Naturalism and ethics

One recurring complain from Atheists is the problem of evil.  Regardless of how this complaint is formulated, it is a persistent theme.  It’s certainly a valid complaint worthy of a response, but I think the Atheist has just as difficult a hurdle when trying to explain it through their worldview.  As a Christian theist, my worldview predicts and addresses evil at the hands of man.  However for the atheistic worldview, and by extension philosophical naturalism, predicts and makes no allowances for this evil we see.

On naturalism, the concept of moral good and evil is non-existent.  Assessments of good and evil from a naturalistic perspective are by nature utilitarian, and really aren’t about morality as much as about achieving an end.  Instead the recognition of moral good and evil is borrowed from an outside worldview.

What is lacking from the Atheist’s worldview is the ability to answer a very important question:  Why does the moral neutrality of survival of the fittest stop with human beings?  In other words, much of what we would consider moral evil is exhibited in the animal kingdom with moral impunity.  For example, the equivalents of murder, infanticide, theft, rape, etc. are regular behaviors of the animal kingdom.  But we don’t punish animals for these behaviors.

I suspect the Atheist would put forth some variation of human flourishing, but that only addresses what works — utilitarianism.  Often what would work best we might consider morally wrong.  This doesn’t even answer the problem though.  Animals which practice these behaviors do flourish based on a naturalist’s definition, and in fact, helps ensure the most fit of a species gets its genes passed on.

For those Atheists concerned with the “problem of evil” the question of why we don’t hold human evil with the same moral neutrality of survival of the fittest, should be more concerned that it isn’t answerable via their worldview rather than blaming someone else’s.

Does a non-arbitrary answer to this exist?


  1. This is the Atheist’s Waterloo, and one of the reasons I began to think beyond atheism in my own life. Sure, man can conjure up from his imaginations “reasons” found in nature why survival of the fittest stops with man. But he can just as well conjure up why it shouldn’t… like Hitler did with his aspirations of a super-race. He can always say one should or shouldn’t do this or that, like super-races, or crushing and dismembering millions of human beings in the womb, or even demanding that some men not act like the beings that they have been indoctrinated to believe that they are, and to share some of their wealth with their less fortunate comrades, but his reasons for doing any of this never rise above mere opinion.

  2. Great post John. This is one of my biggest grumbles against philosophical naturalism. They seem to want things both ways: accusing the Christian worldview of having a “problem of evil” without adequately explaining their own “problem of morality”. Even if certain moral behaviors were beneficial to survival, what does that have to do with “right” and “wrong”? Just because a particular behavior gave a survival advantage in the past does NOT mean that it will give a survival advantage in the future. I could easily argue that polygamy and euthanasia will give a survival advantage in our technologically advanced age. Does this make the behaviors acceptable? Or are they only acceptable in hindsight once the survival advantage has been realized?

  3. Naturalism can easily explain evil in the world: there’s no all-powerful, all-good being out there to stop it. That natural disasters, birth defects, war, and a vast universe of deadly space exist is what we would expect if the universe and our bodies weren’t specially created for our pleasure and comfort.
    The question is what to do about our situation – vulnerable beings in a natural world. Those with a humanist world view, which most atheists have, will agree that we should try to promote human flourishing.By actions of people to understand the world with science and to choose actions which increase human flourishing and decrease suffering, we together can reduce evil in the world. We can add comfort to an uncaring universe.
    You can denounce this as “utilitarian” or “arbitrary” but unless you want to promote suffering or eat popcorn while the world falls apart and people starve around you, then I would hope you would agree that human flourishing is a good value for us to embrace.
    And no amount of questioning of philosophical naturalism answers the Problem of Evil for Christians. You as Christians still live in a world full of suffering and evil acts. You’ve got a perfectly good ‘free will’ response for most evil acts (even though God could resolve those easily as well), but you have nothing to respond to gratuitous evil, natural disasters, birth defects, or other sources of suffering that could be mitigated or eliminated without infringing upon free will.

    ps. You also asked about why humans are different than animals. Animals have compassion and ethics and eschew suffering. They generally don’t have the capacity to grasp philosophical subjects or ‘agency’ in others to the extent humans do. That lack of intellectual capacity makes it difficult for them to grasp laws or higher ethical concepts. Due to those limitations, we judge animals, children, the mentally ill, and the mentally challenged by a lower ethical standard. And before you start, animals, children, etc are not equivalent, but they all share a lower ethical standard that is different for each according to their capacity.

    pps. You also implied that natural law and ethics are the same: “Animals which practice these behaviors do flourish based on a naturalist’s definition.” This idea is better known as ‘social darwinism’. This is a discredited attempt to pull concepts of biology and apply them to ethics and public policy. Evolutionary standards focus on the quantity and resilience of life, especially in terms of adaptability. Ethical standards (to be brief) focus on the quality of life for individuals as well as groups.

  4. I find it interesting that atheists can even claim anything is “evil.” By what moral standard can they judge what is good or evil? After all, what one calls evil may be another’s good!

  5. Those with a humanist world view, which most atheists have, will agree that we should try to promote human flourishing.

    See. This is what I mean. This “should” is ex nihilo. It is circular reasoning. It says that we should promote human flourishing because humans should flourish. What I want to know is why should human flourishing be promoted, or not promoted for that matter?

  6. The religious folks in the audience seem to have quite a subjective view of morality. Maybe you’d like to go kick a baby in the face. Why not as long as it’s ok by God? I hope you can think of a few reasons. Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery, genocide, rape, torture, theft, and general dastardliness of all sorts. I think that history of unethical behavior will inspire Christians to be realistic about their own cultural relativism.

    Promote human flourishing because everyone seems to want that. More importantly, and this is the key point, it is a self-supporting activity. Other goals (money, selfishness, power, physical fitness) tend to work at cross purposes very quickly, requiring tradeoffs in time, efforts or results. When we all work towards human flourishing we, almost by definition, have better lives. An alternative hypothesis is that we should just do what God says. Why? Is it because we’re scared of his wrath? Or maybe we want the rewards of heaven. Fear and selfishness aren’t noble values (neither are tyranny or nepotism from God’s perspective). Maybe it’s because following God’s word promotes human flourishing. If that’s the case, then we have the same end goal and we can work together.

    • Jason
      Just because people twist the Bible to support things it really doesn’t support, don’t blame the Bible and the Christian faith. Blame the people who abuse it for their own devices.

      Besides, what moral standard do YOU have to determine if something is “dastardly” other than just YOUR opinion?

  7. First Jason, what is wrong with being subjective?

    Second, would you please explain to me why kicking babies in the face is wrong without resorting to subjectivity?

  8. Jason, what does “human flourishing” mean to you? This seems to be a very vague term that could mean lots of things to lots of people. For some it might mean that the masses have improved health and comfort. For some it might mean that we accept a significant amount of human deprivation in order to maintain some sort of small ecological footprint. Or for some it might mean that the genetically elite of society maximize their reproduction potential. Or for some it might mean that they are free to rid the earth of all the infidels who defame the name of Allah. Or it might mean a myriad of other things.

    You see, the definition of “flourishing” depends on what you view the purpose of our lives to be.
    You could take the point that “flourishing” is determined by a majority vote. But then you are right back to where we started. What if the majority of people think that “flourishing” means that we can suppress the “inferior” in order to maximize the happiness of the elite? (as, in fact, happens here in the US when we maximize our wealth by taking advantage of exceptionally low wages and working conditions in China and India!)

    I suggest using some more specific language if you are trying to argue for something specific.

  9. The entire reason why animals aren’t held to the same moral standards is because we have the ability to think, compare, and understand what hurts people or takes away their rights and is therefore immoral. Animals don’t have established civilization or even any established way to communicate these ideas, they have primitive emotions and instincts and they flourish in their own way.
    Humankind flourishing, however, would be people all having an equal chance to opportunity in terms of education, jobs, socioeconomic status, and as stated in the declaration of independence, the pursuit of happiness. We all deserve a level playing field, no one is born any better than anyone else. People should not be punished for things they cannot control – skin color, gender, sexuality, etc. Flourishing does not mean making some slaves to a system so that others can have comfort – that is despicable thinking, that I think would be easily changed if we could see the people the first world steps all over and ruins the lives of so we can keep our luxuries – it’s just like slavery, something in this country that Christians fought from being abolished . In a just world, our worht would be determined based on our actions, how hard we are willing to work, and our moral decisions (not the world we live in exactly).
    It seems to me your mindset stems from the belief that religion has some sort of claim on morality, and frankly it doesn’t. Morality is situational – it is NOT HARD to figure out what harms people or takes away their basic human rights. We don’t need religion to tell us that, although it’s really pathetic that without religion some people would be immoral because they don’t have the incentive of heaven or hell. I don’t NEED incentive to want to do good, I simply don’t want to waste my life, make anyone else’s harder, or hurt anyone because frankly I have no right to just go into other people’s lives and shit all over them and I know that I don’t.
    Let me ask you a question, how does your religious view of morality answer why moral neutrality of survival of the fittest stops with human beings? Does your bible address animals or condemn them for the wrong-doings that would be on-par with human sin? No. Because animals aren’t expected to even understand morality, they are instinctual creatures with no moral obligations. They can’t even communicate such a concept to each other.

    • Katie,

      Can you tell me how, on the Atheist/Naturalist view, why any of that should matter? And why I have some obligation to adhere to any of it? What is it is the Atheistic worldview does what you said compel others to believe your argument?

    • Katie,

      Only SOME Christians fought for slavery – Christians who abused and twisted Scripture to support their agenda. Sort of like homosexuals do today. But it was Christians who fought against slavery and it was Christians who ended it.

      As for the biblical view of animals vs humans compared the the atheist view:
      Atheists believer humans are just a higher form of animal life, having evolved to this point. The Bible says animals and humans are completely separate created lifeforms, that humans are made in God’s image.

      Evolution can’t account for morality, love, ethics, altruism, kindness, or any other emotion.

  10. Glenn:
    My only point in mentioning slavery was to point out that having religion does not mean you are moral, or have some sort of claim to it. Doing moral things makes your moral. I’m sure there were also atheists who fought against slavery, and jews, and people from other groups, too. Abolishing slavery isn’t something you can give credit to Christians alone for. And frankly, it would’ve been done away with in this country much, much sooner without the religious backing that it had. And just like with homosexuals today, a ban on gay marriage will eventually be done away (as we’re seeing now, little by little) with because two people of the same sex being in love isn’t hurting anyone, only the hateful, unjustified prejudice against it is harming anyone. Eventually people will stop listening to the Christians about it, because just like with slavery, we’re starting to realize that keeping people from having equal legal status just because their love makes you feel weird is wrong. But I’m getting off topic.
    Okay, now.
    Just because evolution hasn’t accounted (although there are some very good theories still being tested) for morality, love, ethics, altruism, etc. doesn’t mean that it can’t – just in the same way that we had no idea what caused the tides at some point (the moon’s gravitational pull), just because we didn’t have an explanation at the time didn’t mean it was impossible to reach. And eventually we did reach it, with thorough testing and physical, observable evidence to back it up. The human brain is a very complex mystery, but we expand our knowledge on it all the time. And emotions do have evolutionary purpose, arguably, because once we reached intelligence it became vital to our well-being to be involved with our surroundings and fellow human beings, and emotions developing are a plausible effect of that growing intelligence. Fear, for example, is an emotion with evolutionary purpose – fear tells us that something is wrong, and in the environments we used to live in, would trigger the fight-or-flight response which was (and still is) often critical to whether or not we may live or die in certain situation. Have you ever heard of someone having an adrenaline rush? That is an effect of the fight or flight response. Which would back up the theory that emotions are the results of evolutionary processes. Individuals who are happier tend to live longer, there may be an evolutionary process behind this that links physical well-being to emotions, this may also account for the purpose of loving. We hate individuals that do wrong to us, which if you want to break that down in the simplest of ways, could be a chemical process which mentally warns us against subjecting ourselves to the company of people who have negatives effects on us. Or, they could simply be an evolutionary anomaly – something that developed by chance along with other evolutionary processes as a result of other processes and mutations we acquired as homo-sapiens to survive longer, but still entirely possible to explain by science as we move forward and learn more.
    Now to address John Barron’s question.
    “Can you tell me how, on the Atheist/Naturalist view, why any of that should matter? And why I have some obligation to adhere to any of it? What is it is the Atheistic worldview does what you said compel others to believe your argument?”
    I suppose if you want to get technical, it doesn’t matter, but that speaks more to your character than atheism. But it’s also totally up to you as to whether or not you want to be moral, your religion doesn’t necessarily guarantee your morality, although churches will tell you to give to charity and other things. So if you come to the same conclusion about the world as I have, that there is no God, and you choose to be a horrible person – that’s on you. I choose to be moral because I want what little time I have to be good, and I want it to be good for others too, because if it’s all we have then I shouldn’t be selfish about it. Why shouldn’t I? I don’t need a reason, frankly no one NEEDS it, they just WANT a why. They want more because the reality of our situation is disappointing to some, whereas to me it is amazing – it’s about perpective. If you can be so pessimistic and think that because we don’t get to live for an eternity with God that there’s no point to living, then I feel sorry for you. Life is exactly what we make of it. It’s no fault of mine or anyone else’s if a person cannot see that.
    What is the point of life if we do not try to make something of it? It can be pointless only if we allow it to be.

    • Katie,
      The problem is that “religion” isn’t moral either. Christianity is moral because it has a foundational standard of morals – a standard of measure as to what is or is not moral. Atheists have no such standard other than personal opinion, and one person’s opinion is just as valid as another’s.

      No one is banning same-sex fake marriage, nor are they trying to do so. We are banning the redefinition of marriage and the institution it describes. That isn’t hateful, nor is it discriminatory or prejudiced.

      Comparing sexual behavior with skin color is one of the worst canards of the homosexual agenda. Skin color is not a moral issue – sexual behavior is.,

      Same-sex fake marriage has already hurt scores of people who have not wanted to give it personal sanction. No one is even trying to stop same-sex people from doing their own ceremonies, etc, and proclaiming themselves to be wed. What we don’t want is government sanction of such perversion, which forces everyone to accept it or be punished – as scores of people have been punished.

      How can you justify same-sex unions as being sanctioned but not incestuous or polygamous/polyandrous unions? That’s the problem with so-called “equality.” Once you change what marriage is, there is no stopping what will be put into such a nefarious definition.

      Evolution will NEVER have any explanation for the human mind (mind, not brain) which is the seat of all emotions. There is no theory which makes any sense. Don’t be in denial.

      You say we hate people who do wrong to us, yet you have to borrow from Christianity to come up with what is right or wrong, or otherwise it is just personal opinion.

  11. Before I say what I really want to say, I’d like to point out that being made slightly uncomfortable by having to acknowledge two people being in love and wanting to get married and be recognized just as equally as anyone else is not hurting you, you just don’t like it, so you don’t want to see it. It’s not hurting you anymore than having this conversation with me is, just because it makes you a bit uncomfortable – it isn’t hurting you. It hurts homosexual people to not be acknowledged as equals or to be made out as evil people for being in love with someone the same sex as they are (sexuality, in which I meant what a person is attracted to, sexual behavior is another thing entirely). They are the victims. Just because you have to learn to accept other human beings as they are doesn’t mean them wanting equality of marriage is harming you in any way. It doesn’t stop you from being happy. It doesn’t take away your rights. It doesn’t make straight marriage any less valid. It doesn’t mean they should just accept their unequal status just in case you might not like it.
    NOW, onto what I really want to say.
    The problem with thinking that we have to borrow from Christianity to understand morals is that you think Christianity has some claim on morality no one else can touch. The world functioned without Christianity, however, and not in complete and utter chaos.
    Most societies (before Christianity ever existed) had figured out that murdering people is wrong, and they made laws against it. Take for example, ancient Mesopotamia with Hammurabi’s law code.
    We’ve also managed to understand that rape is immoral, seeing as how it harms people, but I’d like for you to find me somewhere in the bible where it says NOT to rape. In fact, you’d have an easier time finding stories the advocate rape in the bible than stories that tell people it’s wrong. So, since rape isn’t labeled as wrong in the bible, does that make it okay? Absolutely not.
    Christianity didn’t invent morality. It takes a pretty narrow-minded way of thinking to ignore that the world functioned without it, and that other societies function without it as a moral guide.
    And Christianity is responsible for things like the Crusades, which is the complete opposite of morality. So I don’t see how you can call it a moral guide. Yes, Christianity does teach some moral things – don’t steal, thou shalt not kill (although if you read the bible, you’ll see this mostly only applies to members of a person’s own tribe, since genocide has been a pretty common theme among Christianity and other religions as well, and there are also a lot of sins for which the punishment is death), etc. Just because the bible says these things does not make it a standard for morals.
    Again, if you can’t figure out what’s right or wrong without religion telling you how to live, then I think that’s a personal problem as opposed to a religious or philosophical one. It’s not hard to figure out what harms people, what takes away their human rights, and what doesn’t. If you don’t WANT to be moral, again, that’s personal – it speaks nothing to life having meaning with or without an eternity in heaven or hell.
    As for the evolution having no explanation for the human mind, frankly, I tried to explain that to you. Just because we haven’t found the answers yet (and we ARE getting closer) does not mean that we cannot. If you would look for the information and try to understand it instead of just scoffing at it, you would know that. You have to also have a real understanding of the processes behind evolution to even begin to understand how emotions and thought are possible and explainable and even useful by evolutionary standards. If you don’t want to try to understand valid information and physical, accessible evidence that support evolution, that is another problem entirely.

    • Katie,

      You apparently weren’t “listening” when I told you that people are already being hurt by same-sex fake marriage. They have indeed lost their rights. They are being punished with fines, lawsuits, and in other countries even jail time, for doing nothing more than refusing to sanction homosexuality – for refusing to give it approval. I can give you a pot-load of cases of people who have lost thousands of dollars and even occupations, as well as personal businesses for simply refusing to give personal sanction to such DEVIANCY! I’m not a bit “uncomfortable” with what they choose to do – I just don’t want to be forced to sanction it.

      You’re right, of course, that morals were around before Christianity. God created man with a moral conscience. And after the Flood, it was Noah, then Shem, and their lineage which carried the truth about God to the world. It was the Hebrews and their ancestors from whom the other civilizations learned to formulate their own law codes. But it all started with God. It did not start with some life forming from non-life (an impossibility), which kept deciding to change to something else until it finally said it would be human for a while before it changed into a space man or something else.

      To ask where in the Bible it says to not rape proves you don’t read your Bible. Because a woman who was raped would not ever be able to marry in the old culture, a rapist was forced to marry her so she would have support for the rest of her life. But if the woman was already engaged or married, then the rapist was to be executed. This was the law given to the nation of Israel.

      Christianity wasn’t responsible for the Crusades – Islam was. And it wasn’t “Christianity” which fought against Islam – it was Roman Catholicism, which is a horse of a different color. If it wasn’t for the Crusades, you’d be speaking Arabic, and you’d have no rights as a woman.

      Your description of what is in Scripture demonstrates your complete ignorance of what it truly says.

      Evolution won’t find an explanation for the human mind, because the mind is intangible. There is NO factual evidence to support evolutionism, and to claim otherwise demonstrates how naive and gullible you are. All they have are speculations, extrapolations, assumptions, and theories – but NO facts.

      Intelligent thought, by the way, is from information placed in the brain. Information is always originated by a designer – information does not come out of nowhere. Perhaps you need to spend a wee bit of time studying the whole information science field. You might start with an easy book titled, “In the Beginning Was Information,” by Werner Gitt

      • And I might reccomend you read “The god Delusion.”
        Frankly, you’re inept, and I have a lot of studying to do, and I can’t waste any more brain power on someone who is too immersed in their religion to even consider the other side. You choose to listen to the interpretations you’ve been given, no matter how misogynistic they are or how little you know about Islam. I used to go to church, I was brainwashed for years, and then I picked up a book or two on evolution and the universe. Although I think for you, a much simpler book like the one I suggested would be a good start. If your faith is strong, you will be unwaivered even if you carefully consider the arguments made. Goodbye.

        • Katie, I’ve read “The God Delusion” and it was hysterical how poorly written it was, and how asinine the arguments were.

          Yes, I am “immersed” in my faith (not “religion”), which is what God calls Christians to be. But you have demonstrated that you are also immersed in your faith of atheism and not open to reasoned arguments from the other side. Talk about brainwashed!

          I don’t choose to listen to any particular “interpretations” of the Bible – I can read it for myself, just as any 6th grader can if he reads it as it is written rather than with an agenda and looking for “proof texts”. There is nothing misogynistic about the teachings of the Bible, and in fact it gives women more respect and rights than most religious writings, ESPECIALLY that of Islam, which I do know a whole lot about because I have been studying it for a decade, having read the Qur’an, many hadiths, and lots and lots of other Islamic writings. In Islam, a woman is nothing but a sex toy.

          I used to be an evolutionist, by the way, because that is what I was taught in the public school system – and everywhere else. But nothing about it made sense, and when I became a Christian I figured out why evolutionism made no sense. I thoroughly studied “Origin of the Species” and read a lot more of Darwin’s writings. Darwin was a racist and a hard-core misogynist, who thought women hadn’t evolved as far as men! I have studied both sides of the creation/evolution debate for decades, and creation always wins hands down.

          It is you who can’t handle the arguments. That is why evolutionists fight so hard to prevent teaching in school which questions their false theories.

  12. We understand morality BECAUSE we evolved to the point of intelligent thought. Morality cannot exist without the existence of free-will, and the ability to contemplate our surroundings instead of merely surviving in them the way animals do. So animals aren’t subject to such scrutiny, because they would have no way of actually knowing that what they were doing is immoral, since they haven’t developed intelligent thought.

  13. I’m sure that naturalism debunks ethics and moral duties.
    We have heard “new atheists” saying that free will is an illusion. This is an assumption which is based in their naturalistic philosophy who they usually spread pseudocientifically as science.
    But as Kant said “ought” implies “can” . If I must do something it is necessary that I can do that. If I can’t do good because “my brain” dictates so, then I musn’t do good.

    • Isu

      Thanks for stopping in. I agree, I think that if naturalism is true then the entire universe and its contents are just one big chemical reaction. Everything is simply a domino falling because of the previous one striking it. How then can the naturalist complain that one chemical reaction is bad when it couldn’t have been otherwise?

  14. I have and answer for that: illusory.

  15. Sorry, a mistype.
    I have an anwer for that: illusory. And irrationaly because lacks of coherence with naturalism basis.

  16. For the atheists out there, I think this is a good article pointing out that you have an irrational worldview:

Any Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: