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A Letter_to_the_Editor regarding Ethics.

On April 19, I read a commentary in the Roanoke Times by Clonnie_Yearout; Yearout (gender unknown) was arguing for Creationism and against "Darwinism". I sent the following in reply. The Times printed at least two letters (by other people) replying to Yearout, but not this one.  

FROM: John B. Hodges
(contact info)
TO: Editor, letters page
I would like this considered for a COMMENTARY or OP-ED.


Clonnie Yearout's commentary ("A Tale of Two Belief Systems", April 19) asks many questions, almost in time for Ask-an-Atheist Day, April 18. I am pleased to reply.

Evolution is not a theory about the origin of life, it is about how life develops new varieties, new species, over time. It is relevant to the origin debate, because it shows how, by random mutation and nonrandom selection, more complex life can develop from simpler life. So the earliest life could have been simple. Creationism does not actually explain anything; it says complex can only be designed by the more complex, leaving unanswered where the first and most complex designer came from.

All of Yearout's questions are about ethics, and all reduce to "If there is no God, how could there be any foundation for ethics?" For example, Yearout says "If evolution is true, then there are no moral absolutes." But religion does not provide any moral absolutes either; there is nothing more culturally relative than religious belief. You get differences from one street corner to the next. Religious morality sums to "Obey the alleged will of God, as reported by your chosen authority." With thousands of self-proclaimed authorities, taking every possible position on every moral issue, and no way to check whether any of them are reporting accurately.

An evolutionary perspective does suggest one value that is likely to be practically universal. "Promote the health of your family", where "health" is the ability to survive, and "family" is "all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes". The value of Kinship. This is called "inclusive fitness" by biologists. Essentially all living things are going to seek this, because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.

Some animals are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups. This implies additional values, like "Promote peaceful cooperation within the group" and "Avoid unnecessary conflict with other groups." The value of Reciprocity, "Cooperate with me and I'll cooperate with you." The value of Compassion; all social animals are going to have compassion, it is essential to living in groups. Humans are the most social of any, cooperating in groups that number in the millions, or even billions.

Yearout asks "... why would human beings feel an obligation to protect the weak?"  By kinship and reciprocity and compassion. We are all at risk, of illness, accident, poverty, and aging; by protecting the weak, by law and custom, we protect ourselves and our kin.

An evolutionary perspective suggests a "natural" standard of ethics, likely to be intuitively appealing across all societies and cultures. The Good is that which leads to health, the Right is that which leads to peace. A "good person" is a desirable neighbor, desirable from the point of view of those who seek to live in peace and raise families. 

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Tags: ethics, evolution


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Comment by Steph S. on May 4, 2013 at 9:56am

Enjoyed reading that.

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