In my last post I described the Euthyphro Dilemma and explained why morality cannot possibly come from a god. Now I’m going to explain where morality actually comes from. The answer is twofold.
Morality is an emergent aspect of social animals. The phrase “survival of the fittest” has resulted in a major misconception about how evolution works. Many people take it to mean that the strongest animals will slaughter those around them and be more likely to survive and pass on their genes. But sometimes the kindest animals are more likely to survive.
Consider other primate species. Like humans, they frequently display compassion, solidarity, and even altruism. This makes perfect sense in light of evolution. If all primates were selfish and murderous, they would have killed each other off and gone extinct. But because they often care for and help one another, they have managed to survive and reproduce all the way up to the present.
This is true of many other types of animals: Wolves bring meat to other wolves who weren’t at the kill, dolphins help sick or injured dolphins by pushing them to the surface so they can breathe, walruses adopt baby walruses that lost their parents, etc. Even rats have been known to share food when they could have kept it all for themselves.
There are hundreds of examples of altruistic behavior throughout the animal world. These genetic tendencies evolved because they have a selective advantage; if everyone helps one another, everyone is better off. One of the reasons the human species has been so successful is because of our willingness to cooperate with and help one another. And one of the things that drives this behavior is empathy.
Sometimes when we help other people there’s no obvious benefit (for example, taking care of someone who is terminally ill), but we do it anyway because we just want to. It might not be logical to comfort people who are going to die, but our desire to do so is a natural byproduct of a tendency which is advantageous to the species in general. When someone is suffering, we feel bad. And when we make others happy, we feel good. These feelings of empathy are the foundation of morality.
Because of empathy, we have an aversion to things like murder and cruelty and tend to feel like they are wrong. This is what C.S. Lewis was referring to when he said, “conscience reveals to us a moral law.” (See part 1.) Lewis didn’t understand why people seem to innately know right from wrong, so he used a god of the gaps argument to explain it. But now we know that self interest coupled with social interdependence generates a sense of morality that benefits the species as a whole.
This doesn’t mean there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Obviously some people can be very selfish and cruel, and there are even those who don’t have any empathy at all (sociopaths). But what matters is that the majority of people be empathetic. As long as the majority have a sense of morality, it will be enough to benefit everyone. And that is exactly what we see in humanity. We are the progeny of groups of primates dominated by morals; the ones without them died out.
Although it’s objectively true that morality is the product of evolution, that doesn’t mean morality itself is objective. If cruelty had a greater selective advantage than kindness, then maybe cruelty would be considered “moral.” That’s why standards of morality are completely subjective.
Many atheists try to redefine morality as the attempt to minimize suffering and maximize happiness (more on that here). This causes some confusion because that is not the dictionary definition of morality. According to The Free Dictionary, morality is “the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct” (italics mine). But everyone’s standards are different.
It is an objective fact that if you want to live in a safe and joyful society, your standard of morality should be the well-being and happiness of humanity. However, there is no way to prove that should be your standard of morality. It depends on your subjective preferences. If you would rather live in a society that is cruel and miserable, then your standard of morality should be the suffering and sadness of humanity.
This is where theists object. That standard is so disturbing that they have declared that anyone who chooses it is wrong. But preferences aren’t right or wrong; they’re just preferences. They can only be “wrong” when measured against another standard. It’s all relative. As I already explained in part 1, there can be no objective standard of morality.
Consider that there is no objective standard of government that transcends the universe. Few people consider this to be a problem. We all know that if you want to live in a free country, then it is objectively true that democracy is better than fascism. But hardly anyone argues about whether there is an objective standard of government because most people already agree that freedom is better.
In the same way, most people already agree that happiness is better, so there’s no need to invoke objective morality. All we have to do is agree that humans ought to be happy and go from there. Yes, there are those who don’t think people ought to be happy, but so what? There are also those who don’t think people should be free. But just because some people think that way doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t discover objective truths about how we ought to behave if we want to live in a happier world.
There is much more I could say about morality, but I will save that for future posts. My goal with this series of posts was to explain to my friends and family why the Christian view of morality doesn’t make sense to me and why I can still have moral values even though I am an atheist. Hopefully I cleared up a few issues. If you would like to discuss them, leave a comment below.