get too busy and distracted to remember to do so!

      • Stanford always looks good on a CV! 🙂

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