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Virtue ethics, evolutionary psychology, and human nature

Mark D. White

The latest Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement (70, 2012) examines a number of issues concerning human nature. From the editors' introduction:

The study of human nature has always been of central importance to philosophy. ... Questions such as ‘what is human nature?’, ‘is there such a thing as an exclusively human nature?’, ‘through what methods might we best discover more about our nature?’, and ‘to what extent are our actions and beliefs constrained by it?’ are of central importance not only to philosophy and science, but also to our general understanding of ourselves as people who belong to the human species.

The essays collected in this volume collectively address key issues and taboos surrounding the theme of human nature by bringing together philosophers working in a multitude of areas including the philosophy of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, the philosophy of biology, psychoanalysis, ethics and moral psychology, developmental psychology, the philosophy of mind and action, the philosophy of psychology, the philosophy of religion, and the history of philosophy.

The  papers all looks fantastic, but because of my interests in both virtue ethics and evolutionary psychology (or biology), I found Rosalind Hursthouse's contribution, "Human Nature and Aristotelian Virtue Ethics," most intriguing:

Given that it relies on claims about human nature, has Aristotelian virtue ethics (henceforth AVE) been undermined by evolutionary biology? There are at least four objections which are offered in support of the claim that this is so, and I argue that they all fail. The first two (Part 1) maintain that contemporary AVE relies on a concept of human nature which evolutionary biology has undercut and I show this is not so. In Part 2, I try to make it clear that Foot's Aristotelian ethical naturalism, often construed as purporting to provide virtue ethics with a foundation, is not foundationalist and is not attempting to derive ethics from biology. In Part 3, I consider the other two objections. These do not make a misguided assumption about Aristotelian ethical naturalism's foundational aspirations, nor question AVE's use of the concept of human nature, but maintain that some of AVE's empirical assumptions about human nature may well be false, given the facts of our evolution. With respect to these, I argue that, as attempts to undermine AVE specifically, they fail, though they raise significant challenges to our ethical thought quite generally.


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Excellent. Thanks, Mark.

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