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Hist Philos Life Sci. 2003;25(1):51-79.

Evolutionary ethics from Darwin to Moore.

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  • 1Department of Philosophy, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA.


Evolutionary ethics has a long history, dating all the way back to Charles Darwin. Almost immediately after the publication of the Origin, an immense interest arose in the moral implications of Darwinism and whether the truth of Darwinism would undermine traditional ethics. Though the biological thesis was certainly exciting, nobody suspected that the impact of the Origin would be confined to the scientific arena. As one historian wrote, 'whether or not ancient populations of armadillos were transformed into the species that currently inhabit the new world was certainly a topic about which zoologists could disagree. But it was in discussing the broader implications of the theory...that tempers flared and statements were made which could transform what otherwise would have been a quiet scholarly meeting into a social scandal' (Farber 1994, 22). Some resistance to the biological thesis of Darwinism sprung from the thought that it was incompatible with traditional morality and, since one of them had to go, many thought that Darwinism should be rejected. However, some people did realize that a secular ethics was possible so, even if Darwinism did undermine traditional religious beliefs, it need not have any effects on moral thought. Before I begin my discussion of evolutionary ethics from Darwin to Moore, I would like to make some more general remarks about its development. There are three key events during this history of evolutionary ethics. First, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (Darwin 1859). Since one did not have a fully developed theory of evolution until 1859, there exists little work on evolutionary ethics until then. Shortly thereafter, Herbert Spencer (1898) penned the first systematic theory of evolutionary ethics, which was promptly attacked by T.H. Huxley (Huxley 1894). Second, at about the turn of the century, moral philosophers entered the fray and attempted to demonstrate logical errors in Spencer's work; such errors were alluded to but never fully brought to the fore by Huxley. These philosophers were the well known moralists from Cambridge: Henry Sidgwick (Sidgwick 1902, 1907) and G.E. Moore (Moore 1903), though their ideas hearkened back to David Hume (Hume 1960). These criticisms were so strong that the industry of evolutionary ethics was largely abandoned (though with some exceptions) for many years. Third, E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist, published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975 (Wilson E.O. 1975), which sparked renewed interest in evolutionary ethics and offered new directions of investigation. These events suggest the following stages for the history of evolutionary ethics: development, criticism and abandonment, revival. In this paper, I shall focus on the first two stages, since those are the ones on which the philosophical merits have already been largely decided. The revival stage is still in progress and we shall eventually find out whether it was a success.

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