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Evolution and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

The fact that human beings are a product of biological evolution has been thought to impinge on the study of ethics in two quite different ways. First, evolutionary ideas may help account for why people have the ethical thoughts and feelings they do. Second, evolutionary ideas may help illuminate which normative ethical claims, if any, are true or right or correct. These twin tasks – explanation and justification – may each be subdivided. Evolutionary considerations may be relevant to explaining elements of morality that are culturally universal; they also may help explain why individuals or societies differ in the ethics they espouse. With respect to the question of justification, evolutionary considerations have sometimes been cited to show that ethics is an elaborate illusion – that is, to defend versions of ethical subjectivism and emotivism. However, evolutionary considerations also have been invoked to justify ethical norms. Although there is no conflict between using evolution both to explain traits that are universal and to explain traits that vary, it is not consistent to claim both that evolution unmasks ethics and justifies particular ethical norms.

Citing this article:
Sober, Elliott. Evolution and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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