Morality as an Evolutionary Exaptation

In Johan De Smedt & Helen De Cruz (eds.), Empirically Engaged Evolutionary Ethics. Springer - Synthese Library. pp. 89-109 (2021)


The dominant theory of the evolution of moral cognition across a variety of fields is that moral cognition is a biological adaptation to foster social cooperation. This chapter argues, to the contrary, that moral cognition is likely an evolutionary exaptation: a form of cognition where neurobiological capacities selected for in our evolutionary history for a variety of different reasons—many unrelated to social cooperation—were put to a new, prosocial use after the fact through individual rationality, learning, and the development and transmission of social norms. This chapter begins with a brief overview of the emerging behavioral neuroscience of moral cognition. It then outlines a novel theory of moral cognition that I have previously argued explains these findings better than alternatives. Finally, it shows how the evidence for this theory of moral cognition and human evolutionary history together suggest that moral cognition is likely not a biological adaptation. Instead, like reading sheet music or riding a bicycle, moral cognition is something that individuals learn to do—in this case, in response to sociocultural norms created in our ancestral history and passed down through the ages to enable cooperative living.

Download options


    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 72,856

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library


Added to PP

56 (#207,030)

6 months
4 (#162,461)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

References found in this work

What We Owe to Each Other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Varieties of Reference.Gareth Evans - 1982 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
On What Matters: Two-Volume Set.Derek Parfit - 2011 - Oxford University Press.

View all 259 references / Add more references

Citations of this work

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Evolutionary Moral Realism.John Collier & Michael Stingl - 2013 - Biological Theory 7 (3):218-226.
How Moral Facts Cause Moral Progress.Andrés Luco - 2019 - Journal of the American Philosophical Association 5 (4):429-448.
Evolution and Moral Realism.Kim Sterelny & Ben Fraser - 2016 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 68 (4):981-1006.
Evolution and Moral Diversity.Tim Dean - 2012 - The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication 7:1-16.
Evolutionary Ethics.Michael Klenk - 2019 - Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics.
Moral Nativism: A Sceptical Response.Kim Sterelny - 2010 - Mind and Language 25 (3):279-297.
Mind Reading, Deception and the Evolution of Kantian Moral Agents.Alejandro Rosas - 2004 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34 (2):127–139.
Better Than Our Nature.Michael Vlerick - 2017 - Cambridge University Press.