Morality Is Not a Biological Issue
by Gerard M. Verschuuren
Filed under Morality
Modern biology makes us believe that we descended from the animal world and that we are nothing more than glorified animals. However, even if we did descend from the animal world, that doesn’t mean all our characteristics were transferred to us through genes and umbilical cords. For example, our anatomy and physiology did come from there, but what about our rationality and morality? In this article, I will focus on morality alone and argue that what sets us apart from the animal world is exactly the fact that we are rational and moral beings who can make rational and moral decisions. Take rationality or morality away from us, and we are indistinguishable from animals.
Is there Morality in the Animal World?
Morality is about what we owe others, our duties, and what others owe us, our rights. Morality is unconditional. Most other rules and laws tell us what we should do in order to reach a certain goal—they are conditional, means-to-other-ends. For instance, if you want to learn, you must do this; if you want to recover from a cold, you must do that, and so on. Moral laws and rules, on the other hand, are based on absolute, universal, non-negotiable moral values, so they are un-conditional ends in themselves. Morality tells us what ought to be done—no matter what, whether we like it or not, whether we feel it or not, or whether others enforce it or not.
Animals, however, live in a world of “what is,” not of “what ought to be.” They can just follow whatever pops up in their brains. The relationship between predator and prey, for instance, has nothing to do with morality. If predators really had to act morally, their lives would be pretty tough. Animals never do awful things out of meanness or cruelty, for the simple reason that they have no morality—and thus no cruelty or meanness. But humans definitely do have the capacity of performing real atrocities.
On the other hand, if animals do seem to do awful things, it’s only because we as human beings consider their actions “awful” according to our own standards of morality. Yet, we will never arrange court sessions for grizzly bears that maul hikers, because they are not morally responsible for their actions.
Where Does Morality Come From?
Once we accept this, we might wonder where our morality comes from, if not from the animal world. Is it still something anchored in our genes? Some biologists think that evolutionary biology can explain how humanity acquired its morality. The moral value of paternal care for children, for instance, must be a product of natural selection, for fathers who don’t feel an “instinctive” responsibility towards their underage children would reduce their offspring’s reproductive success. In this line of thought, moral values would just be inborn, a product of evolution.
What is wrong with such a viewpoint? My fundamental question to these biologists is as follows: Why would we need an articulated moral rule to reinforce what “by nature” we would or would not desire to do anyway? Reality tells us that far too many people are willing to break a moral rule when they can get away with it. As a matter of fact, moral laws tell us to do what our genes do not make us do “by nature.” The offenders of moral laws—the killers and the promiscuous—would actually reproduce much better than their victims. Since moral laws are not means to other ends, they have no survival value, and therefore cannot be promoted by natural selection.
Well, if biology cannot explain morality, perhaps it can steer our morality. Consider, for instance, the abortion debate. The moral value of human life has often been based on biological criteria, such as the extent of cerebral activity. The “moral argument” goes along these lines: The more cerebral activity there is, the more value a human life has, and therefore, the more protection it deserves.
The problem with this viewpoint is that we try to base absolute moral values on relative biological characteristics. Let me quote an example Abraham Lincoln used. Honest Abe asked people why they think enslaving others isn’t morally wrong. Is it because of their darker skin color? If so, he said, you might be next when someone with a lighter skin color would show up to enslave you. Is it because of a lower intelligence? If so, you might be next when someone more intelligent than you wants to enslave you, etc. Lincoln’s point is clear: Moral values cannot be counted or measured like numeric values can be. They are unquantifiable; they do not depend on non-moral properties and cannot be defined in non-moral terms.
There is another reason why biology cannot help us when it comes to morality. Moral values make for universal, absolute, objective, and binding prescriptions. They are ends-in-themselves—and never means-to-other-ends. As I said earlier, there’s nothing “useful” about them. If anyone ever wonders why a certain act (say, saving a human life) is “good” in this moral sense, we have no explanation to offer and cannot refer to other ends; all we can say is “It’s self-evident.” The “moral eye” sees values in life, just like the “physical eye” sees colors in nature. Like mathematical laws, moral laws are intrinsically right, even when we do not see yet that they are. C.S. Lewis put it well: “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color.”
Don’t Moral Values Change, Though?
The answer is, "No, it’s not the moral values that change but rather our moral evaluations, that is, the way we discern moral values." A few centuries ago, for instance, slavery was not evaluated as morally wrong, but nowadays it is by most people. Did our moral values change? No, they did not; but our evaluations certainly did. Only a few people in the past were able to discern the objective and universal value of personal freedom and human dignity (versus slavery), whereas most of their contemporaries were blind toward this value.
So where do our morals and moral values come from then? The answer is quite straightforward: They are not products of evolution but gifts of creation. They are “evident” because they are “God-given.” Human rights are not man-made entitlements but God-given rights that we cannot invent and manipulate at will. The only authority that can obligate you or me is Someone infinitely superior to me.
Without God, we would have no right to claim any rights. Even an atheist such as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre realized this when he said: If atheism is true, there can be no absolute or objective standard of right and wrong, for there is no eternal heaven that would make values objective and universal. If rights really came from men, and not God, men could take them away anytime—and they certainly have tried many times.
To say it another way, there has got to be an eternal heaven for our moral values so as to make them objective and universal. No wonder the Ten Commandments were etched in stone, but certainly not in our genes.
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