Unit Overview 

This week we will consider the question of whether morality is simply a matter of how people feel about a certain issue. One view is that morality, or moral truths, are entirely subjective, what is true for me, about some moral issue, is not necessarily true. One way this view has been explained is that moral statements are simply a matter of expression an opinion or an emotion. Or in other words, the real content of moral statements is an expression of our emotional stance towards the moral issue under discussion. This view is known as emotivism. The chapter from the textbook will look at the arguments for and against emotivism.

In addition we will spend some time this week thinking about moral emotions. Moral issues evoke strong emotional responses and in the past several hundred years more thought has been given to the relationship between moral emotional and morality. And in the past several decades psychologist have begun to more seriously study the moral of moral emotions.Since the dawn of


In the Darwin reading he argues that humanity’s highest faculty, it’s moral sense, is present, in rudimentary form, in other social species. The “common themes in primate ethics” reading gives you a brief overview of some of the moral capabilities that we share with primates. The evolutionary social psychology reading is not required but just provided if your curious to learn more about the topic, although you may find it helpful.

Subjectivism, Emotivism, and Error Theory

Moral Emotions

David Hume (1711-1776) was the first philosopher to really focus on the role of emotions in moral judgements. He argued that abstract reasons don’t motivate action. And that since moral beliefs are very motivating they must not be abstract reasons but rather emotions. I, his book A Treatise on Human Nature, he famously said that reason was “the slave of the passions.”

Approximately a hundred years later Charles Darwin would publish his book The Origin of Species (1859) in which he would explain his theory of evolution. Part of what he would seek to explain with his theory of evolution was social and moral behavior.

The basic idea is that since the beginning of our species we have lived in social groups. These social groups are made possible by our ability to cooperate together and to care for others, most importantly our children but also other members of our tribe or family. Our sense of empathy and our concern for fairness or justice are necessary for us to cooperate and live together. Since the dawn of humanity, humans have been governed by rules that dictate what is morally permissible. As these groups got bigger the rules become laws. Legal and criminal justice systems arose to enforce the laws. Societies across the globe in countries like Greece, Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia and many other places all had such systems. These large societies required people to be able to live together. Our best scientific evidence makes it clear that humanity’s ability to live together, to care for each other, to cooperate comes from our ancestors and distant relatives in various species. Without the cognitive and emotional capacity for moral behavior, social interaction and society itself would not be possible.

Below is a short video explaining the very basics of how evolution works. The key to understanding morality, from an evolutionary perspective, is that to understand that morality, like every other trait all animals possess, helped those animals survive and reproduce.


Frans De Waal on Moral Behavior in Animals

In this video De Waal gives us an overview of some of the moral capacities that animals possess and use to cooperate and solve tasks. The view of animals he presents here, being social and cooperative, is in contrast to the traditional view of animals and humans as being entirely selfish, vicious, and power hungry. He specifically identifies two features of animal behavior as the foundation, or the precursor, of moral behavior in human beings.


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