Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is the theory of evolution normative?

A lot of people object to the theory of evolution on normative grounds, that is, because evolution says that people should behave in certain ways. To take a radical example, according to the theory of evolution men who rape has gained some sort of evolutionary advantage, and that is why the behavior still exists in many different species today. Speaking in evolutionary terms an individual can gain fitness through rape. Confused people (Russ Tanner in this video is confused on other issues besides this) who mistakenly thinks that the theory of evolution is normative goes on to argue that according to the theory of evolution, rape is good.

This is of course wrong. The theory of evolution says absolutely nothing about how we should behave. The theory of evolution, in other words is descriptive. It describes what the world is like and the mechanisms that are at work, it doesn't say what the world should be like or whether status quo is good or bad.

So independent of whether you want a communist or a liberal society, whether you want like or dislike a certain behavior that the theory of evolution predicts. Independent of what your opinion is, the theory of evolution can help you get you where you want to go because you can learn important lessons about human nature. Ignoring or trying to deny our natural instincts will just make things harder for you…

Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature

Ps: Also see my post "Ethics of an atheist"

12 comments:

kyle said...

Anders,
Nice blog! I appreciate that there is actually dialogue between those with differing views, rather than hostility and ranting. Thanks for moderating the discussion in this way.

Some background: I am an Evangelical (non-fundamentalist) Christian who accepts the general validity of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.

I didn't watch the video link you provided but I turned it on long enough to know that I would disagree with what was said. The truth of evolution does not depend on whether it produces "good" people. Arguing in the extreme that evolution produces rapists and murderers does not logically negate the theory. Assuming that rape is "bad," which is the view of most societies, does not mean that if evolution produces "bad" people then it didn't happen. It would be entirely consistent logically if rapists were favored by evolution (descriptively) and most people believed rape to be morally/ethically wrong.

The interesting question to me is why most societies view rape and murder as "wrong" and "bad."

This question is amplified by your "Ethics of an atheist" post. First, grouping all "religious people" together as being "good" only to gain access to heaven and avoiding "evil" only because they fear hell is misguided. There are undoubtedly people who think this way, but they are not representative of true Christian doctrine or the best of Christian thought and articulation. In fact, in Protestant Christianity salvation can never be merited by any amount of doing good. Dawkins uses the same caricature of "religious people," and it smacks of a straw man.

Theists do question atheists on the basis of morality and ethics, but not because they think heaven and hell are necessary to motivate right behavior. The question is why is anything good or bad, right or wrong. For the Christian, the moral order is objective and rooted in the nature of God.

For the atheist, right and wrong are simply social constructs. One may come up with an ethical system that can be used to determine right behavior, but what makes one system better than another? You mention utilitarianism and the "original position," but why is there such a thing as "happiness" and why is it better than despair? Why is eliminating suffering for the poor and oppressed to be desired? What inherent value do they have that we should give up some of our happiness so that they do not suffer?

I am not familiar enough with these ethical systems to know how the atheist answers these questions. I am very interested in finding out. I hope you will share with me some of your thoughts on the matter.

Felicia Gilljam said...

Kyle, all of those questions - about why happiness is good, etc - have their answers in evolutionary theory. Please read the rest of my comment knowing I'm simplifying things a lot, though.

First of all, happiness/pleasure and depression/pain are the mechanisms by which your brain rewards you for good behaviour and punishes you for bad behaviour. If an action makes you happy or is pleasurable, chances are it's also good for you from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, finding food with a lot of sugar and fat used to be difficult, but in small doses well worth it, which is why we're predisposed to indulge now that it's widely available. Similarly, pain is your body's way of teaching you to stay away from things that hurt you physically.

Secondly, ethics are not "simply" a social construct, but are based on instincts we humans, being social animals, are born with. Because we are entirely dependent on being part of a functioning group to survive and procreate, doing things that harms other members of the group will be bad for you. Hence we are born with a moral imperative not to hurt those who are part of your "tribe". In former days the tribe was much smaller than it is now - I consider my tribe to be all of humanity.

This means that there is no such thing as an objective moral system, BUT, there is an intersubjective one. By intersubjective, I mean that although morals are invented by us, all of us invent roughly the same morals. The vast majority of societies have rules against murder, theft, etc. (For the record, rape within marriage isn't considered "bad" in a lot of patriarchal societies where women are considered the property of their husbands. It's considered not to exist, as husbands have the right to their wife's body. This behaviour can also be easily explained with biology, but that obviously doesn't make it acceptable.) This is a good foundation for our morals and something we can then build upon.

Also, all atheists don't think religious people are good because they want to get into heaven or avoid being bad because they're afraid of hell. I think you strive to be good because, like me, you were born with those instincts. You're a moral animal whether you like it or not. ;) Let me ask you a question: Could God, if he wanted, change his mind about what is good and bad? Could God reverse his commandments and for instance make murder morally defensible?

kyle said...

Felicia,
Thanks for the thoughtful and enlightening reply.

Perhaps because you were "simplifying things a lot," I still have some questions. It seems to me that those who deny an objective moral system have a difficult time giving up on the idea completely. When speaking of ethics and morality, there is something beyond evolutionary instinct involved in determining right and wrong, according to your discussion and those of others. What is this additional something?

For example, you mention societies where rape within marriage is not regarded as "bad," and that there are biological explanations for this behavior. Yet you also declare that this does not make it "acceptable." So you seem to agree that this practice of rape is "wrong" and "bad." On what grounds? If "ethics are based on instincts" and these rapes are motivated by instinct, how can one say that they are immoral or unacceptable?

Could you also explain further the comment "this (intersubjective system) is a good foundation for our morals and something we can then build upon"? What more is there to build beyond the instinctual, intersubjective system? What is external to the system of biological instinct that could bring improvement to the "foundation"? And how can any one system be built up above and determined superior to another?

Anders clarified that evolution is descriptive, not normative; that evolution informs us about human nature, but it falls on us to decide what a person should do. Again, on what basis can a "should" be developed that is not rooted in evolutionary human nature?

I know, I ask a lot of questions. But I am curious, and I am sure your answers will be enlightening.

You did have one question for me, which I will now answer. I don't know exactly what you are getting at. I suppose it is along the line of: assume there is a God who has determined a objective moral system. if this God can change the moral system, then the system is not absolute because it is subject to change at any time.

My answer is that if the Christian God exists, then he cannot change what is good or bad. The moral system is not arbitrarily selected by God. Rather, it is an extension of the unchanging nature of God. The omnipotence of God is a limited omnipotence. God can do anything consistent with his nature. He cannot make murder "good."

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the comments, Kyle and Felicia,

Dawkins, in The God Delusion frequently points out that a christian person should have some trouble deciding what is good and what is bad. Should we do like Jesus and leave our families to follow Jesus? That is what he demanded of his apostels. Is it ok to work at the sabbath? Not according to the old testament God... The bible, as far as I have understood (I have never read the entire bible) is full of moral contradictions and that is where human subjectivity steps in to decide what is the true moral guidelines of God, and what is "just symbolic".

As an atheist I think that humans themselves have to decide what moral principles we want to endorse. I say we because I think it is essential that the human race, to the extent possible, decides on a common system. I think that the United Nations has developed some nice guidelines.

These rights will be chosen arbitrarily in some sense. However, I think that most people on earth can agree that it is a good thing to minimize suffering on earth just to take on example.

Looking forward to your responses

Z said...

Maybe a bit off topic, but today i ask non-religious people, what they see as good intentions

kyle said...

Anders,
It is a stretch to say that the Bible is full of moral contradictions. Perhaps in a later post I will go into more detail on this, but that can wait.

I will grant that it is possible that a Christian could have uncertainty about biblical interpretation which leads to uncertainty about God's moral system. Also, the Bible does not cover every possible situation and there can be Christians who disagree with each other about what is "right" in a given situation.

However, this is a fundamentally different situation than the "arbitrary" ethical framework for the atheist. It is one thing to have a true objective morality which one does not have complete knowledge of. It is quite another to have no objective morality. For the Christian, the moral system is part of reality; for the atheist ethics and morals are simply products of evolutionary development and/or social agreements.

I am glad that you and others believe that minimizing suffering on earth is to be desired. But there is no necessary reason that you should believe this. If this impulse arises from a drive toward kin selection, then it is simply a by-product of natural selection. The principle is not "real" in any absolute sense, and there is no basis for declaring other stances "wrong" or "bad." It is conceivable that genocidal tendencies would develop through evolution. The systematic destruction of a neighboring "tribe" cannot consistently be declared "wrong" by the atheist. They can say that they feel it is wrong or evil, or that most of society agrees that it is wrong/evil, but not that it is wrong/evil.

This is where I perceive inconsistency in many presentations of atheist ethics. Most can't seem to resist speaking of certain actions or positions as wrong in an absolute sense.

rasmussenanders said...

What is your opinion of Noah's ark. Do you believe that it actually happened? Did God do the right thing when he committed mass genocide?

kyle said...

I thought I was asking the questions here! :) It is certainly true that pointing out possibe contradictions or inconsistencies in another viewpoint is easier than a rigorous defense of one's own views. This is not an accusation - just an observation that applies to both of us. I hope that the questions help us both think through our beliefs.

I will admit to being unnecessarily dismissive of your charge that the Bible is full of moral contradictions. There are thousands of years separating us and the biblical writers, and great care and consideration is required for proper biblical interpretation. Even so, some texts are difficult, but not fatally so. Also, interpretation has a subjective component, but it is not arbitrary. There is a wealth of scholarship regarding proper hermeneutics.

As to your specific question, I must be relatively brief. My view is that the Genesis flood most likely did not happen. My reason is not because it would be immoral of God to destroy humanity. Rather, I pick up clues from the text (e.g. the sequence and timing of God's promise to make a covenant with Noah) that suggest that this is not a historical narrative. I think the theological purpose of the narrative is to illustrate the kind of judgment that humanity separated from God deserves, and God's selection and protection of Noah represents the mercy of God in withholding such judgment and his election of the nation of Israel to serve as a vehicle to offer salvation to all of humanity.

But, there are other parts of the Bible where God kills people in judgment and I would accept that these events happened. We are all going to die, and God has the right to determine when that happens, and to bring the consequences of one's separation from him into the present situation. The difference between God killing and a human killing is that God has complete understanding and does not act arbitrarily out of anger or out of selfish motives. This is but a brief sketch of an admittedly complex topic, and I'm sure only sparks further questions and objections in your mind, which will have to do for now.

While you are pressing me on your perceived inconsistencies in Christianity, which is welcome, I want to continue to seek clarification of atheist ethics in regard to the inconsistencies I perceive. Namely, while there is no basis to declare any action as absolutely or objectively wrong, I sense that many atheists often make such declarations when discussing things they are opposed to.

I find nihilist ethics to be consistent with atheism. If there is an old woman carrying groceries across the street there is no moral difference between helping her across and killing her. A system of manmade ethics, agreed upon by the majority, could also be consistent with atheism. But this system can never declare other systems wrong, or any specific actions wrong.

When the atheist opposes, say, the mass genocide taking place in Darfur, he cannot say that these killings are objectively "wrong." He can say that "most people are hardwired by evolution to feel that murder is wrong" and "many people feel like we should help those who are suffereing." But these feelings are simply byproducts of natural selection. There is nothing instrinsically true about them. Do you agree with this assessment?

Personally, I believe there is more to reality than this.

rasmussenanders said...

A apoligize for not answering your questions before. The truth is that I was very busy so I just threw a question back...

I think that, in essence, your assesment is right. There is no objective moral code, and there is no fundamental natural law saying that mass murderers are doing "wrong". With the risk of repeating myself. I think that mankind has the responsibility to create a moral code and then to follow it. In the Darfur example I would probably not start to speak in terms of natural selection, rather I would ask whether any other person would like to live in those circumstances and argue from there.

I also find it problematic to claim that because God has put forward a morality (if he has even done that), then why is that "the objective morality"? Was if I come along and say that you should not kill people no matter how evil they are, why does that not get to be "the objective morality?"

The writers of the bible lived in a world quite different from ours. Therefore I think it is more wise to create a moral code which is based on contemporary moral philosopher, who after all, can take lessons from history, rather than to base your morality on old books from a time so different from ours.

This may be an impossible task, but would you be able to tell what the objective moral is, concretely? Is it the ten commandments? Are you supposed to do like God did in the old testament (and if so, how is that?), or like Jesus? What is the objective moral code that you are talking about?

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kyle said...

It’s been a busy week. I have a little time now for a response. I’ll start at the end of your questions and work backwards.

In short, no, I cannot give you a definitive treatise containing the objective morality. I have not intended to claim that I could. My position is that morality is not man-made, but rather part of reality. Morality is absolute and objective in the sense that it is grounded in the nature of God. I would not speak of it as an “objective moral code” as if it were an arbitrary list of rules external to God’s nature. Morality is grounded in who God is and who he created us to be. It is relational. We were made to care for, support, and protect others and care for the earth itself.

Jesus taught that the core of Christian ethics is to love God and love others as we love ourselves. He taught the intrinsic value of all people. The minor prophets of the old testament particularly emphasized caring for the poor and disadvantaged.

You are right the bible was written long ago in a world quite different from ours. The world is quite different, but people’s motivations, failings, and problems are much the same now as they were then.

Many contemporary Christian scholars have attempted a more complete construction of the Christian ethic. A particularly good one is Richard Hayes’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. But keeping it simple, as far as interpersonal relations go, loving others as you love yourself covers a lot of what is “right.”

Why can't you create the objective morality? You cannot declare that killing is right any more than you can declare that you can fly. You cannot change reality.

We also need to understand that we live in what Christians refer to as a “fallen” world. It is imperfect, and therefore the application of what is right unfortunately can be choosing the lesser of two evils. Take the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an extreme case. Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian and pastor. He came to the conclusion that assassinating Adolph Hitler would be the correct action in the midst of WWII and the Holocaust. (He participated in a plot to kill Hitler, was arrested and hanged.) In an absolute sense, it would be wrong to murder; but here it can arguably be justified.

You may argue that morality then all becomes subjective, but this is not so. It remains grounded in the nature of God, his call for us to care for one another, and the intrinsic worth of every human individual. Which is why the killing in Darfur, the raping of women, and the oppression of the poor are immoral - whether or not you, I, or anyone else believes it to be so.

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