Part I

…the following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable-namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,… would inevitably acquire a moral sense of conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed as in man.’     – Charles Darwin[1]

Department of Moral Philosophy: a comely sign of a perennial questionIt is a truth widely acknowledged that every human trait has arisen through Darwinian natural selection.  Is any other conclusion possible if we are to think about human nature within the context of biological evolution?   If our nature resides solely and wholly within our genes and neurons, which seems to be the sentiment of modern neuroscience, then we had better look at evolutionary force as the “invisible hand” that has shaped our humanity.  On this view, the Darwinian process of natural selection has created our human psyches. The invisible hand of evolutionary force thereby also deserves credit for creating within us the psychological desire of our psyches to understand why we feel and behave the way we do.

Darwin himself showed crystal clear logic in anticipating all this, as he shows in the quote above. This logic has provided an eminently fruitful paradigm for biological science, as well as the more recent pursuit known as “evolutionary psychology.”  This logic also explains the efforts of so many modern psychologists, scientists, philosophers and even theologians, to explain morality in terms of evolutionary process.   After all, isn’t morality typically considered one of the signal attributes of human nature?  I would suggest we give this topic the name, “evolutionary ethics.”  The search for an explanatory theory of evolutionary ethics would seem to be the chief concern of many moral philosophers today, following Darwin’s lead.[2]

Whence comes the energy that motivates so many to pursue the project of evolutionary ethics?

I would suggest that this energy is motivated by a desire to deal with challenges to the doctrine of evolution.  These challenges arise in cases where human behavior seems not to operate in a matter entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.  By greatly oversimplifying the issue in this short essay, I can state the challenging problem in a word–“altruism.”

Here’s the challenge to be solved in evolutionary ethics-

If the source of power in the natural force of evolution is survival of the fittest, then what possible advantage could an organism obtain by self-sacrificial acts?  Prima facie altruism would seem to work exactly opposite to the ethos of evolution.  Aye, there’s the rub, for altruistic behaviors seem to be precisely the type of  attributes that set humans and other highly social species apart, and which tend to be the qualities most highly admired in literature, culture and personal relationships.

There are two fundamental ways of dealing with this problem: (1) search for explanations which employ evolutionary forces; or (2) admit that evolutionary forces are not the whole story.  This latter choice introduces an unpleasant possibility for many, and thus there is energy to avoid it.  Hence the source of energy in the project of evolutionary ethics.



[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, second edition, John Murray, London, 1875, p. 98.

[2] To name but a few current writers seeking to contribute to the development of explanatory evolutionary ethics: Richard Swinburne, Daniel Dennett, Edward Wilson, & Richard Dawkins.

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