Non-moral nature

I’m visiting some colleagues in Hobart at the moment, so I have a new route that I walk to work each day. It’s a tranquil and tree-lined avenue with some lovely gardens, especially now when all the spring flowers are in bloom.

Running alongside the path is a stream, and this morning, in that stream, were some ducks. Mostly they were doing normal duckish things – paddling about, quacking and nibbling the odd bit of water vegetation. But it’s spring, so they were also pretty frisky. In particular, there were two drakes which both seemed very keen on a female duck, which in turn was doing her best to paddle away from them. But the drakes were not to be discouraged. They held her head under the water and had their way with her despite all her struggling and flapping.

Just another day on the river. A light breeze, the delicate scent of flowers in the air and avian gang-rape in the water.



We often see grand claims to the effect that morality is just a by-product of evolution, but the reasoning is usually circular and the arguments poor. Dawkins, for example, while claiming that everything to do with anything can be explained by evolution, is predictably all over the place when he ventures into ethics. While he has said: “I don’t believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil”, he also claims that our morality is seen when we rise above the selfishness of our genes:

“I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave… Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” (The Selfish Gene)

But this is just ridiculous: Evolution produced everything, including our sense of morality, but it is objectively “good” to act in a way that counteracts evolution. But the concept of “good” doesn’t actually exist objectively, it’s just an evolutionary product…

We can identify certain patterns of behaviour in the animal kingdom, and infer an evolved tendency towards particular behaviours. But we cannot ascribe moral value to actions based on evolutionary criteria. Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1982 essay “Nonmoral nature” (from which I shamelessly borrowed this title), wrote:

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science.”

Some animals mate for life, others are wildly promiscuous and indiscriminating in their sexual behaviour. In Bonobo apes about 75% of sexual activity is non-reproductive, and often involves infants. Sexual cannibalism is common in insects. In several species of mammals, including stoats and hyaena, sexual activity between adults and infant cubs has been observed (with the mother of the infants declining to interfere). Male bottlenose dolphins regularly engage in what appears to be forced intercourse, both within their species and towards other species. Female penguins exchange sexual favours for nest-building materials. Killing and eating infants (within a species, even within family groups) is common in many mammals.

But it is a very human peculiarity to look unfavourably on this sort of behaviour. Human child molesters are not tolerated: in fact they are generally perceived as the most abhorrent of people. We are outraged by such behaviour in our own society because we recognise an objective morality by which we can judge different actions.

This idea of “evolved ethics” is not new, of course, and the difficulties of trying to extrapolate morality from evolution have long been recognised. T. H. Huxley wrote in 1893:

“The propounders of [the evolution of ethics] adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” (Evolution and Ethics)

Huxley makes a vital point here. Our understanding of morality and our application of moral principles to society (in our systems of justice, for instance) are far removed from the evolutionary perspective. All societies believe in the existence of objective morality, and we all live our lives accordingly. This leads us to the possibility that absolute moral standards, like the laws of mathematics, are written into the universe and await discovery. In his excellent pair of articles on evolving morality over at the blog Engineering Ethics (see here for part 1 and part 2), Karl Stephan notes five principles which psychological research has found to be widely accepted throughout different societies:

(1) Harm—don’t hurt other people and help them if you can.

(2) Fairness—people in comparable situations should be treated comparably.

(3) Group loyalty—other things being equal, take care of your own (family, friends, city, nation) first.

(4) Authority—there are rules, rulers, and rulemakers who should be respected and deferred to.

(5) Purity—Saintliness, cleanliness, and being without spot or blemish are good things, and grubbiness, filth, and disorder are bad ones.

Stephan also observes that the concept of morality as a Natural Law was also espoused by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, so the while the psychological research is new, the idea has a long pedigree.

Looking even further back,  St. Paul wrote a letter to the newly-established church in Rome in the first century AD. In it, he described how people who had not been instructed in Christian morality nonetheless acted in accordance with that morality, because God has written His law on the hearts of all people:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” (Rom 2:14-15, NIV)

All of our human experience declares that objective morality exists, but an objective morality cannot possibly be ascribed to evolution. Are there laws of  morality written into the fabric of the universe? Do they await discovery?

Or can they be discovered more readily from looking within?



Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Chesterton on Nature

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


5 thoughts on “Non-moral nature

  1. Pingback: These goats are awesome « Spiritual Meanderings

  2. Very interesting observations, Sentinel! I’ve often wondered the same things as you as. What kind of morality evolves? Why would it be anything good?

  3. Pingback: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? « Spiritual Meanderings

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