Biology and Ethics: A Case for Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Habituation

Uche S. Odozor, Christopher O. Agulanna


Prior to evolutionary biology, ethics, as a theoretical discipline, was essentially confined to philosophy, where it aimed to analyse the content of morality and what it required of humans. Albeit, in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin redefined morality to be an innate biological trait, which is inherent in the human biological constitution, thereby opening the way for the ‘biologicization’ of ethics. However, the Darwinian approach projected mere elaborate descriptions of the underlying biological mechanisms of moral behaviour as ethics, thereby sidelining the core normative concerns of traditional ethics. In reducing morality to a mere biological instinct—a spontaneous outburst that requires little human striving—it logically voided the notions of moral culpability, blameworthiness, and approbation. Moreover, the biological approach consigned habit and the intellect to the primordial past, suggesting that these faculties are of secondary importance in the moral behaviour of subsequent human generations. This resulted in a ‘closed habituation’ model, which is also logically inadequate for dealing with the notions of human freedom and moral responsibility. This paper is an attempt to resolve these shortfalls, using Aristotle’s theory of moral habituation as bench mark. The paper proposed a broad theoretical model which reincorporated the sidelined concerns of traditional ethics and, therefore, demonstrated that traditional moral philosophy could not be rendered obsolete by the incursion of biology into ethics, as contemporary evolutionary theorists of ethics have claimed.

Key words: Aristotle; Biologicized ethics; Evolution; Morality; Habituation


Aristotle, Biologicized ethics, Evolution, Morality, Habituation


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