Biology and Ethics

Philip Kitcher

Edited by David Copp

in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory

Published in print December 2005 | ISBN: 9780195147797
Published online February 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780199785841 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Biology and Ethics

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This chapter outlines three programs that aim to use biological insights in support of philosophical positions in ethics: Aristotelian approaches found, for example, in Thomas Hurka and Philippa Foot; Humean approaches found in Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard; and biologically grounded approaches found in of Elliott Sober and Brian Skyrms. The first two approaches begin with a philosophical view, and seek support for it in biology. The third approach begins with biology, and uses it to illuminate the status of morality. This chapter pursues a version of the third program. A major accomplishment of evolutionary biology has been the explanation of biological altruism, which opens the door to a similar explanation of psychological altruism, or “fellow-feeling.” The chapter conjectures that humans have evolved a capacity for normative governance by socially shared rules. A process of cultural evolution led to the social rules with which we are familiar. This genealogical story poses a challenge, for the idea of moral truth plays no role in it. The story therefore lends support to non-cognitivism or anti-realist expressivism. The chapter concludes by exploring the implications of the genealogical story for moral knowledge, moral objectivity, and the idea of moral authority.

Keywords: biological altruism; Simon Blackburn; cultural evolution; Philippa Foot; game theory; Allan Gibbard; Thomas Hurka; non-cognitivism; normative governance; psychological altruism

Chapter.  11220 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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