Evolution and Ethics



.......... Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. A biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions - hate, love, guilt, fear, and others - that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers, if not epistemology and epistemologists, at all depths. ..........


This is the notorious opening to biologist Edward O. Wilson's controversial Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975. Expectedly, the sentiment went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Philosophers, the target of Wilson's scorn, were particularly scathing. And yet….! We are forty years on from Wilson's clarion call, and while it is hardly true that he has now conquered the philosophical world, to express an interest in evolution and ethics - "evolutionary ethics" -- is no longer a sign that one is not only a bad philosopher, but somehow slightly intellectually distasteful, on a par with conspiracy theorists about the Kennedy assassination. There is a growing number who while not necessarily agreeing now allow that there is something there worthy of serious criticism. Often these latter agree also about the need to formulate or refine alternative positions in the light of the claims made about the need to link evolution and ethics. Such people agree that even if Wilson was wrong in his own thinking, he was right that we do need (in the language of Thomas Henry Huxley) to start with the fact that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud, and to explore what implications this has (which may in the end turn out to be few or none) about moral thinking and behavior.

Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards, who have both long been enthusiasts about evolutionary ethics, are holding a conference at Florida State University, March 27 and 28 on this topic. You are invited to attend this conference, the papers of which will later be published in the Ruse and Richards co-edited Cambridge Handbook on Evolutionary Ethics. The Conference will take place in Scholars Commons, located on the lower level of Strozier Library. Confirmed participants and their topics are as follows:

Friday, 9:30am


Michael Ruse and Robert J. Richards.

We shall introduce the history of evolutionary theory, showing that humans have always been at the heart of the discussion, and morality has always been one of (if not the) key themes in the analysis of members of our species, their origins and their nature. We shall show why - although in the nineteenth century there was considerable interest in evolutionary ethics -- in Anglophone philosophical circles evolutionary ethics fell out of favor, why it nevertheless persisted in biological discussions, and the reasons why there has been a rekindling of interest in evolutionary ethics in the past few decades.

Friday, 10:00am


Michael Ruse

Friday, 10:30am


Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck)

With some notable exceptions, for large parts of the Twentieth Century much philosophical work on ethics in the Anglophone tradition took place largely in isolation from what used to be known as the 'moral sciences'. To a large extent, this isolationist tendency remains highly influential in the 'mainstream' of moral philosophy. In this paper I critically assess the causes of this isolationist tendency, focusing on some of the lesser-known aspects of W. D. Ross's seminal works The Right and the Good (1930) and The Foundations of Ethics (1930), in which Ross explicitly dismisses the relevance of sociology and biology to the study of 'ethics proper'. In doing so, I show that this isolationist tendency has less to do with the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy' as allegedly diagnosed by G. E. Moore in Principia Ethica (1903) than is commonly supposed, and more to do with an epistemological commitment to the hope of grounding morality a priori in a body of allegedly self-evident moral truths or principles. I show the relevance of this discussion to the contemporary debate about empirical (including evolutionary) approaches to moral philosophy.

Friday, 11:00am


Jeffrey O'Connell (FSU)

Nietzsche is an important early figure in the history of evolutionary ethics. He was deeply engaged in the science of his day, and particularly interested in the moral implications of Darwinism. In the first of his Untimely Meditations, an early and often under-appreciated work, he makes many of the same criticisms against David Friedrich Strauss's attempt to form an evolutionary ethic that T.H. Huxley would make against Spencer decades later. But he saw clearly the need for a naturalistic account of morality. Much of his later work, in fact, is dedicated to this task, and the account he gives is largely formed in dialogue with Darwin's own account of morality, albeit mediated through the German philosopher Paul Rée. His mature work is critical of Darwin, but for very different sorts of reasons than those which often come up in discussions of evolutionary ethics.

Friday, 11:30am


Trevor Pearce (UNC Charlotte)

I will explore the ways in which evolutionary ideas shaped the ethical approach of the American pragmatist philosophers, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on the work of John Dewey. Although Dewey's best known contributions to ethics came in the first half of the twentieth century, his most important encounters with biology were in the 1880s and 1890s. After presenting several episodes of the latter period, I will show how these provided the framework for Dewey's later work in ethics.

Friday, 1:30am


Abe Gibson (George Mason U)

Why did Edward O. Wilson speak so strongly in support of an evolutionary approach to ethics? I argue that this was no late conversion but stemmed from his deepest philosophical and scientific convictions as a student and then faculty member of the Harvard Department of Organismic Biology. The roots of his beliefs go back to the early years of the twentieth century and the enthusiasm of such scientists as L. J. Henderson and William Morton Wheeler for the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Truly Wilson owes more to Darwin's contemporary than to the author of the Origin of Species himself.

Friday, 2:00pm


Robert J Richards (U Chicago)

Darwin constructed a convincing theory of moral evolution, which with a little adjustment philosophically provides the best justification of our moral intuitions. Thus the theory provides not only empirical justification (i.e., a reasonable account of our actual evolutionary history) but a normative justification as well (i.e., an argument that shows why we ought to accept altruism as the foundation for ethical prescriptions). This revision of Darwin's theory is not subject to the two kinds of objections that are generally mounted against any evolutionary ethics: the naturalistic fallacy and the charge that it such an ethics is not objective.

Friday, 2:30pm


Russ Shafer-Landau (U Wisconsin)

Against the evolutionary ethicists, I present the case for moral realism, this is that moral claims can be objectively true in some kind of absolute sense, irrespective of human interests or emotions or wishes or desires. "The basic principles that specify our moral duties, or dictate the conditions of moral value, are not vulnerable to alteration based on the attitudes of those to whom they apply."

Friday, 3:00pm


Neil Sinclair and Uri Leibowitz (University of Nottingham)

Global evolutionary epistemological debunking arguments in ethics move from claims concerning the evolutionary explanation of moral judgements to claims about the lack of warrant for those judgements. More precisely they involve at least two premises: (1) A premise to the effect that human moral judgements can be given plausible evolutionary explanations.(2) A premise to the effect that the evolutionary process involved in the explanans does not track moral facts. The conclusion is that human moral judgements are not (epistemically) justified and/or do not count as knowledge. We argue that there is no plausible way of filling in the details of the argument so that it is both valid and sound. In particular, we identify two problems with finding a plausible third premise: (i) The demarcation problem: that of providing a link between the plausible explananda of evolutionary explanations (viz. population-wide tendencies to moral judgements and the capacity to form moral judgements) and the individual moral judgements whose warrant is being tested. (ii) The justification problem: the problem of defending (in a non-question-begging way) a plausible necessary condition on the justification of individual moral judgements that evolutionary theorising threatens. The two problems are, of course, interlinked. Together, they shed considerable doubt on the possibility of a successful evolutionary debunking of the warrant for our moral judgements.

Friday, 3:30pm


Benjamin Fraser (ANU)

There's an interesting difference between discussions of evolution and religion, on the one hand, and discussions of evolution and ethics on the other. In the both cases, epistemic questions are raised: does an evolutionary explanation of religious/moral belief show such beliefs to be false, unjustified, etc.? In both cases, questions about adaptation are raised: (how) was religion/morality fitness-enhancing during human evolutionary history? However, only in the religion case does the issue of current utility get much attention (and there it gets a lot, as folks argue over whether we'd be better off getting rid of religion). In the moral case, the idea that we might be better off without morality gets very little attention. Not even a handful of philosophers have championed this view and none have specifically considered the implications of an evolutionary account of morality for moral abolitionism. Is moralizing a maladaptive carryover from now-vanished small-scale social worlds? Do we - to draw on Evolutionary Psychology's classic example - have something like a moral 'sweet tooth'?

Saturday, 10:00am


William FitzPatrick (U Rochester)

There has been much recent discussion of epistemic debunking arguments that appeal to evolutionary explanatory claims in connection with our moral beliefs in order either (i) to undermine our justification for those beliefs (Joyce) or (ii) to show that it would be undermined given a realist picture of moral truth (Street). I will build on a number of recent pieces I have published in defense of ethical realism against such debunking arguments (e.g., in Philosophical Studies, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Morality and Evolutionary Biology, and a new OUP volume partly on this topic, among others), addressing new developments and challenges from authors such as Joyce and Kitcher, extending and further developing the defense of ethical realism in this context, focusing in particular on questions about (and complications involving) the proper explanation of our moral beliefs.

Saturday, 10:30am


Justin Clarke-Doane (Columbia U)

Evolutionary debunking arguments are supposed to threaten our claim to moral knowledge, but not our claim to mathematical knowledge. In this article, I argue that they threaten the latter if they threaten the former. Debunkers' reason for supposing otherwise confuses distinct epistemological challenges -- what I shall call the justificatory and reliability challenges. The distinction between these challenges reflects the distinction between the Quine-Putnam Indispensability Argument and the Benacerraf-Field challenge for mathematical realism.

Saturday, 11:00am


Frédéric Bouchard (U Montréal)

The idea is that evolution and ethics are linked but in such a (ecological) contextual way that standard neo-Darwinism cannot get to 'simple' natural foundations to ethics. I do think that one can naturalize ethics in a Darwinian way, but it will be so context sensitive and non-reducible to Homo sapiens genotypes that it makes this naturalization almost empty: I wish to argue for a sort of relativism based on the vagaries of our distinct microbiomes.

Saturday, 1:30pm

Evolutionary Naturalism and the Logical Structure of Valuation

Richard Richards (University of Alabama)

I focus on the ways in which we act to change our own and others' environments, both struggling and cooperating to control ourselves and each other. The writers whose work I connect with closely are Sterelny (ideas about niche construction, scaffolding, and extended inheritance), Kitcher and Pinker (rather different sorts of ideas about social contracts in an evolutionary picture), and Sen and Nussbaum (ideas about freedom, power and capabilities).

Saturday, 2:00pm


Michael L. Peterson, Asbury Theological Seminary

Evolutionary biology has been utilized powerfully in the project of naturalizing ethics. However, what it means to naturalize ethics is interpreted in different ways according to the background commitments of those speaking into this subject. Granting that evolutionary theory is necessary to understanding the history of life and to a complete descriptive account of human morality, this study explores whether the association of a natural or scientific (i.e., evolutionary) account of ethics with philosophical naturalism is as viable as some believe it is. In this paper, I treat questions regarding the status of the moral realism which is implicated by our ordinary ethical beliefs-and all it entails ontologically and epistemologically. And I then address questions about the meta-ethical justification of our common moral realism in the context of worldview engagement between philosophical naturalism and philosophical theism. In the end, I argue that insights from evolutionary biology into the moral aspect of our humanity are actually explained better by a theistic than a naturalist worldview. The power of this worldview interpretation is shown in its implications for human dignity, determinism, relativism, and a number of other issues arising in this field. My argument relies, in part, on the insights of natural law tradition in ethics in interaction with what we know from evolutionary biology.

Saturday, 2:30pm


Michael Vlerick (University of Johannesburg)

The fact of evolution undeniably has consequences for moral philosophy. First of all, it raises immediate questions for the meta-ethical position of moral realism, because the origin of our moral dispositions in a contingent evolutionary process is on the face of it incompatible with the view that moral facts exist independently of us. Second, this meta-ethical worry seems to undermine the justification of any substantive or normative ethics. If we don't have any grounds to believe that the source of our moral beliefs has any ontological authority, what are we to make of the status of our moral norms and beliefs? Moreover, given that our moral dispositions were shaped in our ancestral environment in order to provide tribal hunter-gatherers with an edge in terms of biological fitness, what grounds do we have to assume that they will be equipped to deal with some modern challenges such as global warming or genetic engineering? In order to address these fundamental issues, it would help to form a clear picture of the complex relationship between our evolved, innate moral dispositions and actual moral beliefs and decision making. Typically, this relationship is blackboxed by the evolutionary ethicist, who often derives her conclusions solely from the premise that our moral intuitions have evolved by natural selection. This, I maintain, stands in the way of a fruitful debate.

Saturday, 3:00pm


Justin Horn (Oklahoma State University)


Saturday, 3:30pm

Global Evolutionary Debunking in Ethics Assessed

Herman Philipse (Utrecht U, The Netherlands)

In the wake of Sidgwick and Moore, philosophers tend to agree that "Evolution has very little indeed to say to Ethics" (Moore 1903: 109). In recent years, however, so-called evolutionary debunking arguments ("EDAs") have become popular among moral philosophers. According to some, evolutionary explanations of our moral intuitions are "highly significant for normative ethics" (Singer 2005: 343). In this article, evolutionary debunking arguments in (meta-) ethics are classified, and the soundness of two global ones is assessed. I argue that (a) global evolutionary debunking arguments in support of a moral error theory must be mistaken because of what I call the parasitism of falsehood; and that (b) the evolutionary debunking of robust meta-ethical realism is convincing if and only if realists endorse what I label the independence model.

Legacy Sort
Legacy Priority