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Ethics and Evolution


Admission requirements

Admission to this course is restricted to MA students in Philosophy.


This course spans the philosophical disciplines of Moral Psychology, Ethics and Meta-ethics, in addition to Evolutionary Biology. It has been maintained that findings or potential findings in the latter field bear on positions in the former three disciplines. Some of the issues that the course will touch on include: does the mind/brain have a ‘moral module’? What is the role of empathy in moral deliberation? Given the arguably relevant similarities between us and some non-human animals, should these animals be included in our moral community? Are ‘evolutionary debunking arguments’ successful as arguments against moral realism or in defense of the Error Theory of morality? In what sense or senses can it be plausibly maintained that `morality is an evolutionary adaptation’?

Course objectives

This course aims to engage with current debates in the intersecting areas of moral psychology, ethics, metaethics, and evolutionary biology. The questions posed in the course are questions such as: ‘In what sense or senses can it be plausibly maintained that `morality is an evolutionary adaptation’?

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • core concepts in metaethics: for instance moral realism and antirealism, and the error theory;

  • Core concepts in evolutionary biology that are relevant to the questions explored;

  • empirical data and scientific hypotheses that are (arguably) relevant to questions in ethics and meta-ethics;

  • the main arguments for and against the main positions in the debates the course engages with.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • critically analyse recent philosophical literature in the fields spanned by the course;

  • apply and judge the relevance of empirical data and theorizing in evoluationary biology and psychology to questions in ethics and metaethics;

  • find advanced philosophical literature bearing on the relevant questions, and engage with this literature in the written assignments;

  • arrive at their own positions on the contentious questions the course engages with;

  • defend their positions in written papers, and in-class discussions and/or presentations.


See Timetables Philosophy 2014-2015 , Timetables MA Philosophy 60 EC/120 EC.

Mode of instruction

  • Lectures and seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course Load

Total course load (10 EC): 280 hours
Attending lectures and seminars (14 × 3 hours): 42 hours
Reading (14 × 6 hours): 84 hours
Midterm paper (preparing (including reading), writing, and a possible presentation as part of the preparation process): 62 hours
Final paper (preparing (including reading), writing, and a possible presentation as part of the preparation process): 92 hours

Assessment method

  • Midterm paper (40% of the final grade)

  • Final paper (60% of the final grade)

Presentations in class will aid the writing of these papers.

One resit will be offered, consisting of the final paper. Any student who did not take the first examinations (both midterm paper and final paper) cannot take the resit.


The reading lists, course objectives and additional course materials (and some of the readings) will be made available through Blackboard.

Reading list

  • Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality.

  • Other readings will be announced/made available at the start of the course.


Please register for this course on uSis.
See Registration for courses and examinations

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable for courses in the column under the heading “Act.nbr”.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M. Plug