All evolutionary attempts to explain morality ultimately miss the point. They seek to explain morality, but even at their best what they explain is not morality at all. Imagine a shopkeeper who routinely increases his profits by cheating his customers. So smoothly does he do this that he is never exposed and his reputation remains unimpeached. Even though the man is successful in the game of survival, if he has a conscience it will be nagging at him from the inside. It may not be strong enough to make him change his ways, but it will at least make him feel bad and perhaps ultimately despise himself. Now where have our evolutionary explanations accounted for morality in this sense?
In fact, they haven’t accounted for it at all. These explanations all seek to reduce morality to self-interest, but if you think about it, genuine morality cannot be brought down to this level. Morality is not the voice that says, “Be truthful when it benefits you,” or “Be kind to those who are in a position to help you later.” Rather, it operates without regard to such calculations. Far from being an extension of self-interest, the voice of the impartial spectator is typically a restriction of self-interest. Think about it: If morality were simply an extension of selfishness, we wouldn’t need it. We don’t need moral prescriptions to tell people to act for their own benefit; they do that anyway. The whole point of moral prescriptions and injunctions is to get people to subordinate and curb their selfish interests.
There is a second, deeper sense in which evolutionary theories cannot account for human morality. We can see this by considering the various attempts to explain altruism in the animal kingdom. I recently came across an article in the London Telegraph
titled “Animals Can Tell Right from Wrong.” I read with interest, wondering if animals had finally taken up the question of whether it is right to eat smaller animals. After all, the greatest problem with animal rights is getting animals to respect them. Alas, the article was unilluminating on this point. Even so, it provided examples of how wolves, coyotes, elephants, whales, and even rodents occasionally engage in cooperative and altruistic behavior. Perhaps the most dramatic examples come from the work of the anthropologist Frans de Waal, who has studied gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. According to de Waal, our “closest relatives,” the chimpanzees, display many of the recognized characteristics of morality, including kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
Yet de Waal recognizes that while chimps may cooperate or help, they have no sense that they ought to help. In other words, chimps have no understanding of the normative basis of morality. And this of course is the essence of morality for humans. Morality isn’t merely about what you do; mostly it is about what you should do and what it is right to do. Evolutionary theories like kin selection and reciprocal altruism utterly fail to capture this uniquely human sense of morality as duty or obligation. Such theories can help to explain why we act cooperatively or help others, but they cannot explain why we believe it is good or right or obligatory for us to do these things. They commit what the philosopher G. E. Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy” of confusing the “is” and the “ought.” In particular, they give an explanation for the way things are and think that they have accounted for the way things ought to be.
But if evolution cannot explain how humans became moral primates, what can? Now it is time to test our presuppositional argument. The premise of the argument is that virtually all conceptions of life after death, especially the religious conceptions, are rooted in the idea of cosmic justice. Consider Hinduism: “You are a greedy and grasping person in this life; very well, we’ll be seeing you as a cockroach in the next one.” Buddhism has a very similar understanding of reincarnation. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, by contrast, uphold the notion of a Last Judgment in which the virtuous will be rewarded and the wicked will get their just deserts. The Letter to the Galatians contains the famous quotation, “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (6:7). And here is a similar passage from the third sura of the Koran: “You shall surely be paid in full your wages on the Day of Resurrection.” In all these doctrines, life after death is not a mere continuation of earthly existence but rather a different kind of existence based on a settling of earthly accounts. These doctrines hold that even though we don’t always find terrestrial justice, there is ultimate justice. In this future accounting, what goes around does come around.
Now let’s make the supposition that there is cosmic justice after death and ask, Does this help to explain the great mystery of human morality? It seems clear that it does. Humans recognize that there is no ultimate goodness and justice in this world, but they continue to uphold those ideals. In their interior conscience, humans judge themselves not by the standard of the shrewd self-aggrandizer but by that of the impartial spectator. We admire the good man, even when he comes to a bad end, and revile the successful scoundrel who got away with it. Evolutionary theories predict the reverse: If morality were merely a product of crafty and successful calculation, we should cherish and aspire to be crafty calculators. But we don’t. Rather, we act as if there is a moral law to which we are accountable. We are judged by our consciences as if there is an ultimate tribunal in which our actions will be pronounced “guilty” or “not guilty.” There seems to be no reason for us to hold these standards and measure our life against them if the standards aren’t legislative in some sense. But if they are legislative, then their jurisdiction must be in another world since it is clearly not in this world. So the presupposition of cosmic justice, in an existence beyond this one, makes sense of human moral standards and moral obligation in a way that evolutionary theories cannot.