Where do we get our morals from? Should we get them from evolution?

Many sociobiologists believe our moral beliefs come from our genes making us maximise our fertile offspring.

In this post I ask a related question: should we treat evolution as a moral guide?

The thirteenth century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas thought we could derive moral precepts from the laws of biological nature, using our reason. For example, children ought to be nurtured by their parents and humans ought to live peacefully together.[1]

Four centuries later Spinoza argued that the laws of biological nature are completely indifferent to ethics. In nature the big fish in the sea eat the little fish, and it is just as natural for people to use force and fraud to attain their ends.[2]

Evolution is morally good

The debate was revived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Herbert Spencer argued that evolution shows not only how we have evolved but also how we morally ought to live. It is to Spencer that we owe the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’.

According to this theory the ‘fittest’ have more children and pass on their superior traits to them. Our moral duty is to promote the process: we should encourage the ‘fittest’ to flourish and reproduce at the expense of the unfit.[3]

Capitalist economic theory was heavily influenced by the idea from the start. One of Spencer’s supporters, the American Graham Sumner, wrote in 1914:

The struggle for existence is aimed against nature. It is from her niggardly hand that we have to wrest the satisfactions for our needs, but our fellow-men are our competitors for the meager supply. Competition, therefore, is a law of nature. Nature… grants her rewards to the fittest… If we do not like it… we can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better… We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty. Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative; liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.[4]

Sumner was not entirely consistent about this. He applied the ‘survival of the fittest’ to capitalism, but also thought the strong should be restrained from stealing and from sexual licence. This inconsistency, still flourishes today, in the idea that the state should protect the freedom of action for capitalist entrepreneurs prevent other methods of ruining other people’s lives.

Some have approved of evolution for the opposite reason. Although natural selection is based on individual’s seeking their own interests, there is also an element of ‘group selection’, where individuals act against their own interests for the sake of the group. The usual example is ants and bees, where the workers produce no offspring but benefit their kin. Kropotkin and Julian Huxley argued that evolution sets a moral standard for us in this way. Most biologists today, however, believe group selection is only a very small part of natural selection. Anyway, as George Williams argues,

Arguing the moral superiority of group selection over individual selection is like arguing the superiority of genocide over random murder.[5]

Evolution is morally evil

Others again considered evolution to be morally evil. To be moral, one should oppose it. To Thomas Huxley, The ‘cosmic process’ may foster the ‘survival of the fittest’ but the ‘ethical process’ should foster the survival of the ethically best. George Bernard Shaw thought natural selection so evil an idea that no theory of evolution that made use of it could possibly be valid.

Evolution is morally neutral

The most common view, among both biologists and philosophers, is that evolution does not provide moral norms at all. It is neither good nor bad. Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ really meant ‘the survival of the survivors’, because the fittest were defined as those who survived. Michael Ruse points out that reproductive success is not how we make our moral judgements:

Is one, for instance, to say today that the AIDS virus—which is clearly doing very successfully fom a biological perspective—is necessarily superior to the great apes—which certainly in their natural habitat are unsuccessful almost to the point of extinction?[6]

The options

1. Evolution is morally good, so we should be selfish

This judgement, though most often associated with capitalism, has much wider appeal. In Spencer’s day it fitted the nineteenth century enthusiasm for the idea of progress, which was being disconnected from God and needed an alternative grounding. It supported nineteenth century policies of imperial conquests, eugenics and harsh treatment of criminals. In British discourse today it favours ‘hard-working people’ at the expense of the ill and unemployed. To me it is quintessentially evil – the exact opposite of what morality should be.

2. Evolution is morally evil, so we should oppose it

This judgement is less popular. To apply it in practice is virtually impossible because evolution has made us what we are. How can we oppose our nature, except by using the faculties nature has given us? An ancient equivalent was Manicheism, which taught that we have been created by evil gods and given evil bodies. The Manicheans, however, could see that in order to defend their claim they had to appeal to some other, transcendent, source of information and morality. They claimed that the divine spark in their spirit transcended their ordinary, deceived human mind and body. Modern evolution-based secularists do not have this option. If they have a better morality than evolution, where did they get it from?

3. Evolution is morally neutral so true morality has another source

If evolution is morally neutral, we cannot derive our morality from it. Again, this leaves open the question of where we get our morality from. Some argue that we should get it from nowhere since all moral beliefs are errors. Others appeal to moral principles they hold for different reasons. This was the burden of my earlier post: whatever those different reasons are, they would have to come from some moral authority that transcends evolution, and most sociobiologists are committed to the view that there is no such thing.

4. Evolution is one contributor among others

My preferred option, therefore, is that evolution plays a part, but not the only part. Aquinas and Spinoza were both right: evolution has bequeathed to us hormones that provoke us to a variety of actions, some moral and some immoral. Out of our evolved faculties, free will and rational decision-making have emerged in humans. These enable us to behave in non-evolved ways. Among the non-evolved behaviours is the ability to seek, and find, moral authorities which are not the product of our evolution.

Evolution, like the abacus and the sun dial, is part of our story of progress. It has enabled us to do things we could not have done otherwise. It has even enabled us to transcend it.


1. Summa Theologica II.1, Q.94, a.2
2. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, chap. 16, para. 2
3. Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics, pp. 3-5.
4. The Challenge of Facts And Other Essays, ed. A. S. Kelle. New Haven: Yale UP, 1914, p. 293, quoted in Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics, p. 137.
5. Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics, p. 228.
6. Nitecki, Evolutionary Ethics, p. 143.