Darwins Theory of Evolution states that the evolution of life underlies processes like selection, reproduction and variation. I think, essentially he says, that the occurences of any ability or property are completely random and the survival of some of them depend on the natural environment and nothing else. I guess this also includes the development of mind or human reason. So human reason may as well not exist at all.

But in his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals Kant says:

We take it as an axiom that in the natural constitution of an organized being (i.e. one suitably adapted to life) no organ will be found that isn’t perfectly adapted to its purpose.

And later:

So reason isn’t competent to act as a guide that will lead the will reliably to its objectives and will satisfy all our needs (indeed it adds to our needs!); an implanted instinct would do this job much more reliably. Nevertheless, reason is given to us as a practical faculty, that is, one that is meant to have an influence on the will. Its proper function must be to produce a will that is good in itself and not good as a means.

His argumentation completely relies on an axiom that is incompatible with the Theory of Evolution.

I always understood Kant's ethics to build on nothing but reason, because of his argumentation above.

So to what extent does Darwin's theory argue against Kant's moral philosophy?

  • 1
    While definitely interesting territory, would you consider reframing the question-line somewhat? A potential reformulation might read something like: "In what ways might Darwin's theory of evolution complicate or confound a reading of Kant's Groundwork...?" The basic suggestion would be to avoid a binary query here; keep in mind questions should try to invite great answers/explanations. (Does it become worthless/does it disprove -- these are perhaps not the most interesting or urgent problems or questions.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 3, 2012 at 0:31
  • Thanks for your suggestion. I tried to reformulate the question.
    – x squared
    Feb 3, 2012 at 9:07
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    While your first sentence describing evolution is OK, the sentence "... the occurrences of any ability or property are completely random and the survival ... and nothing else" might be your reading of evolution (perhaps even a common one today), but not what Darwin said or wrote. Even the notion of "completely random" is problematic (except when the probability measure is clear from the context). Evolution doesn't care whether abilities develop randomly or intentionally, it just "evaluates" the result. Feb 3, 2012 at 19:24
  • @Thomas: From the perspective of evolution and natural selection, there is no such thing as abilities developing "intentionally". Natural selection merely works with what it has, and spontaneous mutations are by far the most common mechanism by which these abilities emerge and develop. I'm not sure if you're making the point that the modern interpretation of these concepts in biology differs from what Darwin originally wrote (and I'm far too entrenched in the current science to be able to compare and contrast that well with Darwin's original theory), but your comment appears misleading. Feb 7, 2012 at 21:13
  • @CodyGray Two clarifications: 1) When I wrote "Evolution doesn't care whether abilities develop randomly or intentionally", I just meant "Evolution doesn't care too much how abilities actually develop". I wrote "randomly or intentionally" because of the hidden irony that the notions of "completely random" and "completely intentional" are both very questionable, but that we don't need to care about that because evolution doesn't care either. 2) Evolution and genetics are not the same thing. Disproving genetics wouldn't disprove evolution. And disproving evolution wouldn't disprove genetics. Feb 7, 2012 at 22:18

2 Answers 2


Does that mean that if Darwin's theory is right, Kant's whole moral philosophy becomes worthless, because his axiom does not hold?

No, it means that Kant's whole moral philosophy is imperfect. That's not a big shock; I don't think anybody (outside of Kant himself) actually thought that it was.

I think that there are very few today who would doubt that humans are not perfectly rational, and that any attempt to ground an ethics in pure rationality is going to be incomplete at best. But that does not mean that Kant, or his moral writings, are worthless; on the contrary, they remain important works to grapple with in any later ethical developments.

  • Yes, you are right, I am sure, his work is very important to understand later ethical developments. But this is merely a functinoal rather than an ethical importance, right?
    – x squared
    Feb 2, 2012 at 11:56

Interestingly I don't think Kant & Darwin are incompatible. In fact, I am begining to think they are actually two components of a much larger model on the development of 'success.' Darwin's idea that attributes are random is not really relevant to Kant's point. I would submit there is a slight missreasing. Darwin posits that features are random in their development or that nature does not develop features purposefully. But in a sense nature does. Features develop in a particular environment and support the continuation of both a feature and creature. Evolution selects the features which lead to reproductive success. Evoltion is the process of nature. Therefore nature is not random it is experimental. And like in the concept of brainstorming it doesn't matter where 'ideas' about a problem come from, each is put on the table and reviewed. In a sense Darwin was stating features, like ideas, appear and there source is not important in the evaluation process. The feature's reproductive success is critical.

And this leads to Kant. All 'organs' fill a specific purpose. Meaning the existence of the 'organ' implies, by its existence, that it has supported reproductive success and therefore is fullfilling some purpose.

Of course this ideas maybe filled with extaneous blather that will be filtered out as it's reproductive success is refined.

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