The most hotly debated issues in culture and politics tend to get framed in moralistic terms, such as the fairness of income inequality, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, the ethics of campaign finance laws, and the obligation of society to protect unborn children. But when people use these terms, how much rational understanding do they have about morality itself? Usually not much. Usually they’re just voicing emotional reactions: they perceive some action as wrong or selfish, they experience anger or disgust, and they express moral outrage. Little rational reflection on the outrage is needed in order to feel that it is justified. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Basing a moral judgment on passion more than reason is everyday human behavior (a well-known finding of psychologist Jonathan Haidt), and does not necessarily produce an invalid judgment. But moral judgments are too important to leave to passion alone. In order to be more rational about morality, we need to consider the origins, nature, and usefulness of morality, and doing so requires an evolutionary perspective.

Read more at Psychology Today

Michael Price, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Psychology at Brunel University, London, and co-Director of the Brunel Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology.

Published On: June 30, 2012

Michael Price

Michael Price

Michael E. Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University London. He has a BA from Duke University and a PhD from the UC Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and he has conducted studies among both Westerners and indigenous Amazonians. His research focuses mainly on the evolutionary origins of moral beliefs, especially those related to cooperation, punishment, egalitarianism, leadership, and sexual behavior.


One Comment

  • Dennis D. Embry says:

    I am sitting here thinking about two layers of behavioral that have evolved, some perhaps at a more immediate survival level and others related to selection by consequences of pro sociality.

    Nisbett’s work on the cultural of honor clearly maps to quick responses to perceived threat and status slights, which seem to evolved in the context of pastoral economies. The same response appears useful for survival in neighborhoods with high portable wealth, like illegal drug trade.  Cortisol seems to have higher reactivity, and may have some epigenetic origins.

    The response to homosexuality appears more complicated. What appears as disgust may be more complicated. Several experiments show that the most homophobic males are in fact more sexually aroused by gay porn than non-homophobic males.  This suggests deception motives.

    The work of Ostrum on common pool resources gives as a much bigger view of how higher levels of pro sociality may have evaluated as both a cultural event, building on more innately wired social behaviors.

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