I recently read Paul Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” in which that argument is made that evolutionary biology, by means of the concept of proper function, can provide an empirical basis for the semantics and knowledge of virtues. A key element of the argument is that human beings have the genetic endowment, due to natural selection, for capacities for behavior and cognitive life, that explain why we are able to act in virtuous ways. For instance, our ancestors acted in certain ways we now identify as virtuous, such as exhibiting other-regarding behavior, which contributed to their success in natural selection; this is why we have these capacities nowadays; and so the portions of our genome have the proper function of encoding for those aspects of our physiology, etc., which form the basis for those capacities.
Evolutionary psychology plays a central role in filling in details of Bloomfield’s proposal, because the discipline is devoted to discovering psychological and behavioral adaptations. In considering how evolutionary psychology might be used in the service of virtue ethics, the following question occurred to me. If behavioral capacities for virtues evolved by natural selection in the ancestral environment of the human species, as is a central principle of evolutionary psychology generally about behavioral adaptations, what maintains them, now that we are no longer in that environment? In general, adaptations will decay, when selection is relaxed; or adaptive traits will change, in response to changing environments. Now that our environment has changed significantly, shouldn’t our psychological adaptations be expected to decay or change, in our new environment?