Those with a yen for philosophical musings are no doubt aware of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a repository of freely accessible articles. I don’t read much on the subject compared to many here, but I did catch this piece, an attempt to reconcile the ever-expanding reach of evolutionary biology with moral precepts that have long been almost solely the bailiwick of philosophers.
It begins with a series of paragraphs which, though boilerplate in character, introduce a number of compelling questions:
Very little in the study of human life has been left untouched by developments in evolutionary biology, and inquiry into the nature of morality is no exception. With the recognition that we, like all other living things, belong to a species that has evolved through natural selection comes the acknowledgement that evolutionary processes have likewise shaped us deeply. How deeply?
Evolutionary explanations are commonplace when it comes to questions about our physiological nature–why we have opposable thumbs, say, or a bipedal posture. But even a brief look at other animals affords countless examples of adaptive psychological and behavioral traits as well–appetites for food or sex, fear responses, patterns of aggression, parental care and bonding, or patterns of cooperation and retribution; and these traits are likewise often best explained as biological adaptations, i.e., traits that evolved through natural selection due to their adaptive effects. This raises the question: to what extent might human psychological and behavioral traits similarly reflect our own evolutionary heritage?
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. Is this human capacity a biological adaptation, having perhaps conferred a selective advantage on our hominin ancestors by enhancing social cohesion and cooperation?
If so, then it would be part of evolved human nature to employ moral judgment in governing human behavior, rather than a mere “cultural veneer” artificially imposed on an amoral human nature. This would be a significant result, and it is only the beginning of the intriguing questions that arise at the intersection of morality and evolutionary biology.
I’m not qualified to discuss all of the angles this lengthy article addresses, but I filed it away for a future re-reading and reckon that a lot of this blog’s readers will enjoy it as well.