Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This post is the first of three looking at the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution for some of the most important topics in applied ethics, including suicide and euthanasia, and the proper treatment of nonhuman animals. These are controversial topics and you may well disagree with some of the ideas I’m going to float. I hope, though, that you’ll at least find it interesting and perhaps that you’ll find some food for thought in here.

First things first, a lot of people claim that evolutionary theory simply has no implications for any moral question. I suspect this view has been motivated in part by some of the unpopular and unpleasant conclusions that were drawn from the theory in the past. For instance, the Social Darwinists of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century argued that giving aid to the weak, sick, and poor goes against nature – it undermines natural selection – and thus that it should be stopped. The vast majority of people reject this view now, and that includes the vast majority of evolutionists. But there have been some recent suggestions about other possible implications of evolutionary theory for ethics. One of the most important of these stems from the work of moral philosophers such as James Rachels and Peter Singer. According to these philosophers, in the wake of evolutionary theory, we must rethink or recalibrate our ethical commitments. Specifically, we must rethink the value we place on the lives of human beings vs. other animals.

Rachels identified an important trend in traditional Western moral thinking, which he dubbed the doctrine of human dignity. (Peter Singer uses the phrase sanctity of human life to refer to essentially the same thing.) Although the doctrine of human dignity is often not explicitly expressed, it is the heart and soul of the Western moral system, and provides the moorings for traditional morality.

The doctrine has two parts; the first pertains to humans, the second to nonhuman animals. The part pertaining to humans is the idea that human life has supreme worth – according to some, it has literally infinite value. A corollary of this view is that any activity that involves taking a human life (or at least an innocent human life) is utterly forbidden. This includes suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.

Read on

  1. Of course we value human life above all other animal life. We are human. Any species’ evolved morality is going to favor its own species over others (unless the other species were a necessary symbiote). Its morality evolved to facilitate individual survival and reproduction. Our native morality is necessarily within-group based. We face a tremendous, even daunting, challenge in culturally extending the in-group to encompass all humans, much less all animals. This is not to say that I’m in favor of animal abuse. Not at all. All my pets are rescues. I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years, a vegan for 1 of those years, and while I now eat chicken and fish, I have not eaten a mammal for 19 years. Like most others (except a handful of fringe Republicans), I am horrified at the environmental destruction and animal suffering caused by the Gulf oil catastrophe and other man-made environmental disasters. I love the natural world. Life is wondrous, harsh and, above all, complex. Utopian dreams of a thriving human world without violence, exploitation or abuse toward other humans, much less other animals, are just that–dreams. We need a pragmatic goal of human betterment, not perfection. My blog, “The Spiritual Life of An Atheist” is at This week’s post is “Managing the Downside of the Two-Side Human Coin.” Darwin gave us the tools for an understanding of how the natural world works and who we are in it.

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