Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 51–64 | Cite as

Do the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs undermine moral knowledge?

  • Kevin Brosnan
Original Research


According to some recent arguments, (Joyce in The evolution of morality, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2006; Ruse and Wilson in Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995; Street in Philos Studies 127: 109–166, 2006) if our moral beliefs are products of natural selection, then we do not have moral knowledge. In defense of this inference, its proponents argue that natural selection is a process that fails to track moral facts. In this paper, I argue that our having moral knowledge is consistent with, (a) the hypothesis that our moral beliefs are products of natural selection, and (b) the claim (or a certain interpretation of the claim) that natural selection fails to track moral facts. I also argue that natural selection is a process that could track moral facts, albeit imperfectly. I do not argue that we do have moral knowledge. I argue instead that Darwinian considerations provide us with no reason to doubt that we do, and with some reasons to suppose that we might.


Evolutionary ethics Moral realism Moral epistemology 



I would like to thank Elliott Sober for his invaluable help with this paper, provided promptly at each of its many stages. For reading earlier drafts and for their helpful feedback, I’d like to thank Kim Sterelny, an anonymous referee from this journal, and: Alexander Bird, Alex Broadbent, David Copp, Daniel Guevara, Russ Shafer-Landau, Hallvard Lillehammer, William A. Rottschaefer, Mark van Roojen, and Ralph Wedgwood. I would also like to thank Sorin Bangu, Simon Blackburn, Steve John, Jonathan Ellis, and Richard Otte.


  1. Blackburn S (2010) Sharon street on the independent normative truth as such. Available at
  2. Boyd R (1988) How to be a moral realist. In: Sayre-McCord G (ed) Essays on moral realism. Cornell University Press, New York, pp 181–228Google Scholar
  3. Brink D (1989) Moral realism and the foundations of ethics. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carruthers P, James S (2008) Evolution and the possibility of moral realism. Philos Phenomenol Res LXXVII:237–244Google Scholar
  5. Copp D (2008) Darwinian skepticism about moral realism. Philos Issues 18:186–206CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Darwin C (1871) The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1981Google Scholar
  7. Enoch D (2010) The epistemological challenge to metanormative realism: how best to understand it, and how to cope with it. Philos Studies 148:413–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Harman G (1977) The nature of morality. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Joyce R (2006) The evolution of morality. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  10. Lillehammer H (2010) Methods of ethics and the descent of man: Darwin and Sidgwick on ethics and evolution. Biol PhilosGoogle Scholar
  11. Railton P (1986) Moral realism. Philos Rev 95:163–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Reichenbach H (1956) The direction of time. University of California Press, CaliforniaGoogle Scholar
  13. Ruse M, Wilson EO (1995) Moral philosophy as applied science. In: Sober E (ed) Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology, 2nd edn. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 421–438Google Scholar
  14. Shafer-Landau R (2003) Moral realism: a defense. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Skarsaune K (2010) Darwin and moral realism: survival of the iffiest. Philos StudiesGoogle Scholar
  16. Sober E (1984) The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. MIT press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Sober E (1994) From a biological point of view. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Sterelny K (2010) Moral nativism: a sceptical response. Mind Lang 25(3):279–297Google Scholar
  19. Street S (2006) A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philos Studies 127:109–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Sturgeon N (1985) Moral explanations. In: Zimmerman D, Copp D (eds) Morality, reason and truth. Rowman and Allanheld, TotowaGoogle Scholar
  21. Wielenberg E (2010) On the evolutionary debunking of morality. EthicsGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations