Introduction to a Cultural Evolutionary Theory of Normativity

16 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2007

Date Written: August 2007


One of the great issues in ethical philosophy is the relationship of "is" to "ought." Any attempt to naturalize ethics faces a further complicating issue: the relationship of nature to nurture - of genetically-transmitted motivators to learned behaviors. This paper introduces a fully naturalized theory of normativity that attempts to negotiate these complications.

The paper is in three parts. Part I offers a model of the relationship between learned behaviors and genetically-transmitted behavioral predispositions or motivators. It asks and answers three questions: (1) Why have we evolved the capacity to carry and facilitate the evolution of learned behaviors? (2) How are learned behaviors motivated? (3) To what extent does it matter whether a behavior is learned or genetically transmitted? Based on the model developed in Part I, Part II then defines normativity - by which I mean simply the set of all of our "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" - in purely functional evolutionary terms. Again, Part II is organized around three questions: (1) Why have we evolved a capacity to feel that we should or should not behave in particular ways? (2) What is the relationship of reason to this capacity? (3) Why is goodness adaptive? Part III, finally, explores the relationship between "is" and "ought": (1) Does "is" constrain "ought"? (2) To what extent is "is" evidence of "ought"? (3) If absolute moral facts exist independently from adaptivity, can we access them?

Suggested Citation

Seto, Theodore P., Introduction to a Cultural Evolutionary Theory of Normativity (August 2007). Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2007-35, Available at SSRN: or

Theodore P. Seto (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

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