Parting with illusions in evolutionary ethics

Biology and Philosophy 18 (5):639-651 (2003)
I offer a critical analysis of a view that has become a dominant aspect of recent thought on the relationship between evolution and morality, and propose an alternative. An ingredient in Michael Ruse's 'error theory' (Ruse 1995) is that belief in moral (prescriptive, universal, and nonsubjective) guidelines arose in humans because such belief results in the performance of adaptive cooperative behaviors. This statement relies on two particular connections: between ostensible and intentional types of altruism, and between intentional altruism and morality. The latter connection is problematic because it makes morality redundant, its role having already been fulfilled by the psychological dispositions that constitute intentional altruism. Both behavioral ecology and moral psychology support this criticism, and neither human behavioral flexibility nor the self-regard / other-regard distinction can provide a defense of the error theory. I conclude that morality did not evolve to curb rampant selfishness; instead, the evolutionarily recent 'universal law' aspect of morality may function to update behavioral strategies which were adaptive in the paleolithic environment of our ancestors (to which our psychological dispositions are best adapted), by means of norms more appropriate to our novel social environment.
Keywords Adaptation, Altruism  Behavioral ecology  Cultural evolution  Error theory  Evolutionary ethics  Evolutionary psychology  Morality  Updating mechanism
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DOI 10.1023/A:1026356412003
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Scott James (2009). The Caveman's Conscience: Evolution and Moral Realism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (2):215-233.
Neil Levy (2006). What Evolves When Morality Evolves? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37 (3):612-620.
Neil Levy (2006). What Evolves When Morality Evolves? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 37 (3):612-620.

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