The Amherst Lecture In Philosophy.

Lecture 5, 2010

“Reflections on the Evolution of Morality”
Christine M. Korsgaard
Harvard University

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In recent years a number of biologists, anthropologists, and animal scientists have tried to explain the biological evolution of morality, and claim to have found the rudiments of morality in the altruistic behavior of our nearest nonhuman relatives. I argue that there is one feature of morality to which these accounts do not pay adequate attention: normative self-government, the capacity to be motivated to do something by the thought that you ought to do it. This is a feature of the form of moral motivation rather than merely of its content, one that I believe we do not share with non-rational animals. Unlike his more recent followers, Darwin did try to explain how this capacity evolved. I explain Darwin's account and the way it drew on sentimentalist philosophy, and argue that such accounts are unsatisfactory. Drawing on the more radical accounts of the evolution of morality found in thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud, I speculate that moral motivation may have originated with the internalization of the dominance instincts, and sketch the beginnings of the path that the development of reason in both its theoretical and practical employments might have followed.

Preferred citation
Korsgaard, Christine M. “Reflections on the Evolution of Morality.” The Amherst Lecture in Philosophy 5 (2010): 1–29. <>.