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.
Ironically it is the claims of atheists that best illustrate the point I am trying to make. In the last pages of The Selfish Gene, a book devoted to showing how we are the mechanical products of our selfish genes, Richard Dawkins writes that “we have the power to turn against our creators. . . . Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.” A century ago Thomas Huxley made the same point in regard to the cosmic process of evolutionary survival. “Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” Now these are very strange demands. If we are, as Dawkins began by telling us, robot vehicles of our selfish genes, then how is it possible for us to rebel against them or upset their designs? Can the mechanical car turn against the man with the remote control? Can software revolt against its programmer? Clearly this is absurd.
Why, then, would Dawkins and Huxley propose a course of action that undermines their own argument and seeks to runs athwart the whole course of evolution? If we stay within the evolutionary framework, there is no answer to this question. There cannot be, because we are trying to understand why dedicated champions of evolution seek to transcend evolution and, in a sense, subvert their own nature. We don’t see anything like this in the animal kingdom: Lions don’t resolve to stop harassing the deer; foxes don’t call upon one another to stop being so sneaky; parasites show no signs of distress about taking advantage of their hosts. Even apes and chimpanzees, despite their genetic proximity to humans, don’t try to rebel against their genes or become something other than what nature programmed them to be.
What then is up with us humans? What makes even the atheist uphold morality in preference to his cherished evolutionary paradigm? Introduce the presupposition of cosmic justice, and the answer becomes obvious. We humans — atheists no less than religious believers — inhabit two worlds. The first is the evolutionary world; let’s call this Realm A. Then there is the next world; let’s call this Realm B. The remarkable fact is that we, who live in Realm A, nevertheless have the standards of Realm B built into our natures. This is the voice of morality, which makes us dissatisfied with our selfish natures and continually hopeful that we can rise above them. Our hypothesis also accounts for the peculiar nature of morality. It cannot coerce us because it is the legislative standard of another world; at the same time, it is inescapable and authoritative for us because our actions in this world will be finally and unavoidably adjudicated in the other world. Finally, the hypothesis also helps us understand why people so often violate morality. The reason is that our interests in this world are right in front of us, while the consequences of our actions in the next world seem so remote, so distant, and thus so forgettable.
When Einstein discovered that his theory of relativity could explain something that Newton couldn’t — the orbital precession of the planet Mercury — he was thrilled. He knew about the “gap,” and he was able to close it not within the old framework but by supplying a revolutionary new one. Now, within the new paradigm, there was no gap at all. In this essay we have identified not a mere gap but a huge chasm in the evolutionary paradigm. This is the conundrum of human morality, the universal voice within us that urges us to act in ways contrary to our nature as evolutionary primates. There have been supreme efforts, within the evolutionary framework, to plug the gap, but, as we have seen, these have proven to be dismal failures. Our rival hypothesis of cosmic justice in a world beyond the world fares vastly better. It provides a way to test our hypothesis of life after death by applying it to human nature and asking whether it helps to illuminate why we are the way we are. In fact, it does. Taken in conjunction with other arguments, this argument provides stunning confirmation that the moral primate is destined for another life whose shape will depend on the character of the life that is now being lived.