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What can evolution tell us about morality?

What can evolution tell us about morality?

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Has the story of human evolution moved beyond “survival of the fittest?” What if instead of seeing humans as ultra-competitors, we saw ourselves as an ultra-social, super-cooperative species? Join us as we examine human morality through the lens of evolution. Read our contributors’ thoughts as they explore the biological and cultural foundations for the development of morality, and share your own ideas on the roots of morality.

Watch videos from our special live event, Love + Evolution , in partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge.

This series was made possible through the generous support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed here are those of the Center’s Scholars and Contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Image credit:  Evogeneao .

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The Wellsprings of Our Moralities

By: Daniel M.T. Fessler


1,223 Words· 0 Comments

Mother Nature is amoral, yet morality is universal. The natural world lacks both any guiding hand and any moral compass. And yet all human societies have moral rules, and, with the exception of some individuals suffering from pathology, all people experience profound feelings that shape their actions in light of such rules. Where then did these constellations of rules and feelings come from?

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The term “morality” jumbles rules and feelings, as well as judgments of others’ actions that result from the intersection of rules and feelings. Rules, like other features of culture, are ideas transmitted from person to person: “It is laudable to do X,” “It is a sin to do Y,” etc. Feelings are internal states evoked by events, or by thoughts of future possibilities: “I am proud that she did X,” “I am outraged that he did Y,” and so on. Praise or condemnation are social acts, often motivated by feelings, in response to other people’s behavior. All of this is commonly called “morality.”

So, what does it mean to say that morality is universal? You don’t need to be an anthropologist to recognize that, while people everywhere experience strong feelings about others’ behavior—and, as a result, reward or punish that behavior—cultures differ with regard to the beliefs on which they base such judgments. Is injustice a graver sin than disrespect for tradition? Which is more important, the autonomy of the individual or the harmony of the group? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask.

It might thus seem like the parts of morality composed of culture are variable, but the parts of morality that stem from things inside of us are universal. However, it’s not that simple, since culture influences the feelings inside us. For example, the culture in which you were raised determines whether guilt or shame helps motivate you to avoid wrongdoing. It is thus more accurate to say that we are born with certain capacities—to learn rules and internalize them as self-evidently true, to feel profound emotions in response to behaviors that embody or violate rules—and these capacities develop in particular cultural environments, creating the moral actors that we become as adults. There is no simple nature/nurture distinction since these innate capacities depend on the presence of cultural information—a child growing up in a world without culture would no more develop morality than would a kitten growing up in absolute darkness develop sight.

We come into this world expecting there to be rules, but not knowing what the local rules will be, and equipped with emotions that can be deployed with respect to those rules, but not knowing which emotions will be most important locally. We are born both culture-ready and culture-dependent. Which brings me back to Mother Nature.

Other brainy social animals, such as chimpanzees, have proto-morality, simple rules for behavior (although it is unclear if these are socially transmitted) and emotional reactions to rule violations (although generally only in response to actions that impact oneself). But only humans have full-fledged morality—complex learned rules that we are motivated to enforce even when they do not concern us. Humans also differ from other animals in that we live in large groups of unrelated individuals, and we cooperate with each other on an unprecedented scale. These features are all connected: culturally transmitted rules and our motivations to conform to and enforce them are what makes it possible for us to not only rub shoulders with strangers, but to act in unison with them.

The village of Oqaatsut in Greenland Morality, living in groups, and cooperation are all part and parcel of our reliance on culturally transmitted information. We are not a physically imposing species, yet we have come to dominate the planet. We have succeeded because we are very, very good at learning from each other.

In almost every ecosystem on Earth, societies not only survive, but thrive. This is because, over time, each group has solved myriad problems: how to get food, create shelter, ward off predators—and how to organize cooperative efforts to collectively address these and many other challenges. Most of these solutions are not the invention of any one individual, but rather are the product of numerous small discoveries and improvements compiled over generations.

By learning from each other, we amass an ever-increasing store of knowledge. The more that we are able to get along with each other, and the larger the groups that we can live in, the more that we can benefit from the accumulated wisdom of the group, and the more effective our community efforts are. At the same time, groups compete with other groups over control of territory and resources. And bigger, better-organized, and more technologically sophisticated groups outcompete smaller, less effective, and less sophisticated groups, either through violence or simply through immigration, imitation, or assimilation.

Technology is both physical (like the smartphone in your pocket) and social (like the capitalism that drove innovations in telecommunications and computing). And, just as there is often no single best physical tool for all relevant tasks—do you want your smartphone to be small or easy to read?—often there is no single best way to organize a group. The values and social structures that work best vary across physical and social ecosystems (nonviolent groups minimize disruptive internal conflict, but go extinct if their neighbors are violent, etc.).

Up until the recent past (when contraception was invented), within any given group, the most successful people had the most children. So, at the same time that culture was becoming increasingly important in the ability of early groups of proto-humans to survive, it was also shaping the selection pressures that drove evolutionary change. Individuals who most easily learned the rules of their group, and were most motivated to conform to and enforce those rules, left more descendants than individuals who were less adept at these social tasks. Our increasing reliance on culture thus led to natural selection favoring minds that were primed and ready to develop morality. Groups differ in their social technologies; group boundaries are not biological boundaries (people have children with folks who grew up in other groups); and social technologies often change faster than natural selection can shape traits (think of political or religious revolutions). For these reasons, natural selection has never acted to make it easy for individuals to acquire a particular morality, and instead has acted to make it easy for us to acquire whatever local morality we are born into.

Natural selection has led us to be a moral species, but our histories have led us to different moralities. This realization might cause some readers to despair—perhaps we are doomed to forever fight over what is right. Or, equally depressingly, perhaps understanding the origins of our morality leaves us adrift, with no moral compass whatsoever. However, I prefer a more optimistic conclusion. Among all the living beings on this planet, we alone can grasp not only from whence we came, but also where we want to be in the future. Understanding both our common humanity and the nature of morality empowers us to embrace a perspective that is sustainable in an increasingly crowded world, one that both minimizes war and environmental degradation and respects differences. If none of us can lay claim to an inherently true morality, then we must instead seek compromises that allow us to live together. We are all products of the past, but none of us need be slaves to it.

Notes ( show )

Image Credit

“Oqaatsut/Rodebay, Greenland” by Kaet44. (CC BY 2.0)

Daniel M.T. Fessler
Daniel M.T. Fessler
Director – Center for Behavior, Evolution, & Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles

Daniel M.T. Fessler is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Director of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture.

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The Moral Compass Essay


Morality , Value theory , Value Pages: 5 (1920 words)
Published: December 1, 2011

The moral compass Essay
According to the definition of the Moral Compass text, moral compass is the reflective, international adoption of values and behaviors as a framework for realizing the good in oneself, in others, and in the social and material environment. My own moral compass is constructed mainly by my parents and the eastern social values and principles of relationships, which are largely influenced by the thoughts and ideas of Buddhism, Taoism and the Confucianism. Among them, Confucianism affects my country’s social values and furthermore my parents and my moral compass the most. In the contrast of Western culture, Confucianism puts a huge emphasis on the relationships between individuals in family, school, society and the country. The courtesies and hierarchies are defined clear in various kinds of relationships. The harmony of a society and the nation is much more important than the individual interests. Parents tend to have more authorities and family values more than persons. My parents always taught me to be honest, considerate and self-sacrificed, and at the same time do your best to be competitive in academy and work performance. It is critical to solve the problem by yourself and try not to let it bother others. While making the decisions, you have to not only consider your benefits but also others’. Those are some important parts of my core believing.

Moral Vision
There is a famous Chinese saying: “Harbor no ill intention against others, but never relax vigilance against evil-doers.” This is the most common idiom that used by my mom to tell us. My parents always teaches me and my brother to act upright as a good man and be honest to everyone, yet still have to stay clear and smart to prevent others to have some bad intention toward us. My mom reminds me a lot “ the world is a competitive, sometimes insidious place; it is crucial to the people who do not work hard or trust others too easily. you have to be humble, hard-working and make yourself competitive and intelligent in order to survive in this world and society”. According to her saying, even you do not try to do any harm to others and be good, there is still someone who will come to you and take advantage of you. So if I am in the working place, simply being good is not enough; I have to be smart and sensitive about people; be aware of their true motivation, or at least put that in your mind. Do not trust people or judge people too fast without a serious consideration and analysis. This has been my core believing that I have to make myself stronger and stronger and be independent without relying too much on any others. Also, it gives me a thought in my mind that be particularly careful at choosing my friends; some people are just not for me because of their complicated mind efforts. I love to be with friends that are relatively innocent and trustable.

Moral Code
My moral vision is close to the theory of “Evil nature of humans”. This principle had been mentioned many times by some famous philosophers in West and East world. In ancient China, a famous philosopher and also one student of Confusions, Xunzi, have proposed this idea as the earliest. At 1893, James Legge introduced the first translation of Xunzi’s classic: “That the nature is evil”. Xunzi’s thoughts have been widely adapted by many emperors in different dynasties of China and had been spread and deeply rooted in ordinary Chinese culture. On the other hand, the law system from the western world also enhances the belief of human evil. Knowing about the spirit and nature of being selfish, the law therefore forces its governed people to stop raising negative intension toward others to make more benefits. The majorities of laws only regulate the negative behavior and the corresponded punishments, but not focus on the incentives to direct people to volunteering doing self-sacrifice. Based on this foundation, my moral code tells me that every person has his/her own…

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Chapter  8: ETHICS

Morality without religion

Marc Hauser and Peter Singer 2005


For: Project Syndicate []

Is religion necessary for morality? Many people think it is
outrageous, or even blasphemous, to deny that morality is of divine origin.
Either some divine being crafted our moral sense during the period of
creation or we picked it up from the teachings of organized religion. Both
views see the same endpoint: we need religion to curb nature
vices. Paraphrasing Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, religion allows
us to rise above that wicked old mother nature, handing us a moral compass.

In the United States, where the conservative right argues
that we should turn to religion for moral insights and inspiration, the gap
between government and religion is rapidly diminishing,. Abortion and the
withdrawal of life-support
as in the case of Terri Schiavo
increasingly being challenged by the view that these acts are strictly
against God
thou shalt not kill [note: originally
translated as
And religion has once again begun to make its way back into public schools,
seeking equal status alongside a scientific theory of human nature..

Yet problems abound for the view that morality comes from
God. One problem is that we cannot, without lapsing into tautology,
simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our sense of good
and bad. For then we are simply saying that God is in accordance with God
standards. That lacks the resonance of

the Lord!
is great!

A second problem is that there are no moral principles
shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious
membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation leads to a
second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious
believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles.
They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone,
including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to
relief efforts associated with human suffering. The converse is also true:
religion has led people to commit a long litany of horrendous crimes, from
command to Moses to slaughter the Midianites, men, women, boys and
non-virginal girls, through the Crusades, the Inquisition, theThirty Years
War, innumerable conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Moslems, and terrorists
who blow themselves up in the confident belief that they are going straight
to paradise.

The third difficulty for the view that morality has its
origin in religion is that despite the sharp doctrinal differences between
the world
major religions, and for that matter cultures like ancient China in which
religion has been less significant than philosophical outlooks like
Confucianism, some elements of morality seem to be universal. One view is
that a divine creator handed us the universal bits at the moment of
creation. The alternative, consistent with the facts of biology and geology,
is that we have evolved, over millions of years, a moral faculty that
generates intuitions about right and wrong. For the first time, research in
the cognitive sciences, building on theoretical arguments emerging from
moral philosophy, has made it possible to resolve the ancient dispute about
the origin and nature of morality.

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in
the blank with morally

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people
walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that
can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the
five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and
you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and
your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in
critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time
to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy
person in the hospital
waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person
organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the
healthy person
organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory,
and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the
world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test
[]. On the view that morality is God
word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with
religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses,
should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists
lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by
the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were
no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without
religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is
permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is
obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove
the healthy man
organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others
forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not
account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious
background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

These studies begin to
provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological
faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed
with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong,
interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions
reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived
as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our
opposable thumbs are.

These facts are incompatible with the story of divine
creation. Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or
consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may
not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and
all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral
landscape [e.g., animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, international aid]
have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and
what we consider a life well lived. In this respect, it is important for us
to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect
on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do  this
without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source
of our species morality. Hopefully, governments that equate morality with
religion are listening.

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to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read
as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

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