Can morality be genetically based?

by Matt Slick

Many atheists and scientists assert that morality is derived from our genetic makeup. In other words, morality is a product of genetic encoding. They sometimes reason that individuals who behave in a way that aids survival will pass on their genes. For example, if a person were to kill another person, the natural reaction by others is to punish the killer, possibly by killing him. This would mean that his genetic information would not be passed down to further generations (unless he had offspring before the killing). Likewise, thieves would incur the wrath of other people, and their survivability would be reduced, further lessening the chance of genetic information being passed on. As a result, a morality is developed that is based on survivability. This way, those people who behave in a more "moral" way than others would have a better chance of surviving and passing their genes on to offspring. Morality, then, would be woven into the genetic structure by producing individuals who behave in a manner consistent with the morals of a society and end up with better survivability.

If this is how morality is defined, then the preceding paragraph proves morality is genetically based. But, this "proof" is achieved by defining morality in a such a way that it is true by definition. In actuality, this is not how an idea is proved.

If genetics is what determines morality, then we must conclude that nothing is inherently morally right or wrong. There is only survivability and non-survivability, and morality is whatever aids in surviving. But this has problems. Rape, for example, which is considered morally reprehensible by societies, would potentially result in an increase in offspring. So if that which is moral assists in survivability, then rape would necessarily be moral by the genetic-survivability definition given above. Also, what about theft where a person has higher intelligence and is more capable of stealing without getting caught and punished? This would result in an increase in "morality" by his theft, aiding his survivability and passing on his genes to offspring.

See the problem?

But if we are to say that murder, rape, and theft are morally wrong, then we are saying that there's something inherently wrong with actions. Such an assertion cannot be based in genetics because actions, genetically speaking, are neither good nor bad. They are just actions. For an action to be wrong by nature, there must be a standard by which we judge such actions. Since it cannot be that morality is genetically based, there must be something other than genetics that provides moral objectivity.

Of course, as a Christian, I would assert that God is the ultimate objective standard by which morality is measured.


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About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.