Evolution and the Death of Right and Wrong
Stewart-Williams (Steve)
Source: Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life, Chapter 14
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Chapter Abstract1

  1. In the final chapter of the book, we consider two main questions.
    • The first is whether exposure to evolutionary theory makes people bad. Many Creationist critics of Darwin claim that his theory purges existence of any ultimate meaning and reduces the value of human life to zero. In doing so, it destroys morality, making people selfish, sexually promiscuous, and violent (so they argue). This concern is exemplified by the famous (possibly apocryphal) words of a nineteenth-century bishop's wife: 'Let us hope that what Mr Darwin says is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known.' Many hold this view. But do we really have to deny our evolutionary origins and hold false and groundless beliefs about the universe in order to be good, treat one another nicely, and care about one another's welfare? Could it be that it's actually safer and more effective not to tie morality to religion? That's the first topic for Chapter 14.
    • The second relates to the question of whether our moral beliefs – any moral beliefs – are objectively true. You probably feel pretty confident about the veracity of your moral convictions. You feel that murder is wrong and helping people is right, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is simply incorrect. I feel the same way. But think about this: if we were intelligent ants, we would think individual rights were an evil; if we were termites, we would have no moral qualms about reproductive love among siblings (indeed, we'd favour it); and if we were bees, we would consider it a sacred duty to kill our nest mates. We would have these attitudes because they would fit us, as ants, termites, or bees, to the evolved lifestyle of our respective species. But that's precisely the reason we have the moral attitudes we actually do have: because they fit us to the evolved lifestyle of the species Homo sapiens. Our moral beliefs are informed by desires and emotions that are there solely because they helped our ancestors pass on their genes. How, then, do we know that our moral beliefs are objectively true? More to the point, how do we know that any moral beliefs are objectively true?
  2. The verdict of Chapter 14 is that we don't know that they're true, and that in fact they're not. In the final analysis, there is no such thing as right or wrong. This does not imply, however, that we can or should dispense with morality. On the contrary, in the last pages of the book, I argue that evolutionary theory helps make the case for a utilitarian approach to ethics – that is, an approach that judges the tightness or wrongness of our actions in terms of the effects of those actions on all involved.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from Chapter 1 ("Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: Darwin and the Big Questions").


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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