Are moral laws simply a product of cultural utility and sociocultural evolution? As a skeptic, I used to think so. I believed moral laws evolved along with the species. Humans who accepted certain moral behaviors and principles were far more likely to survive, and that’s exactly what happened; those who were more inclined to accept certain principles emerged through the process of Natural Selection. As a result, modern humans acknowledge a set of moral values essential to survival, and the first of these morally inclined beings documented their commonly accepted standards in ancient codes like Buddhism’s Five Precepts and Noble Eightfold Path, ancient Egypt’s Ma’at, Hinduism’s Yamas or Judaism’s Ten Commandments. There are, after all, many common features in these ancient codes. The Golden Rule, for example, appears to be a foundational moral concept acknowledged and utilized by nearly every ancient group. While I did not believe moral truths were an expression of our genetic coding, I did believe we evolved as a species to embrace and use certain moral principles because they benefited our survival.
The problem, of course, is this claim fails to account for the source of these moral concepts; it confuses moral utility with moral creation. Let me give you a comparative example. Imagine an ancient people group who, following a lightning storm, come upon a burning tree branch. Appreciating the heat generated from the small fire, they learn to control and maintain the flames for future use. As a result, they increase their survivability dramatically. They can now cook their food, increasing the variety and availability of certain nutrients. They can stay warm in cold weather and live comfortably in cold climates. They can keep nocturnal predators at bay. As other groups learn from their example, the controlled use of fire becomes a common feature of humanity. Can we accurately say fire emerged through a process of sociocultural evolution? No. At best we can simply say that humans discovered fire and learned to apply its benefits to their specific situation. The common recognition and use of fire does nothing to account for its transcendent nature and existence. There is an objective, transcendent chemistry related to fire (commonly called the “fire tetrahedron”), and while humans can discover this chemical relationship (and even apply what they discover), they are not the “source” of it. In fact, the objective reality of fire is human-independent; there would still be fires, even if there wasn’t a single human being on the planet.
So, even if I accepted the idea that humans evolved over time and embraced certain moral principles beneficial to their survival, I’d still be looking for the transcendent source of these moral concepts. Transcendent, objective moral truths (like “It’s never OK to torture babies for the fun of it”) were true even before humans were able to comprehend or acknowledge them. Ancient groups may have discovered and employed rules to aid their survival, but they didn’t create them. Moral laws such as these didn’t come from ancient human law givers, they pre-existed ancient law users (as fire pre-existed ancient fire users). The overarching nature of the moral law transcends the finite nature of humans; transcendent, objective moral laws require a Transcendent Moral Law Giver.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.