There are two senses in which something can be considered good. Something can be good in a pragmatic sense: that which is the most effective means for obtaining some desired outcome. For example, if we desire to eat an ice cream cone without getting ice cream on our clothes, it is “good” to start eating from the top of the cone rather than the bottom. This kind of goodness is judged by something’s utility. It is considered good because it works well, and the human subject values the fact that it works well. We might call this kind of goodness “pragmatic goodness.”
Something can also be good in the sense that it has intrinsic moral virtue/character. For example, it is “good” to try to save someone who is drowning. This kind of goodness is judged by the intrinsic moral character of the act itself, rather than its utility. Indeed, risking one’s life to save a stranger has little utility for the rescuer, but great moral virtue nonetheless. This sort of goodness is not determined by what we desire or the value we attach to the outcome, but is rooted in the moral character of the act itself, wholly independent of what any human may think about it. We might call this kind of goodness “moral goodness.” This is the kind of goodness moral philosophers have in mind when they talk about objective morality.
While many atheists admit that in the absence of God there is no foundation for objective moral values, some atheists such as Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, claim to believe in the existence of objective moral values without the existence of God. Where do objective moral values come from, then? Evolution, they say. On this view, the struggle for survival favors certain behaviors over others. Those behaviors that aid in our survival and evolution are what we call “good.” Those that are detrimental to our survival and evolution are what we call “evil.” Since all humans have to exhibit these behaviors to survive and thrive in the world (universal), and since their truth is based on the way the world works rather than on personal opinion, they are objective as well.
Does an evolutionary account of morality truly account for the existence of objective morality? No. Two mistakes are being made: confusing pragmatism for morality, and confusing universality for objectivity.
Pragmatism vs. Morality
Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, et al consistently equivocate on the meaning of good, confusing what is pragmatically good for what is morally good. While doing some action X may help one to survive or flourish (i.e. it is pragmatic), that does not necessarily mean that action X is moral. We can imagine many acts that may help a person or species survive, but that are morally evil. For example, raping females could serve to further the survival of one’s own genes or species, but that pragmatic concern does not make rape moral. Cowardice can also aid one’s survival, but cowardice is not a moral virtue. It would be wrong then to assume, then, that pragmatic goodness is identical to moral goodness.
Actions that produce ends we desire (such as survival) may be good in the pragmatic sense, but that says nothing about the moral virtue of the acts themselves. The moral virtue of the acts is a separate question. On an evolutionary account of morality, the outcome is only good because sentient creatures value it, and the behavior that is necessary to obtain the desired outcome is only good in an instrumental sense – because it allows us to get the desired outcome, which we value. The goodness of the behavior and the end for which we engage in the behavior are pragmatic and subjective since the goodness is based on the subject’s estimation and valuation of the behavior and outcome. Even if all sentient creatures value that outcome, and even if doing a particular behavior will always result in that desired outcome, there is nothing intrinsic to either that bears the quality of moral virtue. Goodness is imposed on them by sentient minds, and thus they are only subjectively and pragmatically good, not objectively and intrinsically good (morally virtuous). Our desire for a particular outcome does not create moral value in that outcome. For the outcome to be morally virtuous in an objective sense, it must have intrinsic moral value – a value derived from a source independent of human minds. Evolution may determine which behaviors are useful for survival, but evolution is silent on the moral virtue of those behaviors, and thus an evolutionary theory of morality cannot account for objective morality.
Universality vs. Objectivity
Those who attempt to explain objective morality by appealing to evolution also err by mistaking universality for objectivity. While it may be true that certain actions always result in a desired outcome for all who do them, the universality of this cause and effect relationship does not, in itself, make the behavior objectively good because being universal is not the same as being objective. To see why, imagine a world in which everyone thought vanilla ice cream is the best flavor of ice cream. Though this point of view would be universal, it would not be objective because it describes the beliefs of human subjects rather than a quality that inheres within the ice cream itself. An exhaustive examination of the physical constituents of vanilla ice-cream will never turn up a feature describable as “good.” The goodness is only in the mind of the subject who considers the object good.
When goodness is based on what humans think about the object rather than something within the object itself, it is a subjective form of goodness (the judgment that it is good depends on the human subject’s thoughts regarding it). Even if all humans value certain behaviors and outcomes because those behaviors and outcomes aid in our survival and flourishing, the goodness of those behaviors and outcomes is still rooted in what humans value rather than in the behaviors and outcomes themselves. As such, an evolutionary account of morality can only provide us with a subjective view of morality, not an objective view. Morals are relative. Even if morals are relative to everyone in the same way, they are relative nonetheless.
It’s similar to the game of Monopoly. The rules of the game apply to everyone that plays it. In that sense, they are universal. But there is nothing objective about the rules of monopoly. There may be pragmatic reasons for the rules, and the rules may result in the best game possible, but there is nothing objectively true about them. While receiving $200 for passing “Go” is good because it helps you win the game, there is nothing objectively good about passing “Go” and collecting $200.
At best, then, an evolutionary explanation of morality can provide us with a universal version of moral relativism. What it cannot explain is what needs to be explained: the origin of objective morality.
Evolution cannot account for the existence of objective morality. At best, evolution can supply us with universal practicalities that, when followed, result in human flourishing. But human flourishing is not the same as moral goodness. It is a pragmatic good, not a moral good. In the end, evolution is incapable of grounding objective moral values or providing a metaphysical foundation for the good. Only the existence of a personal and omnibenevolent God can explain the existence of objective moral values and our obligation to obey these moral values.
- No God, no morality
- Why Atheists Can’t Have Objective Morality
- Can Morality be Grounded Outside of God?
- I can be good without God
- Since you would be good even if God didn’t exist, then God is not necessary for morality
- What I’ve Been Reading – Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality
- Morality and the Epistemology-Ontology Distinction
- Yes Moral Facts are Obvious, but the Question is Why?
- Ruse’s Evolutionary Account of Morality
- The Typical Atheist’s Response to the Moral Argument for God’s Existence
That’s not to say morally virtuous acts do not have utilitarian value, but only that their only value is not their utility. Their primary value derives from the intrinsic moral nature of the acts themselves.