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


Alexander, R.D. (1974). The Evolution of Social Behaviour. Annual Review of Ecological Systems. 5: 325-383.

Allhoff, F. (2003). Evolutionary Ethics from Darwin to Moore. Hist. Phil. Life Sci. 25, 83-111. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Aristotle. (1996). The Nicomachean Ethics. (H. Rackham, Trans.). London: Wordsworth.

Armstrong, D.M. (2007). The Nature of Mind. In J. Perry, et al. (Eds.), Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings (pp. 295-302). New York: Oxford University Press.

Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W.D. (1981). The Evolution of Cooperation. Science. 211(4489). 1390-1396.

Barcalow, E. (1994). Moral Philosophy. California: Wordsworth.

Brooks, D. (2009, June 26). Human Nature Today. The New York Times. P. A25. Retrieved from

Casebeer, W.D. (2003). Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Copi, I.M. & Cohen, C. (1994). Introduction to Logic. 9th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Cunningham, S. (1996). Philosophy and the Darwinian Legacy. Rochester: University of Rochester.

Curry, O. (2005). Morality as Natural History. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of London: LSE Research Online. Retrieved from

Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton.

Dawkins, R. (1976/2006). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennet, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

de Waal, F. (1996). Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. London: Harvard University Press.

Flew, A.G.N. (1967). Evolutionary ethics. W.D. Hudson. Ed. London: St. Martin’s Press.

Hamilton, W.D. (1963). The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior. The American Naturalist. 97(896), 354-356.

Hobbes, T. (1960). Leviathan. Oakshott, M. (Ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hume, D. (2003). A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1740)

Johnson, O.A. (1989). Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers. (6th ed.). London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Joyce, R. (2006). The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

--- (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge: New York Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I. (1953). Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. (H.J. Paton Trans.). London: Hatchett. (Original work published 1785)

Kitcher, P. (2006). Four Ways of ‘Biologicizing’ Ethics. In E. Sober (Ed.). Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. (3rd ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press. 575-586.

Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin.

Mill, J.S. (1998). Utilitarianism. On Liberty and Other Essays. Gray, J. (Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1861)

Millikan, R.G. Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Nitecki, M.H. (1994). Arguments on Evolutionary Ethics. Current Issues: Acta Paleontologica Polonica 38(3-4), 339-348.

Punnett, R.C. (1912). Evolution, Biological and Ethical. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (vol.5, pp.615-628). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Richards, R.J. (1986). A Defense of Evolutionary Ethics. Biology and Philosophy. 1: 265–293.

Ring, M. (2006, August). Naturalism and Normativity. Essay read at a conference on ‘Naturalism in Ethics’, held at Durham University. Retrieved January 17, 2008, from

Ruse, M. (1986). Evolutionary Ethics: a Phoenix Arisen. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 21(1), 95-112.

Ruse, M. and Wilson, E.O. (2006). Moral Philosophy as Applied Science. In E. Sober (Ed.). Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press. 555-573.

Singer, P. (1982). Ethics and Sociobiology. In Cohen, M., (Ed.). Philosophy and Public Affairs. 11(1), 40-64.

Tancredi, L.R. (2005). Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trivers, R.L. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology. 46(1), 35-57.

Watt, S. (1996). Introduction to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. London: Wordsworth. ix-xxiv.

Wilkins, J.S. (2006, August 31). Is There Progress and Direction in Evolution? In Evolution and Philosophy. Retrieved from

Wilson, E.O. (1975). Sociobiology: A New Synthesis. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c)


  • How to do online submission to another Journal?
  • If you have already registered in Journal A, then how can you submit another article to Journal B? It takes two steps to make it happen:

1. Register yourself in Journal B as an Author

  • Find the journal you want to submit to in CATEGORIES, click on “VIEW JOURNAL”, “Online Submissions”, “GO TO LOGIN” and “Edit My Profile”. Check “Author” on the “Edit Profile” page, then “Save”.

2. Submission

Online Submission

  • Go to “User Home”, and click on “Author” under the name of Journal B. You may start a New Submission by clicking on “CLICK HERE”.
  • We only use four mailboxes as follows to deal with issues about paper acceptance, payment and submission of electronic versions of our journals to databases:;;;

 Articles published in Canadian Social Science are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC-BY).


Canadian Social Science Editorial Office

Address: 1020 Bouvier Street, Suite 400, Quebec City, Quebec, G2K 0K9, Canada.
Telephone: 1-514-558 6138 
Website: Http://; Http://;

Copyright © Canadian Academy of Oriental and Occidental Culture