Original Research - Special Collection: Challenging Building Blocks

Building blocks of morality

Michael Ruse
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 1 | a6057 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i1.6057 | © 2020 Michael Ruse | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 April 2020 | Published: 20 November 2020

About the author(s)

Michael Ruse, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Florida State University, Tallahassee, United States


Most of us agree about the rules or norms of morality, what philosophers call substantive or normative ethics: be kind to small children, do not cheat on exams and return your library books on time. The big disputes come over foundations, metaethics. This article considers the four main positions. Firstly, religious ethics: Here you appeal to the will of God. The problem is not everyone believes in God, and could God make it okay to mark up library books and not return them? Secondly, platonic ethics: Ethics exists eternally in a super-sensible world, along with mathematics. The problem is why it should appeal to us and how do we know about it? What if different people have different intuitions? Thirdly, objective naturalised ethics: Here, value is found in nature, probably in the processes that led to the beings of greatest value, humans. The problem is how this happened because the main theory of evolution, Darwinism, denies that there is any direction to the developmental process. Fourthly, subjective naturalised ethics: It is all a question of the emotions that evolution has given us to get along in life and produce more humans. The problem is that this makes ethics relative. If we had evolved like bees, females’ greatest imperative would be to kick their brothers out of the house as winter approaches. What to do? What to do? Next time ask a preacher not a philosopher!

Contribution: The time has come for philosophers generally and students of ethics particularly to come to grips with the fact that human beings are modified monkeys (evolution) not modified mud (Genesis). This essay compares two approaches to ‘evolutionary ethics’ – Social Darwinism and moral non-realism – expressing a decided preference for the latter.


Morality; Normative ethics; Metaethics; Christian non-natural morality; Secular non-natural morality; Evolutionary ethics; Darwinian non-realism


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