Center for Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Studies

Unseld Lectures 2012: Topic

The Evolution of Morality

Is it right that man‘s nature is ruled by egoism and that moral behavior is a an invented cultural overlay? Or are human beings, on the contrary, good by nature, and has morality, thus, evolutionary origins? What kind of impact would that have on the valuation of moral behavior?

On the one hand there is the assumption that human nature with its moral core is a result of human evolution. Therefore moral behavior is not a practice exclusively performed by humans. This claim is considerably based on behavioral research on nonhuman primates. Even though the moral behavior of humans may be considered as being exceptionally complex, there is no fundamental difference between human moral behavior and the corresponding nonhuman primates’ behavior. In fact the foundations of human moral agency may rather be found in those psychological and behavioral dispositions whose evolutionary function was to facilitate social coordination and cohesion. Thus, empathy, sympathy, cooperation and reciprocal altruism are important "building blocks" of morality.

On the other hand taking the opposite view with regard to this evolutionary concept of morality it is argued, that there is a categorical difference between human moral agency and animal social behavior and that morality entails a normative force. The core arguments for this claim refer to the human faculties of speech as well as those of rational reasoning, which allows human beings to step back and reflect emotive impulses before deciding on their moral behavior.

The Unseld Lecture 2012 will face these contrary positions and will discuss whether a boundary has to be drawn between nonhuman primates’ behavior motivated by emphatic emotional impulses and human moral agency or whether human morality can well be explained in the light of evolution.