Evolution of Ethical Behavior and Moral Values: Biology? Culture?

A CARTA Visiting Professor Lecture


Francisco J. Ayala, University of California, Irvine

Evolution of Ethical Behavior and Moral Values: Biology? Culture?

Monday, December 7, 2015 (4:00-5:00 pm)

Center for Neural Circuits and Behavior (Marilyn G. Farquhar Seminar Room)

UC San Diego


The question whether ethical behavior is biologically determined may refer to either one of the following two issues.  First, is the capacity for ethics—the proclivity to judge human actions as either right or wrong—determined by the biological nature of human beings?  Second, are the systems or codes of ethical norms accepted by human beings biologically determined?

Dr. Ayala proposes that the moral evaluation of actions emerges from human rationality and thus it is a necessary implication of our biological make-up.  But the norms according to which we decide which actions are good and which actions are evil are largely culturally determined, although conditioned by biological predispositions, such as parental care.

The moral sense refers first and foremost to our predisposition to evaluate some actions as virtuous, or morally good, and others as evil, or morally bad.  Morality, thus, consists of the urge or predisposition to judge human actions as either right or wrong in terms of their consequences for other human beings.  Humans are moral beings by nature because their biological constitution determines the presence in them of the three necessary conditions for ethical behavior.  These conditions are:

  • the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s own actions
  • the ability to make value judgments
  • the ability to choose between alternative courses of action

These abilities exist as a consequence of the eminent intellectual capacity of human beings.