Love Your Atheist Neighbor Part 4: Evolution as a Basis for Ethics?

Rick Mattson Apologetics, Atheism 7 Comments

Last week I asked whether feeling could be an adequate basis for ethics (moral obligation).

My atheist professor friend thinks that evolution has given a high percentage of the population a feeling of empathy toward others, which leads to treating others with kindness and respect.

Such treatment is commendable but evolution also seems to have produced feelings of hatred toward others, often resulting in violence.

Empathy. Hatred. Both a result of evolution.

In conversation with atheist friends and acquaintances, I like to point out that what evolution does not give us is value or meaning. It doesn’t endow us with intrinsic worth. We just “are.”

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse agrees: “I think the world is . . . matter in motion. It has no meaning. It has no values.”

* * *

It seems to me that in a meaningless universe Mother Teresa (empathy) and ISIS (hatred) are on equal footing, ethically speaking. Evolution gave us both. They just are.

Comments 7

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  1. For me, working at a school with a bunch of teenagers brings moral clarity to things like this. We may teach evolution but I’m not sure we really believe it . . . existentially speaking, of course. Thirty years of working with them (and watching lots of movies) proves that teenagers typically generate 1.21 gigawatts of enthusiasm, passion, empathy, kindness and respect to lots of what they do. And, my point is! Sometimes we discipline, suspend or even expel them for how this all works its way out. This is why we have them read books like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and To Kill A Mockingbird (which is a sin, by the way). Yep, I do love working with the next generation! No better job in the world than shaping the heart of a kiddo to . . . love what it ought to love, and hate what it ought to hate.

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      Bill, you work in a strategic place. I appreciate what you do. I see students in the next phase of life: college, when they are away from home for the first time and they show their true colors. I love them.

  2. Hi Rick! I love how well written and concise your posts are. This one certainly got me thinking (mostly due to a question from your god-daughter about my thoughts on it, haha). I thought I’d post my response here as well to get your thoughts and feedback. Nice site!

    When asked what I thought about your argument:


    “I agree that the world and the universe is devoid of intrinsic meaning or value. It is only with our perceptions or opinions that we place value on certain things within nature and life itself.

    However, I’m pretty sure his definition of ethics is a bit off. His side note of “moral obligation” inherently ties a moral value to actions, but Ethics in its purest definition is solely about right or wrong conduct. These are not one in the same, or more so, are very much dependent on the dogma, teachings, or beliefs from which we judge actions.

    It’s true, from an evolutionary basis, no actions of nature can be judged as right or wrong, they just are – we can’t blame a lion for killing something, it needs to eat and it’s doing what it knows. However, for humans, empathy is the only part of this that make sense in evolutionary terms – he should not bring in Hatred as a converse result, as this derives from a different level (dogma, teachings, etc.).

    Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in other’s shoes. Because of this, we know it’s not right to hit someone, because we’ve been hit! We know what it feels like – empathy is the reason the “Golden Rule” can even exist.

    Hatred, however, is a learned ability – it’s opposite is of course is Love, not empathy. Love takes forgiveness, is active, and derives from our moral values (or obligations) to care for others – this is taught. Likewise, but in opposition is Hate, this is easy, passive, but is also taught/learned – from personal biases, other’s teachings, or otherwise.

    Empathy is a natural trait. Hatred is a taught ability. These two do not correlate.


    Looking forward to your thoughts!
    -Joel Howard

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      Joel, thanks for taking time to respond to my post.

      Sorry to say I’m not following your train of thought when you say moral obligation ties a moral value to actions, but ethics is about right or wrong conduct. I guess I’m not seeing the difference between actions and conduct. Could you clarify that thought?

      Secondly, you say that for humans, empathy is the only part of this that makes sense in evolutionary terms. But why? It seems to me that both empathy and hatred are a result of evolution, whether directly or as a learned behavior.

      In fact, if naturalistic evolution is true, shouldn’t we say that ALL human behavior is a result of evolution? Human behavior is who we are. According to evolution, we have evolved biologically and socially. Nothing about us is NOT caused by evolution.

      Even learned abilities are still rooted in evolution (because our ability to learn is a product of evolution).

      Third, in one part of your post you say that “no actions of nature can be judged as right or wrong, they just are.” And yet you seem to lift up empathy as being right.

      Feel free to respond, Joel. Sorry your post was stuck in my inbox for a few days before I saw it and approved it. Thanks again.

      1. Hi Rick,

        No worries about the time-delay on approving and replying, I appreciate the response either way. Similarly, sorry about my delay, as I was not notified of your response it took until now to remember to double-check if anything had been posted! 🙂

        Let me see if I can clarify my thoughts and responses in order of your questions/paragraphs:

        1. [Moral Obligation vs Ethics] I did not intend on making a comparison between actions and conduct – those terms I expected to be taken as synonyms. I guess that’s what William Taft meant by writing “so that you can’t be misunderstood”! 🙂
        As for the true intent, I meant to focus on the difference between Ethics and Moral Obligations, of which I’m now finding to be more nuanced than the discrepancies in definitions. For instance, I initially latched onto the study of ethics being solely to define right and wrong – such a definition would come from a more “scientific approach” so to speak, with the goal to be an answer devoid of personal biases or otherwise. Ethics, however, is also said to be derived ultimately from the Greek word “Ethos”, or habit. Understanding this (and by your what-if case, to be discussed next), it stands to reason that if we bring learned abilities into the framework of a “result of evolution”, then Ethics actually does have merit when directly compared to Moral Obligations. So, in that regard, I believe I’m on board with your initial definition, which I too hastily focused on.

        2.[Empathy vs Hatred] I approached your argument with the assumption that it was to contrast the differences between an evolution-only basis versus a creation-only basis. For example, your mention of discussions with friends where you pointed out that “what evolution does not give us is value or meaning”. In that case, we have to conclude that Hatred is not a result of evolution, as it is more correctly the opposite of Love and similarly ties directly to personal values or meaning. Empathy is not Love; empathy is only the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes”. However, IF we follow your response to my initial comment, THEN we can both agree that empathy, hatred, and most importantly value are all results of evolution. To be clear, this in my mind does not leave out the potential for God to be working alongside or more importantly through evolution.

        3. [Ethics of Nature] I’d like to verify what you mean by “empathy as being right”, do you not believe empathy is “right”? In what way do you want me to interpret this? I don’t know whether empathy is right it is just a part of us as humans.
        In an evolution-only framework, I stand by the logic that actions of nature can’t be judged as right or wrong (nature being all that is non-human). However, Empathy is our framework as Humans through which we gain insight and can place judgment on what we feel is right or wrong, up to and including the formation of values. So with that in mind, I’d like to clarify my argument as stating that evolution does allow for us to obtain intrinsic worth and moral obligations [especially with regard to a species/tribe survival standpoint]. Michael Ruse’s quote about the world being matter in motion ties nicely into this, so long as we don’t confuse the empathetic response within our species, to the clockwork of the (non-human) world around us.

        4. [Final Thought] A lot of my argument stemmed from what I found to be a misplaced comparison of Mother Teresa and ISIS. First, I believe the comparison needed to be between her love vs their hate. Both can empathize, but certain values relative to ours are vastly different. For instance, it is very possible for ISIS to believe that what they are doing is right, or otherwise important for their “tribe” (used loosely) to survive – therefore in that instance they would not be acting out of hatred. It only relative to our “tribal” beliefs or values that we can judge their actions as inhumane and hate-filled. This is where Ethics goes more general than Morals, in that it aims for Right and Wrong to be judged from ideally an impartial standpoint, while Morals are seemingly more tied to local (i.e. sphere of influence) customs, traditions, teachings and beyond.

        I love this conversation. There are many great thought-lines that seem to have stemmed from it. Certainly a worthwhile exercise!!

        Looking forward to your response,
        Joel Howard

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