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Phenomenon Of ‘Demographic Transition’ Confuses the Issue of Morality: Is It Grounded in Religion? (Part I)

By Dr Suhail Anwar/Sayyid Ukasha


April 18, 2020


Objectivity refers to the description of facts independent of human feelings and opinions. An objective opinion is free of individual human subjectivity. Morality, often used as a synonym, for ethics and goodness, is defined as behaviour that is right and acceptable as opposed to wrong behaviour. Morality is a system of principles and values concerning people’s behaviour, which is generally accepted by a society or by a group of people. Morality encompasses a wide sphere which on one hand incorporates duties, obligations and codes of conduct but on the other hand, is based on the notion of virtue. Morality is a code of behaviour that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good.

When discussing morality, it is very important to make a distinction between epistemology and ontology. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality, the study of being all that is or exists and the different entities and categories within reality. Moral Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deal with the reality of the existence of moral values and moral duties. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of knowledge and how to reach it. Because moral epistemology defines how we come to know of what is good and bad, right and wrong it does not concern the issue of nature and foundation of morality which is addressed by moral ontology.

The purpose of this article is to evaluate the evidence available to determine if the grounding of ontological subjective morality is indeed God. For the sake of brevity this article would be published in two parts, I and II.

Ethical Subjectivism

Ethical subjectivism or relative moralism does not work with the concept of human morality. Essentially it encompasses moral views subject to different cultures, civilization, periods, and teachings. Whereas a match to the death between two Roman gladiators was perfectly acceptable as a means of entertainment in the Roman era, such a practice would be morally unacceptable in more recent times. The dehumanising of European Jews by Hitler made it morally acceptable for his army to willingly carry a genocide in the name of nationalism. Slavery has been morally acceptable up to recent times in any part of the world endorsed by both religious and sovereign institutes. In short sociobiological evolution gives rise to standards of morality which are subjective to the circumstance and requirement of the time and hence cannot be regarded as an objective standard.

Objective Morality

Objective morality and its foundation have been a bone of contention between the atheist and the theist. Many atheists believe that objective morality can exist in the absence of a God.

The atheistic foundations of objective morality:

Biological Evolution:

The Darwinian theory of evolution describes homo sapiens as a collection of cells, atoms and molecules with the sole purpose of survival via natural selection. In his book, The Descent of Man Darwin wrote: “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering”. This theory of social Darwinism describes the development of moral values with the sole purpose of personal and species survival.

As Richard Dawkins says in his book the selfish gene, “we are survival machines- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Dawkins continues to explore this topic further in his book the selfish gene and the God delusion by saying that “selfish genes ensure their selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically or morally”.

Dawkins came up with various models to postulate the justification of altruism within the human species based on the theory of evolution.

1. Genetic kinship explains why animals help their family members sometimes even at their own expense. The idea of kinship is to preserve similar genes, an inclusive fitness model to propagate species and promote survival.

2. Reciprocation goes beyond one’s kin, the repayment of favours given where both sides benefit from the transaction. This, of course, being advantageous in terms of survival.

According to him “extended phenotypes” such as beaver dams and bird nests are mere mechanism for replicators, ensuring survival by expansion and protection of their genes.

Dawkins suggestions can be summarised by saying that the underpinning motive for all human actions is the desire to achieve an evolutionary advantage. However, there are several problems with this discourse. The most obvious one is, if the evolution of moral principles is purely a mechanism for survival and self-propagation then this very fact removes the objectivity from morality, which is the whole premise of this debate. Some authors have described Dawkins components as an “evolved” sense of morality. Objective morality, on the other hand, transcends any human subjectivism. It requires the presence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-merciful God. Dawkins has no satisfactory explanation when it comes down to development of moral consciousness even though he admits that altruistic behaviour can be trained to override our replicative tendencies for natural selection.

The phenomenon of “demographic transition” further confuses the issue of morality if it is described based on evolutionary biology. In the modern world having a small number of children is meant to increase the economic success and social position of descendants, but this socioeconomic benefit does not necessarily translate into an evolutionary benefit. This brings us to end the first part of our article. In the next part, we will discuss moral realism and conclude our article.

Dr Suhail Anwar is a doctor of medicine, a surgeon, with a interest in theology and history

Original Headline: The ontological basis of objective morality. Is it grounded in religion? (Part I)

Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan