Four Problems with Evolutionary Morality

by Tim Barnett

Evolution and morality don’t mix. That was the conclusion I arrived at in a recent research paper I wrote for my master’s degree. Yet, many evolutionary naturalists do not want to give up morality. Instead, they attempt to ground morality in naturalistic evolution. This is fraught with serious difficulties. Taken altogether, these form an insurmountable case against evolution as the foundation of morality.

Evolutionary Naturalism Cannot Get an “Ought” from an “Is”

Science describes the way the natural world is, it doesn’t tell us how it ought to be. This is where evolutionary morality faces a widely recognized problem. Namely, it cannot produce an “ought” from an “is.” Normative rules cannot be derived from empirical facts. In fact, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod writes,

One of the greatest problems of philosophy is the relationship between the realm of knowledge and the realm of values. Knowledge is what “is” and values are what “ought” to be. I would say that all traditional philosophies up to and including communism have tried to derive the “ought” from the “is.” This is impossible. If it is true that there is no purpose in the universe, that man is a pure accident, you cannot derive any ought from is.

The problem stems from trying to deduce a moral duty from a scientific description. Darwinian evolution may be able to describe past behavior, but it lacks the resources to prescribe future behavior. As Greg Koukl puts it, “One question can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?” Any response assumes an objective standard beyond the natural world…


Four Problems with Evolutionary Morality | Stand to Reason