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The biological roots of morality


The question whether ethical behavior is biologically determined may refer either to thecapacity for ethics (e.i., the proclivity to judge human actions as either right or wrong), or to the moralnorms accepted by human beings for guiding their actions. My theses are: (1) that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature; and (2) that moral norms are products of cultural evolution, not of biological evolution.

Humans exhibits ethical behavior by nature because their biological makeup determines the presence of the three necessary, and jointly sufficient, conditions for ethical behavior: (i) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's own actions; (ii) the ability to make value judgements; and (iii) the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Ethical behavior came about in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself, but as a necessary consequece of man's eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection.

Since Darwin's time there have been evolutionists proposing that the norms of morality are derived from biological evolution. Sociobiologists represent the most recent and most subtle version of that proposal. The sociobiologists' argument is that human ethical norms are sociocultural correlates of behaviors fostered by biological evolution. I argue that such proposals are misguided and do not escape the naturalistic fallacy. The isomorphism between the behaviors promoted by natural selection and those sanctioned by moral norms exist only with respect to the consequences of the behaviors; the underlying causations are completely disparate.

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This article is based on a paper presented at the International Symposium onBiological Models of Human Action, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, 16–18 December 1985.

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Ayala, F.J. The biological roots of morality. Biol Philos 2, 235–252 (1987).

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Key words

  • Sociobiology
  • evolutionary ethics
  • ethical behavior
  • norms of morality
  • animal ethics