Monday, March 15, 2010


Moral Theories

A thought:
Our species is here because a number of singly improbable events converged to bring our species onto the stage, and there are only the particular purposes that we establish for ourselves. The universe is not in the hands of a powerful and intelligent agent whose benevolence will ensure that everything will turn out for the best.

Many philosophers find these views inspiring, rather than bleak, liberating, rather than dispiriting. The appreciation of our kinship with nonhuman animals and the sense of the unity and coherence of the natural world that Darwinism implies arouse sentiments as respectful as those experienced by religious believers while leaving no doubt that the remediation of social injustice and the restoration and repair of the environment are up to us. Steven Pinker has argued recently that attention to the new human sciences and especially to "evolutionary psychology," the study of the evolutionary history of attitudes, emotions, and mental capabilities, promises "a naturalness in human relationships, encouraging us to treat people in terms of how they do feel rather than how some theory says they ought to feel".

It would be a mistake in any case to think that Darwinism leads to nihilism—the view that all is permitted but nothing is actually worth doing—or to suppose that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution precipitated a sudden crisis in moral theory. For Darwin's Origin of Species of 1859 was not the first book to hint at a natural as opposed to a supernatural origin for human beings. Throughout the late eighteenth century, the evident similarity between apes and humans had attracted attention. German, French, and Scottish philosophy, medicine, and natural history contained a distinctly materialistic and evolutionary strand, and Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had posited a single common ancestor for all living creatures. Charles Darwin's originality lay in his giving precision to the theory of evolution and extinction by reference to the principle of miniscule variation from generation to generation, with variations that gave the slightest edge in reproduction retained. The quality and quantity of evidence and the younger Darwin's ability to address objections to the theory of evolution by variation and selection were staggering. Meanwhile, for millennia, moral philosophers had offered accounts of virtue and moral motivation that did not mention a God who lays down ethical commandments or appeal to divine reward and punishment as inducements and sanctions.

- Catherine Wilson, "Darwinian Morality," Evolution: Education and Outreach

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