Bridging the Gap between Philosophy and the Science of Morality

By Mark Sloan 1-11-2015

“Evolutionary biology is young and excited, and would like to take over morality. Philosophy is old and experienced, and knows that this is a pipe dream and, even more to the point, that evolutionary biology should be ashamed of itself for thinking that way.     …     Moral philosophy, for its part, is a Johnny-come-lately attempt to intellectualize— to organize and explain, and usually to rationalize— a human experience that had long been a functional part of what it meant to be human. Long before there was any formal moral philosophizing, morality was rooted in the human journey both genetic and cultural.    …     Moral philosophy has for millennia been examining morality from every conceivable standpoint, and has developed and refined a strong analytical method. However, it is empirically impoverished, starving for data, lacking direction for its creativity, wandering through every conceivable cranny of thought space just to stay alive. It needs something more from the natural world than the vague intuitions of the proverbial man on the street and a set of historical views of how the human mind operates. In this context, the current dysfunctional relationship between moral philosophy and evolutionary biology is a travesty.” (Lahti 2014)

In this vein, David Lahti entertainingly and evenhandedly reveals the sometimes extreme mutual misunderstandings and resulting mutual disdain between evolutionists studying morality as natural phenomena and moral philosopher’s reacting to that work. This mutual misunderstanding has harmful real world effects. Moral philosophy is denied any substantial science based grounding in the natural world. Science is denied the collaborator it needs to make its rapidly expanding understanding of morality culturally useful. And the world is denied something it sometimes appears to desperately need, a robustly constructed secular morality grounded in the best science and moral philosophy have to offer.

The highly intelligent and well intentioned academics in both disciplines would have solved this miscommunication problem long ago if this was not the thorny, deep rooted, tangled mess it is.

How might we start hacking away at this mess in the near term?

Perhaps a carefully chosen simplified example could be useful. Rather than attempting to deal with the entire diverse spectrum of evolutionist’s and philosopher’s possible positions and misunderstandings all at once, we might more easily comprehend the problem by focusing on only one science of morality position and one philosophical position. Understanding how miscommunication arises between these two stipulated positions, and how they might be overcome, could shed much needed light on these disciplines’ larger miscommunication problem.

The stipulated evolutionist’s position:

“Morality in the evolutionary sense is a product of biological and cultural evolution. Both the biology underlying our moral sense as well as past and present cultural moral codes share a common primary selection force, the benefits of cooperation in groups. This hypothesis explains 1) the particular set of emotions triggered by our moral sense (compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ , a synthesis of satisfaction and pride), 2) the categories of circumstances (fairness/cheating, care/harm, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation) that in all cultures can trigger a moral judgment from our moral sense, and 3) past and present cultural moral norms (norms whose violation deserve punishment) no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre. Science is silent on what ultimate goals cultures ‘ought’ to choose for advocating and enforcing moral codes. All science of morality knowledge, like all knowledge in science, is only instrumentally useful in achieving human goals.”

The stipulated rule-consequentialist philosopher’s position:

“The correct moral rules are those whose inclusion in our moral code by collective internalization will produce, more than other possible rules, the best consequences. Since producing the best consequences requires this code be widely internalized and acted on, this ideal code must be appealing, motivating, and be almost always harmonious with the moral convictions we have after careful reflection. This code will be based on a fundamental principle that both (a) explains why our more considered moral convictions are correct and (b) justifies them from an impartial point of view. Defining what “best consequences” actually are, and what ideal moral code will produce them, are both on-going projects amongst rule-consequentialists. Understanding morality as the product of biological and cultural evolution could reveal a fundamental principle or principles by which a moral code could be made appealing, motivating, and consistent with our considered moral convictions.”  – Partially inspired by (Hooker 2000)

Many evolutionists and philosophers disagree with at least parts of the above positions and would argue others are more likely ‘true’ or are more widely held in their disciplines. But these stipulations were not selected due to them being ‘true’ or widely held, but because they are useful for shedding light on how the profound level of miscommunications between the two disciplines arose and might be reduced. The evolutionist stipulates that science reveals morality’s primary evolutionary function but is silent regarding what moral behavior’s ultimate ‘end’ ought to be. The philosopher stipulates that science might usefully inform us about the underlying principles for a moral code that would be innately appealing, motivating, and consistent with our considered moral convictions. If they could just communicate with each other, at least this evolutionist and philosopher might find a way forward as strong allies.

The table below compares the stipulated evolutionist’s and philosopher’s understandings of key elements of their own category of morality. Common cultural views of morality are included for comparison. The key elements of interest are 1) how each defines morality, 2) if they believe that definition is consistent with rule-consequentialism, 3) what aspects of their morality are universal, and 4) reasons their claims about morality are true.

1-12-2015 Implicit Claims in Three Categories of Discussions about Morality

So what might this evolutionist make of this philosopher’s claims? He would likely wonder what justifies the claim that so broad a concept as “achieving best consequences” usefully defines a moral code. For example, pursuit of beauty (such as art) and inner peace might increase well-being (a likely best consequence) but does that justify calling norms advocating these behaviors moral norms – perhaps they are better defined as just cultural norms?  By this evolutionist’s understanding of cultural and evolutionary morality, all moral norms share the necessary characteristic that violators deserve punishment (of at least social disapproval). He observes that ‘moral’ norms whose violation does not deserve punishment are about a different subject than either cultural or evolutionary morality.  (Social disapproval is a form of punishment due to our concern for reputation. Social disapproval can cause the physiological pain of shame.)

Besides, what are the “best consequences” anyway? Even the philosophers have reached no conclusion and some of them say the question is unanswerable. However, the evolutionists could be beginning to understand why philosophers might ask what to him are incoherent questions such as “What makes this definition of evolutionarily moral correspond to what maximizes good?”

Now look at the table from the philosopher’s perspective. First, she might be surprised that the evolutionist fully understands and has no concern at all that some behaviors that are evolutionarily moral will not produce the best consequences (such as behaviors that increase cooperation in an in-group by in some way exploiting out-groups – which are commonly judged bad consequences in the modern world.)  Second, the philosopher might be pleased to see that at least this evolutionist’s claims about morality are firmly grounded in both personal (our moral sense) and cultural concepts of morality. Finally, this evolutionist claims he tests his hypothesis’ explanatory power against all past and present culture norms, no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre. Explaining all that, as well as our moral sense, and contradicting no known facts, may appear, even to the stipulated philosopher, to provide credible support for the evolutionist’s hypothesis being scientifically ‘true’.

But is there anything more here than some science about how and why people became the remarkably cooperative species we are and past and present moral codes were what they were and are? Is there anything of relevance here for a rule-consequentialist?

Our philosopher may begin to wonder if the evolutionist’s universally moral subset of evolutionarily moral behaviors, along with its underlying fundamental principle – what is universally moral is a class of within in-group cooperation strategies – is a candidate for the basis of the moral code that, by being appealing, motivating, and consistent with our considered moral convictions, is most likely to produce the best consequences. (Since the benefits of cooperation are what shaped our moral sense and cultural moral codes, moral norms that produce those benefits should fit people like a key in a well-oiled lock and thereby be appealing, motivating, and consistent with our considered moral convictions – except for the non-universal ‘moral’ behaviors that exploit out-groups.) She also may begin to wonder if ‘moral’ norms whose violation does not deserve punishment, such as advocacy to pursue inner peace or beauty in the arts, are most usefully defined as part of a moral code or just as cultural norms that produce the best consequences.

The stipulated philosopher’s and stipulated evolutionist’s positions here were chosen to make them ultimately compatible provided they came to understand what the other refers to when they talk about what is evolutionarily moral or philosophically moral. Reduced miscommunication appears be a readily obtainable goal for these two once they accept that the other is now, and forever will be, not ‘wrong’, just talking about different, partially overlapping categories of behavior. As people can today easily simultaneously discuss what is philosophically moral and what is culturally moral, in the future what is evolutionarily moral may be included in the conversation and confuse no one.



  1. Cooperation strategies (and their elements) that are independent of the existence of separate groups are universally moral – moral in all cultures – according to the stipulated evolutionist. These are “within- in-group” cooperation strategies. Universally moral elements include compassion, fairness, indignation at exploitation of compassion and generosity, and norms advocating indirect reciprocity – commonly implemented in cultures as versions of the Golden Rule.
  2. Cooperation strategies are not universally moral if they are dependent on exploiting outgroups as threats (such as homosexuals or simply strangers, as with xenophobia), outgroups as not worthy of full moral consideration (such as women, other tribes, and other races), or are dependent on using markers of membership and commitment to a subgroup (such as circumcision and not trimming beards or eating pigs). Cooperation strategy elements can be “evolutionarily moral” while culturally, and philosophically, immoral.
  3. The data sets for this evolutionist’s hypothesis explanatory power are as listed above in the evolutionist’s stipulated position.



Lahti, David C., (2014). On the Partnership between Natural and Moral Philosophy. In Understanding Moral Sentiments: Darwinian Perspectives? Putnam, Hilary, Neiman, Susan, and Schloss, Jeffrey P., editors. Transaction Publishers

Hooker, Brad (2000). Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-Consequentialist Theory of Morality. Clarendon Press.

1 thought on “Bridging the Gap between Philosophy and the Science of Morality

  1. Hi Mark. I can’t find another way to contact you, so I’ll just leave a comment here in this “Bridging the Gap” blog article. In January 2015, I published a paper in the peer-reviewed ASEBL Journal titled “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so.” It might answer some of the question raised here and elsewhere throughout your site and during our previous conversations. You can download a free copy of the journal here:

    Click to access ASEBLv11n1Jan15.pdf

    Get in touch if you’d like to discuss this paper more thoroughly through a blog post, or maybe an article on This View of Life. I’ve prepared press releases and FAQs about it of carrying lengths and would be happy to work with you on something. Cheers.

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