Morality and Evolutionary Biology

There has been a push by evolutionists to claim evolutionary biology can explain morality. The article “Morality and Evolutionary Biology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses this:

“Perhaps [biologists] can eventually do what philosophers have never managed, and explain moral behavior in an intellectually satisfying way.” These passages epitomize a growing theme in the popular and scientific media, echoing claims made forty years ago with the emergence of sociobiology, when E.O. Wilson suggested that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized”

Perhaps philosophers have not been able to explain the origin of morality. But this has never been a problem for theists. What we generally find is almost all philosophical questions can be addressed from a Judeo-Christian perspective. Whereas if you throw out God and the Bible, people cannot resolve basic philosophical questions even after thousands of years. But, this can be for a latter debate.

Evolution is really the only scientific tool atheists can use to explain morality. But does it adequately explain it?

When it comes to morality, the most basic issue concerns our capacity for normative guidance: our ability to be motivated by norms of behavior and feeling through judgments about how people ought to act and respond in various circumstances.


it is an empirical fact about human beings that we make moral judgments, have certain feelings and behave in certain ways, and it is natural for the sciences to seek causal explanations for such phenomena.

I agree morality is an empirical fact.

At the same time, however, it is a very complex matter—and one often neglected outside of philosophy—how such empirical, explanatory projects are related to the very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality.

Yes, it is a complex topic.

Moral philosophers tend to focus on questions about the justification of moral claims, the existence and grounds of moral truths, and what morality requires of us. These are very different from the empirical questions pursued in the sciences, but how we answer each set of questions may have implications for how we should answer the other.

Progress in this area will not be made either by doing moral philosophy in isolation from the sciences or by taking morality out of the hands of philosophers and looking to scientific inquiry in isolation.

Yes, evolutionary biologists need to also understand the philosophical issues if they are to address morality adequately.

It presents three broad evolutionary approaches to morality:

A. Descriptive Evolutionary Ethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in the scientific explanation of the origins of certain human capacities, tendencies, or patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.

B. Prescriptive Evolutionary Ethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in justifying or undermining certain normative ethical claims or theories.

C. Evolutionary Metaethics: appeals to evolutionary theory in supporting or undermining various metaethical theories.

Since (A) is purely descriptive and only describes things, there is no obvious justifications for the positions (B) and (C) since they are philosophical in nature.

Importantly, there are no simple or straightforward moves from the scientific projects in A to the philosophical projects in B or C.

It notes there are two senses of morality:

A. The Empirical Sense of ‘Morality’

Here ‘morality’ refers, as noted earlier, to a certain set of empirical phenomena, such as the observed capacity of human beings to make normative judgments, or the tendency to have certain sentiments such as sympathy or guilt or blame, or certain ‘intuitions’ about fairness or violence.

B. The Normative Sense of ‘Morality’

When we use ‘morality’ in the normative sense, it is meant to refer to however it is we ought to live, i.e., to a set of norms that ought to be adopted and followed.

Empirical morality (A) is how humans act. Normative morality (B) is how humans ought to act.

Though evolution attempts to account for morality, there is no clear linkage between adaptation and moral development:

It is uncontroversial that there will be evolutionary explanations of some sort for the very general capacities and tendencies in A and B: we are evolved creatures, and our psychological capacities, like other complex capacities, are outcomes of evolutionary processes. But this does not by itself settle whether these capacities and tendencies are themselves adaptations, having evolved through natural selection because of their adaptive effects.

It is only uncontroversial because evolution is the only possible scientific explanation atheists have.

Altruism is commonly presented in moral evolutionary development:

Many discussions of morality and evolutionary biology focus largely on the issue of altruistic feeling and behavior. This can be confusing because in addition to psychological altruism there is also biological altruism, which is found in many species. (See Kitcher 2011, part I, for a comprehensive discussion.) Psychological altruism involves caring about others’ welfare and deliberately benefiting them for their own sake, with no restriction on the type of benefit involved. By contrast, biological altruism has nothing essentially to do with intentions or motives, and it pertains only to ‘benefits’ to others that increase their reproductive fitness (boosting their genetic contribution to future generations).

Psychological altruism is motivated by intentions and motives. Biological altruism is motivated by reproductive fitness.

I think psychological altruism is more relevant to morality because morality requires intention and motives. And it admits this area is highly speculative.

This area of inquiry remains largely speculative, since it is one thing to develop models for how psychological altruism could in principle evolve, and quite another to show convincingly that a given form of natural selection has in fact played the relevant role in actual human evolutionary history.

It presents one theory of psychological altruism:

Kitcher (2006a,b; 2011) has proposed a three-stage account of the evolution of morality. It begins with the evolution of an early but fragile form of psychological altruism among hominins in the context of “coalition games” in mixed adult groups.

It presents an entirely hypothetical scenario with three stages of development of human morality.

Human beings have a strong, emotionally-laden sense of basic fairness, resentment of cheaters, and a desire that they be punished, all of which finds expression in both cultural norms and individual moral judgments. You might experience such feelings if you’ve been the victim of a scam, morally condemning the perpetrators.


And some of these psychological traits may have analogues in other species. For example, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal (2014) argue that “evidence indicates that [inequity aversion, i.e., negative reactions to unequal rewards for similar tasks] is widespread in cooperative species under many circumstances”–though some have disputed this and offered alternative hypotheses to explain the behavior, based on further research (Engelmann, Clift, Herrmann, and Tomasello 2017).[5] In the simplest case, an animal protests when it sees a companion receive a superior reward for a similar task, as in a well-known study with brown capuchin monkeys, though similar effects have now been observed even in non-primates, such as dogs and crows. In the more complex case, chimpanzees sometimes react negatively to inequity even where they are the ones receiving the greater reward.

However, aren’t these counter-examples to altruism?

the proper question is not in the first instance what caused that judgment to occur, but what reasons the person had for making it—for thinking it to be true. It is those reasons that typically constitute an explanation of the judgment. They explain by bringing out what the person took (rightly or wrongly) to be the justification for the belief in question—the considerations showing the belief likely to be true. All of this complicates the explanatory project in relation to the thoughts, feelings and actions of rational agents.

Right. What is missing in evolutionary theories is the judgment that is involved in actions performed. If there is no judgment involved, how can an action be considered to be right or wrong? If something does action A, how can it be asserted it ought to have done action B if it could not judge between A and B to perform? Why would it be morally wrong to have done A if there was no decision actually made?

Morality requires autonomy for any judgment to be made:

Few would deny the autonomy assumption altogether. To do so in the name of providing alternative evolutionary causal explanations of our beliefs would risk self-defeat: for if we lack the relevant intellectual autonomy across the board, then even the biologist’s beliefs about evolutionary biology and its implications would just be attributable to such biological causes, rather than to reasons that provide real warrant for such beliefs within a rational framework with truth-tracking integrity.

Morality requires reasoning to make a decision:

This brings us back to moral judgment. As with M, P and S, people typically have reasons for their moral judgments, and whether or not we agree with them, we typically take those reasons to explain why they believe what they do.

And how do we know anything (particularly animals) are able to exercise autonomous reflection?

One potential lesson from evolutionary biology, however, is that even if the autonomy assumption equally applies in principle to the sphere of moral judgment, it may be a mistake just to assume that most moral judgment and behavior is in fact a result of the exercise of such autonomous reflection, reasoning and judgment. The autonomy assumption, after all, says only that we have the capacity for relevantly autonomous reflection and judgment; it does not imply that we always exercise it. Perhaps the human capacity for autonomous thinking is exercised only in some cases, while in others the process that leads to moral belief is largely influenced by evolved psychological dispositions, such as emotional adaptations.

Even in the case of humans, autonomous reflection might not be involved. But, I would argue even if reflection was not involved, it can still be judged to be moral or not. Someone might shoot a gun at a wall without thinking it would kill anyone. But if a person on the other side of the wall was killed, he would still be considered guilty.

But the controversies are as much ongoing philosophical ones as scientific ones, and it is therefore unlikely that scientific results will settle them. Science will plainly not settle, for example, whether or not there are moral truths; and if there are, they will likely play an explanatory role with regard to at least some of our moral beliefs—something we will miss if we approach these issues from an exclusively scientific point of view.

Yes, science will not settle the question of moral truths. So, the best science can offer is the “Modest Evolutionary Explanatory Thesis”:

The Modest Evolutionary Explanatory Thesis: evolutionary forces may adequately explain certain capacities and tendencies associated with moral thinking, feeling and behavior, and may explain or partially explain some of the content of our moral thought, feeling and behavior, insofar as it is influenced (individually or via influences on cultural development) by those tendencies.

To state that science can explain morality is, at best, hyperbole.

As for normative morality, evolutionary theory is lacking for an explanation:

Even philosophers sympathetic to ethical naturalism (the view that moral facts are themselves natural facts of some sort) have typically been wary of attempts to derive conclusions about morality in the normative sense from facts about evolutionary history. This is especially so when they are clear (unlike Spencer) about the principles governing Darwinian evolution through natural selection. From the fact that a certain trait is an adaptation, which evolved through natural selection by virtue of its positive feedback effects on germ-line replication of the alleles that generate the trait, nothing at all seems to follow about whether it is morally good or right, or something we ought to embrace and foster. Certain dispositions may be present in us for good evolutionary reasons without any implication that these traits benefit us, or are moral virtues or produce behaviors that are morally right.

It is hard to see how such evolutionary facts can possibly have normative authority or force for a rational agent.

This suggests that ethics, like mathematics, is an autonomous subject in the sense that it has its own “internal standards of justification and criticism”, such that its conclusions cannot be justified by other forms of inquiry such as evolutionary biology.

Normative ethical conclusions are justified through first-order ethical reflection and argument, just as mathematical propositions are justified through mathematical reasoning, rather than through learning more about our evolutionary past or about what is happening in our brains when we engage in these forms of reasoning.

There are only two main arguments for morality – special creation and evolution:

Rachels takes such an approach against the common belief that human beings have a special moral dignity that is much higher than the status enjoyed by non-human animals. Such a belief has traditionally been rooted in the idea that we are separate from other living things, having been created specially in the image of God and endowed with souls, giving us a special moral status. If evolutionary theory is true, however, then this support is undermined: since Homo sapiens evolved from other species, there is no sharp biological separation between Homo sapiens and the rest of the living world; there is instead a continuum through evolutionary history, with no species created separately, in a divine image, or infused with special souls. Thus, those who have based their beliefs about the speical moral status of human beings on a creationist picture have a problem: that picture is false, and the true picture does nothing to support such a view.

Another problem for evolutionists is arguing there is nothing different with humans compared to all other animals (biological evolution), yet it also has something different (morality). But in special creation, there is no such conflict because it asserts humans are in a different class than all other animals, both from a biological origin and the ability to make moral judgments.

It affirms evolution theory cannot account for normative morality:

As noted earlier, however, the normative goals themselves will not have been set for us by evolutionary biology or psychology.

Can evolution provide answers to the existence and nature of morality?

While evolutionary facts may do little to illuminate the content of morality in the normative sense (apart from shedding light on morally relevant facts), they are sometimes thought to tell us something about the existence and nature of morality in the normative sense.

Evolution, at its core, is correlated with biological fitness, not moral oughtness:

But natural selection shaped those dispositions simply according to which variations best contributed to the biological fitness of our hominin ancestors, rather than in ways that would be expected to track independent moral truths as such, even if they existed. That is, natural selection rewarded moral belief-forming dispositions that yielded whatever moral beliefs led to behaviors that caused hunter-gatherers to out-reproduce their peers and propagate their genes more effectively, regardless of whether or not these beliefs happened accurately to represent a realm of independent moral truths.

Evolution not being able to account for objective morality has been recognized since Darwin:

It is worth noting that the appeal to evolution to support general skeptical worries about ethics is not in fact new: it goes all the back to Darwin himself. Consider the following provocative, fanciful reflection (later echoed closely by E.O. Wilson 1978, 204–206), which at least suggests a skeptical argument closely related to the debunking arguments examined above:

It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience (Darwin 1871, 73).

At best, evolution can only account for subjective morality, but not objective morality.

The argument at least suggested by this passage is that our moral sense, which generates our moral beliefs, has the shape and content it has because of the contingencies of human ecology; had creatures with a very different ecology, such as bees, come to be rational, they would thus have developed a very different moral sense suitable to their ecology. But then which of these very different moral senses could be expected reliably to track moral truths (if they exist)? The answer seems to be: neither (unless we simply relativize moral truths to various possible ecologies, taking such truths to reduce to facts about effective genetic propagation—though as we saw in section 3, such a move has little moral plausibility). For moral senses are contingent products of particular ecologies in a way that cannot be expected to track independent and stable moral truths. We and the hypothetical rational bees will thus have very different moral outlooks, each of which is explicable in terms of our respective ecologies and will seem quite natural to those who occupy the relevant ecology (while the other’s outlook will seem bizarre), but neither of which seems to have any claim to be a reliable guide to moral truth (as usually conceived).