Evolutionary Morality

Brian Burgess

 The theory of “Evolutionary Morality” aims to provide a moral theory which has the same power and effect as the morality based on God. It does this through ascertaining what a theocratic morality is based upon, and then relating it to how Evolution relates to the certain areas. After providing the basis for why evolution can be a basis for morality, it shows how such a moral system would operate. Operating upon improvement and worsening (both societal and individual), it shows that these are goods or evils (respectively) in themselves. It distinguishes itself from an evolution of nature, the scientific evolution, from Evolution of Will – the willful decision to change in some way. Only the latter can be the basis for morality, as it is the only component with choice.

 It concludes with a discussion about adding cultural relativism to the theory, having different cultures have different “extensions” of the base evolutionary moral code. I propose each of James Rachels’ most potent issues with the theory, and show how, when Evolutionary morality is added, each issue is resolved.


As rational, free beings, we each perform actions toward ourselves and society. We also interpret these actions as moral, immoral, and neutral. Since we are rational beings, it would seem that these assessments of morality are rationally based, even if that rational base was unclear. The basis of these judgements are all set within an objective standard of morality which deems a particular act as positive, negative, or neutral. Evolutionary Morality, as we will come to define it, is a basis founded upon a concept of societal evolution where if the action allows the increased improvement (or lessened worsening) of the individual or society, the act is morally good.

Among others, here are three primary types of morality held by individuals: Utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and a moral code based on God. In utilitarianism, one bases their morality in an objective idea of pleasure and harm explained in the Greatest Happiness Principle: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (Mill 5). For Kantian ethics, one grounds their morality in the objective source of reason, which creates his principle of the Categorical Imperative, which says “we should adopt as action guiding rules (i.e., maxims) only those that can be universally accepted” (Morality and Moral Theories, 8). For God, also called “Divine Command Theory” one bases their morality in the objective source of God’s truth or decrees – “an action is right — or obligatory — if God command we do it, wrong if God commands we refrain from doing it, and morally permissible if God does not command that it not be done” (Morality and Moral Theories 4). Each of the three theories has one commonality: their bases (harm, reason, God) are goods (or evils) in themselves.


A good in itself is “nonderivatively good; it is good for its own sake” (Zimmerman 2). In relation to the above, harm, reason, and God are all good for their own sake, as their goodness does not come from any other source. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it by asking the reader if helping others in need is good. You say yes. Then he asks why it is good.  You say it brings them pleasure. He asks why again. You cannot answer. The reason there is no answer is that pleasure does not derive its goodness from another source – it is a good in itself (Zimmerman 2002).
In trying to provide a new, separate force for morality, it would need to qualify as objective to have the greatest credence and have adequate binding power over the species. Utilitarianism cannot surmount to the status where it has power over the species, nor does it have possession of the species. Kantian ethics, founded in reason, could say to have power over the species, but certainly does not have possession of the species. What could lay claim to each of the three bases for morality? Evolution.

Looking at evolution, it satisfies each requirement of, not only God’s moral backing, but also of Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics’ backing: evolution (the improvement of a species/individual) is good in itself by the nature of improvement; since evolution in itself cannot commit wrongs, it is a pristine force and therefore objectively perfect (since improvement is its only aim, and cannot aim at worsening a species); evolution dictates the progression of all species, and therefore has power over them; and evolution is directly (or even indirectly) responsible for the existence of species survival and existence (granting it the right of possession).

The definition of evolution utilized in this paper is not the literal scientific evolution of how one species changes into another, nor is the definition, at least to begin with, the involuntary adaptive nature of a species to his environment. The definition of evolution this paper operates under is about evolution as a force of improvement for a species and individual in general. The word “evolve” means to “to change or develop slowly; often into a better, more complex, or more advanced state: to develop by a process of evolution” (Merriam Webster Online).

The argument for Evolutionary Morality having credence to be a moral basis would be something similar to this:

(Premise (P)1) Since evolution is distinct from any other potential moral force, it is therefore pristine and objectively morally perfect.

(P2) Anything perfectly objective has the innate right to either set a moral code itself (from self-sentience) or be used to create an objective morality (by others’ sentience).

(P3) Evolution does not have self-sentience.

(Conclusion (C)1) Others may use evolution to form a moral base.

(P4) Anything perfect is, or must be interpreted as, objective.

(C2) Any morality derived from evolution as a source would be objective.

In each individual, there are two primary faculties: physical and mental. Physical relates to how the individual can operate with the world around him in a dexterous capacity and mental relates to how the individual can operate with the world around him in a conceptual capacity. Evolution as a force for improvement is that which enables his physical and mental faculties to more aptly handle the world in their respective capacity. Each of the physical and mental capacities, as they improve, serve to improve how the individual may survive. Each capacity directly increases three aspects: the ability to lengthen one’s life, to better aim at lengthening one’s life, to attain a higher quality of life, and to better aim at a higher quality of life.

With this, we find the following argument:

(P1) Evolution aims toward improvement.

(P2) Improvement of any kind is a good.

(P3) Worsening of any kind is an evil.

(P4) Improvement and worsening, in regards to evolution, affect the individual’s ability to better survive.

(P5) Improvement and worsening, in regards to evolution, affect the individual’s ability to aim at a better type or quality of survival.

(C) All actions which improve an individual’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and one’s ability to aim at a better quality of survival are good. All actions which worsen an individual’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and one’s ability to aim at a better quality of survival are evil.

How might evolution, an involuntary process, affect morality? Simply, evolution is not entirely involuntary. While certainly these improvements of the species in survivability would be good, they cannot be a good of the particular individual as the individual did not will the improvement. There is a distinction between Evolution of Nature and Evolution of Will.

Evolution of Nature is that which influences the particular nature of the species: the progress of a singular celled organism into a more complex beast or a bird’s beak changing shape to better attain food. Evolution of Will is the choice of the individual to change: an individual exercising to improve the physical faculty or studying to improve the mental faculty. Evolution of Nature acts independently of any species, yet Evolution of Will requires a species to have a will to accomplish the change. Each acts as a force to influence particular changes, but, with Evolution of Nature, the force is from Evolution itself, whereas, with Evolution of Will, it acts as a guide to a willed improvement.

Evolution of Will is the only aspect of evolution which can lay claim to an individual’s morality, as the Evolution of Will is the only one which has a component within the individual which the individual has control over: his will. The individual will, the choices he desires and performs, directly translates to the individual’s actions, which directly translate to the individual improving, stagnating, or worsening.

The above argument for why Evolution of Will is necessary would follow as such:

(P1) Moral acts require a will.

(P2) Evolution of Nature does not have a will.

(P3) Evolution of Will does require will.

(C) Evolution of Will is the basis of an evolutionary, individualistic morality.

This principle only fits in regards to an individual’s actions toward himself. With actions, in regards to others, one must relate the species’ ability to survive and species’ quality of survival (and respective aims). It requires no further argument to explain why an individual must act in a certain way in relation to society: improvement is a good in itself, and thus should be strived for attaining.

However, there exists a further compelling force for the individual to aid society, which directly relates to the original argument. If an individual belongs to a certain society, he stands to have a better quality of living if he works toward doing actions which would improve society. In essence, the aspect of acting towards society with actions which improve it relate to how the own individual can improve.

With this, there is a similar argument as before:

(P1) Evolution aims toward improvement.

(P2) Improvement of any kind is a good.

(P3) Worsening of any kind is an evil.

(P4) An individual’s choice may improve or worsen society.

(P5) An individual, when improving society, improves himself.

(P6) An individual, when worsening society, worsens himself.

(C) All actions which improve society’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and ability to aim at a better quality of survival are good. All actions which worsen society’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and ability to aim at a better quality of survival are evil.

What would be the case if an individual was given a choice to either die and save society or live and destroy society? Essentially, which is more imperative of an improvement – individual or societal? As evolution aims at improvement (the good in itself), it would stand to reason that any and all actions which are deemed moral are those which are aimed at the particular action which would bring about the most improvement. However, one cannot justifiably obligate a man to sacrifice himself for a society which he does not partake, nor could anyone obligate a man to sacrifice himself for his own society who never consented to do so for society. One would, however, call one’s sacrifice a great good.

From this, I reason that those actions done by an individual which would lessen his own survivability or quality of survival for the sake of allowing a greater increase in improvement would be a good. A decision to not do so would be an evil (for the sole sake that improvement was lost), but not an evil in light of the individual will.

By not opting for the greater improvement of society at the sake of his own improvement, one cannot deem the action evil as the deed which caused the loss of improvement did not originate from the individual required to choose. However, the choice to impede the force which would cause the loss of improvement at the sake of his own would be a choice of his own will, and therefore could be deemed good.

From this, I arrive at the following conclusion, which I call the Evolutionary Principle: All actions which improve an individual’s or society’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and one’s ability to aim at a better quality of survival are good. All actions which worsen an individual’s or society’s ability to survive, quality of survival, ability to aim at survival, and one’s ability to aim at a better quality of survival are evil. The actions by which one could sacrifice his own improvement for a greater improvement of society are not obligatory nor their refusal evil, but doing so a great good.

From this, evolution provides a base moral code. However, with several different societies located in several different areas of the world, there are certainly aspects of society which would survive better in certain areas as opposed to others. For example, there was a practice by Eskimos where they would allow their elderly to die off when they could no longer contribute to society, as society could not afford to support them any longer. This sacrifices the individual’s improvement for the greater societal improvement.

While any loss of improvement is evil, an action remains good if it can still provide more improvement as opposed to the counter options. From this, I propose that from the base code of evolution, there come cultural extensions of this code. An action deemed evil in the base code of evolution would be one of killing, however a cultural extension of this code could exclude the killing of elderly whom can no longer contribute to society.

This echoes back to a similar theory called Cultural Relativism. This theory is one in which “right and wrong is determined by the particular set of principles or rules the relevant culture just happens to hold at the time” (Morality and Moral Theories 2). Essentially, if a culture has deemed an act as moral, the act is moral for that culture (and only to the extent of that culture). Anything can be deemed moral by a culture under this theory (if unqualified), which has left it open to critiques by several scholars, including one by James Rachels.

Rachels argued three reasons which are necessary consequences of Cultural Relativism as a theory in itself: “we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own,” “we could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society,” and “the idea of moral progress is called into doubt” (Rachels 18). The first is based on the idea that any judgement of another culture would mean a “transcultural standard of comparison” exists (Rachels 18). The second is based on that few accept that “society’s code is perfect” – based upon cultural relativism, no one could deem the slavery in the United States’ 1700’s as immoral. The third is found in that, as Rachels details: “progress means replacing a way of doing things with a better way,” but if something was deemed good by society, one cannot deem it evil by the standards of a current culture, meaning one culture is no better than the other (Rachels 18). However, each of these issues, when Cultural Relativism is planted within Evolutionary Morality, are resolved.

Since the culture, with their extensions, must still adhere to the base code of Evolutionary Morality,  there exists a transcultural standard. This allows one to judge his own society, another society, and past societies in how one is better than the other and how each relates to progress. These cultural extensions of morality allow societies to adapt to their environment and needs, as is in line with evolution as a force. It is important to note that these extensions, in order to be moral, must adhere to the base evolutionary code of providing more improvement than would otherwise be attained. Were another culture (or individual within his own culture) to look upon another (or his own culture) and find that they were not following the base evolutionary code (or that their extensions of the base moral code were not best at fulfilling the evolutionary principle), the observing society (or individual) could deem the society observed as acting immorally and strive for correction.

In summary, actions are seen as good or evil based on an evolutionary principle which states that so long as the actions done provide more improvement and less worsening, an action is good. A culture may make extensions of these goods and evils so long as they adhere to this principle. With each culture adhering to the same evolutionary principle, but simply having differing extensions of the code, it calls for the individual to be slower to judge another culture’s traditions and practices as immoral.

Works Cited

“Evolve.” Merriam Webster Online. Accessed March 23, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com

N.a. “Morality and Moral Theories.” The Nature of Morality and Moral Theories. Accessed March 23, 2016. http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/MoralTheories.html.

Mill, John, and Johnathan Bennett. 2008. Utilitarianism. Ebook. 1st ed. Early Modern Texts.http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/mill1863.pdf.

Rachels, James. 2012. The Challenges Of Cultural Relativism. Ebook. 1st ed. http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwphl/Graham2010/Rachels.pdf.

Zimmerman, Michael J. 2002. “Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Value”. Plato.Stanford.Edu. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/.