Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction

By Janet Radcliffe Richards | Go to book overview
Save to active project


The end of ethics

Even if materialist Darwinism leaves us capable of the altruism that is a necessary condition of moral behaviour, it may seem to remove the point of moral effort altogether, by removing the whole basis of ethics. This is said by both opponents and supporters of radical Darwinian views. The main lines of argument - in particular the claim that God is essential for both providing and revealing moral standards - are discussed here, and once again the analysis seems to show that there is no difference between the implications of the different degrees of Darwinism.

The chapter also makes a long detour, in the middle, into a discussion of relativism. This discussion has no direct connection with Darwinism, but relativism lurks in the background of many of the claims about Darwinism and ethics, and is worth assessing in its own right. The discussion raises further problems of incoherence and shifts of level, and also introduces the idea of pragmatic self-refutation.

The chapter ends with a sketch of how ethical enquiry can proceed against a background of evolutionary psychology, and connects it with the discussion in Chapter 6 of punishment and responsibility.

The overall conclusion, if these arguments are right, is that even the most thoroughgoing form of materialist Darwinism allows us a capacity for genuine altruism. The genetic account of altruism does, admittedly, leave it quite limited in extent; but the question has been only about whether the radical forms of Darwinism preclude altruism altogether, and they do not. And anyway, an account iof human nature that shows altruism to be limited in extent is hardly revolutionary; no account of human nature has ever claimed otherwise. Religion has never doubted that we are sinful; and advocates of the standard social science view, which attributes more to society than to genes, usually agree that our society makes us pretty selfish. The holders of both these views typically regard us as capable of moral improvement, but there seems no reason why that hope, too, should not apply to the gene-machine view. Once again, then, an issue that might be thought to turn on the question of which version of Darwinism was true seems not to do so after all. All versions allow for altruism; none sees it as all-pervasive.

However, even though the most radical form of Darwinism may, like the others, leave open the possibility of our making moral improvement, it may seem open to a different objection, which would apply to the blank-paper view as well. Can these fully materialist versions of Darwinism allow for there being such a thing as genuine moral improvement? Even if we are capable of change, is there any change worth aiming for? Traditional ways of thinking allow us to recognize our moral shortcomings and try to improve, because there are moral standards against which we can compare ourselves and our progress. But if our moral systems and moral intuitions are the result of mindless physical laws and


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 316

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?