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Gibbard's evolutionary theory of rationality and its ethical implications


Gibbard's theory of rationality is “evolutionary” in terms of its result as well as its underpinning argument. The result is that judgments about what is “rational” are analyzed as being similar to judgments of morality — in view of what Darwin suggests concerning the latter. According to the Darwinian theory, moral judgments are based on sentiments which evolve to promote the survival and welfare of human societies. On Gibbard's theory, rationality judgments should be similarly regarded as expressing emotional attachments to behavioral norms which originate and function to coordinate social interaction. Consequently, Gibbard's theory of rationality might be used to illuminate Darwin's theory of morality, and vice versa. Additionally, as argued in the present essay, both can be further elaborated, and defended, by developing related themes in philosophical ethics: viz., connected with Hume and 20th-century emotivists. The main problem is that this general Darwinian approach faces widespread opposition nowadays, not only in ethics but in philosophy of science. The purpose of this essay is to analyze Gibbard's theory, critically and constructively, with emphasis on the pertinent commonalities in Darwin, Hume and the emotivists, while also critically addressing their common enemies. The pervasive methodological orientation is to relate this analysis to (philosophy of) science in general, and biological science in particular.

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Ball, S.W. Gibbard's evolutionary theory of rationality and its ethical implications. Biol Philos 10, 129–180 (1995).

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Key words

  • Evolution
  • explanation
  • morality
  • rationality
  • normative communication
  • fact/value distinction
  • utilitarianism