Evolution or not, we are accountable

Many people feel considerable uneasiness regarding evolution, for various reasons. Some think that evolution is degrading: “…if man is not a unique creation of God, he is of no greater value and has no greater moral standing than an animal or any other living thing.” So wrote Cal Thomas (October 30th column, “The evolution of the pope”).

Although we may have some moral responsibilities toward apes—such as not to treat them cruelly for no reason--we don't hold apes morally accountable for their behavior. If an ape were a danger to humans we would try to (re)train it, or restrain it, but we wouldn't blame it for its misbehavior. We are above the animal kingdom—red as it sometimes is in tooth and claw. Only things that are capable of making choices based on reasons and laws are morally accountable.

Similarly, although we clearly have moral responsibilities toward one-year-old babies, we don't hold them morally accountable for their behavior. Fortunately, a one-year-old can constitute very little danger to others, but if it accidentally causes great danger or harm, we do not blame it for misbehaving. We restrain it or begin to train it.

Suppose humans were evolved from earlier life forms. Suppose, in particular, that humans and apes had some common ancestor millions of years ago. Would that undermine human moral dignity and accountability? I don't see why it would. Apes have no moral responsibility because they are incapable of making choices based on reasons and laws. Even if humans were evolved from things that could not make choices based on reasons, it doesn't follow that humans can't themselves make choices based on reasons and laws. Clearly they can.

Indeed, we certainly are grown from beings who cannot make choices based on reasons and laws—namely, one-year-olds—but that doesn't keep us from being able to make such choices.

Growing up means acquiring new capacities—moral beings can grow out of non-moral beings. Evolving means acquiring new capacities too—moral beings could evolve out of non-moral beings.

Being evolved (ultimately) from primordial slime wouldn't mean we are still slime, any more than being conceived (ultimately) from sperm and egg means we are still sperm and egg. Evolution wouldn't undercut morality any more than maturation undercuts morality. Whether we are morally dignified and accountable beings depends on what our capacities are, not on what our past was. We, unlike other animals, are accountable to the laws of God because we have the capability to understand and obey them.

James C. Klagge
Blacksburg, Virginia