ABOVE: Portrait of Charles Darwin, 1881.
© The Cambridgeshire Collection, Ref. C.02.1909.

ABOVE: The Code of Hammurabi (Codex Hammurabi) is the earliest-known example of a ruler proclaiming publicly to his people an entire body of laws, arranged in orderly groups, so that all might read and know what was required of them. Hammurabi reigned in Babylon from 1795 to 1750 BC and his celebrated code was inscribed upon a black stone monument, which stands more than seven feet high and was clearly intended to be reared in public view. Discovered in 1901, the code begins and ends with addresses to the gods and sets forth moral principles and rules governing a vast range of economic, political, and social conduct.

Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

The 250th anniversary of the publication of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, a highly original work on ethics and human nature, coincides with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of the Species, the pivotal work in evolutionary biology. The purpose of this symposium is to consider how Darwinian perspectives can inform our answers to Smith’s still fundamental question: Why do we regard certain actions or intentions with approval and condemn others?

The best available science today supports the ancient Greek assumption that we are social animals. What can we learn from animal, particularly primate, behavior to help us understand generosity, compassion, courage, and other morally praiseworthy traits of character? Are human moral judgments primarily driven by the passions, as Smith’s friend David Hume argued? Or are such judgments, as Immanuel Kant believed they should be, reached through reasoning? What roles, moreover, do moral traditions and revelation play in them? Moral rules, forbidding and enjoining certain actions, are characteristic of most religions and, indeed, most societies. What are their bases and scope—and the relationship between them and the practice of the virtues? To what extent are moral virtues interdependent? To what extent does experience, as opposed to our instincts or disposition, affect our actions in the face of moral dilemmas?

In the past decade, empirical studies involving neuroimaging and psychological testing have been conducted to probe the roots of moral intuition. What light are they shedding on this long ongoing and complex quest? Is hope or obligation of reciprocity sufficient to explain the attempt of one person to alleviate the suffering of another? What is the relationship of an ethical life to practical wisdom and to human flourishing? Is virtue to be prized for its own sake? To what extent is good character related to aspiration, endeavor, and education? How much of it is luck? Or grace? It has been argued that the ideal of universal moral equality is linked to the Judeo-Christian idea that every human being is created in the image of God. In what way are justice and other virtues that concern our relationship with one another part of a believer’s relationship to the divine? In sum, what can the biological and cognitive sciences, on the one hand, and ethics, on the other, contribute to our understanding of what it means to think morally in everyday life?

Twelve scientists, social scientists, and philosophers gather at Harvard University to address these questions as part of their exploration of both the explanatory power of culture and of biological systems of inheritance in relation to the evolution of the human sense of right and wrong. The conversation at America’s oldest institution of higher learning takes places under the auspices of the John Templeton Foundation.