Can evolution explain ethics?

ethicsThe latest conversation with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman (he of The Electric Agora) was on what, exactly, science can tell us about morality, meaning not the trivially misguided notion that somehow ethics can be reduced to neuroscience, or evolutionary biology, or whatever, but rather the more nuanced question of whether and how science can inform philosophizing about ethics.

After a brief bout of self-advertising about my forthcoming book (How to Be a Stoic, available for pre-order at Amazon), we began by identifying the different types of science that may have claims at telling us something interesting about ethics: evolutionary biology, cognitive and developmental psychology, and neuroscience.

From which we proceed to ask the questions of whether morality is “baked” into our biology, and whether comparative primatological studies can tell us where it comes from. Dan expresses skepticism, based on the fact that people don’t even agree on what exactly morality is; my position is a bit more open, but with a number of caveats, simply due to the fact that there aren’t a hell of a lot of closely related species to compare our behavior to.

Next we suggest what I think is an interesting way in which Kant and moral psychology, while at first sight at odds with each other, actually nicely complement. We also talk about Nietzsche, whose moral philosophy Dan suggests may be a problem for any scientific account of the phenomenon, but there too I suggest there are ways to overcome or at least diffuse the apparent tension.

Toward the end of the video we discuss why looking at primates closely related to us, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, actually tells us very little about the biological roots of our moral instincts, and we explain just how difficult it is to carry out sound experiments investigating innate moral responses in human infants.

102 thoughts on “Can evolution explain ethics?

  1. wtc48

    socratic: “A good discussion would be, “how much of the area is overlap,” whether for ethics, emotions, consciousness or whatever.”

    Agreed. That’s the crux of the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Adam Voight

    In my view, the missing element in such attempts to naturalize ethics as some form of consequentialism is the lack of natural teleology.

    However, if we look at evolution from an Aristotelian perspective, we can see how ethical behavior evolves and thus naturalize normativity. In accepted biology, it is appropriate to ask what certain behavior is “for”, and thus constrain the possibilities for how one ought to engage in said behavior.

    This works because Aristotle was a biologist and ultimately say ethical telos (eudaimonia) as lying within the purview of biology. I fail to see why the teleology implicit in the concept of “adaptation” and “fitness” cannot account for the foundations of Virtue Theory. I argue that if Aristotle were here, he would surely claim that natural teleology is sufficient for ethics, regardless of how we relate that teleology to physics.

    Introduction to the Theory of Ethical Selection –


  3. stevenjohnson

    There are no moral/ethical theories containing the premise that there are supernatural entities that can lay down binding moral precepts? Or no moral/ethical theories containing the premise that some people are essentially worth more than others? Or no moral/ethical theories containing the premise there is an immortal soul?

    But, if there were, either empirical science cannot refute these premises? Or, if they seem to (or maybe actually do,) that is irrelevant because philosophy is not about knowledge of empirical reality but about knowledge of the philosophical coherence of propositions?

    I’m behind, I’m still lost on why anthropology, sociology, history, possibly economics, have nothing to offer about moral theories, not even about what is, what can’t be, what must be?

    I’m also lost on how variation in human beings could be irrelevant to moral theories?


  4. marc levesque

    Can evolution explain ethics?

    I don’t think so.

    Insects where brought up in the comments, and I admit I haven’t listened to the video, but I feel evolution explains ethics as much as a mosquito drinking blood explains the current and various eating habits of humans.

    Evolution can be related to most things, like being unfair with treats garners similar reactions from primates and humans. But that doesn’t help us with the kind of ethical questions humans grapple with.

    I’m not saying fields that have some relation to evolution can’t help inform ethical questions, but just for starters, I think very careful consideration of the value of the information itself and if or how it might be relevant is needed.

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  5. brodix


    The Syrians are certainly between a rock and a hard spot and the geopolitical factors putting them there are long, convoluted and often deliberated obscured.

    The fact remains society is a function of both organic growth and civil order. Too much of the first and it’s anarchy. Too much of the later and it’s totalitarianism. A big part of the current problem remains social and economic impulses to grow, with no restraints or consideration of consequences. We keep having to learn the hard way.

    Yes, Assad is a dictator, but the fact that the Saudis/Sunnis and the Israelis would like to get rid of him and successfully drew the US into it, has been a far greater factor in the destruction of the country and the floods of refugees, than the various tribal politics occasionally roiling the country.

    As I see it, there is an age old geopolitical rift between the Near East and the West, with an active political earthquake zone running from the Caucasus to Northern Africa.


  6. brodix

    Not to say there are not innumerable political earthquake zones thought the world, that are often as deep as the tribalism buried in the emotional and spiritual bedrock.


  7. davidlduffy

    If we start from the naturalistic stance of the moral psychologists – eg Haidt’s definition of morality: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible” – then it doesn’t directly address stuff like “categorical versus hypothetical imperative”. However, it does allow debunking.

    The genetic distances between us and other mammals such as dolphins don’t seem to matter when it comes to social interactions between us. When dolphins (or killer whales) cooperate with humans so they both can increase their fishing success, this is social life (coordination, signalling). Are there simple moral-like rules, such as waiting your turn, otherwise I will withdraw future cooperation? In the famous examples of dolphins rescuing human swimmers in distress, we don’t have to see that as a moral act, but we can see it as an overgeneralisation of the type of social behaviour most humans would classify as moral – helping in-group members in distress. I think that many human activities, rather than being mysteriously emergent from our infinite ability to manipulate symbols, are more easily understood as runaway overgeneralisations of earlier modes of thought and behaviour: football, music, deontological ethics.

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