Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part IV

7 Jun

Over the last few weeks, our series “Foundations for Atheist Morality” has examined the argument that a universal law can be obtained through nature without the need for a universal lawgiver.  We’ve looked at evidence in favor of this view as well as some of the unpleasant moral implications – especially in regard to human reproduction.  Last week, we concluded with the view that allowing “natural selection” to work within the human race as it does within various animal species leads to an unfortunate state of apathy in which we do nothing to intervene for the sake of protecting or preserving those entities which nature has “selected out”.  This week, we’ll explore the implications that this apathetic view has for modern medicine and all those who benefit from it.

I think that most of us will admit that this is, indeed, a tricky issue.  After all, modern medicine has the ability to restore the constitution of those who, except for a minor infection or a broken bone, would be as fit as anyone else.  But it also has the ability to forestall or prevent the deaths of those facing more severe ailments.  Ask those who have contended with cancer, are battling with HIV/AIDS, or merely require the life-sustaining force of portable oxygen and you’ll find more than a few expressions of gratitude for the technologies which have helped them cling to life.  Yet in a world in which morality is determined by Natural Law, is it actually ethical to assist those who fall into this latter category?

If the “unguided” purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in viable forms, our answer must be a resounding “no”; such people may be considered to be “selected-out” of the system.  Philosophers have been quick to point out the benefits of such natural selection:

  • The lower population which results from natural selection leads to less competition for the resources necessary to our survival.
  • Natural selection ensures more efficient use of these resources, since they are distributed amongst the fittest members of society rather than being wasted upon those who consume, but do not give back.
  • The survival of only the fittest ensures that future offspring will be less likely to carry harmful genetic mutations like sickle-cell anemia, hereditary deformities, or predispositions towards the development of diseases like diabetes and cancer.
  • Likewise, natural selection plays an important role in weeding out those who suffer mental disorders, since those suffering such handicaps are often incapable of surviving on their own without the intervention of others.

That this picture is a frightful one is undoubted.  As humans, we tend to judge the ability of an individual to contribute to society based upon much more than their just their physical or mental abilities.  Yet nature doesn’t.  Where we see the many ways in which we gain wisdom from the elderly or learn fortitude and perseverance from those who suffer from physical or mental disabilities, nature “sees” an inefficient use of its resources.  Such people are “selected-out”.

This leads to an important question.  If nature, herself, would remove such people from the gene pool, what happens when human beings make the choice to forego the preservation of life and help her on her way?  And is such assistance justified by Natural Law or is it stretching the principle too far?  We’ll examine these issues next week, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment box below!

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