Friday, April 17, 2015

Darwinism and its Moral Implications

Ideas about human origins are ripe with moral implications. Historian Richard Weikart, California State University, wrote in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany:

  • Before the advent of Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no significant debate in Europe over the sanctity of human life, which was entrenched in European thought and law… Judeo-Christian ethics proscribed the killing of innocent human life, and the Christian churches explicitly forbade murder, infanticide, abortion, and even suicide. The sanctity of human life became enshrined in classical liberal human rights ideology as "the right to life," which according to John Locke, was one of the supreme rights of every individual. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, and to a large extent even on into the twentieth century, both the Christian churches and most anticlerical European liberals upheld the sanctity of human life. A rather uncontroversiaI part of the law code for the newly united Germany in 1871 was the prohibition against assisted suicide. Only in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth century did significant debate erupt over issues relating to the sanctity of human life, especially infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, and suicide.
Darwinism powerfully ushered in a new worldview with its moral implications:

  • By reducing humans to mere animals, by stressing human inequality, and by viewing the death of many "unfit" organisms as a necessary—and even progressive—natural phenomenon, Darwinism made the death of the "inferior" seem inevitable and even beneficent. Some Darwinists concluded that helping the "unfit" die—which had for millennia been called murder—was not morally reprehensible, but was rather morally good. 
  • Those skeptical about the role Darwinism played in the rise of advocacy for involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion should consider several points. First, before the rise of Darwinism, there was no debate on these issues, as there was almost universal agreement in Europe that human life is sacred and that all innocent human lives should be protected. Second, the earliest advocates of involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion in Germany were devoted to a Darwinian worldview. Third, Haeckel, the most famous Darwinist in Germany, promoted these ideas in some of his best-selling books, so these ideas reached a wide audience, especially among those receptive to Darwinism. Finally, Haeckel and other Darwinists and eugenicists grounded their views on death and killing on their naturalistic interpretation of Darwinism.
Can Darwinism and its assertion that humans are just another animal be separated from its moral implications? Darwinists are feverishly endeavoring to do this very thing by disclaiming any connection with social Darwinism. Or is there an inseparable connection between Darwin and the social/moral implications of his theory? Is it inevitable that if we view humanity as the result of a purposeless biological process that we will treat humanity accordingly?

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