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Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Abstract Abstract. Citing Literature. Volume 23 , Issue 4 December Pages Related Information. Close Figure Viewer. Browse All Figures Return to Figure. There is nothing fanciful in this idea that we have taken faculties that evolved for one reason and developed and trained them in cultural contexts to yield new dispositions that can be reliable for very different purposes.

We have plainly done this in other domains of inquiry—such as quantum physics, algebraic topology, or for that matter philosophy itself—whose target facts were equally irrelevant to the Pleistocene evolutionary shaping of the basic cognitive capacities we draw upon in discovering those facts today. In order to raise a special problem for ethical realism the debunker would therefore have to close off that possibility by undermining the suggestion that, just as in other domains of inquiry, we have similarly developed and trained the various capacities bequeathed by natural selection in such a way as to conduct largely successful inquiry into ethical facts, giving ourselves fairly reliable ethical belief-forming dispositions.

Perhaps the debunker's claim here will be that while in other domains we're simply extending forms of reasoning we did evolve to do accurately, in ethical reflection and judgement we are engaged in something entirely different, with no plausible basis for an extension to something reliable for other purposes. Even if there are some such modules, our ethical capacities consist also in our more general reasoning abilities, including the broad capacity to employ evaluative and normative concepts in relation to relevant standards in a variety of contexts, and to reason critically about such claims.

And this is something we were plausibly shaped to be able to do well. Our ancestors presumably needed to engage in accurate evaluative thinking about such things as good and bad dwelling places, or hunting partners, or fighters, or food, and related normative thinking, as in the judgement that one ought not to eat the little brown mushrooms, given the aim of not dying.

There would therefore have been selective pressure in favour of accurate evaluative and normative thinking in everyday practical spheres. This capability could then be combined with a capacity for moral judgement, allowing human intelligence to be applied in developed cultural contexts to extend cruder frameworks so that we now think evaluatively in relation to standards pertaining to what it is generally to live well and to be a good human being [ 6 ]. If we have been able to take mental capacities that evolved because they promoted reproductive success in hunter-gatherers and now develop and deploy them to do ten-dimensional mathematics, then it's hardly a greater stretch to suppose that we've similarly been able to develop and extend our evolved capacities so as to be able to figure out, with input from ongoing personal and social experience and improvements in background knowledge, that racist voting restrictions are unfair and wrong, for example, or that girls shouldn't be attacked for pursuing an education assuming, with the realist, that there are such facts.

Now let me again emphasize that it is not my purpose here to try to show that such a realist picture is in fact correct and that we have indeed been able to arrive at such moral knowledge, though I believe we have. There are many familiar sceptical worries one could raise about the reliability of reasoning when applied to the ethical sphere, which would need to be addressed in a full philosophical defence of realist moral knowledge. Instead, the point so far is just that this sort of picture is in any case compatible with what the sciences themselves tell us: it is not somehow precluded by the scientific data.


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Let us grant that evolutionary forces have plausibly had some influence on some of our ethical beliefs, and that to the extent they have done so we cannot on that basis expect those beliefs to be accurate, since natural selection wasn't in the business of shaping our ethical belief-forming dispositions to be truth-tracking. Similarly, let us grant that there have been many other causal factors of the sort cited by sociologists or economists, say, which have to some extent steered ethical beliefs while being equally blind to the realist's ethical facts. For all that, it remains an open philosophical possibility that there are such realist ethical facts and that we have come to know at least some of them through developing and training our moral faculties in such a way that, with input from ongoing experience and growing empirical knowledge, we are able to exercise those faculties in ways that enable us, in moral reflection and deliberation, to recognize good reasons for holding certain moral beliefs or for acting in certain ways, as described in the previous section.

Moreover, this possibility is not merely an idle one. Consider a simple example. After hearing of the Taliban's attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai on her school bus for advocating educational rights for girls, we might find ourselves with the strong belief that such behaviour is morally heinous, and more generally that it is seriously wrong for anyone, from any culture, to deprive girls of educational and career opportunities simply because they are girls.

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Now some will no doubt claim following the sceptic described earlier that a fully adequate and exhaustive explanation of our belief can be provided simply in terms of sociological, psychological, or historical causes operating in ways that are insensitive to any real ethical properties such as wrongness or ethical facts. But no one who, as a result of reflection on core ethical beliefs as a committed moral agent, has realist leanings and is serious about this ethical belief concerning the badness of such violent, sexist practices should rush to accept such a claim.

Instead, we will take the ethical belief in question to result from our recognition of good reasons for taking it to be true, which will thus be crucial to the proper explanation of it—even if this is less parsimonious than scientific explanations [ 7 ]. If asked why we believe that these Talibanic practices are morally wrong we will cite reasons that we take to support the truth of the belief, not merely psychological or sociological causes for it that operate independently of such reasons. Such practices, we will emphasize, are unjust, cruel, demeaning and sexist, violating human rights and dignity by depriving girls of central human capabilities and goods, based on arbitrary considerations.

We cite these considerations, against our background view of the standards of moral excellence for human beings and action, as wrong-making features of these practices, which thus constitute good reasons for believing them to be wrong. And from a realist perspective, what is happening here is that we are competently recognizing the wrong-makingness of these factors, and this is then precisely what leads to our ethical judgement: we believe the practices in question to be wrong because they are wrong and, being morally competent, we've recognized this evaluative fact by grasping the reasons why the practices are in fact wrong, as such.

As with the mathematical example, all of this is then crucial to the proper explanation of our belief. Now let us return to debunking arguments. They are meant to be arguments against moral realism, and so do not simply presuppose that there are no objective moral truths, which would be obviously question-begging. If, as we start out supposing, there are objective moral truths, then there is a plausible alternative model for how we have arrived at many of our moral beliefs that would not make it a mere happy accident that they line up with these truths. That is, we may have arrived at moral beliefs such as the one described above through intelligent and informed exercises of our culturally developed moral faculties such that we have come to believe what we do through recognizing good reasons for believing the contents in question to be true.

The sciences themselves do not show that this is not happening, and insofar as it remains an open and plausible possibility, those of us attracted to realism can reasonably find it more plausible than the debunker's claim about the epistemically undermining aetiology of our moral beliefs. The debunking argument thus fails to get a grip on realists in the sense of providing non-question-begging leverage to dislodge their position that there are knowable objective moral truths though of course this doesn't give realists the upper hand either—it is a merely defensive point against such debunking arguments.

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This is not to deny that some debunking explanations are true of some of our beliefs. Even if there are truths in the realm of ethics, sometimes we are deceived in thinking that we believe or do things for the reasons we cite in their defence [ 13 ]. And even where we are not so deceived, sometimes our judgements about good reasons will be false, in which case they obviously do not result from recognition of the relevant truths about these things, and will instead be explained at least partly in terms of extraneous causal factors—such as biases, cultural distortions, wishful thinking, and so on.


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Even moral realists will have recourse to such forms of explanation in accounting for why someone holds certain moral beliefs that happen to be false, such as the belief that interracial marriage is wrong. The real issue is whether there is an argument, specifically from what we know of evolution , to compel all of us—even those of us who start off, for philosophical reasons, as moral realists—to accept that debunking explanations are the best explanations of our moral beliefs across the board, and that our moral beliefs are therefore unjustified and so could never constitute knowledge of objective moral truths.

This is what I am denying. To be sure, if the kinds of explanations debunkers offer were in fact the exclusive and exhaustive explanation of our ethical beliefs quite generally, then we would indeed have a problem. But merely being able to tell a debunking story does not amount to showing that it is in fact the correct and exhaustive explanation of our ethical beliefs. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. And until the alternative philosophical model I've sketched is somehow eliminated as a contender, we don't have an evolutionary debunking of ethics or of moral realism—at least not of a sort that might be expected to move anyone who starts out sympathetic to realism rather than preaching to the choir of non-realists.

What the arguments do plausibly show is that to whatever extent our current beliefs, feelings and actions have been shaped by evolutionary influences and not by any independent exercise of developed ethical competence of the sort I have described, we cannot expect them to be reliable. But that does not debunk ethics. Some will, of course, accept the debunking explanation, but this will have to be partly for philosophical reasons, requiring substantive and developed philosophical arguments in metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy, aimed at ruling out the alternative I have described; it won't come from the sciences themselves at least insofar as the sciences are conceived, as they typically are, as empirical disciplines that do not themselves engage in philosophical inquiry into matters such as the possibility and nature of moral truth.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer [ 10 ] have taken a mixed approach to evolutionary debunking arguments. On the one hand, they reject the claim that such arguments can be used to debunk their own belief in impartial utilitarianism , i.

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Sidgwick's Universal Benevolence. This mixed strategy, however, is unstable in both directions: if the weapons Singer and de Lazari-Radek deploy against their opponents worked, they could equally be employed without much difficulty to undermine their own beliefs; and if the considerations they raise in defence of their own view succeed in protecting it against evolutionary debunking, then the same considerations can equally be used to shield the sort of commonsense morality they attack, for example.

I have argued that the mere fact that someone can tell a debunking evolutionary story that would, if true , cause problems for some or all ethical beliefs does not by itself debunk those beliefs: our justification for those beliefs would be defeated only if we actually had compelling reason to think that the debunking explanation is in fact the true and exhaustive explanation of those beliefs, showing them to be the result of nothing but extraneous causal factors operating insensitively to the truth of the content of the beliefs—as with the Napoleon belief pill.

By contrast, Singer and de Lazari-Radek, in their enthusiasm to make use of evolutionary debunking against their opponents, suggest that the mere existence of a possible evolutionary explanation for certain ethical intuitions or beliefs specifically those involving some degree of partiality casts doubt on their reliability.

Nancey Murphy and Jeffrey P. Schloss

It is, of course, easy enough to imagine evolutionary explanations for why people might think they had special duties to family and friends, or could legitimately focus more altruism on their own children than on perfect strangers, even where more impartially conceived good might come from aiding strangers.

But again, this so far remains nothing but a sceptical possibility. Singer and de Lazari-Radek, however, are anxious to give it serious weight in discrediting such views, yet are not worried about problems for their own view because they are confident that no such evolutionary story can be told against their own belief in impartial utilitarianism.

This is playing with fire. It is, in fact, easy to come up with debunking evolutionary stories of just the same kind against their view. For example, perhaps instead of or in addition to kin selection operating in our distant past to give us targeted kin altruism, natural selection more simply and economically gave rise to a relatively indiscriminate sympathy and tendency toward altruism, among other psychological dispositions including competing egoistic ones. Indeed, a sceptic will claim that the very belief that suffering is bad or that human good matters is an illusion foisted upon us by evolution, explicable simply in terms of the fitness advantage to our ancestors of being disposed to believe such things, so that however much we refine such dispositions—even into Sidgwick's Universal Benevolence—we are still just refining an illusion [ 15 ].

Such a story could be told even apart from the above speculation about the evolution of initial altruistic tendencies.

So the moral beliefs favoured by Singer and de Lazari-Radek are no more immune from debunkers' just-so stories than any other moral beliefs. Now the point of all this is not that there is compelling reason for us to accept any such debunking or sceptical explanatory story. I have argued that there is not, or at least that this is a complex and difficult philosophical matter and we are in any case not pushed decisively in such a direction by anything from real science. The point, however, is that if the mere possibility of such a thing were enough to debunk egoistic beliefs or commonsense beliefs in moral systems that allow for some partiality, then the belief in impartial utilitarianism prized by Singer and de Lazari-Radek would be equally vulnerable.

It would be far better simply to eschew such overreaching debunking arguments, as I have advocated doing, rather than trying to make selective use of them; indeed, the considerations they cite from Sidgwick in defending against evolution-based scepticism [ 10 ] are similar to some of the points I have raised, and they can equally be used to defend against evolution-based attacks on commonsense ethical beliefs. This is not to deny the philosophical relevance of debunking explanations as possibilities to be aware of and to be taken seriously as challenges and potential alternatives to realist views.

But as debunking arguments , claiming in fact to defeat our justification for some or all of our ethical beliefs, they overreach. Even where there is a very plausible evolutionary influence on an ethical belief it doesn't follow that we should automatically lose confidence in that belief. Evolution has plausibly disposed us, for reasons having nothing to do with tracking moral facts, to be especially attached to our own children and to feel that we have special duties to them, or to think that suffering is bad. But it is entirely consistent with this that there are also good reasons for thinking it to be true that we have special duties to the children we have brought into the world, or that suffering is indeed a bad thing and that there are good reasons for mitigating it.

Our ethical beliefs about these things may reflect both some evolutionary influences and input from recognition of good reasons for belief and action. The presence of the former, however, needn't disturb us as long as we continue, after informed and critical reflection, to find the latter credible as well—something that, again, takes us into the realm of ethical and philosophical reasoning, and cannot be settled simply from a scientific perspective.

Recent scientific debates over such issues as the extent of the role played by kin selection in human evolutionary history, the subject of this special collection on inclusive fitness, are certainly relevant to an adequate understanding of the origins of genetically based capacities and dispositions associated with human altruism and cooperation.

It is unclear, however, what bearing those debates have on cases of human thought, feeling and action that arise from the application of culturally developed, autonomous standards of ethical inquiry and deliberation, analogous to what we do in our mathematical or scientific or philosophical thinking, which is not simply controlled in its specifics by evolved dispositions of thought. I have emphasized the possibility that in drawing on more general cognitive and emotional capacities developed in cultural contexts through ethical reflection and training, we may be employing such developed capacities to discover ethical truths about how it is right to live or what we have good reason to do, much as we employ our developed and trained capacities to discover mathematical, scientific, or philosophical truths.

Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective

While there are certainly philosophical complications in developing a complete realist view along these lines, such a possibility is not precluded by anything coming from the sciences. Suppose for the sake of argument, then, that something along those lines is actually the case, as I hope at least to have made somewhat plausible through some of the examples considered.

In that case, explanatory questions about why we currently think and act as we do cannot be settled without engaging philosophical and ethical issues that go beyond appeals to scientifically accessible causal factors of the sort at issue in scientific debates about the extent of kin selection among Pleistocene humans, for example.

And as long as the sort of philosophical possibility in question remains a live one, we needn't, I think, be overly worried about any impending evolutionary debunking of part or all of morality or of moral realism. According to naturalistic moral realism, there are real moral properties such as wrongness and facts such as the fact that slavery is wrong , but these are exhaustively constituted by natural properties and facts.

By contrast, non-naturalistic moral realism holds that moral properties and facts are in some sense non -natural, involving elements that go beyond what is usually considered to belong to the natural world. This distinction and the many complications surrounding it needn't concern us here. What matters is just that moral realism, of whatever sort, holds that there are genuinely true propositions with moral content, such as that slavery is wrong , and that we can know some such truths.

Jeffrey Schloss, Ph.D.

See also [ 11 ] for a particularly helpful overview and critical discussion of evolutionary debunking arguments. No research involving human or animal subjects was involved in the preparation of this essay. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. R Soc Open Sci. Published online Aug 9. Boyd Robert Boyd Michael J. Mark Heim David C. Peterson Joseph Poulshock Peter J. Richerson Philip A. Explaining the Prosocial Side of Moral Communities.

The Leverage of Language on Altruism and Morality.