Professor Kleiner for some time now has presented us student atheists a challenge to explain morality in non theological bases. In the video by Sam that was just posted by Jon it talks about how some things are more morally acceptable than others and that there does exist a basic moral right. The problem I have with the video is that it doesn’t explain how humans have come to the conclusion that there are some things that are wrong and that there are some that are right.
To deal with these challenges and issues I turned towards evolution. The reason I did so is because if any state of mind exist it first (as shown by a plethora of evidence) must have evolved that way.
Darwin himself tried to tackle this issue by explaining it in two stages. The first stage is derived from the evolutionary benefit of caring for young and community as displayed by birds. Baby birds are defenseless for the early part of their lives and the mothers have evolved over time to care for their young. I assume that the reader understands evolution and understands how that process occurs and how a mother would evolve to care for her offspring. If you have any questions regarding this process please contact any SHAFT council member or myself. This care of infants as explained by Darwin developed an us and them mentality. With the onset of mammalian life even more complex communities formed. In these communities creatures evolved in some cases to put the good of the group in front of the good of the individual such as in the example of meerkats.
Darwin then argues the second phase after the development of community is the development of the conscience. Here is where the debate becomes sticky and please rather than focus on semantics of how the idea is conveyed, try and see the general direction of the argument. The development of the conscience wasn’t an event that happened all at once. Rather it evolved over time. When creatures of the Homo genius began living in groups, a form of social Darwinism took place.
Now I know that the term Social Darwinism throws up big red flags screaming Nazi and robber barren. This is not what I am referring to, what I am referring to is that groups who had tendencies, through random mutations that were then spread throughout the communities which were beneficial, allowed said communities to thrive in their environment.
Early communities were relatively isolated and so tendencies (not ideas) spread throughout the community. These thriving communities then started competing with other communities and those communities that had tendencies to build a stronger and safer community out-competed those who did not have those abilities (whether in war or just out breeding). As the cognitive power of human ancestors increased so did their capacity to develop complex ideas based on and around already present tendencies. Once again these things are going on simultaneously and over millions and millions of years.
To put the whole idea into a nutshell, tribes or familial groups that had certain stronger traits such as don’t murder family members, flourished in comparison to familial groups that weren’t nearly as strong. Some scientist has even argued this as one of the basic advantages the homo sapiens had against homo erectus.
Notice that the evolutionary views of morality existed only towards members of the family or community. Even the Israelite rules of moral law only applied to conduct towards other Israelites. I contend that as time moves and as we become more connected with the rest of the world then the scope of what humans choose to include in their families grows.
This is evident throughout history and even religious text. So where before in early society it was only bad to kill people in their immediate family it later became bad to kill others in the same nation and now it has developed over much of the world (excluding the middle east who are behind) to include the entire human race. This view also helps explain why there exist war. This explains also why humans for a long time in the worlds history justified slavery. Some are further along in this viewing transition than others, but I contend the evolutionary morals were only directed towards “family.”
This brings us to the realm of debatable moral rights and problems. Moral issues such as abortion and assisted suicide, have no obvious evolutionary background and/or benefits. I call these issues useful evolutionary byproducts, as compared to the non-useful byproducts such as the human tailbone. I use the example of murder because it is most easily identified as wrong.
Now that people in the civilized world have come to the point where we see all humans as family, we have conflicting interest invested in both sides of the assisted suicide and abortion debate. On one side our now well developed trait of not killing other members of family says, “No we mustn’t kill any other human because they are all a part of our families.” On the other side of the coin people have also developed the trait of not wanting family members to suffer and or go through an avoidable ordeal. Thus these two communal beneficiary traits come into conflict with one another causing an indirect evolutionary byproduct.
In conclusion, I admit that science doesn’t know everything, but as in Zeno’s paradox it does get closer and closer without ever reaching the absolute (this is what I love about science, it’s open to the new). I contend that for every question in the universe if we but look there is a scientific and logical process through which it comes about. So instead of filling every gap of knowledge with theos, take that gap as an opportunity to find out the why.