Does understanding evolution help us to understand ethics?

Professor Peter Singer
9 February, 2011

Why you should listen
Professor Peter Singer

Credit: Denise Applewhite/ Princeton University

Evolution is neutral with regard to values. It is a fallacy to try to deduce what we ought to do from our understanding of evolution. But understanding evolution does help us to understand human nature, and since in ethics we are often interested in changing behaviour, evolution gives us valuable clues as to what is, or is not, likely to work. The first part of the lecture explored this topic. In the second part, Peter Singer considered the argument that since our moral sense has evolved, it serves to enhance our reproductive fitness, and hence is not a guide to what is really right or wrong. He argued that there is some truth to this claim, but properly understood, it should lead us to scepticism about some ethical views, but not about ethics itself.

 
Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946, and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. He has taught at the University of Oxford, La Trobe University and Monash University, and has held several other visiting appointments. Since 1999 he has been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. From 2005 on, he has also held the part-time position of Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

Peter Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include: Democracy and Disobedience; Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; Marx; Hegel; Animal Factories (with Jim Mason); The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells), Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse), How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, Ethics into Action, A Darwinian Left, One World, Pushing Time Away, The President of Good and Evil, How Ethical is Australia? (with Tom Gregg), The Way We Eat (with Jim Mason) and The Life You Can Save. He also co-authored The Greens with Bob Brown, founder of the Australian Greens.

Peter was the founding President of the International Association of Bioethics, and with Helga Kuhse, founding co-editor of the journal Bioethics. Outside academic life he is the co-founder, and President of The Great Ape Project, an international effort to obtain basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. He is also President of Animal Rights International.

Think Global School

Co-presented with Think Global School