Morality and the cruelty of nature

Hi Udo

Consider nature: lions killing their young, viral infections (naturally mutated and occurring) destroying many organisms of a certain species, paleontological evidence that the species homo sapiens wiped out Neanderthals. This suggests that life is a merciless battle for survival both at the individual and the species level. It is utterly wasteful and cares nothing for the desires of the individual. Humans are no different. We take what we want, we kill those who are different to us, we rape and destroy in order to have our needs met. It doesn’t seem that any life is sacred or special in our evolving universe.

It seems there is no need for a god. It’s fine to believe that evolution is god’s way of creating, but why would a kind and merciful god create in such cruel and wasteful way?

I know it’s futile to guess what God’s reasons might be, because if god does exist, then it must be unfathomably bigger and different to me. But every religious person does the same thing when they try to explain why the universe is like it is. When someone says that god works for the good of those who love him, they’re doing the same thing. They are stating that they believe that they can understand god’s intentions.




Hi Smithy

If we merely look at nature, then suffering is just the way things are and one wouldn’t be in a position to suggest that it should be otherwise. Then nobody could complain about any suffering and evil in the world. Indeed, then life is not sacred. What happens in nature just happens, whether we like it or not.

This, of course, is not our moral experience. We do sense that at least some things are objectively and morally wrong, and that especially human life is sacred.  We do sense that we shouldn’t merely take what we want, kill those who are different to us, or rape and destroy even if we feel that our needs are not met.

But why not? Who or what obligates us? If nature is merely as nature does, then what prevent us or compel us morally from doing what we want. As a society we might create all kinds of laws and moral codes, but these would be mere subjective constructs of a particular society for regulating how people could get along in that society (or serve the interests of the ruling class). Of course, one society’s laws and moral codes might well differ from another (think Nazi Germany) so that no society can pass judgment on what another society thinks is morally permissible.

Does societal norms therefore show that certain things really are objectively wrong, for all people under all circumstances, despite what any society might approve or disapprove of? When someone flaunts societal conventions and customs, are they really doing something objectively morally wrong, or are they merely acting contrary to what a particular society decided on for expedient purposes?

Our moral experience suggest that we morality cannot be reduced to what we observe in nature or what particular societies agrees upon. We need a transcendent standard of absolute goodness which grounds our moral experience and this is exactly the reason why we God seems to be the best explanation for our experience of moral objectivity. Firstly, only God, as the paradigm for goodness, provides the moral reference point for things like objective moral values; secondly, God as a person who issues moral commands because he is good, is the one to whom we are morally obligated; and thirdly, God as our Creator in whose image we are made, explains why we are moral beings in the first place.

What about the issue of the so-called cruelty in nature? Using words like “cruel” and “merciless” and a lot of other words for what happens in nature, are moral, personal and often emotional judgments that we as moral beings project onto nature, but which does not necessarily apply as valid descriptions of what happens. In other words, we often use language when we describe what happens in nature that says something about our human moral natures, reflecting our emotional states or opinions, but which doesn’t actually say anything about what is objectively the case.

For example, apart from words like “cruel” and “merciless”, consider the idea that, “nature is utterly wasteful and cares nothing for the desires of the individual.” Wastefulness and carelessness are moral value judgments that we as moral personal beings project onto things that happens in nature. But why ascribe moral properties to non-moral (impersonal) entities and processes? Or why use words such as “murder”, “rape” and “theft” when referring to animal behavior? The point is that such language is illegitimate since animals are non-moral beings and by definition do not commit moral acts such as murder, rape or theft; they don’t act cruelly, carelessly or mercilessly.

So when it is asked why God would create using such cruel and wasteful processes (if He used evolution), then such a person transfers, and therefore confuses, his own moral sensibility of what cruelty means in terms of human behaviour, with what happens in nature and among other living non-human beings. This is a confusion of categories. Predation (killing among animals for survival) is not a moral instance and therefore not an instance of cruelty; but murder (killing another human for unjustified reasons) is a moral instance if and only if it occurs among human beings and would be cruel to varying degrees.

Furthermore, when considering God using such wasteful means of creating is must be said that something is only wasteful compared to the limited resources available. But God is not limited in such a way and since there is also no moral dimension to the process of natural selection in the animal kingdom, there is nothing in principle objectionable for God to use ‘wasteful’ evolutionary processes as a means of creating if that is how he did create.

We all want to make sense of why the universe is like it is. The question is whether our explanations makes more sense when we think of God existing, or if nature is all there is. And if a personal Creator God does exist and if we can make sense of our universe and our own personal existence precisely because He exists, then surely it is not unreasonable to think that He could have revealed something of his intentions and plans to us, even if some people don’t believe that he has.



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