In his book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin used his theory of evolution to explain the origin and development of morality. Ever since, people have debated whether Darwin’s theory supports or undercuts traditional moral beliefs. In the following essays, you can explore the debate over evolution and ethics through the writings of leading supporters and critics of Darwin’s theory.
In this chapter from his controversial book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin argues that human morality is a product of evolution by natural selection.
In this famous essay, Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Huxley contends that evolution cannot supply a proper basis for human morality.
Philosopher and theologian Benjamin Wiker explains how natural selection provided the grounding for Darwin’s account of morality, leading Darwin to accept the view that “the evolution of morality would require the extermination of ‘less fit’ races and individuals.”
Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, contends that evolution provides a convincing explanation for why “it is ‘natural’ for both men and women… to commit adultery.” Although infidelity is “natural,” it isn’t “necessarily unchangeable” according to Wright.
Acknowledging that “Darwin’s evolutionary account of human nature appears to subvert morality in ways that most people find repulsive,” political theorist Larry Arnhart nonetheless praises Darwin for providing a biological justification for reciprocity, love, gratitude, and other moral traits. According to Darwinism, “our moral striving is as much of a natural necessity for us as breathing and eating. We are the moral animals.”
Responding to Larry Arnhart, John West argues that Darwinism ultimately promotes moral relativism by providing an equal biological justification for every kind of behavior found in nature, moral as well as immoral. The maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide. Honesty is natural, but so is fraud. Darwinism makes it difficult to condemn any human behavior that has persisted among human beings, because every trait that continues to exist must have been preserved somehow by natural selection.