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Darwinian Evolution and Morality

June 10, 2018     Time: 21:02
Darwinian Evolution and Morality


A discussion on Naturalism and the quest for objective morality

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, it seems like some of my non-Christian friends and some of the non-Christian bloggers are pointing toward articles and resources that are trying to establish objective moral values and duties apart from God.

DR. CRAIG: Good! I think we can welcome such projects, and we’ll see how successful they are. I’m glad naturalists want to take this on.

KEVIN HARRIS: Do you think that Sam Harris has had an influence on this, and others, that have said, Yeah, we can have our cake and eat it too as naturalists. We want objective morality? For a while objective morality didn’t seem to be as big a deal. It could be subjective. But anecdotally I see, Well, no, we want objective morality and it’s kind of hard to deny.

DR. CRAIG: I think it is difficult to deny, as I’ve argued. I think the existence of objective moral values and duties is very evident, and that the ostensible defeaters of that are less obvious than the reality of moral values and duties themselves. Therefore, it would never be rational to be a moral skeptic and deny the objectivity of moral values and duties. So the vast majority of atheistic ethicists are moral realists. The challenge for them, as you just said, is to find some sort of justification for the moral values that they want to affirm – some kind of ontological foundation. This is a question in moral ontology.

KEVIN HARRIS: This article[1] is from the Tippling Philosopher blog. Jeremiah Traeger says, “Evolution is a Descriptive Model, Not a Prescriptive One.” When I saw that title I thought, okay, we’re starting to get the real crux of it here – the is-ought distinction.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, yes, that’s right. That is what is captured in the title. In this article he argues for, frankly, the rather boring and accepted thesis that just because evolution determines that something will be the case that doesn’t mean that it ought to be the case. In other words, you can’t derive moral values and duties from the evolutionary process. In fact, if you did, since nature is red in tooth and claw as is traditionally said, it would lead to a horrible ethic.

KEVIN HARRIS: As he continues the article he seems to say that Darwinian evolution and so on would be a cruel way for any Creator to establish, what? Moral values and duties?

DR. CRAIG: Or even to bring us into existence.

KEVIN HARRIS:  Because it’s so cruel. How are you going to get your moral values out of such a cruel system?

DR. CRAIG: Well, there are two issues here. One would be the one you just mentioned: how are you going to derive moral values from such a cruel, bloody, and brutal process? And, as I say, nobody thinks that you should do that. So his thesis that he’s arguing for, as I say, is boring because he’s attacking something virtually no one believes. No one thinks that evolution is prescriptive – telling us how we ought to behave. Certainly not the creationist who believes in God. But he thinks that creationism is incompatible with evolution because it would be incompatible with a loving Creator to bring about biological complexity and human existence through such a brutal and painful process as Darwinian evolution. We’ve addressed that elsewhere in dealing with the natural evil problem. This is just a restatement of the problem of natural evil which I’ve addressed many times in the past. In particular, if you look at the questions of the week at, I have had some things to say about the problem of animal suffering that are very, very interesting that come out of work that Michael Murray has brought to our attention in his book, Nature: Red in Tooth and Claw. So that’s an issue that I think is a side issue here in the blog, and I simply alert our listeners to it that there is good literature on the problem of natural evil and on the problem of animal suffering in particular. This can be found on our Reasonable Faith website. Just go to the index for the questions of the week and look up animal suffering.[2]

KEVIN HARRIS: At the end of that paragraph he says, “To a creationist, it’s internally coherent to believe that an atheist’s moral code is simply whatever behavior evolution produces.”

DR. CRAIG: He’s saying that from a creationist point of view it would be a coherent position to say that whatever evolution produces is the moral code. That our moral values are simply the products of biological evolution and social conditioning. We are social animals, and so just as in a troop of baboons or even a herd of elephants there can evolve behavior that will involve mutual benefit because it’s helpful to the propagation of the species. So among Homo sapiens there’s evolved this herd morality that is useful in the perpetuation of our species. And that would be a coherent position that the atheist might take. That’s not to say it’s true but just that it would be internally consistent.

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he says in the very next sentence, “To be clear, evolution has given us a sense of moral intuition.” Would there be a difference immediately to think: Is there difference between grounding (or the ontological status of morals) and a moral intuition that evolution . . . ?

DR. CRAIG: Oh, absolutely. I think this article is undermined in large measure by the confusion of moral epistemology and moral ontology. The theist who grounds moral values and duties in God can admit readily that our apprehension of the good and of moral duties has evolved and has been shaped by evolution and social conditioning and so forth. That says nothing, as you put it, about their foundation, about their objective validity. That would just be an account of moral beliefs – about how our moral beliefs have arisen. But the question then still remains: Are those beliefs true?

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he says at the top of page two that these behaviors can be selected by the evolutionary process but they’re just instincts – they’re just instinctual behaviors. He says, I’m striving to be the best person possible, but he goes on to say that maybe my instincts are not always the moral thing to do. C. S. Lewis said something like that, as I recall. He said, Which instincts do I obey? A child is drowning. I have an instinct to save myself (self-preservation), and I have the instinct to preserve the herd. Which one do I shore up?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, right. And so we find ourselves conflicted. He makes the central point here where he says, “While evolution has ‘decided’ what populations survive and which ones die out, this is not a proclamation of what humans ought to do. Evolution is a description of what has happened, and not a prescription.” With that we would readily agree as theists, but so would atheists! Everyone agrees with that. This is almost an uninteresting thesis because it is so universally agreed and so obvious that evolution describes what has been produced but that doesn’t mean that this is what we ought to do.

KEVIN HARRIS: Now he takes on apologists here in this next one. He says . . .

DR. CRAIG: By which he means “Christian apologists” apparently.

KEVIN HARRIS: “It’s not uncommon for apologists to bring up evolution and nature when they are discussing morality with a nonbeliever. To them, we have no ultimate model for being good people.”

DR. CRAIG: I want to highlight the word “model” here because this is critical. He’ll later talk about having a “guide” for one’s moral behavior, and I think that’s what he means by a model. And that’s, as you say, different than an ontological foundation for being good people. One isn’t offering theism as some sort of model. That would be like offering, say, the life of Jesus as a model for good behavior – a guide to good behavior. Right. We can look to someone like Jesus as a model and guide to good behavior. Atheists could look to people like that as well as a model and guide. What the Christian apologist is saying is that the atheist has no ultimate grounding for the moral values and duties that he wants to affirm, not that he lacks a model or a guide. It’s that he lacks a grounding for those values.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “If we are naturalists, all we accept is the natural world, and the natural world is horribly cruel. By extension, our moral code must be similarly cruel . . .”

DR. CRAIG: And that’s a non sequitur. That’s not what Christian apologists say. I don’t know of any Christian apologist who says that because evolution is cruel and indifferent to the fate of the weak and the disadvantaged that therefore the atheist ought to infer that that’s how he ought to behave. That’s not the charge of the Christian apologist. He doesn’t hurl that accusation at the atheist. In a sense, what the Christian apologist would say is the atheist is rudderless – that he has no foundation for what he wants to guide his life by. It’s arbitrary. If he wants to follow the dictates of evolution, he can, but if he wants to reject them he’s free to do that as well because there is no objective grounding of these values.

KEVIN HARRIS: In this last paragraph he says something I really haven’t thought about. He says,

However, as a species that has dominion over the Earth, so to speak, we no longer have a need to prioritize survival above all else. This changes the game substantially. Instead of mere survival, we can focus on making that survival worthwhile, and making our brief existence in the sun worth living. And, obviously, we don’t need to rely solely on ancient teachings to guide us.

DR. CRAIG: There’s the word “guide” again that I alluded to – the guide or model for your moral life. That’s not the issue that exists between the Christian and the atheist. When the atheist says things like Traeger says – I strive to be the best person possible; we can focus on making that survival worthwhile – he is making implicit value judgments. What the theist wants to know is what is the objective basis of those value judgments? What constitutes the best life? What constitutes a life that is worthwhile? The issue here is not finding a guide or a model but finding an ontological foundation or grounding for the objectivity of the moral values that you use to guide your life by.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “Among nonbelievers, there does appear to be a wide range of disagreement on moral issues.” He says, “I frequently find myself in the minority when I promote moral realism among fellow nonbelievers.”

DR. CRAIG: I do think in the infidel community on the Internet there is a kind of widespread moral nihilism that is expressed by some of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and others that there really are no objective moral values and duties and therefore you just bite the bullet and say that moral realism is false. Although that may be the minority view among this Internet subculture, among philosophers the majority view would be moral realism – they recognize that certain atrocities, for example, are clearly wrong, objectively wrong, and that certain things are morally good in an objective way. There I think Sam Harris is absolutely right that the objectivity of moral values and duties is starkly apparent, and that any defeaters for that belief fail.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “Despite us [non-believers] disagreeing on ultimate moral foundations . . .”

DR. CRAIG: And that’s the key there: what are the foundations? Go ahead.

KEVIN HARRIS: “. . . many of us end up finding value in some very important moral concepts.”

DR. CRAIG:  Of course. Of course they do. How else could you live?


We recognize that humans as a species wish to avoid suffering and death, and we have ways of eschewing both through naturalistic means. These have been developed through centuries of philosophical and ethical thought from religious and nonreligious thinkers alike.”

DR. CRAIG: Of course you figure out ways to avoid suffering and death. You wear your seat belt. You take medicines when you get sick. You try to eat healthy. You avoid taking unnecessary risks, and so forth. All of these would be naturalistic means by which you can avoid suffering and death.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “I have never met an atheist who openly promoted appealing to evolution to make moral decisions.”

DR. CRAIG: Exactly! So why is he arguing against this thesis that nobody holds to?

KEVIN HARRIS: Is he misinterpreting what many say when they quote Michael Ruse or something?

DR. CRAIG: I don’t think so, because Michael Ruse would be a prime example of an atheist who says you cannot take evolution to be prescriptive of what we ought to do. It would lead to barbarity and cruelty. So Ruse is very explicit about that. I suspect that here’s where Traeger gets it wrong. He thinks Christian apologists are arguing that atheists have to derive their values from evolution, and that therefore atheistic value systems are based on evolution. And that’s just not true. Nobody’s making that argument. I can’t think of anybody who’s made such a silly claim.

KEVIN HARRIS: He goes on to say, “Biological evolution is a terrible model for how we should approach day-to-day behavior.”

DR. CRAIG: Of course.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “Developing a world where we minimize suffering remains a challenge for our species, but we might get there one day.”

DR. CRAIG: Right. Now that’s a very practical question, but the question he still hasn’t addressed is: how does the atheist ground the moral values and duties that he wants to affirm? How is moral realism to be grounded on an atheistic view of reality?

KEVIN HARRIS: We hear so often: anything that minimizes harm. “Harm” is the word. We don’t want to harm anyone. I don’t want to be harmed. You don’t want to be harmed. None of us want to be harmed. So our moral values are derived from whatever minimizes harm and suffering.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and again the question there is, obviously: why think that that does constitute the objective moral good? In fact, animals harm each other all the time, and on naturalism we’re just relatively evolved primates. So if harming others can help you get ahead, why is this objectively wrong?

KEVIN HARRIS: And then what do you mean by harm?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and that’s inadequate as a moral theory in any case because it doesn’t give any positive value to doing things. Just avoiding harm doesn’t do anything to establish, for example, the moral value of love or sacrifice or giving. Avoiding harm is a pretty minimal ethic when you think about it.

I do want to hit one more point. He says,

Most readers of this blog can recognize easily that religions are robust only in the sense that they have found a social niche and have firmly grown roots. This says nothing about their truth value . . .

Now, obviously, he’s speaking here to his own atheistic in-crowd because it’s far from obvious that the only sense in which religions are robust is that they fill a social niche and are firmly entrenched. They have good arguments and evidence in support of their theism. I would say that they are robust in precisely the sense that atheism is not – namely theism provides a sound foundation for the objectivity of moral values and duties where nothing in this blog has said anything about how the atheist is going to meet the challenge of grounding the objectivity of the moral values and duties that we all want to affirm.

KEVIN HARRIS: The last paragraph, “Fortunately, when it comes to morality, most atheists appeal to something beyond evolved behavior.”

DR. CRAIG: That is indeed fortunate!

KEVIN HARRIS: “Whether it’s a deontological set of moral rights or an appeal to positive or negative consequences, we don’t need to consult chaotic natural predation to have a firm moral foundation.”

DR. CRAIG: We certainly don’t need to consult chaotic natural predation for such a foundation; indeed that would be a fool’s mission. But he has yet to show us that the naturalist can establish deontological set of moral rights or some sort of justification in terms of positive and negative consequences.[3]


[2]                                  See (accessed June 10, 2018). The following three Q&As are relevant to this issue: #113 “Animal Suffering”, #134 “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties”, and #355 “Animal Pain Re-Visited”.

[3]                                  Total Running Time: 21:02 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)