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From the Annals of Evolutionary Ethics

Michael Egnor

evolutionary ethics

Evolutionary biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers has a post about the sexual assaults committed by Dr. Larry Nassar, the physician for the USA Gymnastics team who was recently convicted of multiple sex crimes against the gymnasts under his care. Myers appropriately condemns Nassar’s behavior, although he (characteristically) rambles on about religion as well.

Myers’s condemnation of Nassar’s immoral behavior does raise an important question about Myers’s worldview. On what rational basis can an atheist condemn immorality? After all, atheists deny the supernatural. They insist that the natural world — the world as described by physical science — is all that exists. Most atheists deny the existence of immaterial minds, and by definition they deny the existence of a Mind that creates, holds in existence, and judges humanity.

So why, from the atheist perspective, is some behavior immoral? What does an atheist mean by “immoral”?

Immoral behavior is obviously, in some sense, behavior that transgresses a law. What kind of law? There would seem to be two options: objective law and subjective law. By objective law I mean law that is independent of human opinion and that does not have its source in human minds. By subjective law I mean law that is dependent on human opinion and that has its source in human minds.

Sexual assault is, in our society, a violation of subjective law. It is a transgression against the moral beliefs of most people. It is also a transgression against positive law, which is law in a legal sense. Is this transgression against majority opinion or against written law what Myers means when he says that sexual assault is immoral?

It seems that he means more than that. He seems to mean that sexual assault is objectively immoral. It is immoral in its very nature, regardless of the particular mores of a culture or the particular laws on the books. Myers is appropriately outraged by Nassar’s assaults on these girls, and he and I agree on that. But the outrage goes deeper than our disapproval of behavior that transgressed social custom or legislation.

We (Myers and I and everyone I know) believe that sexual assault is wrong, objectively. It would be wrong even if everyone said it was right. It would be wrong on a desert island with no cultural norms and no laws. It’s just wrong. Period.

It seems that some things like sexual assault are wrong intrinsically, independently of majority opinion or written laws. Human opinion and written law reflect the immorality of sexual assault, but are not the basis for its immorality. So an atheist faces a dilemma: What is the source of this wrongness? From an atheist perspective, how can morality be objective — how can morality transcend mere human opinion?

Surely there’s nothing in nature that makes sexual assault a transgression. Nassar violated no law of physics. There’s nothing in evolution that makes sexual assault a transgression. It would seem that natural selection would favor the gene pool of a sexual transgressor, if he could get away with it. At the very least, we can say that physics and evolution merely describe how the world “is,” not how it “ought” to be. There is no morality inherent to the natural world, understood as matter in motion without remainder, which is how an atheist understands it.

The belief that some things are just plain wrong — wrong irrespective of written law or human opinion — presupposes a Source for this moral standard. If objective morality is not rooted in human opinion or legislation or physics, it must be rooted in something that transcends the natural order.

In condemning sexual assault, Myers invokes a standard of objective morality that, logically, is denied to an atheist. If sexual assault is morally wrong, in an objective sense, then there is a Source for moral law that transcends nature. If sexual assault is wrong only subjectively, as a matter of human opinion or human law, then Myers logically can only criticize Nassar for unpopular behavior.

But Nassar’s behavior was morally wrong, not merely unpopular. Myers knows this, as we all do. This alone refutes atheism, although atheists are loath to admit it.

Photo credit: anovva, via Pixabay.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



atheismevolutionevolutionary ethicsimmoralityLarry NassarlawmindmoralityP.Z. Myersphysicssexual assaultUSA Gymnastics