29 June 2018 from 12:45 to 14:00

PhD thesis defence Michael Klenk: Evolution, Moral Objectivity, and Undercutting

© iStockphoto.com/Man_Half-tube
© iStockphoto.com/Man_Half-tube

Do the evolutionary origins of morality imply that we cannot tell right from wrong? That is the central question that Michael Klenk (Theoretical Philosophy) explores in his PhD thesis. He argues that evolution does not show that we cannot tell right from wrong.

Do our moral views depend on evolution?

Evidence from biology and psychology suggests that our moral views depend on our evolutionary history. To use an extreme example, if we humans would have evolved to live like hive bees, we would probably think very differently about moral questions such as whether we have a duty to care for our children. 

Objective moral truth debunked by evolution

The findings from biology and psychology threaten to ‘debunk’ the justification of judgements about objective moral truths. Objective moral truths are always the same and they do not vary with our contingent evolutionary history, whereas our moral judgements do. It has been argued that we, therefore, cannot tell right from wrong. 

Moral judgements are unreliable guides to moral truth

In his thesis, Michael Klenk investigates the epistemology behind the evolutionary debunking of morality. Evolutionary explanations of morality, he argues, do not imply that our moral judgements are false. This leaves the possibility that evolution undercuts our (alleged) evidence for our moral judgements.

Don't give up on moral beliefs

However, Klenk shows that as long as we have reason to initially trust our moral beliefs, evolution does not provide us with reason to give up our moral beliefs. Explanations of morality give us reason to give up our moral judgements only if knowledge is the norm of belief and it must be shown that the way in which we form moral beliefs (which might be influenced by evolution and our upbringing) means that we lack moral knowledge. The thesis thus answers how empirical investigations of morality might have justificatory implications and the findings are relevant for deciding whether new factual information can alter how we think about right and wrong.

Start date and time
29 June 2018 12:45
End date and time
29 June 2018 14:00
PhD candidate
Michael Klenk
Dissertation
Survival of Defeat - Evolution, Moral Objectivity, and Undercutting
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. Herman Philipse
Co-supervisor(s)
Dr Hanno C. Sauer