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Problems with Ethics
in an Evolutionary / Materialistic World-View.

Paul Gosselin (2004)

The following note explores the subject of ethics in the context of an evolutionary / materialistic world-view. My thinking on this subject was provoked in part by discussion with a professor of anthropology[1] I worked for in past years. We were discussing evolution and I had brought up the social impact of Darwinism in the form of Nazi race politics[2] and the Communist Gulag prison system in Soviet Russia. He retorted that painting all evolutionists with the same brush wasn't legitimate and that not all evolutionists were Nazis. I had to admit that it is true that it would be unfair to infer that all evolutionists are morally depraved, but I continued to have doubts about trying to derive any worthwhile ethical system from an evolutionary / materialistic world-view.

My first reaction to the effort of trying to derive ethics (expectations of how humans should interact with one another) from an evolutionary / materialistic world-view is: How do you do that ?? How do evolutionary processes logically tie into/justify ethics ? Reduced to its simplest expression, the development of a code of ethics in an evolutionary / materialistic world-view in my view must deal with some of the following issues:

It's a cruel world out there...
Suppose I am a materialist and that I find myself in a position of superiority (materially, physically or intellectually), that is a position which would allow me to exploit or oppress another human being. Suppose for some reason I should feel the urge to exploit or oppress other human beings, the question then arises why shouldn't I be free to do so? If my natural instincts, established by millions of years of evolution, put me in the mood to exploit or oppress another human being (perhaps in reaction to exploitation or opression I've suffered myself), why deviate from my natural instincts ?? Isn't nature good? Furthermore who would dare oppose me (on logical grounds, excluding brute strength)? Why should I accept anyone arbitrarily setting himself up as a judge of my morality and of my consciousness? Why should other's scruples, other's guilty conscious be binding on me? On what authority?, as, I the materialist, do not recognise any God or gods to whom humanity has to answer.

Marquis de SadeThere is another point to consider. Since science, a priori, excludes matters of ethics and morals and if the gods are dead, then what other ethical standard do we have except to imitate nature ? Regarding relations between men and women this is precisely the view of a cheerful fellow such as Donatien Alphonse François, the marquis de Sade. He is the sort of person (no friend of Christianity in any shape or form...) who isn't shy about saying out loud what others hesitate to think in private, nor is he timid about taking premises to their logical conclusion. He notes ... (1795/1972: 112)

Basically, this implies that if nature is at times cruel and coldly brutal, why shouldn't we behave in like manner as well ? How can a person and/or society set up rules governing human behaviour (that is morality) in the context of a materialistic world-view, especially a materialistic world-view that is logically consistent? On what basis ? Where should these rules come from ? William B. Provine, an evolutionist and professor of biology at Cornell University makes the following statement on the philosophical impact of the theory of evolution (1990: 23):

Some evolutionists seem quite aware of the moral implications of their cosmology and try to find an escape hatch. With a little imagination this is always possible. Richard Dawkins notes for example (2000):

Being consistent isn't always easy. Marketing issues do come to the fore sometimes and have to be dealt with. Daniel Denett finds himself in the same spot. Though rejecting any moral absolutes, in a Wired interview he says "We are not going to tolerate infanticide. But we're not going to put people in jail for onanism. Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries". But why not "muck with the boundaries"? Why not put infanticide on the same level as onanism? Nietzsche and the marquis de Sade were a lot more consistent...

So What!?
Some would complain that since Darwinism has appeared on the world stage the end of the world hasn't occurred, nor has the West become a moral cesspool. Now from a Christian/Creationist point of view one may very well be tempted to dispute this point, but there actually is little harm done in allowing it (at least for purposes of argument, bear with me...). If we do concede this point, two things need pointing out.

First of all, it is important to note that the theory of evolution, though popular in academic circles, has never been entirely accepted in Western societies at large (polls in the US for example, typically indicate that large percentages of the population rejet it), so the impact of evolution on these societies may not be as thorough as we might expect from looking at what we hear in the media or in university classes. Secondly, there exists, even among the academic and media elite (whose acceptance of evolution is almost complete) a certain social inertia, which entails maintaining certain scruples, relics of the past, a past that was more moralistic and religious than the present. Dennett's aversion to infanticide is an excellent example of such inconsistency. It is sometimes called wanting to have your cake and eat it too... These moral scruples and inhibitions still subsist simply because they haven't yet disappeared from the collective memory. This is a matter of cultural inertia. Yet time, and an efficient propaganda machine, may eventually wear down these moralising reflexes especially since they have become detached from their original religious base and subsist, for the most part, due to inertia rather than due to deep conviction and commitment of large segments of population in the West. Morality, then, in a materialistic world-view is a bit like the corpse of a person who has just died a violent death. Even if there is no pulse, the corpse's members may twitch and jerk for a while, but eventually all movement will cease. Western society is like that corpse, there are some moral reflexes left in the body, but for the most part they have been disconnected from their life-force and, given time, eventually all moral reflexes may cease.Clive Staples Lewis

C. S. Lewis, in his essay entitled Abolition of Man, discusses the issue of world-view vs. actual behaviour. The following quotes are drawn from a discussion of the views of the authors of an essay on education (and morality) in English schools. Lewis observes the morally inconsistent elites of the West (1946/1978: 18)

Lewis' basic position seems to be that the evolutionist / materialist will, in most cases, continue to act morally (according to the "Tao" as Lewis would say[3]) as long as there are mothers and fathers around who raise their kids with some sense of right and wrong. This means that in the long run the context in which a person's moral reflexes were conditioned during their childhood years is (for the most part) more important than the beliefs a person may come to hold intellectually many years later (exceptions certainly exist I would concede). When such a moral environment is no longer provided for children, we may then expect trouble on a large scale. One may also expect "trouble on a large scale" when political leaders appear on the world scene who are ready to act on their evolutionary / materialist world-view (such as Hitler and Stalin did) and actually shape society on this basis. It appears that Stalin once said that "The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic." If one takes into account Stalin's world-view, then one would have to admit that he was being logically consistent (within the presuppositions of his world-view) in making such a statement. I think this approach helps to understand intellectuals, such as the late S. J. Gould, who decried racism, eugenic policies and other such things. They are examples of people, as Lewis says who are "better than their principles". They are not, then, products of their ideology, but rather of their cultural background (especially family). One wonders how many of these 'humanistic evangelists' come from religious backgrounds (either Christian or Jewish) ? Lewis makes another interesting remark on relativism which relates to the previous issues raised above. (1946/1978: 22):

Relativism (no absolute basis for ethics) only goes so far... And this sort of thing would seem very common in the social sciences and probably among most Western media people too.

It would seem that the most devastating weakness of the attempt to erect ethics within an evolutionary / materialistic world-view is the flexibility of meaning of the evolutionary origins myth. Nazi race policies, the Stalinist Gulag slave labour system, a 19th century laissez-faire capitalist sweat-shop or de Sade's phallocratic sexual politics or Julian Huxley[4]'s more humane approach are all (within the presuppositions of the evolutionary / materialistic world-view) equally valid interpretations. Unless one goes outside the system and appeals to some form of TRUTH (a 'Tao') providing criteria with which to judge between good and evil attitudes / behaviour, then these varying implementations of Darwinism will all remain equally valid interpretations of the evolutionary / materialistic world-view. In the context of the materialistic cosmology, choosing one against another is then a matter of taste, no more. Working within the evolutionary / materialistic world-view, there is no basis for rejecting one and promoting the other. In the real world, choices have to be made and the temptation is to reject or promote ideologies for the most superficial reasons, ie, that they are unpleasant or unfashionable... etc. basically creating an image problem. Marketing issues then begin to run the show, not logic or coherence. This situation results from the fact that evolution is a weak origins myth (compared to other origins myths ) as it says little about what humans are and what their value is. This is linked to the fact that, from the start, evolution, as an origins myth, never has been solidly attached (as are most origins myths) to a particular religion or ideology. Such a system would provide the additional meaning that most origins myths lack (as most origins myth provides only general information on cosmological issues not specific moral prescriptions). That evolution can be understood to be compatible to the highest ethics is perhaps at most an interesting marketing issue, but one should understand that evolution does NOT rule out in any real sense the coldest brutality. In logical terms there is nothing intrinsic in this belief system that would demand a sharp divide between Good and Evil. It would appear that some evolutionists do have a gut understanding of this issue, but few bring this up except to vaguely allude to Evolution being "more flexible" than traditional religions. Ernst Mayr is a typical example. He notes (1988: 85)

One would expect that most evolutionist's attitudes about this matter would be, "the less said the better"...

Working for the "Common Good"?
In general, the evolutionary explanation of ethics involves an arbitrary presupposition that individuals should consider the "common good" when determining their behaviour. Empirical observation of real human behaviour indicates that such considerations will only occur if an individual is motivated by a larger world-view (providing coherent concepts of right and wrong). The basic approach taken by many evolutionists seems to be to take morality, in humans, for granted, and to some extent they would agree with C. S. Lewis on this point, but not for the same reason. Robert J. Richards, in a defence of evolutionary ethics, says (1987: 622):

The question which immediately springs to mind is: "What basis can there be for ethical behaviour in a materialist world-view?" Christians and Jews believe that all humans have dignity because they are created in the image of God. This provides a basis for valuing human life and, despite our fallen nature, learning to demonstrate altruistic behaviour (Love) towards others. But where would you get such a justification in a materialist world-view ? Evolutionists (such as Richards) believe that morality (and altruistic behaviour) is the result of natural selection and that these forms of behaviour have evolved because they have selective advantages for the species as a whole. Richards says (1987: 623):

This may sound plausible in a university class room, but what do you do if you are a Jew in Auschwitz or a woman witnessing her child being molested by a hoodlum or a political dissident wanting to speak your mind in communist China or happen to live in an inner-city neighbourhood run by a drug lord? How do you get your enemies to think of "the community good" ?? Invoking "community good" amounts to little more than a cheap marketing ploy, but is meaningless in the real world. After all, didn't Hitler invoke the (Aryan) "community good" to justify the Final Solution? Stalin and Mao also invoked the "community good" when setting up the Gulag and initiating the Cultural Revolution. It's all good... But getting back to our own situation in the 21st century, in a context where our elites rejet the Absolute, never fear, our political and civil freedoms are still "relatively" safe...

Innate morality
Bringing in the concept of the "common good" seems to imply (on the part of evolutionists, unconsciously no doubt) a society still living off the benefits of the Judeo-Christian value-system while denying the basis for these values. This is cultural hypocrisy. In such a materialist society, sooner or later these values will be swept aside as well (ACLU notwithstanding). At least de Sade was consistent. CS Lewis points out another difficulty in deriving morals from instincts placed in us by evolutionary processes (1943/1977: 22)

Since the Holocaust and World War II, Western elites have slowly realised (though would rarely admit) that evolution is an inadequate source for morals/ethics and cannot be applied to human societies. As a result, evolutionists face a "great temptation", that is to fall back on proven moral systems already present in the West and which have their source outside the evolutionary worldview. Commenting on this dilemma among British evolutionists GG Simpson and Julian Huxely, John C. Greene notes (Greene 1981 : 174-175):

But Nietzsche states that if you reject the Christian God, then rationally you are incoherent if you attempt (consciously or not) to hang on to shreds of Christian morality. In Twilight of the Idols (ix.5) Nietzsche mocks this attitude and comments:

Despite Nietzsche's comments, there is still no lack of materialists attempting to fall back on Judeo-christian morals. It would appear that the urge to appear moral (in their own eyes at least) is rather stronger than the urge to be rationally coherent. Philip Yancey (an American Evangelical author) writes about a visit with other evangelical leaders to Russia shortly after the fall of Communism (which had consistently applied a materialistic world-view for over 70 years) and a meeting with the editors of the newspaper Pravda. Yancey notes. (1995: 131)

On this same subject a Romanian author, Sergui Grossu, adds (1979: 62-63):

We may wonder what society should do if the individual responds to evolutionary sermons on "the community good" by responding that their selfishness is genetic (think of the "gay gene"...) and that it would be wrong to deny their selfish impulses... What then ? Another dodge one could also employ would be to simply use a very narrow definition of what one means by "the common good", understanding it as being strictly related to one's own (race, family, national) self-interests. What then ??? Within the materialist standpoint, why shouldn't these narrow definitions of "the common good" be perfectly legitimate ? There's no reason why... (excluding unconscious reference to the Golden Rule or Judeo-Christian views on good -evil). In any case, there may be other reasons for unregenerate men and women to ignore appeals to "the community good", simply because their life-history may have taught them that "the community" has never cared about them so why should they give a **** about anyone else ?? In such circumstances there's no logical reason to exclude selfishness as a legitimate form of adaptation in the evolutionary / materialistic world-view especially if it is perceived as enhancing their chances of survival. In the following quote, Francis Schaeffer explores two consequences of the adoption of a materialistic view of man (1982/94: vol. V 290):

If man is not made in the image of God, then nothing stands in the way of inhumanity because basically "humanity" is an empty concept. After all, Hitler and the neighbourhood rapist are humans too! Within the Darwinian cosmology, is there any particular reason why mankind should be perceived as "special" or unique? Evolutionists will thump on their copies of the Origin and say "NO, man is just an animal! Get used to it!" Human life is cheapened. We can see this in many of the major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, biotechnology, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of all kinds, pornography (and its particular kinds of violence as evidenced in sadomasochism), the routine torture of political prisoners in many parts of the world, the crime explosion, and the random violence which surrounds us.

Peeking into the Abyss
Most cultural anthropologists are relativists. It is logically consistent for materialists and atheists to be moral relativists. There are however, I believe, levels of relativism. People who don't believe in any moral absolutes are relativists (as is the case for most cultural anthropologists working in non-western societies) and as such they think no one should go and impose moral laws on other societies (missionaries for example) so their approach is hands off, until... circumstances become "unpleasant" and, then, they are confronted with issues that hit them personally and confront them with the fact that their relativism is only skin deep and hides moral absolutes that they would rather not acknowledge, but pop their ugly heads out nonetheless. So ironically they find themselves flipping upside-down the position of Paul here as he says: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Romans 7: 19). So there are two levels of relativism. The first a lazy form of relativism and is, essentially, reserved for things that the relativist doesn't believe in. It is a hypocrite's relativism as it is aimed at OTHER PEOPLE'S BELIEFS! Cultural anthropologists will very likely never admit to such a thing, but if you catch them with their pants down, it becomes obvious. When doing fieldwork, typically cultural anthropologists work with a contact in the culture that they are studying. These contacts are called "informants" and after a number of months (or years) a strong relation of friendship may develop. The informant is no longer just a bug to be studied under a microscope, but a real flesh and blood person, and eventually a friend. This changes things. The following quote (where, in order to protect the privacy of the individual, the informant's name is just "P") illustrates such a case (Herdt 1990: 200)

The fact that these anthropologists note that in intervening in such a way they consider that they were "INDULGING ourselves" underscores the fact that they (perhaps unconsciously) recognize that their relativism strips them of a basis for making any such an intervention/judgment. Such an intervention/judgment is then totally irrational. They also realize they are breaking an unwritten anthropological law (again based on relativism), never to change the customs of the society being studied. Situations like the quote above point out the fact that even the most consistent relativists are closet moral absolutists (they believe in moral absolutes). The bottom line is that they're just trickier to nail down. They are sophisticated hypocrites. You have to catch them with their pants down. It's the same sort of line you'll get from homosexuals ranting about Christians being homophobic. This disguises the fact that they can't (and won't) tolerate anyone calling their behaviour SIN... So again you have people who parade as consistent relativists, but are in fact closet moral absolutists. You have to be very good to catch them at it though...

In the context of relations between the individual and the State, Schaeffer notes (1982/94: vol. V 467):

Try and imagine cases where an evolutionary / materialistic world-view was actually put into practice on a wide scale and did not produce moral nightmares of some sort. I can't think of any but, even if there were, the list would be short. Or at the other end of things, do evolutionists have any heroes of altruism and compassion that could compare to people like Florence Nightingale, Albert Schwietzer, Mother Teresa of Calcutta[5] ? One largely forgotten cultural spinoff of the darwinist perspective was racism as entertainment. This has been documented in a Wiki article on Human Zoos which examines how "inferior races" were paraded for the amusement of the more "enlightened" or "advanced" races. Professeur of biology Douglas H. Boucher, in an article on the philosophical and social impact of Darwinism, noted that the theory has always had important political repercussions (and he lists Malthus' economic and social policies, 19th century Social Darwinism [basically racism], eugenics in the 1920 and 30s, Nazi race policies in the 1930-40s, in our generation, abortion, population control policies and sociobiology) and points out that the links between the biological theory and political theories (and practices) are clear and the consequences dramatic - racism, sterilisation and even genocide - and well known. Boucher also adds (1981: 83-84)

But in any case who gets to determine what constitutes an "abuse" when there is no real reference point for Good beyond survival? From an evolutionary point of view, why should anything except survival be the ultimate value? What could be more important (and why)? When policies and morals change and produce Holocausts and oppression why should this be termed an "abuse" instead of an "adaptation"? Who decides what an "abuse" of Darwinism is, the post-modern elite's marketing department??

Peter Singer is an ardent evolutionist and animal rights activist. He is also professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Being an evolutionist, Singer totally rejects the Judeo-Christian concept that man is a particular being, a being apart from the rest of other living organisms, created in God’s image. In Singer's view, man is an animal, nothing more. Thus one must drop the illusion that man is special, separate. The only thing setting apart humans is their self-awareness, which is tied to a being's capacity to feel pain and pleasure. Singer is a more coherent evolutionist than most and advocates scientific experiments on human children with mental disabilities as well as bestiality (2001). If a human loses it’s self-awareness (or never appears to have attained it) then Singer considers this individual as less than human and may be treated like an animal, hence permitting scientific experiments on human children with mental disabilities. But life sometimes plays wicked tricks on people. The Wiki article on Singer notes that Singer’s own mother came down with Alzheimer's. Now Wiki being the servile politically-correct institution that it is does not go after Singer on this, but in discussing this matter it does point out one grim fact (2010).

But it is a known fact that there is a genetic component to Alzheimer's and chances are that Peter Singer himself may come down with it. And if he did, it would appear entirely logical (from the perspective of Singer’s worldview) to consider him as less than human and thus potential lab rat material. Would Singer thus agree to be deemed less than human? But if he already had the symptoms of advanced Alzheimer's how could he agree/disagree? He wouldn’t understand the question. If a person shared Singer’s worldview, asking the question would be simply pointless. And if this person was a medical bureaucrat, then Peter Singer’s life would hang on a very fine thread.

In Genesis 3: 5 Satan offers Adam and Eve the forbidden fruit, conferring knowledge of Good and Evil. In the West it seems that, with the rejection of the Judeo-Christian world-view, the forbidden fruit has been too well digested and that knowledge long lost. We no longer distinguish between good and evil. All we do know is what science and technology allow us to do. Who will tell us what not to do, unless it turns out to be something deemed "politically incorrect" by media elites or superior court judges? The winds of morality in our time are ever changing. Media has great influence and can make or break fads in clothing or fads in music. But in our generation their influence has expanded greatly and now they can make or break fads in public morality as well. If baby seals, owls and whales are thought of as cute (in other words good for ratings...) then it is immoral to hurt them, but if the media feels they are no longer cute, then they go to the purgatory of Hollywood has-beens.

Media elites have now assumed ideological functions performed in previous generations only by bishops, rabbis and pastors. With the influence they now wield they can create new taboos, censor public discourse, tell us what to think and how to behave. They can break the careers of politicians whom they deem "non-kosher". With media backing, anything becomes possible. They decide which issues get coverage and which opinions get attention. Issues that are deemed "not significant" don't. They decide what is "important" and what is not. Few groups in the West have such power. Who knows what the next moral fad will be ? Perhaps paedophilia as a positive expression of selfhood or the killing off of unwanted elderly people or others with diseases which are expensive to treat will soon be seen as acts of compassion? Why not? Who's to stop such things from happening if they have become fashionable and have backing in the media and the superior courts? In the long run, one may expect that all those books by evolutionists discussing how ethics can be derived by evolutionary processes in university libraries are destined to be read only by other evolutionary academics and then gather dust in an intellectual form of natural selection...

One can allow that evolutionists have very fertile imaginations and could possibility develop a coherent ethical system, but I doubt this very much as when it comes to the real world, they have very few scruples about using unethical and hypocritical means to market their mythology. For example, discussing the perils of teaching evolution in a culture that is critical of his mythology, Darwinist biology professor Bora Zivkovic, who blogs at A Blog Around The Clock notes bluntly (2008) :

A while ago I heard an interview on the radio (YES, our so politically-correct CBC…) about a Christian who lost his faith and became an atheist. It was one of those typical stories about the slide into "unbelief" our postmodern elites love to gloat about. Oddly enough the freshly converted atheist missed certain aspects of Christian belief, heaven/life after death in particular. One of the main reasons he gave for his conversion was all the horrible hypocrisy he saw in Christians. Isn’t it strange though that you never hear stories about atheists becoming Christians because of all the horrible hypocrisy that they saw among leading atheists (example of Harvard evolutionist)?? Why is that?

What does that tell you about atheism or atheists?
Is this because atheists so morally pure that no criticism will stick or is it for some other reason?
Why does making high moral demands on atheists seem totally irrelevant? What does this tell us? Is this because of the underlying logic that if, in terms of behaviour, you're aiming at a non existent target, then (absolutely) anywhere you hit is fine?

Paul Gosselin is a Social Anthropologist and the author of Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West.



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Webmaster's note: some references have been added since this article was first put online.


[1] - A non-Christian as far as I know.

[2] - Sir Arthur Keith, an evolutionist, writing just after World War II, observed, (1947 : 27- 28) :

[3] - CS Lewis' definition of the Tao:

[4] - J. Huxley was involved in writing the UNESCO charter.

[5]| - Though one may have reservations about aspects of their theology, I have no reason to doubt that the basic thrust of their work draws inspiration on Christ's command to love one's neighbour.