Morality, Evolution and the Primary Impulse

I wanted to do a post on ethics and morality. Many people say that if you don’t believe in God, you must not have any ethics or principles and must be a very nasty person. But that really is not true. There are many places a non-theist can find their morality, but for the purposes of this discussion I would like to point out one place a Pantheist may choose to find morality.

As Pantheists, we consider the universe to be ultimate and divine. Nature is worthy of reverence. We can best find out about the world through science.

On of the most important scientific theories regarding biology is the theory of Evolution. Contrary to many of the arguments religious people make or the distortions about it being survival of the fittest, evolution can provide a foundation stone for building a morality upon. Consider that it teaches us that we all, whether human, animal or plant, descend from a common ancestor and are therefore related and family. It teaches that we are all interconnected. It teaches that its not the strongest or most intelligent that survive but the best adapted to their environment.

However it also teaches something else – it teaches that we all want to survive. Recently i’ve been studying Stoicism and came across the idea of the “primary impulse.” The Stoics claimed that every person and thing has a primary impulse of self preservation, of self love. In other words, we all want to live and survive, but not only that, we also pursue pleasure and try to avoid pain. In other words we all want to live and live well. Stoicism goes on to build a morality from this point, however I now want to bring in philosopher Albert Schweitzer instead. He came to a similar conclusion in saying that all things have a “will to live” and argued that this led to a morality based on a “reverence for life.”

So lets work this through. If we accept evolution is correct, then we can see that there is within us a “will to live”, a primary impulse for self preservation. And this instinctive impulse is not only in us but in all life, all other life forms have similar inherent tendencies to survive. Because we want to survive, and this is the most important thing to us, then it follows that we place a value on “life.” Evolution has also given us capacity for reason and when we use this, we realise that all life wants to live and that if we value our life, then “life” as an abstract is also to be valued and reverenced. We also realise that other life is similar to our own. Using our empathetic nature (also from our evolutionary heritage) gives us a sympathy towards other life forms because they are similar to us. This leads us to approach other life, whether human or not, with the same reverence we feel for our own life. And this leads to the principle of reverence for life as the highest moral law.

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