Atheist Ethics & Logical Deduction

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Atheist Ethics & Logical Deduction

We had a fairly interesting conversation in the stickam chatroom today, and I wanted to discuss a few points. It will help, I think, to outline some of the points here.

1. There are numerous books out lately discussing the evolutionary basis for ethics.

I will concede that we can find some correlation our actions from evolution.

The question I have, however, is "Are ethics the CAUSE of our ethical inclinations, or do we study evolution and COINCIDENTALLY find that our ethics and evolutionary value of some behaviors coincide?

The question is, then, is there a CORRELATION, or a CAUSAL basis?

CORRELATION does not imply causation.

Example 1: We have a crime problem in our city. The mayor hires more police. The crime rate goes down. We surmise that the crime rate goes down because of the cops, and the mayor certainly wants us to believe this for his re-election. But consider further that anti-gun laws were enacted on a federal level at the same time. Could it be possible that the anti-gun laws played some part? Maybe they were solely responsible or even a large part of the reason that the crime rate reduced. (Remember this is an example, and we are granting premises just for the sake of argument.)

Example 2: Suppose your house is levelled by a natural disaster. In addition, you have been engaging in unlawful and unethical activities in your personal life. You remember your preacher telling you that sinful activities incur the wrath of God. Logically, you deduce that your house has been levelled by GOD because you sinned. (Obviously this is false. You have certainly chosen a cause that is logically consistent, but probably not true. The cause is probably random chance.)

What I find in the books on evolutionary ethics is this: Evolution explains EVERYTHING having to do with ethics. What I find in an evolutionary ethicist's thought process is this: look at EVERY ethic -- and determine how it might be of possible benefit for the survival of the individual or the species as a whole.

My argument is this: Applying evolution to ethics works TOO well!!! In other words, it has no restrictions and is ultimately used for every ethic in our imagination.

"Well," you say, "that's just great!" "The fact that evolution can explain every aspect of ethics means it's a very strong and perfect theory!"

Unfortunately, I have to disagree!

"What?", you say. "If evolution explains everything about ethics, then what possible objection could you have?"

Well, here's the rub. We lampoon theists for the fact that their theories cannot be falsified. In other words, there is no possible evidence that could disprove theistic claims. In essence, they are able to cover all possible outcomes with a theistic explanation.

This applies best when theists talk about prayer. I have debated theists where I discuss how prayer is totally ineffective. You can pray, and the vast majority of the time, nothing will happen. When it does, it's purely coincidence; and there is never something overtly supernatural. Amputees don't grow limbs when they pray. I can't pray for the ability to fly.... So theists wind up covering all outcomes. If I get what I want, God has answered my prayers. If I don't get what I want right away, God must be testing me. If I never get what I want... Say I pray for my child to survive cancer and he dies... Then "God works in mysterious ways." There is an explanation for every possible outcome of prayer, rendering it completely unfalsifiable. There is no way to test it (to a theist's standards). And this is a very, very BAD property of an explanation for a phenomena or a scientific theory.

So let me quote Karl Popper, the king of falsifiability theory:


"Every good scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory, (as people often think), but is a vice."

Now, you might be thinking, "Well this blows evolution out of the water altogether! Evolution is so good at explaining everything in biology!"

But wait a second. Evolution is fairly simple at its core, and there is an easy way to falsify it. Finding human bones with dinosaur bones in the same geologic strata. That would falsify evolution!

Evolutionary ethics is a completely different matter. There is NO WAY to falsify the theory of evolutionary ethics that I can think of. Granted, I may be wrong, and I would relish any falsification that you can think of.

Time and time again in evolutionary ethics books, I will see the "look for how it improves survival" thinking tool, and if you try hard enough, you can figure out ANY outlandish possible mechanism for some ethic to increase survival possibilities.

I challenge you to find an ethic for which this is not possible.

EVEN IF ethics come from evolution, it would be non-scientific because of the inability to falsify the theory.


2. "So if you're so smart, where DO ethics come from?"

Well, I haven't completely ruled out natural mechanisms. I haven't ruled out evolution as a role in ethics. But I think that there are other components. Firstly, I think ethics are subjective. I think that because we are humans, and we are intelligent beings with higher thought processes, we have free will. Animals are deterministic automatons without control over their natural desires. Humans are different.

The fact that we can choose to DISOBEY and even REVOLT against our natural desires renders us OUTSIDE the box of "naturalistic" ethics. That is, ethics cannot SOLELY come from nature & evolution.

Examples: Rape is common in the animal kingdom. Killing opponents for sexual mating rites is common in the animal kingdom. Killing other animals for food is common in the animal kingdom. Disregard for the carrying capacity of the environment, is common in the animal kingdom. Most predators would probably eat as much as they could kill if given the chance. As a result, the number of predators and prey constantly fluctuates in nature; and the carnivores don't know any better.

Because we have intellect, I say we are "outside the box". We have to create our own moral principles to revolt against barbaric behavior that would lead to our individual success for survival. Based on "The Selfish Gene," (Dawkins), I would surmise that most individuals selfishly seek their own interests. Yes, individuals exhibit altruism, but even then, it is for their own survival. One example would be in predators where having multiple members of a pack are vital to get any kills. Thus, you'd have to allow other pack members to get enough food to survive and help you with the next kill.

Thus, because we have intellect & powers of reason, we should rise up above "evolutionary ethics" EVEN IF "evolutionary ethics" is a good explanation for some animal behavior.

Think of how an evolutionary biologist goes about his research. He finds certain HUMAN ethics, and then looks to the animal kingdom for similar behavior that CORRELATES with human behavior. Then he says, "Oh look, birds cooperate in groups, so there must be an evolutionary link with humans." But what about animals that DON'T cooperate? Do we hear about them? I think ALL of the evolutionary ethics research these days uses this model of "looking for subjects that will fit your conclusion" rather than studying numerous animal species and creating the theory after all the subjects have been studied.

It's no mystery that doctors can do this when studying medical treatments. EXCLUDE everyone from your study who might pose any chance of giving you bad results, and skew the results to fit your conclusion.

Therefore, I am saying that human reason is the basis for ethics.

3. Euthyphro's dilemma. This was posed by one of my friends while chatting. Sadly, I can't remember his username. (I have had a couple drinks and it's 2:30 am.) Are certain actions ethical because the Gods approve of them, or are they ethical in and of themselves? I think most of us will agree with the latter.

So, I think a similar argument applies to evolution in that evolutionary ethics are based on ONE maxim: Do what either improves the survival of your own genes or the survival of the species.

So are actions ethical because they maximize our survival chances or because they are ethical in and of themselves?

Do you ever find yourself thinking about the right thing to do based on whether or not it will improve your survival chances or the survival chances of the species? NO! If you do, you're a strange duck. At the best, evolutionary ethicists would have to posit "survivalism" as a subconscious mechanism that is deterministic.


When I'm making ethical decisions, I have NEVER, EVER had conscious thought processes in which I base my decisions on the standard of survivalism or my success in finding a mate to spread my genes. I would probably be morally bankrupt and selfish if I did.

Again, consider that an Evolutionary Ethicist will waffle between survival of the individual and survival of the species as a whole. NO! Sound familiar? Remember the discussion about prayer and how it covers ALL the outcomes? Evolutionary ethicists have all the bases covered just like prayer believers do.


I do what is most rational and reasonable, and my survival or mating chances are rarely if ever a standard for me to judge my ethics. I will posit that the rational standard may shift in many cases, and it can be amorphous sometimes.

Sometimes we base ethics on the greatest good for the greatest number. Other times we will shudder at the thought of exploiting one for the good of the many. Sometimes we seek pleasure as our goal. Sometimes we have humanitarian impulses to help others for NO GOOD REASON other than it "feels" like the right thing to do based on our rational faculties -- not our subconscious, deterministic, evolutionarily programmed behavior.

I had started out giving evolution SOME "part" of the whole in understanding ethics, but now I am inclined to totally disregard it altogether.

Finally, I come to the naturalistic fallacy of GE Moore.

Simply put, "You can't get OUGHT or SHOULD from IS."

We can study what animals do in nature all we want. We can observe how humans behave and what IS. We can see that in the 1800s, it was perfectly normal for humans to OWN other humans and force them to work. That was NATURAL. But is that what we SHOULD do? Where can I turn to in evolutionary ethics to explain slavery and why it is wrong?

You can't. And if you do, you're probably applying the same "look for evidence of your conclusion and ignore countering evidence" fallacy.

We get SHOULD from reason, and since there are numerous humans, we create societies where humans collectively decide our ethics based on this reasoning capability. We REVOLT against nature to make a more humane, compassionate existence for each other. For no good reason other than it is the right thing to do.

In "The God Delusion," Dawkins talks a lot about ethical PROGRESS. That is, we have come to embrace such values as human freedom, justice, equality, tolerance, etc. I think we will one day end discrimination of gays, legalize euthanasia, allow women to have domain over their own bodies, fund and legalize stem cell research, and abandon religion. We will look back on it in the same way that we abhor our slavery past.

Evolutionary ethics do not help us at all in our ethical progress. If anything, that approach HINDERS our ethical progress. Just consider Social Darwinism and Eugenics. Doing what is natural is not always ethical.

In sum, the reason why I think the evolutionary approach is flawed is: evolution is not the CAUSE for our ethics; and evolutionary biologists can only find animal behaviors that COINCIDENTALLY CORRELATE with ethical human behaviors.

REASON is the CAUSE for our ethics. And I would argue that reason is the BYPRODUCT of evolution. We have intellect because it improves our survival. That intellect creates reasonable ethics as a total byproduct of that original process of evolution. EVOLUTION --> REASON --> ETHICS

Simply because evolution was a link in the chain does not mean there is a direct causal link.

For instance, little children might believe what their parents say about religion because you rely on your parents for discerning what is dangerous from safe. You believe everything they say by default. If they're right about not touching a hot stove, they must be right about everything else. In that case, religious belief is a BYPRODUCT of some other evolutionary mechanism. Just like a moth who flies into a flame. It flies into the flame because it uses moonlight as a navigation mechanism. It sees the flame and is totally disoriented. We might think the moth is committing suicide, but its really not.

Likewise, we may THINK that humans base their ethics on survival; but they really base it on INTELLECT which is the true mechanism of survival.

Here's an SAT analogy:

Moth is to Navigation Sense is to Fly by Moonlight is to Fly into a Flame AS Human is to Reason/Intellect is to Learn how to survive better is to SUBJECTIVELY CREATE ETHICS USING REASON.

And thank evolution for giving us our intellect to better fend of predators and procure food! Our intellect is a wonderful thing. But isn't it ironic that our intellect has allowed us to TRANSCEND the very mechanism that gave us our intellect?!? We are granted the glorious privilege and ability to END animalistic barbarism that pervades the animal kingdom. We are granted the ability to help the sick and poor for no good reason than it is the right thing to do!!!

Ethics are derived from our sense of reason.

And for this reason, Ethics is now and shall always be the domain of PHILOSOPHY, not SCIENCE.


Your friend in reason, --Jeremy / "DoctorO"



snafu's picture
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well, I've just had a walk

well, I've just had a walk to the shops and been thinking about this very subject.   Here are my thoughts.   Take the following 2 hypotheses:
1: Continued belief in faith based religion will lead to the destruction of the human species.
2: Abandonment of faith based religions will allow the conitnued survival of the human species.
Hypothsis 1 can be proved by the destruction of the human species in the presence of faith based religion - not something that can be considered an effective survival stategy - but can never be disproved.   Hypothesis 2 can be disproved by the destruction of the human species but can never be proved by its continued existence in the absence of faith based religion.

As we are intelligent beings and have evolved into a society I believe that we all have to act in the interests of society, and the human species, as  a whole in mind - much like the individuals in an ant colony favour the colony as a whole and not the individual.   Following this reasoning the abandonment of faith based belief - atheism - is not only logically right but it is morally right as it offers the greater chance of the continued existence of society and the human species as a whole.

So the way I see it now we, the atheists, can now claim both the intelluctual and moral high ground.

Of course you can offer a 3rd initial hypothesis that only continued belief in faith based religion will allow the continued existence of the human species but, given the evidence to date, I would say that this is extremely unlikely.

"The World is my country, science my religion" - Christiaan Huygens