Where does morality come from — God or evolution?

Another essay from early-2016! While I have since gone through many different meta-ethical phases, as of 2023 I still believe in some version of moral realism / objectivism (though on different grounds than the defence I present here).

  1. Introduction

Since Darwin’s publication of ‘The Origin of Species’, there has been ongoing contention between those of religious belief and the secular community concerning the origin of morality. In this essay I shall argue against the prominent theistic view that god is the source of all moral duties. I shall also argue against the opposite, that morality has no objective basis in absence of god, pertaining to how moral objectivism is predominantly understood. Rather than denying moral objectivism, I shall propose a third position, one that argues for a form of moral objectivism in absence of god.

In §2 of this essay I shall analyse and respond to the morality argument as proposed by William Lane Craig, which posits god as a necessary component for moral decision making. §3 shall examine the evolutionary cause of our moral inclinations, and its relation to the morality argument as discussed in §2. Having assessed and rebutted the morality argument in §2 and §3 of this essay, §4 shall introduce my position of non-theistic moral objectivism, which shall include the views of Russ Shafer-Landau and Walter Sinnott – two notable proponents of the theory. To conclude, §5 shall summarise my findings in this essay.

  1. Morality and Religion

2a. Morality as evidence for the existence of god

At the beginning of his article ‘Can You Be Good without God?’, William Lane Craig addresses what is implicit in the title; that is, can one live a moral life in the absence of god? Though he does not dismiss the potential for an atheist to live such a good and moral life, the question asks if goodness itself is possible in absence of god (Craig, n.d). The answer, he proposes, is no, it’s reasoning once again implicit in the question. When we use the word ‘good’ to describe an action, we are making a judgement claim regarding the morality of that action. This judgement claim implies some standard by which we judge certain actions, such as the one in question, and this standard, attributed to its prescriptive nature, must be the product of god, according to Craig.

This argument, the morality argument, is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons for believing in the existence of a god because it appeals to a fundamental objective standard of morality by which certain actions can be evaluated and determined to be good or bad (Dennet, 2007). Religion suggests such a morality, one that is present independent of personal belief with value in and of itself. Furthermore, our own intuitions forcefully compel us to accept that there is uniformity in morality, insofar as some actions feel fundamentally more just than others. For instance, if moral objectivism is true, then Nazi anti-Semitism can be reasonably declared objectively immoral, as our intuitions would suggest (Craig, n.d). On the other hand, if there is no such thing as objective morality, “then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding” (Craig, n.d, par.3). It truly does seem as if morality is objective in nature, yet before proceeding further, it is necessary to both individually evaluate the premises and the argument itself for both validity and soundness.

Written formally, the argument is as follows:

“P1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist

P2. Objective moral values do exist

C1. Therefore, God exists” (Williams, n.d, par.1)

Upon inspection, this argument can be considered deductively valid, for each following premise logically follows from its preceding premise. Validity in an argument requires that if it were the case that the premises were true, then the conclusion must also be true by default, which is the case for this argument. Soundness, for which I shall next apply to the morality argument, necessitates validity and actual truthfulness in its premises. The morality argument is valid, though I object to the truthfulness of its premises, as I shall discuss below.

2b. Objections to the morality argument

Premise one states that “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist” (Williams, n.d, par.1). Although I could contend the claim that god’s supposed nature creates an objective reference point for moral values, it seems more apparent to question the necessity of God in moral objectivism (Craig, n.d). However, much of the premise’s meaning is contained in how the term ‘objective’ is understood, and is perhaps better contested upon consideration of premise two, which states “Objective moral values do exist” (Williams, n.d, par.1). Fundamentally, moral claims are prescriptive which, if conceived of as being law, are not analogous to the physical laws which govern nature (Williams, n.d). While physical laws are obligatory, moral laws merely suggest certain actions we ought to take, lacking the obligation which would else be present in other such physical laws.

I shall oppose Craig’s argument on this basis. Though I accept that morality is, in part, objective, there is no reason further than my own intuitions compelling me to accept Craig’s notion of god as a necessary component in moral objectivism. The morality argument hinges on the notion that our intuitions provide us with an adequate basis for belief, which I oppose. Moral objectivism, if it exists, cannot arise from mere intuition, due to their unreliability (which I shall elaborate upon later in this essay). My rejection of premise one no doubt excludes me from the otherwise apparent conclusion that god’s existence is necessary for moral objectivism. Although, to deny moral objectivism as Craig proposes, I shall need to provide more evidence than the mere intuition that our own intuitions are unreliable. Thus, I shall evaluate the legitimacy and possible cause of our intuitions regarding moral objectivism.

  1. Morality and Atheism

3a. The root cause of our moral intuitions

It is likely that, given our understanding of evolution, certain naturally arising moral intuitions are at least partially embedded in our genes, though no doubt are also attributed to culture, society and a variety of other environmental pressures (Katz, 2000). Those that are influenced by our genes are easily identified upon considering the relations we hold between certain members of society, and the valuations we attribute towards them. Hume illustrates this hierarchy of valuation by stating “man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where every thing else is equal [sic]” (Ruse, 2009, p.10, quoted in Hume, 1978). This is consistent with evolutionary theory for if one values family above mere strangers on the street, genes that pertain to that family have a higher likelihood of being passed on.

The significance of evolution in moral decision making extends further than mere value distribution – it also impairs moral judgement. Later in the article, Ruse (2009) compares the runaway trolley thought experiment to the bridge thought experiment, both of which test our ethical inclinations in specific circumstances. In the first, it is supposed that there is a runaway trolley headed towards five innocent strangers who are helplessly tied to the trolley tracks. You stand in front of a lever capable of diverting the set of tracks so that rather than the five dying, only one, another innocent bystander, is killed. The second thought experiment presumes similar conditions, however, instead of pulling a lever, the only available method of saving those condemned on the tracks is by pushing a fat man onto the tracks from the bridge that you both stand on.

Unsurprisingly, those willing to interfere to save the five on the tracks were fewer in number in response to the bridge thought experiment, comparative to the former (Ruse, 2009). Neurological research suggests that biologically evolved emotions may play a significant role in determining the extent one may follow through with their initial moral judgements, hence, the fewer willing participants willing to push the fat man to save five others. This is understandable, the uses of emotion in moral decision making were evolved to function optimally in the past, not the present. Their application today would surely elicit a contradictory response given our tremendously dissimilar environmental conditions, which evolution could not have possibly accounted for. In lieu of this, Ruse comments that “rationality is not quite as nice and tidy as the logicians suggest”, a sentiment that I am inclined to agree with (Ruse, 2009, p.12).

3b. In relation to the morality argument

Given the likelihood of evolution playing a crucial role in moral decision making, as I have just discussed, it is fair to suggest that our intuitions do not provide an adequate basis for an objective morality, as Craig proposes. Given this, it is tempting to hold that morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. Initially, it seems as if our moral inclinations are no more than the product of a biological process and not intentional in nature, then moral claims are mere opinion, relative to those who proclaim it as objective. Craig attempts to rebut this claim, stating that “If God does not exist, then it is plausible to think that there are no objective moral values […] [t]he horror of such a morally neutral world is obvious” (Craig, n.d, par.37).

In this objection and throughout the paper, Craig draws upon the undesirability of a world without objective moral values as a tool to show why it must be the case that objective moral values (and thus, god) exist (Craig, n.d). In doing so, however, Craig is making an appeal to consequences, otherwise known as an emotional appeal. By continually emphasising the unpleasantness of a world without objective moral values, the veracity of Craig’s argument appears to increase, for the thought of such a world is abhorrent and to be avoided at all costs. Yet it is important to remember that the utility of a belief does not have bearing on its truthfulness – the two exist independent to one another.

Thus, I reject Craig’s notion of theistic moral objectivism, and the morality argument as a whole, for none of what it claims cannot be better understood through the lens of evolution. Furthermore, Craig presumes that the existence of objective moral values necessitates the existence of god. In this next section, I shall present the case for a non-theistic moral objectivism which does not rely on our intuitions to interpret and deduce what is objectively moral.

  1. Non-theistic moral objectivism

In the preface of ‘Morality Without God’, Walter Sinnott (2009) argues that both theistic and atheistic views concerning the objectivity of morality are misguided. Theism, he describes, tends to demonise those who live in absence of faith, for to do so would seemingly be to reject moral objectivism, necessitating moral subjectivism. However, as I have discussed prior, the convenience of faith as an objective reference point for moral values is independent of its truth-value. Likewise, Sinnott points out, atheism is guilty of a similar arrogance – associating moral objectivism with religion without giving it proper consideration as a theory. In this section I would like to propose that which Sinnott argues for – an objective morality that does not rely on faith to justify its claims, its truth-value independent of its utility.

Let us begin by returning to how the term ‘objective’ is understood. Due to their nature, prescriptive claims cannot be declared as one might do so for an A Posteriori claim, which involves data collection and analysis of trends within that data (Baehr, n.d). Unless one chooses to adopt a theistic worldview, objective moral claims cannot be unearthed from physically observable phenomena. Thus, if objective moral values exist, they must exist in the form of A Priori, which is to say that they exist independent of any experience. A Priori claims, however, are notoriously difficult to prove, for one cannot simply point to a piece of evidence to support their claim (as is done in A Posteriori claims).

Russ Shafer-Landau attempts to defend non-theistic moral objectivism by claiming that some moral claims are fundamentally better than others (Shafer-Landau, 2004). For instance, Ross claims, “If you torture another for fun, then that is wrong. This is true even if there are no people around to torture. It will continue to be true even after the human race is extinct” (Shafer-Landau, 2004, p.56). In defence of moral objectivism, he considers two options. First, that some higher being was responsible, though accepting such a view implies some form of theism, which, as I have already addressed, is not a viable solution to understanding moral objectivism. Russ quickly dismisses this view upon considering the later – that moral laws govern without a lawmaker.

Such a view, Russ acknowledges, is bound to leave some feeling unsatisfied, for moral laws surely carry with them intent, which is only possible through the existence of an intelligent designer (Shafer-Landau, 2004). This belief, he claims, “is operating under a false assumption. Not every law requires a lawmaker” (Shafer-Landau, 2004, p.56). For instance, natural laws in play, such as those which govern biological functions, can be reasonably assumed to exist without intent. Furthermore, such laws can be assumed to exist at a point in time – namely – the point at which its referents come into existence, which suggests two possible options.

The first option proposes that morality came into existence at a point, perhaps the point at which its referents (morally relevant beings) came into existence (Shafer-Landau, 2004). I find this option to be more convincing than the second, which suggests that moral law is eternal, insofar as the physical laws which govern our universe are eternal. Russ seems to prefer this option, that the deepest moral laws are eternal, irrespective of their referents. This claim, to me, seems to invoke a variety of absurdities which, in this essay, I lack the space to detail. Nevertheless, it seems to me that moral laws can plausibly exist without intent, and can be objective in nature. To myself and Russ, the objectivity of moral laws feels necessary, though if one were to rebut our position, the legitimacy of this claim remains ungrounded and subject to debate.

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that the form of non-theistic moral objectivism that I have discussed is of great use to those like myself who believe in an objective morality yet reject the notion that god or an intelligent designer was responsible for such. §2 of this essay debated the morality argument as proposed by William lane Craig. In §3, I evaluated the most probable cause of our moral inclinations – evolution – and related my findings to the morality argument, finding it insubstantial to either prove the existence of god or attribute moral objectivism to god’s nature. Having rebutted theistic moral objectivism, §4 provided a brief overview of non-theistic moral objectivism, discussing its nature and the legitimacy of its status as law.

The nature of morality is such that it is difficult to study further than our own subjective intuitions of right and wrong. However abstract, it is necessary to continue research concerning its origins, so that we may better understand it as a whole.


Baehr, J., (n.d) ‘A Priori and A Posteriori’, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Accessed on 19/05/2016, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/apriori/>

Craig, W., (n.d), ‘Can We Be Good without God?’, Reasonable Faith, Accessed on 13/05/2016, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/can-we-be-good-without-god

Dennet, D., (2007), ‘Morality and Religion’, Breaking the Spell, New York: Viking Books, ch.10, pp.278-307.

Katz, L., (2000) ‘Toward good and evil – Evolutionary approaches to aspects of human morality’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 7, no. 1-2, pp. 9-16.

Peterson, M., Hasker, W., Reichenbach, B., Basinger, D., (2012), Reason & Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 5th ed, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ruse, M., (2009), ‘The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics’, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology, Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford.

Shafer-Landau, R., (2004), ‘Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?’ New York: Oxford University Press.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., (2009), Morality Without God, New York : Oxford University Press.

Williams, P., (n.d), ‘Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?’, bethinking, Accessed on 14/05/16, <http://www.bethinking.org/morality/can-moral-objectivism-do-without-god>

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