If moral values evolve…….

16 Sep


Where you ground or anchor moral values is the question of the moment.  Any time someone says, “You had better do this or that!” the logical question to pose is: SAYS WHO???????

Let’s exercise our critical thinking skills as we take up this ethical source pivot.

To start, what are the major alternative origins of ‘good and evil’ of ‘right and wrong’?  Some possibilities are:

  • individual preference
  • a society’s preference
  • DNA evolved responses in individuals or groups
  • a force within the created order that is more powerful than either individuals or groups
  • an impersonal super-natural being outside of the universe
  • a personal God who is outside of the created order

Let’s look at the 3rd possibility that a society’s values emerge in an evolving environment where the strong members’ genes get passed down and continue in the species.

If that premise is accepted as a grounding source of ‘the good’, then here are some questions that come to mind:

  • How can both the tendency to share (not hoard) resources with others AND steal from others co-exist?   Wouldn’t that be a binary trait?
  • If survival of the fittest culls a population, where do life-sacrificing heroic actions originate?  Wouldn’t they be considered anti-survival?
  • Where did our almost universal belief that killing innocent human beings is wrong originate?  How does DNA differentiate ‘good guy killing’ versus ‘bad guy killing’?  And if killing others were a desirable trait for survival, why didn’t we just kill ourselves off long ago?
  • If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are defined as actions and beliefs that make a group flourish (Aristotle called it EUDOMONIA), why don’t all starving people groups practice cannibalism?  Who gets to determine which segments ‘flourish’?

You probably can think of other ramifications that would follow if we accept that values are just the built-in natural choices that a group’s members default to, based on evolving DNA.

Finally, going back to the source or grounding of our values, here is a question that bothers me:

Should moral outrage and remonstrance be taken seriously?  If so, why?

  • if we are just acting out of our DNA, then we are determined people like dominos.
  • if we are stating merely our preferences, who cares?  I have my own preferences just like you have yours.  Who gets to arbitrate?  Does ‘might’ make ‘right’?
  • if the outrage comes from a created element within our system, let’s try to demolish or avoid IT.  Maybe enough of US can eliminate IT!

However, if the outrage originates from a supernatural being, then we need to be concerned!

Question:  Can you see any other wellspring or root of morals or standards? 

12 Responses to “If moral values evolve…….”

  1. Marvin Edwards September 16, 2015 at 7:55 am #

    How do I achieve what is good for me in a way that is consistent with others doing the same?

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    The goal of morality is to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone. The goal of ethics is a rule system that serves moral intent. Rules protect rights.

    Why everyone and not just me? Because all practical rights arise from agreements. And we can only count on those rights that we can all agree to respect and protect for each other.

    The only standard of morality that we can be sure everyone can agree to is “the best good and least harm for everyone”.

    And in seeking that goal we evolve our system of rules and rights.

    • Maria September 16, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

      Marvin – thank you for your thought-ful response. I immediately think of the Nazis – as a group, they agreed that the best good for them was to eliminate all undesirables whether Jews, clergy, Communists, deformed etc. They discounted whether their morals might ‘harm’ the undesirables. I see that the question still remains – something has to be above all our groups to say what is ‘good’ or else it’s just competing preferences and the rule of ‘might’ makes ‘right’.

      • Marvin Edwards September 16, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

        1) What is the criteria you employed to morally judge their plan?
        2) Why did you choose that criteria?

      • Maria September 17, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

        Marvin – I’m not sure I understand your 1st Q – what would YOU say is the reason that they decided systematically to murder certain groups of people? I’m assuming people operate in their best interests, as they define ‘best’

      • Marvin Edwards September 17, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

        Clearly what the Nazis did to the Jews was morally wrong, because it inflicted unnecessary harm upon thousands of people.

        Given any two competing rules, we can judge which is more moral and which is less moral according to which results in “the best good and least harm for everyone”.

        The same would apply to slavery. We had two possible rules: (a) enforce the right of slaveholders to keep their slaves through runaway slave laws or (b) enforce the right of everyone to be free from being enslaved by outlawing slavery.

        I’m sure people used many arguments. Most likely both sides found their favorite Bible verses to support their position. But it was the anti-slave movement, persistently bringing forward evidence of the harm being done to human beings that convinced people that slavery should no longer be allowed.

        When I was a child, I was concerned about two things I learned in church. I was told that Satan was an evil tempter who would try to convince me to do wrong. And I was told that God speaks to us and tells us to do what is right. So I asked my mother, “How will I know which one is speaking to me?” And she said, “God will only tell me to do what is right. But Satan will tell me to do things that are wrong.”

        Do you see the problem? I must first be able to tell what is right from wrong before I can know whose influence is in play.

        In any case, it turned out that after my father committed murder and suicide, I confronted the notion of Hell as eternal torment. And I concluded that there was nothing anyone could do in a finite time on earth that could justify being tortured through eternity. Such a God could not, must not, exist.

        So I’ve spent some time thinking about morality and ethics without requiring a supernatural being.

      • Maria September 18, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

        Marvin – my heart goes out to you for the unimaginable (to me) pain you have suffered with both what your dad did and how he died. Those catastrophic emotional events shape people. How can you not question God!
        Just know that you are not alone, but in good company with others who have suffered and railed at God. Some draw closer and some turn their back and say No thank you!
        I’ll be praying that God whose son also was murdered communicates to you in a way that draws you to him.
        Thanks for commenting.
        And I went to your website and read your post on free will. You obviously think deeply – a rare commodity!

      • Marvin Edwards September 18, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

        Thank you for your caring remarks. The events happened when I was in Junior High School and I’m 69 years old now (old enough to be my father’s father).

        I still respect and appreciate my Christian experience and being raised in a church setting. Dad and mom were ministers (captains) in the Salvation Army, an offshoot of Methodism. And I believe that our society has benefitted from all of its many Christian churches.

        Christianity is based upon a transformation of the heart that begins at conversion and continues to grow toward sanctification through study and prayer. It instills what Kant calls “a good will”. And it is that good will that characterizes a moral person.

        While I do believe now that it is possible to pursue morality without theology, I cannot deny the practical results of children attending Sunday School each week. I only hope that Humanists are able to provide similar tools for keeping us good.

        I have a couple other posts: “Morality and Ethics” and “God and Good” that explore what I was trying to say here in a little more detail.

    • Maria September 19, 2015 at 9:04 am #

      Marvin. Thank you SO much for writing back. I will look at your posts. Off on a hike in western NC – it’s a beautiful Saturday. I want to respond more to what you shared.

      • Marvin Edwards September 19, 2015 at 10:14 am #

        Have fun on your hike! My little sister (she’s 66) and her husband recently finished the Appalachian trail.

  2. Cody Libolt (@CodyLibolt) September 17, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    The foundation of man’s moral values is man’s life. “What does the life of man, the rational individual require?” I say this as a Christian, knowing that there are very few Christians who would agree on this point. God’s commands are descriptions of what it takes to have life and life abundantly, plus the prescription: choose life.

    I recently wrote this article on the topic. This gives some more background on the thought behind my view. With your passion for logic, I think the topic of this article will appeal to you.

    What’s Wrong with “Because the Bible Says So.”

    I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately…

    There’s a difference between stating, A) “A fact is true because a certain person said it,” vs. saying B) “I can *know* a fact is true because a certain person said it.”

    Do you catch the difference? The first would be a statement about how something in the world works. The second would be a statement about the way your own mind is able to work, based on some external facts.

    To concretize: I can know that God parted the Red Sea because God says he did (and I know he always tells the truth). Is this an example of statement A or B?

    It’s the latter because it’s a statement about the way my mind is able to work, based on some external facts.

    This is tricky to articulate, but let me tell you one thing that I *am* stating and another thing I am *not* stating.

    I *am* stating that when I grasped certain facts (the fact of God saying something and the fact of his character), this caused me to understand another fact (the fact of what he had done).

    I am *not* stating the facts are directly, causally related to one other. I am not stating that “God told me so” is the cause of “God parted the Red Sea.”

    Rather, “God told me so” is the cause of me *knowing* that he parted the Red Sea.
    Why does any of the above matter?

    Because we need to learn that this distinction about historical facts also apples to moral facts.

    When we say a deed is right or wrong because the Bible says so, is this an example of statement type A or B?

    A) “A fact is true because a certain person said it.”
    B) “I can *know* a fact is true because a certain person said it.”

    It’s the latter. God’s moral prescriptions are actually descriptions of what human flourishing requires, plus the command to take that flourishing action.

    God is not merely stating what will please him. He is stating what will help us live (which is what pleases him).

    When we as parents and teachers tell children that something is right or wrong and they ask why, we often point to the Bible and say “Because the Bible says so.” Do you see now that this is imprecise and even misleading? It makes it sound like statement type A (“A fact is true because a certain person said it”). But actually, the fact is true *and* a certain person has said it, *and* I can *know* the fact is true because a certain person said it.

    If we tell children (or teens or adults), “It’s wrong because God said so,” we leave them to interpret this as best they can. Many will conclude “right and wrong” are merely synonyms for “pleasing and displeasing to God.” Right and wrong are, of course, pleasing and displeasing to God, but that is not of the essence. “Right and wrong” are something God is describing. They are facts about reality and man’s life, which we may know by reference to God’s trustworthy description.

    If we give people the impression (or if we ourselves believe) that “right and wrong” are a reference only to God’s words, and not also to reality, we set up two dangerous kinds of failure:

    1) They may stop looking at cause and effect relationships within the facts of reality and begin to operate on principle in a way that is disconnected from reality and does not actually account for the facts. An example of this would be someone who takes his religion very seriously but applies it legalistically and deductively without regard to observed facts. They are not very open to rethinking anything because they have calcified a given interpretation of what God has said and what it means.


    2) In rebellion, they may conclude that God’s commands are not related to reality. This is the kind of person who knows what “morality” is, but doesn’t follow it. In his mind, “morality” is merely the arbitrary expectations of others, which he rejects in order to follow his own course.

    What does it mean for a statement to be true? It means it conforms to the facts of reality; not that it conforms to someone else’s statement, even if that statement itself be true. When we recognize this, we make a significant advance toward understanding that morality is not subjective, nor arbitrary, but objective.

    Moral facts are actually *facts*. The more we can help others understand this, the better off they will be.

    No more, “It’s right because the Bible says so.”
    It’s time for, “The Bible says so, and the Bible is right.”

    • Maria September 17, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

      Cody – Wow! This is really helpful. Another rich example of why distinctions matter. I intuitively have arrived at the point in my Christian growth where I trust God’s promises of future provision because of the kind of God he is – truthful, faithful and unable to be otherwise and be consistent with his character. Thank you!

    • Maria September 18, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

      Cody – would you say this: Something is true because I trust the person who said it?

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