Charles Darwin's evolutionary
basis for morality
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was the first to consider an evolutionary basis for moral development. When Darwin
wrote The Origin of Species (1859), he withheld his thoughts on the origins of human morality and
By 1874, his book, The Descent of Man, proposed that the study of moral systems take place as a branch
of natural history, which meant that ethics should be studied within the framework of evolution theory. While he
theorized that man evolved from a more primitive species, he sought to understand how and why man developed a moral
sense. The theory of human evolution could only be plausible if it could explain how morality, a distinctly
unique human trait, originated.
When studying ethics from the perspective of behavior, Darwin recognized the problem posed by natural selection
and the human ethic of altruism; how can selfless behavior exist amidst the selfishness inherent and promoted in
Had Darwin studied ethics from the perspective of behaviors and actions, the problems posed by natural selection
would have been highlighted. To avoid this conundrum, he approached ethics from 2 other perspectives: a) conscience
and b) as a system established by a group.
A) In examining ethics from the perspective of conscience, ethics was not what one did but
why. So his focus was on the psychology of behavior - the reasons and motives for one’s actions. Ethical
behavior arose from ethical intentions or moral sense as he would say.
Darwin felt that human morality was based on the integration of three factors: innate social
instincts, intelligence, and conscious. He believed that Social instincts, such as sympathy, kindness, and sociability,
were rooted in human nature and limited aggression. He saw intelligence involved with the evaluation of actions and
their consequences. And he believed that the conscious was responsible for the motives for behavior.
B) In examining ethics from the perspective of a system established by a group, Darwin sought to answer
the selfishness of natural selection with the focus on the ethics of the "greater good" for the survival of a group.
Darwin felt that social groups had an implicit social contract, which governed behavior and promoted
mutual interaction. Moral standards were determined by society and reinforced with a social system of rewards and
punishments. From this perspective, Darwin proposed the idea of natural selection for group evolution with the belief
that the selected traits of individuals and small sub-groups would confer an advantage for the larger group over others
According to Darwin, the answers for the two essential questions were: 1) the standard for judging good from evil
was whether the most people gained pleasure or least pain from one’s action, and 2) human beings were innately altruistic
and moral, because these traits were an advantage in natural selection of groups.
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