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The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism

By Mark D. Linville

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate.  In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away.  We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology.   I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism.  And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away.  Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false.  I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

A Darwinian Genealogy of Morals

According to the Darwinian account, given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—i.e., the circumstances of survival—certain behaviors are adaptive.  And so, any propensity for such behaviors will also be adaptive.  Such explains the flight instinct in the pronghorn, the spawning instinct in the cutthroat salmon and my instinctual aversion to insulting Harley riders in biker bars.  Insofar as such propensities are genetic (at least the first two examples would seem to qualify here), they are heritable and thus likely to be passed down to offspring.

Imagine, for example, a time in the early history of hominids when the circumstances of survival prompted an early patriot (and kite-flying inventor, perhaps) to advise, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all be torn apart by ravenous wolves.”  Insofar as such cooperation depends upon heritable dispositions of group members, those dispositions will confer fitness.

Darwin speaks of “social instincts” that are at the root of our moral behavior.

These include a desire for the approbation of our fellow humans and a fear of censure. They also include a general sympathy for others.  He explains,

In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities  which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.[1]

A favored “complex manner” of the origin of such feelings involves an appeal to two varieties of altruism: kin altruism is directed at family members—chiefly one’s offspring—and reciprocal altruism is directed at non-family members and even to strangers.  The former is an other-regarding attitude and behavior—particularly concerning one’s own children, but extending in descending degrees to other family members—that does not seek any returns.  The advantage, of course, is in the reproductive success.  The sense of parental duty that is possessed by, say, a female sea turtle ensures only that she lay her eggs somewhere above the high tide mark.  From there, her relatively self-sufficient offspring are quite on their own against daunting odds —something like a one in ten thousand chance of reaching maturity.  Those odds are offset by the sheer numbers of hatchlings so that a fraction manage to survive the elements and elude myriads of predators.

Such a numbers strategy would hardly work for the human species, given the utter helplessness of the human infant.  Babies tend to suffer an inelegant fate if left untended.  The probability that a human infant will die if left to its own resources at, say, just above the high tide mark, is a perfect 1.  And those same odds would prevail for each of ten thousand similarly abandoned babies.  (Word would spread quickly in the wild: “Hey, free babies!”)  Human parents possessed of no more parental instinct than sea turtles would find that their line came to an abrupt end.  Thus, a strong sense of love and concern is adaptive and heritable, and has the same function—a means to reproductive success—among humans that hatchling self-sufficiency and sheer numbers have among turtles.

Reciprocal altruism, on the other hand, is rooted in a tit-for-tat arrangement that ultimately confers greater reproductive fitness on all parties involved.  Consider, for instance, the symbiotic relationship that exists between grouper and cleaner shrimp.  Though the shrimp would certainly make a nice snack for a hungry grouper and is busily flossing the fish’s teeth from the inside, the benefit of long-term hygiene (Whiter teeth! Fresher breath!) outweighs that of short-term nourishment, and so the fish is programmed to pass on the prawn. The shrimp, of course, benefits from a delectable meal of the gunk otherwise responsible for halitosis in grouper.

Similarly, there is benefit to be gained from cooperative and altruistic behavior among humans.  For example, Darwin observes,

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.[2]

And membership in such a victorious tribe has its advantages.  To attempt a metaphor, when a baseball team functions like a well-oiled machine, say, with a Tinker, Evers and Chance infield, the likelihood that all of the members will sport World Series rings is increased.

Thus, the human moral sense—conscience—is rooted in a set of social instincts that were adaptive given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape.  Of course, there is more to the moral sense than the instincts that Darwin had in mind.  All social animals are possessed of such instincts, but not all are plausibly thought of as moral agents.[3]  According to Darwin, conscience emerges out of a sort of “recipe.”  It is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.  He writes,

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.[4]

Wolves in a pack know their place in the social hierarchy.  A lower ranked wolf feels compelled to give way to the alpha male.  Were he endowed with the intellectual powers that Darwin had in mind, then, presumably his “moral sense” would tell him that obeisance is his moral duty.  He would regard it as a moral fact that, like it or not, alpha interests trump beta or omega interests.  And our grouper, if graced with rational and moral autonomy, might reason, “It would be wicked of me to bite down on my little buddy here after all he has done for me!”

Of course, such a “recipe” is precisely what we find in the human species, according to Darwin.  We experience a strong pre-reflective pull in the direction of certain behaviors, such as the care for our children or the returning of kindness for kindness, and, on reflection, we conclude that these are our moral duties.

Evolutionary Naturalism and Moral Knowledge

It is not clear that the resulting account of the origin and nature of human morality does full justice to its subject.  For one thing, it is hard to see why anyone who accepts it is warranted in accepting moral realism—the view that there are objective, mind-independent moral facts that we sometimes get right in our moral beliefs.  For it would appear that the human moral sense and the moral beliefs that arise from it  are ultimately the result of natural selection, and their value is thus found in the adaptive behavior that they encourage.  But then it seems that the processes responsible for our having the moral beliefs that we do are ultimately fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed.   This is to say that, in such a case, the best explanation for our having the moral beliefs that we do makes no essential reference to their being true.

If we have the moral beliefs we do because of the fitness conferred by the resulting behavior, then it appears that we would have had those beliefs whether or not they were true.  Some writers have taken this to imply that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate.”[5]  This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.  A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis.  This is because that story makes no essential reference to any such alleged facts.   Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.  But if our moral beliefs are unwarranted, then there can be no such thing as moral knowledge.  And this amounts to moral skepticism.

If the argument developed here succeeds, its significance is in its implications for the naturalist, who maintains that reality is exhausted by the kinds of things that may, in principle, be the study of the empirical sciences.  For the naturalist’s wagon is hitched to the Darwinian star.  Richard Dawkins was recently seen sporting a T-shirt that read, “Evolution: The Greatest Show on Earth, The Only Game in Town.”  Perhaps Dawkins’ shirt reflects his more careful comment elsewhere that, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[6]  Before Darwin, the inference to Paley’s Watchmaker seemed natural, if not inevitable, given a world filled with things “that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[7] Naturalism without Darwinism is a worldview at a loss for explanation.  Further, to appeal to natural selection to explain libidos and incisors, but to withhold such an explanation for human moral psychology is an untenable position.  Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success.[8]   But if naturalism is committed to Darwinism, and Darwinism implies moral skepticism, then naturalism is committed to moral skepticism.

Darwinism and Normativity

In The Descent of Man, Darwin asks, “Why should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”[9]  His subsequent answer is that the stronger of two conflicting impulses wins out.  Thus, the otherwise timid mother will, without hesitation, run the greatest risks to save her child from danger because the maternal instinct trumps the instinct for self-preservation.  And the timid man, who stands on the shore wringing his hands while allowing even his own child to drown out of fear for his own life, heeds the instinct for self-preservation.[10]

What Darwin never asks—and thus never answers—is why a man ought, in fact, to obey the one rather than the other.  The best that he offers here is the observation that if instinct A is stronger than B, then one will obey A.  What he does not and, I suggest, cannot say is that one ought to obey A, or that one ought to feel the force of A over B.  That is, whereas Darwin may be able to answer the factual question that he does ask— why people believe and behave as they do—this does nothing to answer the normative question of how one ought to behave or of what sets of instincts and feelings one ought to cultivate in order to be virtuous.  It is, of course, one thing to explain why people believe and behave as they do; it is quite another to say whether their beliefs are true (or at least warranted) and their behaviors right.  As it stands, it appears that Darwin has precious little of moral import to say to the timid man.

One could, I suppose, reply on Darwinian grounds that the father who lacks a strong paternal instinct is abnormal, lacking traits that are almost universally distributed throughout the species and are, perhaps, even kind-defining.[11]  Darwin refers to the man who is utterly bereft of the social instincts as an “unnatural monster.”  Doesn’t this observation lend itself to a normative evaluation of behaviors?  Who wants to be a monster, after all?  But it is not at all clear that this can give us what is needed.  After all, departure from a statistical average is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the average adult’s IQ is around 100, Stephen Hawking is something of a freak.  And, presumably, the first hominids to use tools (Hawking’s direct ancestors, perhaps?) or to express themselves in propositions were unique in their day.[12]   Indeed, the Gandhis and Mother Theresas of the world are certainly abnormal—enough that one evolutionary naturalist refers to them as “variations”—yet we tend to like having them around.

I suppose that the evolutionary naturalist could go on to observe that, not only do we notice that the timid father is different in that his parental instinct was not sufficient to prompt him to rescue his child, but it is a difference that naturally elicits negative moral emotions.  We disapprove of him and think him blameworthy.  Indeed, perhaps the man later experiences some negative moral emotions himself, such as   “remorse, repentance, regret, or shame.”[13]  According to Darwin, the sense of guilt is the natural experience of anyone who spurns the prompting of any of the more enduring social instincts, and it bears some similarity to the physical or mental suffering that results from the frustration of any instinct of any creature.  Darwin considers the suffering of the caged migratory bird that will bloody itself against the wires of the cage when the migratory instinct is at its height.  Indeed, he considers that conflict between the migratory and maternal instincts in the swallow, which gives in to the former and abandons her young in the nest.  He speculates,

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.[14]

Like the moral sense in general, guilt is the yield of a sort of recipe: one part spurned instinct to one part “great mental activity” that permits remembrance and remorse.  And so, when our timid man’s own personal danger and fear is past so that the strength of his selfish instinct has receded, the scorned paternal instinct will have its revenge.  Also, because we are social animals, we are endowed with sympathies that make us yearn for the approbation of our fellows and fear their censure.  The cowardly father is thus likely in for a long bout of insomnia.  Further, Darwin may explain that the experience of remorse may result in a resolve for the future, with the further result that the paternal instinct is bolstered and stands a greater chance of being the dominant of two conflicting instincts.  Thus, “Conscience looks backwards, and serves as a guide for the future.”[15]

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation.  There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law.  The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of secondorder propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself).  Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,16one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character.  And, assuming that there is [16]anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import.  Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience.  What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import?  “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.”  Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality.  Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.”  He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.”  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.[17]

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge.  He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?”  For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?”  The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.[18]

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter.  Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives.  Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not.  More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.”  As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative.  But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature.  But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology.  Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not.  If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly.  If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.”  And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

A Naturalist Rejoinder

A familiar objection to my line of argument is that it assumes what is almost certainly false: that all significant and widely observed human behavior is genetically determined as the result of natural selection.  Daniel Dennett refers to this assumption as “greedy reductionism.” Dennett observes that all tribesmen everywhere throw their spears pointy-end first, but we should not suppose that there is a “pointy-end first gene.”[19] The explanation rather resides in the “non-stupidity” of the tribesmen.  And when C.S. Lewis’s character, Ransom, was at first surprised to discover that boats on Malacandra (Mars) were very similar to earthly boats, he caught himself with the question, “What else could a boat be like?’” (The astute Lewis reader might also have noticed that Malacandran hunters throw their spears pointy-end first, despite being genetically unrelated to humans, just as Dennett might have predicted.)  Some ideas are just better than others and, assuming a minimal degree of intelligence, perhaps we have been equipped to discover and implement them.

One might thus insist that perhaps all that evolution has done for us is to equip us with the basic capacities for intelligent decision-making and problem-solving, and the enterprise that is human morality is the product of human rationality; not the mere outworking of some genetic program.  If the process that has led to our having the moral beliefs we do has involved conscious rational reflection, then we have reason for optimism regarding our facility for tracking truth.  We have no more cause for moral skepticism than we do, say, mathematical skepticism.

The same greedy reductionism might be thought to plague my argument that

Darwinian accounts of human morality are merely descriptive.  I have said above that, “unless we import normative considerations from some other source,” we are left with a merely descriptive rather than a normative account.  My critic may insist here that we do bring in normative considerations from elsewhere, namely, from moral theory.  If there are true moral principles that yield moral directives and values, then, regardless of how one does feel and behave, it will remain the case that he ought to behave in a certain way.

For example, should it prove true that humans have a natural propensity for xenophobia as a part of their evolutionary heritage, we might nevertheless conclude that, say, a respect-for-persons principle requires that they overcome such fear and potential mistreatment of strangers.  The mere fact that people have a propensity for a behavior does not entail that it is justified.

I plead not guilty to the charge of greedy reductionism.  The argument in no way supposes that well-formed moral beliefs are somehow programmed by our DNA.  Richard Joyce considers the belief, “I ought to reciprocate by picking up Mary at the airport.”[20]  He then asks, “What does natural selection know of Mary or airports?”  Or consider a mother’s belief, “I ought to ensure that my child gets plenty of fruits and vegetables.”  There is, of course, no imperative regarding the dietary needs of toddlers that may be read off of the DNA.  One might as well suppose that there is a genetically programmed human tendency directed specifically at popping bubble wrap.

But Darwin’s account certainly does imply that the basic predisposition for repaying kindness with kindness or for caring for one’s offspring is programmed, and that such programs run as they do because of the reproductive fitness that is—or was for our remote ancestors—achieved by the resulting behaviors.

Philosopher Mary Midgley speaks of instincts as “programs with a gap.”[21]  Consider, for instance, the migratory instinct of the sandhill crane.  The basic drive to follow the sun south every winter is genetically programmed.  But there is a “gap” that allows for variations in the itinerary.  Midgley notes that the more intelligent the species is the wider is the gap so that room is available for deliberation and rational reflection.  Less psychologically complex creatures may be strictly determined in their behavior by their genetic hardwiring.  As P.G. Wodehouse’s newt-loving character, Gussie Fink-Nottle explains to Bertie Wooster, “Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semicircle.”[22]  Assuming Gussie’s description is accurate, we may also safely assume that newt courting behavior, unlike that observed in aristocratic British bachelors, is genetically choreographed.   In humans, the “gap” allows for countless ideas and beliefs that clearly are the products of culture rather than biology.

Still, the basic programming itself is, on Darwin’s scheme, determined by our genetic makeup, and, therefore, so is the range of rational options in that “gap” of deliberation.  Given the perennial problem of tribal warfare, early tribesmen reasoned that thrown spears are far more effective than thrown bananas.  But had humans evolved to be non-aggressive herbivores, spears might have been, well, pointless.   Had the course of human evolution been such that human infants, like baby sea turtles, were self-reliant, the human maternal instinct might never have evolved as a means to the end of reproductive fitness.    Indeed, Darwin thought that, had the circumstances for reproductive fitness been different, then the deliverances of conscience might have been radically different.

If . . . 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.[23]

As it happens, we weren’t “reared” after the manner of hive-bees, and so we have widespread and strong beliefs about the sanctity of human life and its implications for how we should treat our siblings and our offspring.

But this strongly suggests that we would have had whatever beliefs were ultimately fitness-producing given the circumstances of survival.  Given the background belief of naturalism there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the very parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs.  One might be able to make a case for thinking that having true beliefs about, say, the predatory behaviors of tigers would, when combined with the an understandable desire not to be eaten, be fitness-producing.  But the account would be far from straightforward in the case of moral beliefs.[24]   And so the Darwinian explanation undercuts whatever reason the naturalist might have had for thinking that any of our moral beliefs are true.  The result is moral skepticism.

If our pre-theoretical moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories that we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process.  How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true?  What methodology is available to us?

By way of answer, consider the following “chicken-and-egg” question.  Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping?  In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle?  Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief?  Pretty clearly, it is the latter.  We just find ourselves with certain beliefs of a moral nature, and actually appeal to them as touchstones when we engage in conscious moral reflection.  Indeed, if we were to conclude that some philosopher’s proposed moral principle would, if true, imply the moral correctness of recreational baby-stomping, then we might say, “So much the worse for that proposed principle.”  As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”[25] This methodology, which begins with deep-seated, pre-reflective moral beliefs and then moves to moral principles that are implicated by them, is sometimes called reflective equilibrium.[26]

Presumably, reflective equilibrium, employed by bee-like philosophers in those worlds envisioned by Darwin, would settle upon moral principles that implied the rightness of such things as siblicide and infanticide.  Thus, the deliverances of the moral theories endorsed in such worlds are but the byproducts of the evolved psychologies in such worlds.  But, again, this suggests that our pre-theoretical convictions are largely due to whatever selection pressures happened to be in place in our world.   If this is so, then the deliverances of those moral theories that we endorse, to which we might appeal in order to introduce normative considerations, are, in the final analysis, byproducts of our evolved psychology.  The account, as it stands, thus never takes us beyond merely descriptive human psychology.

A Theistic Alternative

The worry, then, is that our efforts at moral reflection are compromised by features of our constitution that are in place for purposes other than the acquisition of truth.  As philosopher Sharon Street puts it,

If the fund of evaluative judgments with which human reflection began was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence . . . then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter are always just a subset of the former.[27]

In order to inspire confidence in those initial evaluative judgments of which Street speaks, the moral realist owes us some account of their origin that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth.  What we need is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated.  And so our question is, What reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed?  What we seek is what Norman Daniels calls “a little story that gets told about why we should pay homage ultimately to those [considered] judgments and indirectly to the principles that systematize them.”[28]

It is just here that the theist may oblige us in a way that the naturalist may not.  Robert Adams, for example, has suggested that things bear the moral properties that they do—good or bad—insofar as they resemble or fail to resemble God.  He goes on to offer the makings of a theistic “genealogy of morals.”

If we suppose that God directly or indirectly causes human beings to regard as excellent approximately those things that are Godlike in the relevant way, it follows that there is a causal and explanatory connection between facts of excellence and beliefs that we may regard as justified about excellence, and hence it is in general no accident that such beliefs are correct when they are.[29]

The theist is thus in a position to offer Daniels’ “little story” that would explain the general reliability of those evaluative judgments from which reflective equilibrium takes its cue.  Certain of our moral beliefs—in particular, those that are presupposed in all moral reflection—are truth-aimed because human moral faculties are designed to guide human conduct in light of moral truth.[30]  The moral law is “written upon the heart,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome.


A century ago, the philosopher Hastings Rashdall observed,

So long as he is content to assume the reality and authority of the moral consciousness, the Moral Philosopher can ignore Metaphysic; but if the reality of Morals or the validity of ethical truth be once brought into question, the attack can only be met by a thorough-going enquiry into the nature of Knowledge and of Reality.[31]

We have seen that both the evolutionary naturalist and the theist may be found saying that certain of our moral beliefs are by-products of the human constitution: we think as we do largely as a result of our programming.  Whether such beliefs are warranted would seem to depend upon who or what is responsible for the program.  And this calls for some account of the metaphysical underpinnings of those beliefs and the mechanisms responsible for them.  Are those mechanisms truth-aimed?  And are they in good working order?  The sort of account available to the evolutionary naturalist ends in moral skepticism.  The theist has a more promising story to tell.[32]


[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2004), 88.

[2] Darwin, Descent, 112.

[3] And, of course, though any two species of social animals have in common the fact that they are prompted by social instincts, the resulting behavior may vary widely.  It is not clear, for instance, which of the grazing Guernseys is the “alpha cow.” Wiener dogs seem not to come equipped with the obsessive herding instincts of border collies, and would likely endure derisive laughter from the sheep if they did.

[4] Darwin, Descent, 81.

[5] Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J.E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310-11.

[6] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton & Co., 1986), 6.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life,” Biology and Philosophy 18/5 (2003): 653-88.

[9] Darwin, Descent, 91.

[10] I cannot resist including a personal anecdote here.  I once rescued a young man from drowning in the Mississippi River.  After I swam out and pulled him to shore, his mother, who had watched helplessly from the beach,  explained that she would have saved him herself but she could not go into the water because her toe was infected.  She produced the sore toe.  I had to agree that it did look very sore.

[11] The Chinese philosopher Mencius seems to have maintained that the possession of at least the rudimentary “seeds” of the virtues (e.g., the feeling of commiseration is the seed of the virtue of jen —“human-heartedness”) are essential to humanity so that anyone lacking them would not be human.

[12] Consider Gary Larson’s cartoon depicting a group of cave men.  To the left is a small group huddled around a fire, roasting drumsticks by clenching them in their fists directly over the flames.  They are all very obviously in agony.  To the right is another fire with only one cook.  He has the meat roasting on a stick, and is seated at a comfortable distance.  A member of the group to the left has noticed this, and is saying, “Look what Og do!”

[13] Darwin, Descent, 94.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 95.

[16] So if the impulse either to save the child or one’s own hide is a first-order inclination, second-order inclinations would include feelings of, say, guilt or pride regarding the first-order propensities and resulting actions.

[17] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 486.

[20] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 180.

[21] See Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London: Routledge Press, 1979).

[22] Taken from P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (New York: Penguin, 2000), ch. 2.

[23] Darwin, Descent, 82.

[24] Here’s why.  This would imply, for instance, that human mothers are possessed of a powerful maternal instinct for the prior reason that it is true that they have a moral duty to care for their children.  But, given naturalism, the simpler explanation for the maternal instinct is just that it confers reproductive fitness.  Why think that moral facts have any role to play—particularly when we observe similar instinctual behavior in animals that are not plausibly thought of as moral agents?  Further, to what mechanism could the naturalist plausibly appeal to explain how reproductive fitness “tracks” moral truth?  For more on this, see Sharon Street’s excellent paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109-166.


[25] Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands,” in Christine Pierce and Donald VanDeVeer eds., People, Penguins and Plastic Trees (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1986), 157.

[26] Reflective equilibrium involves more than this one-way move from particular beliefs to general principles.  In actual practice, it begins with those pre-reflective beliefs, moves from there to systemizing principles, and then back to other particular beliefs that are entailed by the principles.  There is always a standing possibility that an entailed beliefs is incompatible with one or another of the beliefs with which one began.  In that case, adjustment and revision is called for.  The goal is to arrive at a set or system of principled beliefs that is internally consistent and plausible.

[27] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value. Philosophical Studies, 127 (2006), 125.

[28] Norman Daniels, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,” Journal of Philosophy 76/5 (1979): 265.

[29] Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.

[30] For the purposes of this argument, the appeal to “design” leaves open the question of whether the process responsible for the appearance of moral agents was evolutionary in nature.  Daniels’ “little story” requirement is satisfied whether the tale involves special creation or directed evolution.

[31] Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907), 192.

[32] As always, I wish to thank David Werther for his many helpful comments on and criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.


Photo: “Emptiness in Decay” by H. Adam. CC License. 

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