I recently came across a couple of arguments from someone I know that relate to evolution and morality. Basically the idea boils down to saying that if there is no God and evolution is true then the holocaust would have to be seen as a good thing. I should stress, the person I was speaking to does not believe it is good, they see each of us having value through being made in the image of God. Despite this assertion of our common value, the argument treads on seriously sensitive issues including racism and is one I would like to work better to counter in the future.
Basic statements by this friend:
If there is no God, then Hitler would be better than other people because he implemented evolution on a grander scale
If there is no God, it is good to get rid of the weaker parts of the species. The Jews killed in the holocaust were weaker than other people, therefore it would be good to kill them
The argument seems to fail in a number of ways and I would be interested in people’s thoughts on this from a philosophical perspective and also where misunderstandings of evolution have crept in
Premise 1 – for the sake of argument, there is no God
Premise 2 – in such a world, there is no objective morality. This is something that I am not comfortable with but can’t see a way around it – I am not a philosopher.
Some thoughts I have on relevant information about this are as follows:
- On this view people may adhere to or construct theories of morality, but there is no absolute standard of good and evil that can be appealed to so as to justify these. For someone to be better than another implies an approach towards a standard. If that standard is not a universal one, they can only be called better in one of a few ways
- The person is more capable than another at doing something
- The person is better at adhering to a subjective standard of morality
- The person is closer to a subjective standard that cannot be said to be “THE” standard universally applied. This means one person is not a “better” person than another outside a subjective standard.
Premise 3 – for the sake of the argument, the theory of evolution is true
Some thoughts on relevant information I have for this are as follows:
- Evolution as described by the theory itself is a change of characteristics in a population inherited across generations . This change is caused by mutations in genes that are impacted by multiple processes; these include natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, gene flow, lateral gene transfer, recombination, neutral mutations.
- Evolution as a process acts on large population sizes in part to maximise fitness in a given environment. In these population sizes the effect of genetic drift is reduced. Fitness does not relate to the organism becoming “better” in some universal sense, only that their reproductive success in a given environment is improved compared to other organisms in that population. Features leading to increasing fitness in one environment may lead to decreased fitness in another environment. This means that evolution is not a linear process with a goal where an organism is “better” than another in general, it is context dependent. For this reason genetic diversity is the sign of a healthy population, with bottlenecks causing increased genetic drift and possible maladaptive traits
- Evolution as specified by the theory works on small changes across time to create large changes. Changes in the distribution of features or alleles across a population do not necessarily achieve fixation. Fixation relates to a feature becoming universally present in a population such that all members of that population have it. Without fixation it is possible that a change in an allele will not last in the long term.
Premise 4 given by the person stating the argument - The Jewish people were weaker than those around them. In such a world as proposed above it would be good to get rid of them. As stated here, possible responses
- The term weaker is not defined here. If it were to mean less able to respond to being killed by Nazis then they were not less fit in terms of reproductive fitness in the environment before the decision to kill them.
- If the Jews were not genetically weaker prior to the decision to kill them, the choice to kill then cannot be deemed good, even if good were defined as the increase of reproductive fitness in the population
- Evolution in nature can discriminate socially where access to sexual partners can be restricted based on social hierarchy. Such a scenario may act as a form of genetic bottleneck and thereby increase the proliferation of non-adaptive traits through genetic drift. This is also not a universal pattern across all species and therefore cannot be singled out as “good”
Proposed conclusion by the person I was speaking with – in such a world it would be good to kill Jews as they were weaker than other people
For this conclusion to be correct a number of responses are available.
- The conclusion that the proposed truth of the evolutionary theory leads to moral consequences is deriving a moral standard from a natural process; it is unclear how this is can be supported
- The argument as stated brings in an objective standard when such has been rejected in the premises. Rather than saying “one possible way that people might create an ethical view is that it would be good to kill jews”, it states this as a given – it is good to kill them.
- The proposed ethical theory on which it is good to kill Jews would need to be elaborated on and shown to be superior to alternatives to commend it to others. For an ethical theory to be complete more than just one parameter (remove weakness from the population) should be expected. Competing values such as respect for human life may override such considerations. Not being able to show the theory to be superior to others does not seem to negate it as a possible way of looking at ethics if there is no subjective standard, it would merely show that perhaps the view proposed is not to be held to too tightly.
- An ethical theory based on “it is good to remove weakness from the population” has logical consequences that might not commend this theory to others, namely where does this stop. Unless a criteria can be supplied against which to choose what constitutes weakness and what level of weakness is acceptable then it could be inferred that the process could continue unabated and arbitrarily. Such a consequence would not prove the theory to be wrong, it would show that it is not a theory based on evolutionary principles if those principles are interpreted as evolution being a progression towards fitness. Just as with the ethical theory as a whole, the rationale for accepting the definition and standard would need to be provided. None is currently provided
I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of others on how to counter this kind of reasoning, and to correct me where I am wrong