Morality as an Evolutionary Exaptation

In Johan De Smedt & Helen De Cruz (eds.), Empirically Engaged Evolutionary Ethics. Springer - Synthese Library. pp. 89-109 (2021)
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The dominant theory of the evolution of moral cognition across a variety of fields is that moral cognition is a biological adaptation to foster social cooperation. This chapter argues, to the contrary, that moral cognition is likely an evolutionary exaptation: a form of cognition where neurobiological capacities selected for in our evolutionary history for a variety of different reasons—many unrelated to social cooperation—were put to a new, prosocial use after the fact through individual rationality, learning, and the development and transmission of social norms. This chapter begins with a brief overview of the emerging behavioral neuroscience of moral cognition. It then outlines a novel theory of moral cognition that I have previously argued explains these findings better than alternatives. Finally, it shows how the evidence for this theory of moral cognition and human evolutionary history together suggest that moral cognition is likely not a biological adaptation. Instead, like reading sheet music or riding a bicycle, moral cognition is something that individuals learn to do—in this case, in response to sociocultural norms created in our ancestral history and passed down through the ages to enable cooperative living.



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Marcus Arvan
University of Tampa

Citations of this work

Moral knowledge and the existence of God.Noah D. McKay - forthcoming - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion.

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The Varieties of Reference.Gareth Evans - 1982 - Oxford: Oxford University Press. Edited by John Henry McDowell.
Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
On What Matters: Two-Volume Set.Derek Parfit - 2011 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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