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Moral psychology


‘Morality binds and blinds’

Jonathan Haight

The future of humanity depends more on managing ourselves than it does on managing the environment, society, and economics because we are, as it were ‘prior’ to all these things. We need to know as much as we possibly can about human nature. ‘Knowing ourselves’ (see Reason) will help us in the difficult process of managing ourselves. This theme is becoming more relevant and repeated by the day, that ‘To live virtuously as individuals and as societies, we must understand how our minds are built’.[27] As we have seen, this rather obvious truism dates back to at least classical times – what makes it of special interest today is that science does appear to be, at last, making some inroads.

Morality, religion and ideology are all part of the cement that binds people together into communities. Articles on this web site argue that the international program for sustainable development provides a practical program for human well-being (see Morality & sustainability). In this article I look at moral psychology as the study of our moral intuitions, discussing the new insights in this subject area that can play a role in our future.

Gunfight at the OK Corral – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly – its got it all!
Protection & violence; fairness, cheating & justice; honour, loyalty & betrayal; authority & hierarchy; purity & disgust
Not to mention sexuality expressed as male domination
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The article on morality and sustainability pointed to reason and moral intuitions as sources of our behaviour in general and moral behaviour in particular. The article on reason examines the many ways that, in our daily lives, rationality can be diverted from its path.Indeed, for philosophers like Henry Sidgwick the definition of morality itself entailed the application of rationality to our behaviour reinforcing the long-held view that morality is about the regulation of our baser instincts and impulses. For moral psychologist Jonathan Haight, a defender of philosopher David Hume, the role of reason in the ethics of daily life has been vastly over-stated by philosophers. In Haidt’s view it is intuitions that domiminate our daily lives: we ‘feel’ first and then we provide a ‘rationalisation’ of our feelings.

Moral psychology concerns itself with the sources of our morality, with our moral intuitions and moral reasoning. How are we affected by and how do we deal with the moral dilemmas that seem to result from our ‘divided’ minds. This is one of the most exciting current disciplines contributing to our overall understanding of human nature.

One key observation of moral psychology is that Homo sapiens is the only species to form vast communities not based on kinship. This ultra-sociality is cemented by common belief – as religion, ideology and morality – the sharing of a common world view. Here all of these sources of social cement are referred to as ‘morality’.

Human nature

Many of our major economic, political and social theories include either explicit or implicit assumptions about human nature. So … are we greedy, selfish, and individualistic or are we generous, caring, altruistic and cooperative? If we are a mix of these things then how do such characteristics arise in us, how can they exist together, and how are they to be managed, if at all? What evidential base is there for such assertions? Society at large is still debating empirical questions like: are we inherently violent? What aspects of gender are a social construct? Are there racial differences that run deeper than skin colour? If our genetics does play a significant role in our behaviour then to what extent are we accountable for our behaviour and how should this be assessed, for example, in a court of law? Are there biological circumstances in which punishment is senseless and futile? To what extent can we draw valid conclusions about human behaviour and morality from the behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos? What exactly are our psychological and behavioural predispositions and, if we had a scientific answer to this question then how would this relate to society and its governance?

Answers to questions like these have been difficult to find because knowledge of the way the mind works has, until recent times, been extremely limited. Science has struggled to unweave the intricate interaction that exists between environment and organism (see Nature & nurture). However, research emerging out of subjects like evolutionary psychology, behavioural genetics, behavioural economics, and many more disciplines of the mind (many established within the last 20 years), are all working to bring ‘human nature’ into focus. Knowing more about ourselves is unlikely to unleash a Utopia but it should at least clear away many of the prejudices and misconceptions of the past as we begin to comprehend exactly what we are up against.

One general observation emerging from moral psychology relates to the degree to which human nature can be socially manipulated. Some people might maintain that given the appropriate conditions we could lead completely peaceful and satisfied lives. To others this is Utopian. Though such a goal is a worthy aim, there are many human traits that cannot be excised by social engineering. For example, we will always need some means of social regulation albeit less constraining than those at present. However, in general terms we can be Utopian or fatalistic about our true nature. Moral psychology suggests we cannot expect perfection from the human animal.

The moral certitude paradox

Morality provides powerful emotional motivation for action. It can be convincingly argued that our convictions about say, social justice issues have resulted in societal improvement. But moral fervour, especially the fervour associated with political and religious ideology, can prove extremely dangerous and destructive as history has demonstrated time and again. Being extremely passionate in your beliefs is admirable until you meet someone equally passionate but with an opposite point of view: this can prove disastrous. We are condemned to make moral choices because even inaction is a moral act itself. An important aspect of moral psychology is therefore an understanding of humility and ways of managing moral difference.

Moral psychology

Many philosophers from the earliest times have wrestled with such questions but it is only in the twentieth century that such studies have become more empirically based. As a cross-disciplinary subject moral psychology draws on many sources including game theory, behavioural genetics, physical anthropology (especially primate behaviour), evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, cross-cultural studies, human history and developmental psychology. Apart from adult humans its experimental subjects include animals and children as the subjuct begins to build up an evidence-based set of foundational principles.

Most of us try to lead ‘good’ lives but what do we really mean by such a phrase? Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed he could give us a universal definition of the Good life (see Reason & rationality) but clearly the answer to this question will vary somewhat from person to person but it is certainly our morals psychology and values that give our lives much of their meaning, our sense of worth meaning and purpose.

Moral psychology is directed at both the individual and group morality and values as morality is about communal aspirations as well as those of its individuals and it seems safe to assume that communally-accepted conventions, norms, rules and laws will reflect to some degree or general motivations, our human nature.

Today in any group of people you are likely to find very different views about our motivations, either individual or collective. This is a highly controversial, non-consensual field of knowledge. Journalists, for example, are instructed not to comment on motives because none of us can be sure of why people do things, their motivations may even be unconscious. For the journalist it is best not to speculate but to stick to what is self-evident and non-controversial, explicit behaviour. For the scientist this is not enough.

Our motivation, our morality, and human nature are important because they are at the centre of our politics, education system, our social interaction, the legal system (especially criminology) and much more. Indeed, in a secular world, there is every justification for calling our individual and collective goals, our morality and values, as our ‘meaning of life’ (see Meaning & purpose).


Religion has been criticised for its uncompromising moral certitude and the bloodshed resulting from the intolerance of one faith for another. Today the world watches in horror as places like the Middle East and Africa are sites of regular bombings and mass slaughter as religions, theoretically based on compassion and love, slug it out to the death while the Catholic Church, bastion of sexual rectitude, struggles to deal with the child abuse perpetrated by its male priests.

But criticism cannot be one-sided. The question of whether religion has, on the whole, benefitted humanity and the planet is probably unanswerable. Secular societies also experience violence and it is a fact that charities caring for the homeless and less fortunate are supported largely by religious organisations and donations from religious people. The American Civil Rights movement was fired by religious belief. Correct or not, most people believe in God and an afterlife, engage in some religious ritual and believe that morality comes from God.

The Vatican has endorsed the theory of evolution which is now mostly only resisted by evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.

Politically we must find ways to communicate about public issues that do not entail religious conflict.

‘… morality will be far more reliable if genuine prosocial feelings constitute its driving force.’ [22]Morality arose first, and modern religion latched onto it‘.[21] our evolutionary background lends a massive helping hand without which we would never have gortten this far‘.[23]

In the Euthyphro Plato presents the theist with a moral dilemma. ‘Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?‘If it is morally good in itself then the Gods become irrelevant to morality: if there are no moral standards other than God’s commands then morality is based on God’s caprice, not on reasons.


Our brain, our instincts, emotions and behaviour evolved by natural selection in the same way as our bodies, but building compelling evolutionary arguments is extremely difficult for behavioural characteristics. Evolutionary explanations for particular behavioural traits can sound like arbitrary ‘just so’ stories: they need rigorous testing to be convincing. Even so considering how particular behaviours evolved is important because we have to assume that evolved they have. From an evolutionary perspective, for example, it is clear that selfless kindness has little adaptive value while selfishness does: although ‘discriminate altruism’ (say, protection of our own kin) does conserve our own genetic pool.

Noting at the outset the danger of extrapolating directly from primate behaviour to human behaviour we would nevertheless be foolish to not pay attention to primate research.

Are morals imposed by reason or do they come to us from our biology. De Waals in The Bonobo and the Atheist argues that rather than developing morality from scratch through rational reflection ‘we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals’.

Among primates humans are most closely related through a common ancestor to chimps and bonobos, these two non-human groups are closely related but with very different behaviour.

Primates & lethal aggression
Chimps engage in intra-group violence especially the males towards females and there is infanticide. There is lethal male coalitionary aggression that results in more land and resources for the troop and access to more females for the males: killing is done in extremely gruesome ways. This is extremely rare in the animal kingdom generally and the only other primate that does this is man.

Bonobos, in contrast, are extremely peaceable exhibiting little intra-group violence and no inter-group violence. There is no female abuse or infanticide. Sex occurs frequently in many positions both between and within sexes. The only sex combination that does not occur in bonobos is mother and son.[2] Most chimp killings occur during territorial disputes while bonobos engage in sex at their territorial boundaries.[6] Females bond cooperatively to dominate the males.

Why there is such a difference between chimps and bonobos is not certain although one explanation suggests that bonobos in their evolutionary past had access to food in a way that allowed females to bond and work together. Chimps, in contrast, are forced by the nature of their food supply into more isolated females. It is possible that humans had the same feeding history in which females could not form coalitionary bands.

What is important is that we can see in the primates the innate moral domains that are also found in humans.

Empathy has been observed in primates, canines and even rodents. Chimps console by hugging and kissing. Both cats and dogs respond to our emotions. If one goose fights another its partner’s heart starts to race. A dog will perform tricks without rewards but will refuse if another dog gets meat for the same trick. Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality. Chimps are astute readers of bodies and voices and a frequently seen to engage in tit for tat behaviour. Maladaptive behaviour is extremely common.

Of the various behaviours corresponding to foundational moral traits like those suggested by Haidt, hierarchy or pecking order appears much stronger in animals than humans and generally trumps other behaviours.

Lethal aggression

The most distressing human trait, shared only with chimps, is large-scale violence and unspeakable cruelty as group on group, and troop hunting resulting in lethal aggression. There is also extreme violence towards females and infanticide. Territorial incursions may be met with fights to the death. In contrast bonobos have peaceable matriarchal societies with alpha-females. Territorial incursions, after initial uncertainty, usually result in inter-group sex.

The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel ‘One Fat Englishman’ puts it ‘It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children’.

We know that evolution inevitably tends to weed out the more self-destructive elements of behaviour. It is alarming that human armamaments have changed from sticks to nuclear weapons in a period of time that is not evolutionarily significant. Primatology and moral psychology would indicate that we need to use our reasion and cognitive flexibilty to a maximum while at the same time promoting coalitionary groups that encourage us to become a more peaceable and moral species.


Another way to gain insight into our innate characteristics is by experimentation with children and especially babies. Even without language the movement of babies’ eyes, and the time spent looking at particular objects, can tell us a lot about their understanding, when they are bored, interested, or surprised. Children mimic expressions and appear to experience sympathetic emotion at around six months, they do not like to see others in pain. At all ages children expect equality of treatment.[3]Babies make distinctions between familiar and strange people almost immediately. Newborn babies prefer to look at their mother’s face rather than a stranger’s face; they prefer their mother’s smell; and they prefer her voice‘.[4]

Experimental evidence supports the idea that children are social animals with an appreciation of the minds of others and, at around the age of nine months, children can distinguish between helpful and unhelpful behaviour and, in so doing, displaying what might be termed a rudimentary moral sense.[5]

Where do moral intuitions come from?

Enlightenment philosopher Kant claimed we knew the moral law through reason, exhorting us to act so that your action can become a universal law, his ‘categorical imperative’ while philosopher Hume pointed out that decisions become extremely difficult without feelings, whether these are intense or not. Hume believed that reason ‘should’ be guided by the passions because he felt that human passions were fundamentally benevolent or sympathetic.

One special area of study concerns a possible sixth sense, a moral sense or moral instinct that we possess in addition to the traditional senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. But how could we demonstrate the presence of such an instinct?

Enlightenment political scientist Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) considered that the moral sense might have a number of different aspects in much the same way that we distinguish between various smells, tastes, colours and so on. These we might consider today to correspond to something along the lines of Haidt’s moral principles (see below).[7]

Analysis of our moral sense does not reduce, diminish, debunk or devalue our humanity or throw it into irretrievable relativity.

We are not sure of exacly how such a moral sense has arisen: from the benefits of cooperative behaviour, moral instincts with superimposed societal norms, nutural selection operating at the group level. Competing group and individual selection theories are also found for punishment and other behavioural traits.

The debate on the role of reason in moral judgment continues to this day. For moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt moral judgment is mostly based on automatic processes or moral intuitions, rather than on conscious reasoning. For Haidt, people engage in reasoning largely to find evidence to support their initial intuitions.[12] But is reason always ‘self-serving’ or does it sometimes seek ‘truth’ in moral decision-making. For other people moral decisions about what is right and wrong are made using objective rational judgment that has little if anything to do with evolutionary theory, psychological experiments, or observations of brain activity. To say that our moral intuitions are mostly OK is to acknowledge some point of judgment that lies outside our intuitions themselves. This attempt to be objective, to find a final arbiter, is common and occurs in both the Golden Rule and in utilitarian ethics – and it is usually attribute it to reason.

Instinct & the innate

The idea of a moral instinct suggests that the mind has something within it that is not learned, that is, something that is innate. To be considered innate, it was once claimed, a behavioural trait must be hard-wired (unchangeable by experience) and universal (found in all cultures). This distinction is not to be made lightly: what is, or is not, innate has been the source of intense and bitter controversy (see also Nature & nurture)

Since the 1970s our improved understanding of the brain suggests that traits can be innate without being either hard-wired or universal. Although the interplay between our brains at birth and the impacts of the environment into which we are born is difficult to conceptualise, there is no doubt that the brain of the newborn, though complex and flexible, is not a ‘blank slate’.

To aid our conceptualisation of this relationship between the inner ‘given’ workings of the mind and the various influences that can cause it to change, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt quotes neuroscientist Gary Marcus who characterises innateness in the mind as follows: ‘it is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during foetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in. But not a single chapter—be it the one on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality—consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words.’[8]Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.’

For Haidt ‘innate’ means ‘organized in advance of experience.’ A blank brain learns nothing, it must have some hard-wired way to structure the information that passes into it from all of the senses. Probably the most comprehensive attempt at a list of these innate structures that we have is that of anthropologist Donald Brown who covers well over 100 moral concepts and emotions. Identifying genes for morality is some way off yet but moral psychologists, developmental psychologists and anthropologists have recognised five innate specifically moral principles or dimensions of the human mind, foundational moral domains (that can be described in slightly different ways) through which we express moral concern. These are outlined by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.[8] These moral intuitions appear not only across cultures but also in children and primates and they are characteristics that also have great evolutionary interest. A genetically ‘determined’ mental trait does not lock us into a particular path of behaviour: our liking for sweet foods, sexual attraction, ability to feel anger can be controlled. So innate traits constrain but do not determine.

1. care/harm (helping and hurting)
2. fairness/cheating (reciprocity, altruism, empathy, cooperation, free-riding)
3. loyalty/betrayal (affiliations, in-groups & out-groups, strangers, tribes, coalitions)
4. sanctity/degradation (physical or spiritual purity/contamination especially in relation to food, sex, & death)
5. authority/subversion (hierarchy, pecking order, respect, dignity, honour)

Although these moral domains could be simply cultural responses to universal problems, it should be noted that they also ocur in both higher primates and children, suggesting a genetic base.

Over the years these foundational moral domains will no doubt be rigorously analysed and remoulded but they already provide a useful window into human nature.

1. Care/harm – (helping or hurting)

We all feel moral indignation at unprovoked harm to others. This is perhaps the least controversial of the moral domains. Very few animals kill con-specifics even though they have the means to do so, chimps being an exception. Male battles are almost universally settled by sizing one-another up rather than by a fight to the death.

Under experimental conditions monkeys will forego food to avoid harming others.

2. Fairness/cheating

Empathy, compassion & concern

Caring about a person (compassion) can be distinguished from putting yourself in the position of another (empathy) but both can involve powerful emotions.

There does not appear to be a sharp line between human and animal emotions of empathy. Human infants show empathy (or mimicry) from at least the age of 6 months. Concern for others may be attributed to self-interest, religious doctrine, a philosophical position, or simple duty it seems as part of our innate make-up we imagine ‘being another’, or ‘being in someone else’s shoes’.

Empathy is stronger the closer we feel to the empathants, being greatest for small numbers of people that we can see or know personally in some way (‘identifiable victim effect’) rather than large numbers of anonymous people.

There are recognisable facial expressions that occur in all cultures (anger, surprise, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness). Fiction especially facilitates understanding of other people and their cultures and circumstances.

Empathy does seem to have some unfortunate consequences: it can make us favour the individual over the crowd, our kin rather than others, the cute, cuddly and physically attractive over the ugly and unattractive.

A good indication of the innateness of empathy is that we regard someone who genuinely has no feeling for others – no gratitude, remorse, shame, or sensitivity to suffering – as exhibiting psychopathology (‘why should I care, I am not him or her?’). A psychopath might be aware of social rules but does not feel the associated moral emotions. Where appeal to compassion is not observed the societal response is to act at a directly personal behavioural level by imprisonment and the use of reward and punishment.

Adam Smith gives the example of how we can tolerate the news of a death of thousands while finding intolerable the idea of a loss of one of our fingers. Also that our reason allows us to overcome such selfish motives and become impartial spectators, acknowledging as we do so that morally we are ‘but one of the multitude’. In the interplay of reason and emotion.

The motivation for altruism is not transparent: is it a genuine concern for others or is done for selfish reasons?

Moral psychologists have observed the power of ‘fictive empathy’ – how literature, TV and movies place us in the ‘shoes’ of people very different from us who are caught up in situations we have never experienced ourselves in real life. It is an imaginitive world that from an early age could well have contributed to our individual and collective widening circle of moral empathy: perhaps there are advantages to children watching endless hours of television as its dramas engage us in moral philosophy! Central to much of this is our preoccupation with sex and violence, topics that are not only central to our survival but also strong triggers of our moral conscience and its desire to allocate praise and blame.

Though our feelings of empathy appear to be stronger for kin and those we associate with (paraochial empathy), the parable of the good Samaritan is an example of moral exhortation to extend this sphere.

Behavioural economics

Economic experiments can test kindness, fairness and egalitarianism in practical situations. Games can be set up between thousands of people and the results averaged. For example in the Ultimatum Game participant 1 is given money and the option to give any proportion of it to participant 2 who can either accept or reject the offer. However, if it is rejected then neither get any money. Both participants are separated. We might expect the donor participant to give little and the recipient to accept whatever is offered. But typically half or a little less than half is given as recipients tend to reject low offers. The rejection might be because of an unconscious and incorrect assumption that this behaviour might be repeated. It is notable that children will often prefer to get nothing than to get less than another child.

In the Dictator Game participant 1 can give participant 2 any amount. We might expect that the money would simply be kept but this is not what actually happens as on average 20-30% but up to half is the usual amount given away. There can be no retaliation in this situation so what is going on? Possibly social pressure is at play since participants are aware that they are being studied. Imagine if you were on TV or being observed by your family?

Economic games testing for altruism or selfishness indicate altruism although this could be the result of being under observation with social pressure overriding natural inclinations: that egalitarianism and altruism may be strongly dependent on social pressure.

Children are sensitive to inequality but (like monkeys, chimps and dogs) only when they receive less. Both primates and dogs reject food that they would normally accept when others are given ‘luxury’ food for the same effort, showing an aversion to inequity.

Reciprocal altruism & the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

Although indiscriminate altruism is clearly maladaptive, discriminate altruism (‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’) seems well established in human behaviour provided there is no cheating or free-riding. However, again and again in social and political life there arises what has become known as the ‘prisoners dilemma’ in which the benefits of cooperation cannot be enjoyed because of mutual fear or suspicion. One obvious example today is the refusal of countries to act on climate change for fear that other countries will take advantage of their good will (they will become free-riders).

How are we to overcome mutual distrust and develop cooperation? In the case of two participants a formula has been suggested: provided there is more than one opportunity to interact then the first time you cooperate and each subsequent time you copy the former response of the other agent. These ‘tit-for-tat’ rules become quickly self-evident and create the opportunity for cooperation. At the moral level feelings of guilt and gratitude are apparent as we feel obliged to reciprocate kindness and guilty when we abuse someone elses’ trust, realising that trust is what friendships are built on.


Although the idea of fairness is part of our everyday interaction with one-another there also appears to be a public aspect to this in which ‘good’ actions are rewarded and ‘bad’ actions punished. If bad behaviour is not to proliferate then it needs to be resisted or ‘punished’ so perhaps indignation is as important to morality as compassion and altruism. Justice is strongly associated with honour so unjust treatment cannot be blandly accepted: turning the other cheek is neither natural or desireable. Cultures highly sensitive to honour tend to be more violent.


That egalitarianism is a powerful principle hardly needs explanation: it has featured in political discourse for many generations and is a matter that still occupies us deeply. Today this issue is perhaps best expressed in moral terms as ‘What sort of equality is morally preferable: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?‘ and how do we ‘unpack’ this difficult political conundrum?[9]


We are quick to see selfishness in all things and to regard selfishness as an overriding and ultimately evolutionarily supported universal human trait, indeed a characteristic of all living things. Perhaps the best-known and most often quoted example of this view is that of Scottish political economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) who is famously considered to have laid the foundations of capitalism by harnessing human human self-interest for the common good. Smith did not, however, regard selfishness as everything, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments he states ‘ … there are evidently some principles in [human] nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others … that we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others …’ Smith adds a further comment that we might regard as patronising but of interest ‘ … for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility‘. Smith appears to be expressing the patronising view that the lower classes could do with some moral improvement, an opinion expressed vigorously in Britain’s colonial era in relation to non-British races and nations. In The Secret History of the Dismal Science present-day economists point out that Smith believed there were no natural masters and no natural slaves; that all human differences can be explained by incentives, history and luck, and that Smith was opposed to any inequality and that included slavery, colonialism, and empire.[10]

We might think that it is highly reasonable to act out of self-interest (egoism) but this need not be an overriding motive.

3. Loyalty/betrayal


Primates in general greet strangers with panic or aggression. Humans, on the one hand, will show indifference or antagonism but are capable of altruistic concern, even when there is no apparent pay-back.

We usually display a psychological sphere of ethical concern which is greatest for those who are kin, then those who are in direct with us and, finally, anonymous strangers. Reason tells us that though a biological concern for our blood relatives is understandable, but indifference to strangers does not carry moral weight. We realise the underlying truth of the parable of the good Samaritan and the knowledge that we ‘lavish our children with luxuries in order to make them just a bit happier when the same resources could be used to save the lives of strangers‘.[11]

Primates were given the choice of two tokens: token 1 indicates food for the individual, token 2 indicates food for the group. Once the significance of the tokens was grasped about 80% of the time token 2 was selected (pro-social). However, they were significantly anti-social for strangers and markedly anti-social when the other individual was unknown.

Children in the age group 4-7 show distinct selfishness that is moderated as they get older; they also have an antipathy to strangers. We may nurture relationships through the enlightened self-interest of trade and its interactions and interdependencies can assist inter-group relations; by developing an empathy for the another culture or group; by the use of reason.

Experimental data indicates that we encode three basic pieces of information about newly encountered people: age, sex and race.

Individualism vs collectivism

In spite of clear limitations it is possible to apply empirical tests to broad theories about different kinds of countries, societies, or world-views. Individualist societies, like the USA, place emphasis on individual goals, autonomy, self-reliance, independence, and lack of conformity. Collectivist societies, like China, place emphasis on interdependence, group membership, cooperation, mutual support, interaction, and conformity. Evolution has been interpreted as indicating that nature is inherently competitive, a ‘survival of the fittest’ in a struggle for mates and resources. Here was an apparent defence of social Darwinism or for that matter an account of the foundations of capitalism: a vindication of Adam Smith’s claim that the baker provides our bread out of self-interest of his profits, not a desire that we are fed. This raises all the uneasy questions of contrasting altruism, empathy, reciprocity, greed, selfishness and so on.

Tight vs loose societies

These represent a spectrum of social norms which at one extreme are rigid and authoritarian to those whose norms are mildly observed. Tight countries are autocratic with closed media, few rights, more police, less crime, more religion. Tightness is seen as a response to threat, countries that are less threatened are generally more open and the norms more mildly observed. When we see a highly disciplined society there is often a strong social hierarchy behind it and according to De Waal is ‘… rooted in violence‘ … ‘… a giant system of inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality … ‘ [13]

Community, autonomy, divinity

Moral psychologist Schweder recognised three moral dimensions, the CAD triad:

Community: based on group cooperation and whose rejection leads to contempt.

Autonomy: based on rights, fairness, liberties, equity and caring and whose rejection leads to anger.

Divinity: based on purity, cleanliness and sanctity and whose rejection leads to disgust.

Liberal vs conservative

In Western society, especially America, there does appear to be a clustering correlation of moral values and political values on the political spectrum liberal-conservative – why is this so?

In crude terms conservatives regard liberals as immature bleeding hearts leeching off the successful. Liberals regard conservatives as selfish and greedy simple-minded individualists. Each position regards itself as rational and the other position as emotionally irrational or, at the extreme, evil.

In America there tends to be uniform politically-based view on god, guns, gays, abortion, capital punishment, health care, foreign aid, and affirmative action. Liberal-conservative political scale is useful for moral prediction.

How to characterise scientifically the nature of politico-scientific decisions has become a separate discipline: political psychology.

Haight believes conservatives have a constrained tragic view of human nature that values tradition and security while liberals have a Utopian vision with enthusiasm for new things. This tragic-Utopian vision expresses our characteristics. The more liberal the greater emphasis on harm and fairness. In America the liberal emphasis on autonomy is extremely pronounced.

However, characterising each position in such simplistic terms can be misleading. Each has changed over certain issues and the predictive capacity of the model is limited with, for example, libertarians who do not fit the mould.

4. Sanctity/degradation

Purity & disgust

Disgust of various kinds influences moral decisions, incest, bestiality for some homosexuality. Sexual or other arousal can influence views about what is moral.

Disgust & honour

Disgust is a powerful negative emotion that has frequently been used to marginalise and separate human groupings, insulting people by comparing then to disgusting animals and the bodily excretions that elicit core disgust: blood, gore, vomit, faeces, urine and rotting flesh, but there are others like pus, sweat, semen, snot, menstruation and (more innocuous) tears. Almost all have unpleasant associations that can cloud our judgement.

Children start out innocent of disgust, ingesting all kinds of things, but by early childhood have developed adult aversions, with the reasons not altogether clear although it seems safe to assume that it involves at least in part an adaptation to resist disease and poisons although people differ in their responses. Bodily functions feature a lot in the swearing of all nationalities and are something we are all aware of and as St Augustine (of all people) observed ‘We are all born between faeces and urine‘. All this tends to remind us of our similarity to animals.[14]

Purity and sanctity give rise to disgust and moral disapproval most evident in the domain of sex, again disapproved of sex acts frequently being incorporated into swearing. Conservatives regard purity as important and say disgust should play a role in moral decision-making and seem to be more disgust-sensitive, emotionally and in terms of moral action.

Some societies and people place great store on honour, especially male violence, bravery and courage. For women it is sexual purity and family. It relates to sex roles. Most of us still identify with honour even though we might not support it in our daily lives. It is significant that murder comes mostly from petty insults and therefore relates to honour. Turning the other cheek is contemptably weak in a society that has little or no law and where property is easily taken – as in the American Wild West, Scottish highlands, American south, and in the villages of Masai tribesmen. A reputation for extreme violence can maintain a happy and safe life. In such societies there is respect for the military, police, capital punishment, and honour crimes: perhaps strangely, people tend to be extremely polite. Honour is related to payback and retaliation, even war, but also respect and compassion, making for a morality that, for some, is a richer human experience that mere utilitarianism.

Our emotions have evolved to serve a biological purpose (disgust) but may have become diverted and associated with things that have no rational basis.It is possible to overcome what seems like irrational disgust. At one time there was disgust associated with interracial marriage and homosexuality but this seems to be changing.

Distaste for sibling incest seems almost universal. It appears likely that lack of incest occurs in these situations, not because they are biologically related, but because they have lived and grown up together. Parents concerned about sexually over-active teenagers need not worry about sons and daughters, they simply dont want to have sex with one-another. Though we feel distaste for incest, even when it is protected, although we also find it difficult to state our reasons, a case of ‘moral dumbfounding’.[15] Most children find the thought of their parents having sex disturbing. Love and lust can trump disgust – but bodily disgust is the default position.[16] Moral psychologist Paul Bloom suggests that incest, homosexuality, and bestiality are not biological adaptations but are in some way associated with evolved systems that keep us away from parasites and poisons: in any case they feel the same as evolved adaptations.[17]

Disgust may help us resist pathogens and poisons but it can also be used to incite irrational fear and aggression.

Religions often emphasise purity with ritual cleansing a part of ritual and ceremony: baptism in Christianity, various forms of washing in Islam evoking a correlation between physical and spiritual purity. The expression ‘ethnic cleansing’ may derive from this.[18]

6. Authority/subversion

Hierarchies as pecking orders and respect for social position are found across the animal kingdom through to the ‘alpha males’ and ‘alpha females’ among our closest biological relatives. The fact that some sort of social hierarchy seems inevitable beyond a certain group size perhaps makes it even more likely that we are hard-wired for dominance and submission. Hunter-gatherers may distribute food fairly, care for the elderly, and enjoy a strong sense of community. Leaders are often kept carefully in check. However there is also frequently abuse of children and wives, and violence between men both within and between groups. Rhesis monkeys given a choice between being given their favourite juice or seeing high or low status faces of members of their group would pay juice for high-ranking faces. They would also pay juice for monkey pornography. Regardless of outcomes alpha female bonobos are copied up to 90% of the time by lower-status females.

Studies of foundational moral principles present a rich field of future research, not only their relationship to reason but especially how these principles are ranked under particular conditions. One interesting proposal, for example, is that the kind of moral decisions we make depends on four social modes: unity and communal sharing, authority and hierarchy, equality, and proportionality (Utilitarian cost-benefit analysis). That, for example, we make different moral decisions when relating to our family and close friends (unity), when we are in formal work situations (authority), and when we are considering society in general (utility).[26]

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Human flourishing or well-being (sustainability) will increasingly depend on cooperation at a global scale and this turns in part on how well we can manage our differences. Until recent times the field of human nature that can play such a large part in this has been scientifically little unexplored. In the last few decades this situation has begun to change as knowledge about ourselves has emerged, giving us a sounder foundation from which to understand our behaviour. One discipline making a major contribution has been moral psychology,[24] important because it is morality plays a major role in our interpersonal behaviour.

Much of morality revolves around three key relationships: me and us (individual and society); us and them (one society and another); society with god(s). It seems that we behave morally through reason, principle and intuition (the influence of feelings and motivations). Behaviour based on our emotions (and many have argued that this is most of our behaviour) can have both desirable and undesirable consequences. Moral psychologists have drawn attention to thinking fast (based on intuition) and thinking slow (based on reason).

It helps if we can understand the sources of our emotions and the evolutionary purpose they may have served in the past so that we can use our reason to assess their appropriateness for today. Much of this is ‘common sense’ but it does no harm to be reminded of its persistence throughout human history, reminding us of its basis in human nature. Aristotle noted that ‘virtue’ can be achieved, at least in part, by developing desirable habits (self-discipline): that it is possible to reinforce desireable behaviour by habit so that it is no longer an effort but second nature. But by the same token we can also practice and reinforce undesireable behaviour. We can exert self-control by ‘self-binding’ that manipulates the environment we are exposed to (removing whisky from the house) or by habituating our resistance to alcohol (leaving the whisky in the house but regulating its consumption). Courage, for example, for some people might entail overcoming great fear, for others an apparently courageous act might not require such effort (I was not a hero, I did it because it just had to be done) as Aristotelian strength of character.

Culturally we acquire much of our behavour by simply unquestioningly accepting the values, norms and standards of those around us. It may be useful to question these norms from time to time recognising that as a matter of historical fact for most of the world’s population their moral circle of people whose fates they share has expanded from close kin to social in-group, then to a coalition of nations and, today, the global community of life.[1]

We probably have some innate basis for morality relating to the benefits of kin and in-groups but no innate connection to strangers. The morality that we have acquired from our distant past relates to people encountered frequently in small family and tribal groups, not to a vast impersonal interconnected global community of strangers, and moral psychology tells us that we are biologically wired to favour relatives and friends. However, reason is sharpened by exposure to people of different cultures and beliefs and we are capable of extreme altruism.

Evolution has brought us part way to getting along together but it is imperfect. Behaviours that were once useful in an evolutionary sense (and which are still evolutionarily useful now), may also have undesireable side-effects. We must use reason to understand and manage this potentially disastrous legacy of millenia of evolution. In today’s world we need rational and reflective moral principles of broad applicability: our evolutionary legacy may not always help us in this goal.[19]

From the dawn of history a key part of our human nature has entailed the wrestling match between reason and emotion. Our non-utilitarian intuitions probably spring mainly from the victory of emotional impulses over a cost-benefit analysis of behavioural consequences.


Moral psychology does not provide us with solutions to moral problems but it does provide us with the tools of understanding and knowledge that help us look more clearly at the context in which moral decisions are made. Being aware of how evolutionary, genetic, social and cultural factors all influence our moral judgment acts as a kind of moral therapy. Knowing, for example, the ways in which anger might have had an important evolutionary function might help us to understand better the times when it is appropriate.

Although the application of reason to our behaviour seems highly desirable it cannot solve all problems as it is clear that passions and appetites are precisely what make us human, and they will always, at times, be in conflict with our reason. This is why we do not live in a perfect society, why Utopias are unattainable, and why we have governments, criminal law and prisons. It is also why there was a Romantic movement. That having been said it seems that moral progress is not only possible but has indeed occurred. Per capita violence, in spite of the two world wars of the twentieth century, has declined over time and, in general, we are more tolerant and humane. Further progress will probably entail the application of reason in de-emphasising our potentially negative passions like our distrust and intolerance of strangers rather than the emphasis of or positive emotions like compassion and love. Science and reason can help us come to terms with our passions as moral indicators.

We know that morality is not always just a straightforward mathematical problem involving our rational pre-frontal cortex, it is more a complex emotional matter involving our emotional amygdala. This is why we are more likely to give money to an advertisement featuring a sad looking African waif than to a charity that tells us of thousands of anonymous child deaths occurring in the same country every day. But there is one way of viewing our overall moral psychology in a way that can seem cold and calculating but effective. Creating a world in which humans survive and flourish can be can be achieved through an ethic of consequentialism. We assess the results of behaving in different ways as it affects the calculus of global well-being (sustainability).

Scientists and ethicists still argue the relative roles of reason and passion in guiding human morality and behaviour. If a ballot were held today gut feelings and unconscious motivation would probably currently hold sway: humans are less Aristotle’s rational animal and more a mix of ‘emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms‘. Reason comes after the fact as rationalisation of an agenda that is set out by our moral intuitions.[20]

Paul Bloom argues makes the case for reason. He acknowledges that clearly some ‘some spark of caring‘ triggers us as moral beings; emotions like anger and disgust can take over our behaviour; reasons can be ‘post-hoc justifications’; and many factors of circumstance and situation can influence our judgment. But in spite of all this it is reason that has allowed us to make moral progress: it has given us moral ‘discoveries’ like the injustice of slavery. Moral intuitions are not to be simply accepted, they are to be rationally justified. We are ‘ … not tongue-tied when asked why drunk driving is wrong …’ or why it is worse ‘ … to kill someone than to yell at them …’. Arguing the consequences of moral behaviour is the stuff of life. A baby ‘ … lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles – prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community‘ … ‘principles that are at the foundation of systems of law and justice‘. Moralities of so many religions and ideologies are based on some form of the Golden Rule which is a statement based in rationality as a way of justifying our morality to other people, nations, cultures and religions. ‘… impartiality emerges as a reasoned solution to the problem of coordinating the actions of rational and self-interested beings … but empathy plays a role … makes us realise that we are not special … we are not morally privileged …’.

We are born with a rich moral life that ‘… includes empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. ‘ But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality – so much of what makes us human – emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason‘.[21]

We are organisms that are not purely rational: it is subjects like evolutionary psychology, behavioural genetics, practical ethics, moral psychology and other behavioural sciences that are helping us to examine the causes and consequences of this fact.

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