, Volume 194, Issue 4, pp 1031–1055 | Cite as

Nothing in ethics makes sense except in the light of evolution? Natural goodness, normativity, and naturalism

  • Jay OdenbaughEmail author


Foot (2001), Hursthouse (1999), and Thompson (2008), along with other philosophers, have argued for a metaethical position, the natural goodness approach, that claims moral judgments are, or are on a par with, teleological claims made in the biological sciences. Specifically, an organism’s flourishing is characterized by how well they function as specified by the species to which they belong. In this essay, I first sketch the Neo-Aristotelian natural goodness approach. Second, I argue that critics who claim that this sort of approach is inconsistent with evolutionary biology due to its species essentialism are incorrect. Third, I contend that combining the natural goodness account of natural-historical judgments with our best account of natural normativity, the selected effects theory of function, leads to implausible moral judgments. This is so if selected effects function are understood in terms of evolution by natural selection, but also if they are characterized in terms of cultural evolution. Thus, I conclude that proponents of the natural goodness approach must either embrace non-naturalistic vitalism or troubling moral revisionism.


Evolutionary theory Gene-culture coevolution Ethics Metaethics Teleology Normativity Natural goodness Neo-Aristotelianism Function 



Thanks to Richard Boyd, Rebecca Copenhaver, Marc Ereshefsky, J. M. Fritzman, Thomas Hurka, Joel Martinez, Bill Rottschaefer, and Nicholas D. Smith for useful conversations about human nature, virtue ethics, and evolutionary biology. Likewise, thanks to Boyd, Copenhaver, Fritzman, Rottschaefer, and Smith for detailed comments on an earlier draft. Without these conversations and comments, this paper would not exist. Additionally, I thank John Basl and Sune Holm for their interest and support in this paper and two anonymous reviewers for their comments.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyLewis & Clark CollegePortlandUSA

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