My present research interest is meta-ethics and evolutionary explanations of morality. I intend to flesh out a form of moral realism where true moral statements correspond to facts about human cooperation. My distinctive contribution to this debate is to bring archaeological findings into the philosophical discussion, looking specifically at archaeological evidence for care for disabled individuals, for cooperative hunting and childcare, and for large-scale social security networks between hunter-gatherers bands as evidence for the ancient origins of a uniquely human morality.
Research grants and awards
Principal investigator of the project “Evolution, ethics, and human origins: a deep-time perspective on human morality” (Dec 2017 – August 2020), in collaboration with Johan De Smedt
This is a multidisciplinary project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. (https://www.templeton.org/grant/evolution-ethics-and-human-origins-a-deep-time-perspective-on-human-morality)
Project abstract: Human morality has unique features: we care about fairness, we are compassionate, and we cooperate in ways that go further than the altruistic behaviours of other primates. Such behaviours are regulated by moral norms, which are shared and enforced by communities. The evolution of human morality is an enduring question in ethics and moral psychology. This project will examine the evolutionary origins of morality by including a crucial piece of evidence that has been neglected in the literature: archaeological evidence for care and cooperation among human ancestors. We will combine this line of inquiry with findings from developmental psychology and studies of cooperation in non-western cultures and in primates. We will address 3 central questions. 1. How did human morality evolve? We will investigate the archaeological evidence for hominin cooperation, such as care for disabled individuals, collaborative hunting and gathering, and childcare. We hypothesize that human-specific morality evolved in a mosaic fashion as a result of selective pressures specific to hominin social life. We will write a monograph, a paper, and hold a series of public lectures. 2. Can there be objective moral norms in the light of evolution? We will explore the hypothesis that moral claims (in particular, pertaining to human cooperation) can be true in a realist sense, whereas others are likely not. Outputs will be a paper, a panel session, a conference and an edited volume on moral realism. 3. Are the theological notions of original sin and the Fall compatible with evolution? Drawing on the theology of Irenaeus and Schleiermacher, we propose they are. We outline a mechanism for this in a monograph and paper, and will organize a conference on the topic. We expect our project will change how scholars engage in evolutionary ethics. It will demonstrate that the details of how human morality evolved matter, and that they can help decide between philosophical and theological positions.
Below is a summary of ongoing and completed externally funded projects
- Evolution, ethics, and human origins: a deep-time perspective on human morality, Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, 2017-2020
- Workshop fiction writing for philosophers, Funded by the British Society of Aesthetics, 2017
- Philosophy through fiction, Funded by the Berry Fund for Public Philosophy, carried out at Oxford Brookes, 2016-2017
- The influence of intuitive afterlife beliefs on philosophical reflections on postmortem identity, funded by the Immortality Project, University of California, Riverside, carried out at the VU University Amsterdam, 2015
- Taking what others believe seriously: Implications of social epistemology for the rationality of religious belief, Funded by the British Academy, carried out at the University of Oxford, 2013-2014
- Cognitive Origins of Intuitions in Natural Theology, Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, carried out at the University of Oxford, 2011-2012
- Scientific knowledge acquisition: a cognitive approach, Funded by the Research Foundation Flanders, carried out at the University of Leuven, 2010-2013
- Religious concepts as structured imagination, Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, carried out at the University of Leuven, 2009-2010