Evolutionary Ethics

As philosophy has become more naturalized, it is unsurprising that philosophers (and especially philosophers of biology) would attempt to find a way to ground ethics in a biological account of human nature. Perhaps even more significantly, the development of sociobiology and its subsequent incarnation, evolutionary psychology, meant that biologists were looking to explain the origins of morality in an evolutionary account (Wilson; Farber; Wright, 1995). Michael Ruse has been perhaps the most influential voice on evolutionary ethics (1991, 1993).

Ruse argues that evolutionary theory offers the explanation of the origin of altruism and other moral sentiments. He follows the explanatory strategy of the sociobiologists (and evolutionary psychologists) by appealing to the apparent universality of cooperative behaviors and moral sentiments, combined with the obvious adaptive value that cooperative strategies represent. Indeed there are a number of game theoretic accounts to demonstrate the adaptive value of altruistic behavior in at least some circumstances (Smith, 1982).

Ruse then claims that the fact that evolution explains morality undermines moral realism. He offers two arguments. First, although human moral sentiments evolved, it is quite possible that an alternative set of sentiments could have produced the same effects. The contingency of evolution means that morality itself is contingent. Second, Ruse takes great care in dispelling any teleological interpretation of evolution. Evolution is a directionless process with no end or goal. Since morality is founded on a directionless process, it follows that realism towards ethics is undermined. Evolution is meaningless, and without value. Organisms that survived and adapted are not better in a normative sense. Hence there is no normative foundation for ethics.

Critics have attempted a number of strategies, including questioning the extent to which evolution can really account for morality (Lewontin), or denying the relevance of the facts of evolution to normative issues (Nagel). Other critics have argued that a fully naturalized ethics that accepts evolution as the foundation of morality is fully compatible with ethical realism (Maienschein and Ruse).

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