Natural Born Morals (Section I)

In Di Vincenzo, Moral Philosophy, Severini on March 26, 2013 at 1:04 PM

Evolutionary explanations of morality generally focus on the ability of judging in moral terms. Adaptationist accounts of morality, in particular, attempt to explain the evolution of morality in terms of the selective advantage that judging in moral terms secured for our ancestors (e.g. Ruse 1986; Joyce 2006; Street 2006). For instance, Ruse claims that “because it is biologically advantageous for us to help and co-operate, morality […] has evolved to guide and stiffen our will” (1986, p. 222). Along similar lines, Joyce claims that “the actions that morality prescribes with categorical force are those that constitute or promote, roughly speaking, cooperation” (2000, p. 714). Finally, Street claims that “certain kinds of evaluative judgments […] contributed to our ancestors’ reproductive success […] because they forged adaptive links between our ancestors’ circumstances and their responses to those circumstances, getting them to act, feel, and believe in ways that turned out to be reproductively advantageous” (2006, p. 127). The most interesting aspect is that these evolutionary explanations interpret morality as a single and distinct trait (judging in moral terms). This view implicitly assumes that there is an inborn device dedicated to moral judgments. In other terms, there is a mental module, supporting our ability of making moral judgments, which has been favoured by selection because of its efficacy in fitness-enhancing behavior. An alternative to this adaptationist account of morality, is the explanation of morality as exaptation (Prinz 2009; Fraser 2010). This point of view stresses the fact that there is no such mechanism dedicated to morality. Then morality could be an exaptation, that is the cooptation of capacities that have evolved for other purposes (Gould & Vrba, 1982). In other terms, traits that have one or no function, are employed for a new and useful one. The point is that an explanation of morality as both adaptation and exaptation is unsatisfactory. As a matter of fact, this kind of appeal to exaptation does not represent a solution, but only a shift of the problem. In this view, in fact, morality as exaptation could be conceived as a “secondary adaptation”. The question is deeper: what does a moral trait effectively consist in? The problem is that a complex ability such as the moral one, cannot be resumed under a single domain-specific trait (making moral judgments). In our view, it seem to be more consistent, both empirically and theoretically, that many abilities – evolved for different purpose(s) – could be subsumed under a socio-cultural “label” of morality that, in this sense, is conceived as part of the more general-domain of evaluative judgment. Then, the moral “domain” could be an heterogeneous domain in which cognitive, emotional, social, physiological items combine into a biological and cultural field. In this way morality encompasses at the same time some “action strategies”, such as decision making (mainly driven by utility), and general capacities of knowledge of the facts related to the external world in the form of beliefs and values (the basics for normativity).

Fabio Di Vincenzo

Eleonora Severini


Fraser, B. (2010), «Adaptation, exaptation, by-products and spandrels in evolutionary explanations of morality», Biological Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 223-227.

Gould, S. J. & E. S. Vrba (1982), Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, Vol. 8, pp. 4-15.

Joyce, R. (2006), The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Prinz, J. (2009), «Against moral nativism», in: Stich and His Critics (Bishop M, Murphy D, eds), pp. 167-189.

Ruse, M. and Wilson, E.O. (1986), «Moral Philosophy as Applied Science», Philosophy, Vol. 61, pp. 173-92.

Street S. (2006), «A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value», Philosophical Studies, Vol. 127, pp. 109-166.

  1. Guys I was reading this short review, and I had really a nice feeling, so many times recently I had to discuss with people and scientists (even influential) that don’t get it this simple concept. The reasons for this misconceptions are several, and I thought to write something (even from the theoretical-modeling point of view) many times. But this evening I am simply delighted by your comment ;).

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