Evolutionary ethics

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] Sharon Street[5] claims that evolutionary facts can explain the development of morality, without assuming the existence of objective moral truths.

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".[6]

Analytic philosophy

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.[7]

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.[8]

Descriptive evolutionary ethics

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

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.


P. G. Woolcock argues[9] 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

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" [10] Thus, the goals of evolutionary psychology overlap with the science of morality.


Evolutionary ethics struggles as a system of normative ethics., due to the logical fallacy of turning a statement about "what is" into one about "what we ought to do" (see naturalistic fallacy).

As a meta-ethical theory, one that tells us the nature of moral judgments, evolutionary ethics can be used as a decent descriptor of why we have certain views on right and wrong. As a meta-ethical claim it does not tell us what is right and wrong, but rather that the origin of our ethical practices come from our evolutionary history. This tends to lead to a less black and white view on ethical beliefs and leaves much more room for gray areas.[11]

Many philosophers who support this view of evolutionary meta-ethics use it to undermine Aristotelian teleology, a belief that we can't reduce things to the parts that compose them, but the end they are trying to achieve is very important. At times evolutionary ethics is used to undermine moral realism, a view that morals are objectively true and do not rely upon a person’s thoughts or attitudes. However other philosophers still use evolution to champion moral realism. Often they will argue that there is a set of moral truths and that our behavior naturally tend towards moral truths because of evolution.

More often however, it is used to support moral subjectivism. This is a belief that moral truths are subjective and oftentimes based on cultural norms, thoughts, and attitudes towards a subject matter rather than a set of mind-independent truths.[12] Evolutionary ethics assumes we have a set of basic underlying morals, such as not killing another person. This stems from the evolutionary need to allow the species to survive. However some of the finer points of our disagreements in ethical conduct comes from the differences in cultural upbringings and backgrounds, and thus would be considered subjective.

See also


  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. Street , S: "A darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value" Philosophical Studies (January 2006).
  6. Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biological Basis of Human Freedom, Columbia University Press, 1956, p. 128-129.
  7. 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
  8. Ruse, 1986, p. 235
  9. Peter G. Woolcock, 'The Case against Evolutionary Ethics Today' in: Biology and the Foundation of Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp 276-306
  10. Frans de Waal, "The empathic ape", New Scientist, 8 October 2005
  11. Tavernier, Johan. "Morality and Nature: Evolutionary Challenges to Christian Ethics". Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science. 49 (1): 171–189.
  12. Schroeder, Doris. "Evolutionary Ethics". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 5 March 2015.


Further reading

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