This is a common response offered by atheists who want to provide some kind of naturalistic grounding for altruistic acts. Both the Christian and the atheist affirm the existence of selfless acts of kindness. Peter Singer wants Americans to give up Starbucks coffee and bottled water in order to feed the hungry children of the world. This is noble. But as an ardent atheist, how does Singer and others like him frame these suggestions so that they are not the mere opinion of an individual but an imperative with a moral force? If it is merely a suggestion, then it would be nice if Americans endured personal sacrifice for the needs of the world. But if it is a moral imperative, then there is a sense of “oughtness” that should leave the comfortable uncomfortable.
Many atheists turn to biological altruism as their source. We often hear stories of vampire bats who will regurgitate blood and donate it to members of their group who failed to feed that night, or individual Vervet monkeys who signal alarm at the presence of a prey to enhance the survival of the rest of the group while decreasing their own chances. Atheists say that such altruistic behavior is built into our genetic past. Members of a species will sacrifice their personal wellbeing to increase the survival of those who share their genes, as in a parent for a child (kinship altruism). Interspecies altruism is also found when there is mutual benefit (reciprocal altruism).
There is a problem, however. Both of these categories are ultimately selfish in nature. A cost/benefit analysis forms the basis for judging the worth of these actions (whether consciously or not). But the kind of selfless kindness that we deem moral functions in the reverse. The less benefit received, the more praiseworthy the act. Sacrificing your life for your child is one thing; for your enemy—that’s a whole new story.
Something or some event must transform biological altruism with its selfish aims into a moral altruism that is selfless. Atheist proponents of this view point to the rise of consciousness in our evolutionary history. A conscious, thinking being can choose to perform altruistic acts without considering the ultimate benefits to one’s self or to those who are close. But as soon as one proposes such an event, we are back to the original question. What is the basis by which a conscious being can proclaim a selfless kind of altruism as being morally superior to a biological form of altruism? Ultimately, evolutionary theories alone cannot explain human capacity for selfless acts of kindness.