Resumo da conferência de Eric Charmetant no Congresso sobre o Impacto de Darwin
Darwin and ethics: the history of an early encounter
Charles Darwin’s thoughts on the place of man in nature and on the naturalist approach to morality, far from being a secondary and belated development in comparison with his theory of evolution, already take clear shape as early as 1838 and are later developed in The Descent of Man (1871).
By examining the corpus of Darwin’s published work (especially, The Origin of Species and the two editions of The Descent of Man) as well as his unpublished work (especially his notes and letters), we attempt to highlight the originality of Darwin’s answer to the question of morality, without, however, effacing his roots in Victorian society, with its strong prejudices about, e.g. the intellectual incapacities of women, the inferiority of the Irish, or eugenics, as expressed in the tortuous formulations with regard to his cousin Francis Galton.
Darwin’s ethical views belong squarely in the British tradition of moral sense philosophy (especially, James Mackintosh). His naturalist aim is to propose a phylogenetic and partially ontogenetic perspective on moral sense, but also to explain the convergence between happiness and the general good through the generations. Nonetheless, it would be anomalous to make of Darwin a proponent of utilitarianism, because in his moral thought the general good always prevails over happiness.
The central place he gives to moral habits, to instinctive moral decisions, as well as to the pressure of group approval leads Darwin to a very ‘closed’ vision of morality (according to the categorization proposed by Bergson), as prominent at the end of the 1830s as in the later two editions of The Descent of Man.
Nonetheless, pace Hobbes and Mandeville, Darwin underlines the essential role of benevolent affections and the possibility of moral progress through the development of civilization and through group selection, considering humanity, and indeed the entire animal world, as a whole. It is this central role accorded to sympathy in moral sense which permits Darwin to avoid the temptation of eugenics and what was called « social Darwinism ».
All the same, the role of moral freedom and deliberation in Darwin’s thought remain largely underestimated. Neither does his approach take into account the optimal way for a group to respond to new ethical questions.
In the final sections of this study, we examine the developments and continuities in Darwin’s moral thought from his youth onwards, paying particular attention to the origin of the moral sense, the analogy of morals and instincts, moral freedom, the criterion of morality.
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