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Philosophy in the Contemporary World

Volume 23, Issue 2, Fall 2016


Ralph D. Ellis
Pages 4-11

The Biological Basis of Ethical Motivation
(It May Not Be What You’ve Heard)

Naturalism does not necessarily imply an exclusive emphasis on the notoriously fickle empathic emotions. Contemporary neurobiological emotion research strongly suggests that the search for moral meaning, like any other everyday truth-seeking activity, is motivated not only by altruistic instincts or social conditioning, but also and more importantly it is motivated by a basic exploratory drive that makes us want to know what the truth is, independently of whether we happen to feel altruistic or nurturing in a particular instance. This innate biological drive is not socially learned or developed through reinforcement, yet it motivates us to try to find out what we really ought to do. That the love of truth is innate has survival value, yet does not lead to the naturalistic fallacy, as do the more frequently cited “moral” emotions such as sympathy and fellow-feeling. The endogenous love of truth, qua natural emotion, does not lead to the vacuous conclusion that “We ought to act morally because (and only if) we naturally feel altruistic in a given situation.”

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