Purdue University Graduate School
BJohnson Dissertation_ 2.1.pdf (1.15 MB)

Conscience, Human Nature, and the Evolutionary Challenge

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posted on 2019-06-10, 19:10 authored by Brian Michael JohnsonBrian Michael Johnson

The purpose of this dissertation is to rebut some skeptical arguments in moral epistemology by appealing to philosophical resources from the history of European philosophy. The skeptical arguments I will be countering are grounded in the perspective of contemporary biology. Put quickly, our evolutionary history is said to undermine our claims to moral knowledge because the process by which our capacity for such knowledge developed was determined by adaptive and reproductive fitness. The determinations of fitness, it is said, cannot be expected to align with standards of objective moral value. In the first chapter, I spell out the importance of evaluative perception. The need for a capacity to perceive value raises the concern that moral psychology is something mysterious. In the second chapter, I consider some skeptical arguments in moral epistemology that conclude we have no good reason to believe we are wired to be receptive to objective moral truth. While some of these arguments purport to undermine our access toobjective moral truths, I conclude that they do not. The remainder of the dissertation considers the work of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel in light of the concerns raised in part one. Despite initial appearances, these authors understand the relation of conscience and human nature in a way that points toward a defensible view, even in light of the challenges raised by contemporary biology. The resulting view is an account of the moral conscience that emphasizes autonomy and rational agency and recognizes their value in virtue of their concrete expression in a social context.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Philosophy

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Christopher Yeomans

Additional Committee Member 2

Patrick Kain

Additional Committee Member 3

Daniel Kelly

Additional Committee Member 4

Daniel Smith

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