Evolutionary Morality and Ethics

The single greatest advantage that an evolutionary worldview has over traditional, flat-earth worldviews is that evolution provides a firmer foundation for godly ethics and morality, individually and collectively, than can ethical systems based on the Bible, Qur'an, or any other ancient writings alone.

Connie and I are in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area for a couple of weeks. Yesterday I was interviewed twice, first by the religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, next by a staff writer for Pegasus News. In both interviews I was asked about where, from an evolutionary perspective, I derive my sense of morality and ethics. In my replies I referenced Stephen Pinker's fabulous article in the January 13th issue of The New York Times Magazine: "The Moral Instinct".

Pinker's essay on the evolutionary roots of morality is the latest in a brilliant and compelling lineage. One of my favorite quotations on this topic comes from the 2004 book by Michael Shermer: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. Shermer writes, "In an evolutionary theory of morality, asking 'Why should we be moral?' is like asking 'Why should we be hungry?' or 'Why should we be horny?' For that matter, we could ask, 'Why should we be jealous?' or 'Why should we fall in love?' The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love."

Another valuable resource on this subject (and one of the wisest books I've ever read) I mentioned a few months ago in my Evolutionary Religious Studies blog post. It is the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced "Height"). A short essay,"Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" that Haidt originally posted in an online salon, "Edge", was singled out by New York Times columnist David Brooks as one of the best articles of 2007. That essay powerfully bridges conservative and liberal religious sensibilities.

My own thoughts on this subject can be found throughout Thank God for Evolution. The following is excerpted from Chapter 18: "Our Evolving Understanding of 'God's Will'":

In America we often hear, especially in conservative settings, how the Bible is the only secure foundation for moral instruction and ethical guidance. Yet those of us who have actually read the entire Bible, and are clear-headed enough to see it as it actually is, know that it would be ludicrous (indeed, immoral) to advise a child, "Yes, dear. You should use as your own model for appropriate behavior whatever actions you read in the Bible that are attributed there to God or to what God commands us to do."

Among those who are thrilled to encounter a holy view of evolution are parents yearning for inspiring ways to teach their children moral values — moral values grounded in science and commonsense, rather than based on ancient writings, which (in today's world) offer an ambiguous moral compass at best. Yes, the Bible contains hundreds of wonderful and useful passages that can help us teach our children how to become good, happy, loving, on-purpose adults. The Bible also, however, contains many grotesque and morally repugnant passages that none of us would want our children to see, much less emulate.

As Michael Earl points out in Parts 1 and 2 of his free online audio program, Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You, those who claim that the Ten Commandments can or should serve as an ethical foundation for us today fail to realize how far they themselves have evolved morally beyond the biblically prescribed consequences for violating these so-called "laws of God."? According to the Bible, "God's will" can be, and often is, brutal. Deuteronomy 13:6–10 prescribes that if someone breaks either of the first two commandments ("no gods before God" and "no idols"), they are to be put to death. Leviticus 24:13–16 and 23 instructs readers that if the third commandment ("Don't take the Lord's name in vain") is broken, the penalty is death. Numbers 15:32–36 warns that if you work on the Sabbath, thereby breaking the fourth commandment, your life will be taken from you. And according to Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 21:18–21, if you curse your parents, or even if you're just a stubborn and rebellious teenager (thereby violating the fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother), God's prescribed penalty for this, too, is death. (That'll teach little Isaac—or, at least Isaac's younger brother, who has to watch his sibling being stoned to death for mouthing off to mom and dad.) This is not the sort of justice making or parenting practice that Americans in the main would support today.

Many Christians today advocate, or at least support the notion, that the Ten Commandments should be our moral benchmark. We are told that God is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore. But as Earl points out, today we don't kill Sabbath breakers. Nor do we stone to death our teenage daughters who lose their virginity before marriage, or our teenage sons who disobey us. And the reason we don't kill Sabbath breakers or our troublesome children is quite simple: it would be immoral. Moreover, who among us would qualify as stoner rather than stonee. Clearly, we've evolved beyond (at least some) biblical values and scriptural morality. As Earl states, "When compared to the regime of Moses, the regime of the Taliban comes off looking like the ACLU."


Not long ago I was talking with a woman, the mother of two teenagers, after one of my programs. We were discussing the mixed moral messages found in ancient written scripture. The woman confided, "I wouldn't even think of encouraging my kids to apply in their own lives whatever values they found in the Bible. And most other parents I know feel the same way." She continued, "Why, then, do so many of us Christians—liberals and conservatives alike—still refer to these texts as 'God's Word'?" My response was simple: "What alternative, until now, did we have?"


We can finally (thank God!), once again speak boldly and prophetically about right and wrong, and do so without needing to appeal to ancient texts. From the perspective of Evolution Theology, something is right if it honors or fosters the health and wellbeing of the larger and smaller holons of our existence or furthers the emergence of greater cooperation and interdependence at increasing scale and evolvability. A thing is wrong if it undermines these values. Said another way, a thing is right if it helps individuals and collectives to grow in trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service. A thing is wrong if it tends otherwise.

In oral cultures of ancient times, the inborn moral sense would have been honed and amplified by storytelling, songs, and ceremony. When writing developed, right and wrong tended to become identified by whether or not something aligned with written laws and guidelines held sacred by the community. Judgment was also based on whether an act would promote cooperation and wellbeing at the level of tribe, religious group, or nation—or whether it would do the obverse. Today, thanks to print, electronics, computers, and the Internet, we've come to see that the wellbeing of every individual, corporation, and nation-state is integrally connected to the health and wellbeing of the entire body of Life. This is why right and wrong are now discerned in larger, more comprehensive ways than ever before, and why conversations to find insights and solutions that meet the needs of all parties are so central to the Great Work we are now engaged in.

People everywhere today know that love, respect, gratitude, compassion, integrity, responsibility, humility, kindness, accountability, and so on are God's will and lead to healthy maturation, healthy relationships, and healthy communities. Similarly, we all know that hatred, pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, envy, resentment, bitterness, deception, theft, and so forth damage the human spirit and unravel social bonds. We don't need ancient writings to tell us this. It may be the case that in biblical times, the size and complexity of societies and information systems had not yet developed to a point where these moral principles were as obvious as they are to us today, just as the moral issues around war and use of fossil fuels became apparent during the 20th century. Now God's will and God's ways can be discerned throughout biological and human history, as well as in our own experience and within the quiet places of our hearts.