Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 639–651 | Cite as

Parting with illusions in evolutionary ethics

  • David C. Lahti


I offer a critical analysis of a view that has become a dominant aspect of recent thought on the relationship between evolution and morality, and propose an alternative. An ingredient in Michael Ruse's 'error theory' (Ruse 1995) is that belief in moral (prescriptive, universal, and nonsubjective) guidelines arose in humans because such belief results in the performance of adaptive cooperative behaviors. This statement relies on two particular connections: between ostensible and intentional types of altruism, and between intentional altruism and morality. The latter connection is problematic because it makes morality redundant, its role having already been fulfilled by the psychological dispositions that constitute intentional altruism. Both behavioral ecology and moral psychology support this criticism, and neither human behavioral flexibility nor the self-regard / other-regard distinction can provide a defense of the error theory. I conclude that morality did not evolve to curb rampant selfishness; instead, the evolutionarily recent 'universal law' aspect of morality may function to update behavioral strategies which were adaptive in the paleolithic environment of our ancestors (to which our psychological dispositions are best adapted), by means of norms more appropriate to our novel social environment.

Adaptation, Altruism Behavioral ecology Cultural evolution Error theory Evolutionary ethics Evolutionary psychology Morality Updating mechanism 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • David C. Lahti
    • 1
  1. 1.Museum of Zoology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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