The purpose of this essay is to provoke an intellectual conversation, not to launch a heretical assault upon the field of moral philosophy. Teachers of media ethics have worked diligently to transport the tenets of moral philosophy into the professions, such as journalism, usually through the incorporation of moral reasoning into media ethics courses. Indeed, courses in media ethics have abounded as professors of mass communication and journalism have attempted to reinvigorate their curricula with a sense of moral purpose and the teaching of professional values. Such pedagogical tools as the Potter Box and Day's SAD Model, among others, are employed to help structure students' thinking about ethical dilemmas and to promote analytical and critical thinking. Moral reasoning is taught as a rational, deliberative and reflective process, and there is certainly intellectual merit in approaching the teaching of media ethics from this perspective. But does it reflect accurately the realities of the workplace, where ethical decisions are frequently "snap judgments" made under the pressure of time constraints?

There is a countervailing narrative that has gained traction as a worthy competitor to moral philosophy, one that is founded in the science of evolution. This naturalistic explanation for ethical deportment is relevant to the study of professional ethics if we assume that professional roles (such as the practice of journalism) cannot be entirely divorced from societal ethics. Darwinian in its origins, evolutionary ethics has accumulated some impressive adherents within the scientific community. Scientists and philosophers have traditionally inhabited different universes, with neither conceding any common ground. Indeed, in 1975 Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward Wilson fired a shot across the bow of moral philosophers when he declared: "Scientists and humanists should consider the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologized."

The Science of Evolutionary Ethics

"He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke," mused Charles Darwin upon his return to England from a five- year voyage around the world. "Our descent, then is the original of our evil passions!!-The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather."

This formative observation on Darwin's emerging evolutionary theory posed a direct challenge to philosophy as the intellectual repository of an understanding of our moral nature.

While Darwin's ideas on natural evolution have famously animated the enduring and often hostile discourse between the scientific and religious communities on the origins of the universe, what is less remarked is his biological explanation for the foundation of morality. Charles Darwin is properly celebrated as the first evolutionary psychologist and ethicist because he believed that biology, not philosophy, held the key to insights concerning our moral nature.

In The Descent of Man, for example, Darwin hypothesized that any animal endowed with social instincts "would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man." For Darwin, the moral sense, or conscience, was the most significant distinction between humans and lower animals. In fact, the evolution of morality is coextensive with the evolution of conscience. The conscience, within the Darwinian framework, is invigorated by the social instinct, which causes organisms to behave in ways that benefit the group to which they belong. In other words, we may be genetically hard-wired with the capacity to make moral judgments, but the direction of those judgments is usually molded through social nurture as much as through nature. Such nurturing occurs within the professions through the indoctrination of members into the norms and ethical expectations of the particular group. An idealistic neophyte journalist may enter the profession, for example, with a deontological perspective on truth (i.e., one should always tell the truth), but membership in the journalistic "group" will soon introduce ambiguities and perhaps some uncertainty into this kind of world view.

Building upon the work of Darwin, evolutionary ethics is predicated upon a rather simple proposition, namely that humans are endowed with an innate moral sense, a con- science if you will, that is the result of natural selection. We are hard- wired to make moral judgments just as we are hard-wired with the capacity to learn language. In short, morality is in our genes. Nevertheless, our genes are not morally deterministic; they do not deprive us of free will. We are still a product of both nature and nurture. Evolutionary ethical theories embrace intuition, instinct and emotion as the constituents of moral agentry rather than the cognitive dimensions of moral reasoning. They are based upon a non-rationalist (intuitionist) model whereby moral judgments are not the result of moral reasoning but are, instead, instinctive, quick evaluations. Moral principles, according to evolutionists, are more likely to be advanced as ex post facto justifications. An editor, for example, chooses not to publish a gruesome photograph of war casualties not because of a Kantian devotion to respect for persons, rationally applied through stake-holder analysis and moral reasoning or a teleological aversion to causing emotional pain to friends and families of the victims, but rather through a humanistic instinctual and emotional aversion to such content. The same editor, of course, might reach a contrary decision, but this outcome, at least in the view of an evolutionary ethicist, would still be more intuitive filtered through one's journalistic training (professional nurturing, if you will) rather than the product of moral reasoning.

In unpacking the science in support of evolutionary ethics, we find an impressive array of cross-disciplinary research involving such areas as social intuition, child development, animal behavior, and brain imaging. Evolutionary biologists who study social intuition, for example, posit that moral judgments occur in the hidden realm of unconscious emotional intuition, which "have a long evolutionary history in our primate ancestors." Citing scientific studies involving chimpanzees, in which behavior was driven by emotions such as anger, they claim that emotional responses underlie human moral judgments as well. They do not assert that humans are biologically imprinted with one type of morality but rather that individuals are born with the moral instinct. Through nurture or indoctrination, they then internalize the particular morality of their mother culture and sub-cultures, including the professions that adopt their own ethical norms.

University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated experimentally that the mind makes many moral judgments in the way it makes aesthetic judgments-quickly and automatically. Later, we rationalize our immediate feelings. In some respects, this is reminiscent of the famous intellectual debate between Eighteenth Century philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume, a Scottish empiricist, posited that individual experience and passion rather than reason determine human behavior. Kant, a German rationalist, argued that human knowledge, including moral knowledge, is acquired through reason. It is for this reason (among others) that Kant is featured prominently in media ethics materials on moral reasoning. However, the growing body of scientific evidence in support of evolutionary ethics concludes that humans are more Humean than Kantian in their ethical behavior, relying more upon intuition than reason. Studies involving subjects confronted with ethical decision- making situations uncovered no evidence that deontological, utilitarian, or other straightforward rules accounted for variations in permissibility judgments across moral dilemmas.

Studies on childhood development also raise questions about the role of moral rules and cognitive-based learning in one's early ethical maturation. Young children, according to child development studies, can recognize moral wrongs and the seriousness of moral transgressions, even in the absence of rules, and can even distinguish them from violations of mere social conventions. Indeed, these studies suggest that, by the age of four, children from various socio-economic groups take a dim view of moral transgressions pertaining to harmful behavior and fairness. One of the first principles they acquire is that it is wrong to harm others (we can safely assume that most children have not read Mill).

Animal studies have also enriched the debate over the evolutionary foundations of the moral sense. Studies have documented patterns of behavior that closely resemble what we might describe as moral instincts, which is not entirely surprising since recent DNA sequence analysis reveals that humans share 99% of genes with chimpanzees and 97.7% with gorillas, our closest non- human evolutionary ancestors.

"Non-human primates...may not be exactly moral beings," observed Jessica Flack and Frans de Waal, "but they do show indications of a sense of social regularity that parallels the rules and regulation of human moral conduct."

Some of the more common instincts (in addition to conflict resolution), according to the studies, which serve as prerequisites of morality recognizable in social animals are reciprocity, empathy, sympathy, and community concern. Groups of chimpanzees, for example, will punish individuals who defy group norms. Other studies have documented patterns of conflict resolution among primates and other mammals, as well as the display of such behavioral values as empathy and reciprocity.

One of the most interesting articles pertaining to the evolutionary foundations of morality was published in 2007 in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Law professors Paul Robinson and Owen Jones and psychologist Robert Kurzban combined their scholarly interests to explore the "Origins of Shared Intuitions of Justice." In reviewing the animal studies evidence on the issue, they concluded that animals-"especially our close primate relatives"-display at least some form of primitive intuitions about what constitutes wrongdoing and how it should be punished. Serious transgressions, such as cheating, are often punished with some form of retribution. Primates have a demonstrated ability to perceive inequities, which are frequently the target of sanctions. In addition, the failure to cooperate within the group regularly yields severe consequences.

Some of the most intriguing research with potential application to the field of evolutionary ethics is a series of studies on the human brain. If there is a region of the brain, a "circuit," if you will, that identifies moral problems and generates certain intuitions about the proper response, then that could serve as evidence of natural design in much the same way that other organs are designed to perform discrete functions.

Brain imaging research is the most recent and in many ways the most interesting in the field of evolutionary ethics. A series of neuroimaging studies has revealed that tasks involving moral judgment activate that segment of the brain associated with emotional responses, and behavioral studies have demonstrated that altering the affective state can alter moral judgments. For example, a team of Princeton University researchers led by Joshua Green has recently observed the influence of emotions in moral judgments through the use of functional resonance imaging to "spy on" subjects' brains while they read and reasoned their way through a number of ethical dilemmas. The study found that moral dilemmas vary systematically in the extent to which they engage human emotions and that these variations in emotional engagement influence moral judgment. The study found that in dilemmas involving impersonal moral choices-that is, no direct, face-to- face harm-the brain relied upon the same network associated with dispassionate, logical thinking. For personal moral choices, however, the emotional circuit was more dominant. Thus, emotions, not analytical reasoning, directed moral judgments. This could explain, for example, why journalists, for whom harm to others is an occupational hazard, display a higher degree of emotional reticence when confronted with an ethical dilemma involving a news source or subject with which they have a personal relationship.

Collectively, the scientific studies described above don't resolve the issue of whether a particular action is right or wrong, but they do begin to address the question of how moral agents decide what is right and wrong. Philosopher Stephen Stich of Rutgers University has described the findings as "bad news for the majority of moral philosophers and ethicists, who maintain that moral decisions must be based on pure reason."


Although still far from definitive, evolutionary science does appear to be closing in on the natural foundations of moral decision-making. If the moral code is in our genes and if we are by nature intuitionists rather than rationalists, then Hume would appear to have the better of the debate with Kant. This finding not only has implications for all of us but particularly for those, like professional journalists, who have a moral imperative concerning the public interest and whose ethical judgments are most likely to be subjected to public scrutiny. Nevertheless, the good news for professors of media ethics is that moral reasoning models are still valuable tools for teaching critical thinking and for organizing students' untutored intellectual capacities. They can also introduce future journalists to the ethical dilemmas that await them in the workplace so that, under time pressures, when any significant degree of moral reasoning is impractical, they will instinctively make decisions that they can later defend based upon some sound moral principle.

Louis A. Day is Alumni Professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication of Louisiana State University. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..