digplanet beta 1: Athena
Share digplanet:


Applied sciences






















Evolutionary ethics is a term referring equally to a form of descriptive ethics or normative ethics.

Descriptive evolutionary ethics consists of biological approaches to ethics (morality) based on the role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or ethology with a focus on understanding and explaining observed ethical preferences or choices and their origins.

On the other hand, normative evolutionary ethics may represent a more independent attempt to use evolution, alone or partially, to justify an ethical system. This project has not, according to one view, been especially successful; for example, Richard Dawkins describes how we must rise above our selfish genes to behave morally (that is, evolution has endowed us with various instincts, but we need some other moral system to decide which ones to empower or control). Dawkins has since expressed interest in what Sam Harris calls a science of morality, which starts with the assumption that "morality" refers to "facts about the flourishing of conscious creatures".


In the chapter On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties During Primeval and Civilised Times of The descent of man (1871) Charles Darwin set out to explain the origin of human morality in order to show that there was no absolute gap between man and animals. For Darwin, morality was a problem of natural history. He believed that a moral sense (altruism) would have little selective advantage for the individual, but it would be adaptive for the group. He did not construct a new system of Evolutionary Ethics.[1]

David Hume first described what is now known as the is-ought problem: making unjustified claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. The problem is the justification of an ethical system. The problem is not what we ought to do, but why. Thomas Huxley allows that ethical sentiments have evolved but denies that this provides a basis for morality (Evolution and Ethics,1893):

The propounders of what are called the "ethics of evolution," when the "evolution of ethics" would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.[2]

Huxley's criticism alluded to the is-ought problem developed earlier by David Hume and the related naturalistic fallacy developed later by G. E. Moore. The moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) claimed that evolution was irrelevant for ethics because it could not be used as a justification for ethics. British philosopher G. E. Moore (Principia Ethica) demonstrated that all systems of naturalistic ethics, including evolutionary ethics, are flawed. He first pointed out that even if evolution is progress, it cannot be concluded that the more advanced organisms are more advanced in every respect. So, it is impossible to infer particular moral judgements from that fact. Furthermore, the view that "we ought to move in the direction of evolution simply because it is the direction of evolution" was invalid because it was an example of the naturalistic fallacy, that is the fallacy of defining 'the good' by reference to some other thing.

American philosopher William James wrote about natural selection: "The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning into itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping-place ever proposed by one man to another".[3] John Dewey was also a critic of evolutionary ethics, although both philosophers accepted the fact of evolution. Dewey added that the discovery of the evolutionary origin of particular moral sentiments is not identical with the discovery of the foundation of an ethical system.[4]

Evolutionary biologist and geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky was highly critical of evolutionary ethics: "No theory of evolutionary ethics can be acceptable unless it gives a satisfactory explanation of just why the promotion of evolutionary development must be regarded as the summum bonum" and "even if the direction of evolution were demonstrated to be "good", man is likely to prefer to be free rather than to be reasonable".[5]

Analytic philosophy[edit]

Logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer stated in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) that moral judgements are pure expressions of feeling. They are unverifiable and cannot be true or false. In 1986, Michael Ruse summarized the role of evolution as the source of ethical feelings:

Our moral sense, our altruistic nature, is an adaptation—a feature helping us in the struggle for existence and reproduction—no less than hands and eyes, teeth and feet. It is a cost-effective way of getting us to cooperate, which avoids both the pitfalls of blind action and the expense of a superbrain of pure rationality.[6]

In applying science to metaethics, Ruse writes:

In a sense … the evolutionist's case is that ethics is a collective illusion of the human race, fashioned and maintained by natural selection in order to promote individual reproduction. … ethics is illusory inasmuch as it persuades us that it has an objective reference. This is the crux of the biological position.[7][not in citation given]

Descriptive evolutionary ethics[edit]

Descriptive evolutionary ethics is empirical research into moral attitudes and beliefs (humans) or moral behaviour (animals) in an evolutionary framework. Examples can be found in the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain major features of psychology in terms of species-wide evolved (via natural selection) predispositions. Ethical topics addressed include altruistic behaviors, deceptive or harmful behaviors, an innate sense of fairness or unfairness, feelings of kindness or love, self-sacrifice, feelings related to competitiveness and moral punishment or retribution, moral "cheating" or hypocrisy, and inclinations for a wide variety of actions judged morally good or bad by (at least some within) a given society.

A key issue of evolutionary psychology has been how altruistic feelings and behaviors could have evolved when the process of natural selection is based on the multiplication over time only of those genes that adapt better to changes in the environment of the species. Theories addressing this have included kin selection and reciprocal altruism (both direct and indirect, and on a society-wide scale). Group selection theories have also been advanced.

Normative evolutionary ethics[edit]

Normative evolutionary ethics aims at defining which acts are right or wrong, and which things are good or bad in an evolutionary context. It is not merely describing, but it is prescribing goals, values and obligations. For example eugenics is a form of normative evolutionary ethics, because it defines what is "good" on the basis of genetics and the theory of evolution. Social Darwinism is a more wide ranging topic. However, to the extent it promotes ethical values and policies based on the theory of evolution, it can also be classified as a normative evolutionary ethics. According to philosopher G. E. Moore (see above) all systems of naturalistic ethics, including normative evolutionary ethics, do commit the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy does not apply to descriptive evolutionary ethics because no ethical statements are inferred from facts. Also, the naturalistic fallacy does not apply to weaker forms of normative evolutionary ethics, namely those which are consistent with evolution, but not derivable from evolution.[citation needed]


P. G. Woolcock argues[8] that all normative evolutionary ethics are invalid. For example the argument

1. The human species can survive only if we let severely physically and mentally handicapped infants and children die.
2. Therefore: we ought to let severely physically and mentally handicapped infants die.

is a fallacy because the first statement is a purely descriptive premise containing no values, and a value pops up in the conclusion. It is the famous naturalistic fallacy (G. E. Moore). Additionally, the first premise is almost certainly false. We could make the argument valid by adding a second premise, namely:

1b We ought to do whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of the human species

but then we would no longer be deducing a value conclusion from a purely factual premise, because 1b has a value component. This can also be explained in this way: if the definition of "good" is "whatever furthers human survival", then it should be nonsensical to ask "Is human survival itself good?", but it seems a perfectly meaningful question. This is Moore's open-question argument.

Another fallacy according to Woolcock is the confusion between an instrumental and a categorical justification. Consider the argument "We ought to be altruistic because evolution has selected altruism over millions of years as a reliable guide to what is good". Evolutionary theory, however, tell us only that altruism is good for the survival of our species, not that the survival of the human species is good. A categorical justification would justify people's actions regardless of what their goals are.

The future[edit]

Given the current state of knowledge, Huxley's statement with regards to "why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil" is still accurate with regards to individual human tastes and predispositions. Yet research in the fields of evolutionary psychology and primatology is beginning to reveal, in the general case, what is good and bad for our species in order for it to thrive and, in turn, more likely be happy. Even so, it can never say (in principle) why the species should prefer happiness to misery, but simply that it does (or does not) so prefer.

Hence, evolutionary psychology's primary focus is to derive, especially through the deep analysis of hunter-gatherer culture and primate models, what is the most accurate description of general human predispositions (i.e. our innate "hard-wiring"). And as this understanding grows, it will become more and more feasible to redesign culture itself to be more "user friendly" to its human members, according to some standard . After all, in the ultimate sense, culture (like a computer) is a tool to serve its users. Noted primatologist Frans De Waal asserts, "In the words of Edward Wilson, biology holds us "on a leash" and will let us stray only so far from who we are. We can design our life any way we want, but whether we will thrive depends on how well the life fits human predispositions" [9] Thus, the goals of evolutionary psychology overlap with the science of morality.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Paul Lawrence Farber, 1994, The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics, chapter 1
  2. ^ Huxley, p. 66
  3. ^ Quoted by Farber, 1994, p. 112
  4. ^ Farber, 1994, p.111-117
  5. ^ Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom, Columbia University Press, 1956, p. 128-129.
  6. ^ Ruse, M. (1986). Evolutionary Ethics: A phoenix arisen. Zygon Journal of Religion and Science, 21, p. 99. Available online at http://www.philoscience.unibe.ch/documents/educational_materials/Ruse1986/Ruse1986.pdf
  7. ^ Ruse, 1986, p. 235
  8. ^ Peter G. Woolcock, 'The Case against Evolutionary Ethics Today' in: Biology and the Foundation of Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp 276-306
  9. ^ Frans de Waal, "The empathic ape", New Scientist, 8 October 2005


Further reading[edit]

  • Curry, O. (2006). Who's afraid of the naturalistic fallacy? Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 234-247. Full text
  • Duntley, J.D., & Buss, D.M. (2004). The evolution of evil. In A. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil. New York: Guilford. 102-123. Full text
  • Huxley, Julian. Evolutionary Ethics 1893-1943. Pilot, London. In USA as Touchstone for ethics Harper, N.Y. (1947) [includes text from both T.H. Huxley and Julian Huxley]
  • Kitcher, Philip (1995) “Four Ways of “Biologicizing” Ethics” in Elliott Sober (ed.) Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, The MIT Press
  • Kitcher, Philip (2005) “Biology and Ethics” in David Copp (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford University Press
  • Krebs, D. L. & Denton, K. (2005). Toward a more pragmatic approach to morality: A critical evaluation of Kohlberg’s model. Psychological Review, 112, 629-649. Full text
  • Krebs, D. L. (2005). An evolutionary reconceptualization of Kohlberg’s model of moral development. In R. Burgess & K. MacDonald (Eds.) Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development, (pp. 243–274). CA: Sage Publications. Full text
  • Mascaro, S., Korb, K.B., Nicholson, A.E., Woodberry, O. (2010). Evolving Ethics: The New Science of Good and Evil. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.
  • Richerson, P.J. & Boyd, R. (2004). Darwinian Evolutionary Ethics: Between Patriotism and Sympathy. In Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss, (Eds.), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective, pp. 50–77. Full text ISBN 0-8028-2695-4
  • Teehan, J. & diCarlo, C. (2004). On the Naturalistic Fallacy: A conceptual basis for evolutionary ethics. Evolutionary Psychology, 2, 32-46. Full text
  • Walter, A. (2006). The anti-naturalistic fallacy: Evolutionary moral psychology and the insistence of brute facts. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 33-48. Full text
  • Wilson, D. S., E. Dietrich, et al. (2003). On the inappropriate use of the naturalistic fallacy in evolutionary psychology. Biology and Philosophy 18: 669-682. Full text
  • Wilson, D. S. (2002). Evolution, morality and human potential. Evolutionary Psychology: Alternative Approaches. S. J. Scher and F. Rauscher, Kluwer Press: 55-70 Full text

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_ethics — Please support Wikipedia.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia.
92518 videos foundNext > 

Peter Singer - The Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right From Wrong? (3)

The Great Debate On November 6th, 2010 a panel of renowned scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals gathered to discuss what impact evolutionary th...

Evolutionary Ethics: Reconciling Reason and Intuition

Complete video at: http://fora.tv/2011/02/09/Does_Understanding_Evolution_Help_Us_Understand_Ethics Princeton ethicist Peter Singer addresses what he regards...

Peter Singer - Ethics, Evolution & Moral Progress

A Celebration of Reason - 2012 Global Atheist Convention 13-15th April - Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre Presented by the Atheist Foundation of Austra...

24th April - Ethics, Cooperation and Human Motivation: Assessing the Project of Evolutionary Ethics

In her third lecture of the Aberdeen Gifford Lecture Series 2012, Professor Sarah Coakley tackles more explicitly the problem of how to build an ethical syst...

Evolutionary Ethics....no sir.

I talk to Jason about evolution and ethics....again.

Creatards get Owned on Evolutionary Ethics

Creationist Darek Issacs can't seem to comprehend how humanity, a species, the product of evolutionary biological processes how rape is wrong. The greatest w...

Evolutionary Ethics Series: Against Moral Sense Theories

How a common feature makes evolutionary ethics, divine command theories and common subjectivism fail as proper relevant moral theories.

RE: Evolutionary Ethics Series: Against Moral Sense Theories

video response defending moral sense theory responding to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KdHKmw_XP0.

FDR 971 - Consciousness and Evolutionary Ethics (A Listener Conversation)

Where did ethics come from?

Evolutionary Ethics Series: Euthyphro and Double Standards

On this video series I present arguments for the uselessness of Evolutionary Theory in Ethics.

92518 videos foundNext > 

1 news items

Fri, 18 Jul 2014 09:07:30 -0700

... early 1870s, Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), was selling at a rate of 250 copies per month in Britain and his follow-up, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), which focused more on sexual selection and evolutionary ...

Oops, we seem to be having trouble contacting Twitter

Talk About Evolutionary ethics

You can talk about Evolutionary ethics with people all over the world in our discussions.

Support Wikipedia

A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia. Please add your support for Wikipedia!