Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the implications that the natural moral law has for the field of medicine. We looked at the difference between the way human beings determine each other’s value and the manner in which nature “determines” value. We also asked an important question: If nature will, herself, select against the elderly and disabled, is there any harm in society helping her along?
Adolf Hitler asked this same question and came to the conclusion that the answer was “no”. What followed was a bloody regime in which those who did not appear to physically contribute to the preservation of the race (homosexuals, the handicapped, and many others) were systematically exterminated. Yet is this really an appropriate application of the principle of natural selection?
Undoubtedly, the Law of Nature does lend itself to violence. The mass culling of one species in order to ensure the survival of other species (the southern African sardine run, for example) is not unheard of. Carnivores hunt prey to feed their young. One species forcefully removes another from its breeding ground. And those who directly threaten the lives of others are, themselves, eliminated. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a situation in which the systematic extermination of specific individuals or groups of individuals is aptly demonstrated. And this is an important point.
If the Law of Nature is to serve as a universal framework for morality, intervention either on behalf of the weak or in favor of the strong must be eschewed. Neither those who perform acts of mercy nor those who promote wanton violence may be considered to be living lives in keeping with this accepted moral standard. Indeed, the best application of the Law of Nature is not intervention, but apathy.
Doubtless, this conclusion will bother many, including the good-hearted atheists who would use nature for their moral guide. Indeed, most of us spend our lives fighting against apathy, seeking to improve both our own lives and the lives of others. We make the moral judgment that life, itself, is a gift and one worth preserving regardless of the contribution a given individual may or may not be able to make to the well-being of the whole. We seek to demonstrate love, compassion, and concern for those who surround us – in short: to make the world a better place.
So where does this leave an atheist who wishes to use the Law of Nature as a foundation for their moral code? Unfortunately, without a leg to stand on.