The Philosophy Café


"The Origin and Scope of Morality"


September 21, 2011
7:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7:30-9:30 pm, in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

Topic of Discussion for September:

What is it about human beings that makes them exhibit that peculiar, complex kind of activity we call "moral behaviour"? The earliest examples of such behaviour are seen in the history of hunter-gatherers and early farmers who learned to cooperate, formed communities, and developed group loyalties. Early articulations of formal moral guidelines and principles are found in each of the world religions, and religion continues to be associated with morality across virtually all religious traditions. Recent theorizing in evolutionary psychology has attempted to reach back even further than historical sources, to look for antecedents of our moral behaviour among our primate ancestors. This work is complemented by comparative biology, which has identified analogous behavior among the many species of animals who exhibit altruism and generosity. Philosophers exploring these data for the source of moral behaviour are seeking to understand whether our morality, or which portion of our morality, originates in reason, emotion, biology, social structures, or religion. Of course, such answers lead to other questions—Can there be a common foundation for moral behaviour in a pluralistic or secular society?  Why is there so much diversity of moral opinion within and across modern societies?

Join us for a discussion about the origins and scope of morality. What are the most important moral choices you have had to make in your life? What do you think are the most important moral issues in the public sphere? Do you define morality in terms of purity of lifestyle choices, from the food you eat to the clothes you wear to the sexual and relationship rules you follow? Do you define morality in terms of social issues, such as uneven distribution of wealth, lack of access to health care, or the suppression of rights of women and children? Is our response to global warming a moral issue? Why do people disagree so much about what moral issues are important and about what moral choices are best? Starting with a look at the origins of morality and then examining the diversity of moral views in the world today, we will have a discussion that gives us new insights into the foundations of moral behaviour.

Suggested Readings

Haidt Video: "Universal Moral Values?"

General Wikipedia Survey of Morality

The Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behaviour

Chimps Show Precursor Traits to Human Altruism

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

General Info
(617) 661-1515

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