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The difference of being human: Morality

Abstract

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote: "I fully . . . subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important." I raise the question of whether morality is biologically or culturally determined. The question of whether the moral sense is biologically determined may refer either to the capacity for ethics (i.e., the proclivity to judge human actions as either right or wrong), or to the moral norms accepted by human beings for guiding their actions. I propose that the capacity for ethics is a necessary attribute of human nature, whereas moral codes are products of cultural evolution. Humans have a moral sense because their biological makeup determines the presence of three necessary conditions for ethical behavior: (i) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's own actions; (ii) the ability to make value judgments; and (iii) the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Ethical behavior came about in evolution not because it is adaptive in itself but as a necessary consequence of man's eminent intellectual abilities, which are an attribute directly promoted by natural selection. That is, morality evolved as an exaptation, not as an adaptation. Moral codes, however, are outcomes of cultural evolution, which accounts for the diversity of cultural norms among populations and for their evolution through time.

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