Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 21–31

Can biology make ethics objective?

  • Richmond Campbell

DOI: 10.1007/BF00127470

Cite this article as:
Campbell, R. Biol Philos (1996) 11: 21. doi:10.1007/BF00127470


A familiar position regarding the evolution of ethics is that biology can explain the origin of morals but that in doing so it removes the possibility of their having objective justification. This position is set fourth in detail in the writings of Michael Ruse (1986, 1987, 1989, 1990a, 1990b) but it is also taken by many others, notably, Jeffrie Murphy (1982), Andrew Oldenquist (1990), and Allan Gibbard (1990), I argue the contrary view that biology provides a justification of the existence of morals which is objective in the sense of being independent of people's moral views and their particular desires and preferences. Ironically, my argument builds on the very premises which are supposed to undermine the objectivity of morals. But my argument stops short of claiming that biology can give us a basis for justifying some particular system of morals. Drawing on an analogy with social contract theory, I offer a general reason why this more ambitious project cannot be expected to succeed if the argument is pursued along the same lines. Finally, I give reasons why the possibility of objective justification for a particular morality cannot be ruled out in general on evolutionary grounds.

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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richmond Campbell
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada