Morality explained? Exploring the implications of evolutionary explanations for meta-ethics


June 5, 2-5 PM
Location: STOA, 2nd floor, VU Main Building

Morality explained?
Exploring the implications of evolutionary explanations for meta-ethics

Biological research into human morality boomed in recent years to the extent that renowned primatologist Frans de Waal is able to write with unconcealed enthusiasm that ‘science can liberate morality from the hands of philosophers’.

This symposium concerns two questions: (1) What does it mean to provide an evolutionary explanation of morality? (2) what consequences do available evolutionary explanations of human morality have for long-standing philosophical debates over e.g. the objectivity of morality, moral relativism and the possibility of acquiring moral knowledge?

(1) Human morality is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon: we have moral behavior, judgments, emotions, concepts, etc. characterized by significant time- and culture dependent differences. An evolutionary explanation hereof can be aimed at human abilities for moral behavior, moral judgments, etc. But also at the content of these judgments, concepts and emotions. Furthermore, a variety of evolutionary explanations is possible: one in terms of the factual development of a trait, another in terms of the causes of the development and still another in terms of the (current) adaptive value of a trait. A first goal is gaining clarity about which categories evolutionary explanations fit in.

(2) Biologists and philosophers draw very different conclusions from the available evolutionary explanations of morality. Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson once claimed that explanations of this sort show that morality is an illusion. Others maintain that, in any case, evolutionary explanations undermine moral realism – the claim that objective moral facts exist- and render moral relativism plausible. A similar claim is that evolutionary explanations lead to moral skepticism. Other meta-ethicists protested and argued that the available evolutionary explanations add little or nothing to the long-standing philosophical debates over morality. The second goal of this symposium is in shedding more light on these matters: how do the arguments go and are they convincing?

Keynote Speaker: Jeffrey Schloss.

Other speakers:

  • Beate Roessler is professor of ethics and its history at the University of Amsterdam. Roessler teaches courses in ethics and social philosophy.
  • Martin van Hees is currently professor of Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam. He has been appointed as a professor of Ethics at VU University Amsterdam (start August 2014).
  • Bert Musschenga is emeritus professor of philosophical ethics at VU University Amsterdam