From Darwin to Eternity

Evolutionary moral psychology.

How Science Can Help Us Be More Rational About Morality

We are, as a species, remarkably preoccupied with making rules about how people ought to behave. This moralistic tendency is not an inherently good or bad quality, it's simply a fact of human nature. But it would be nice if people could be more rational in the way that they create moral rules. Read More

Interesting post. Though I'm

Interesting post. Though I'm not quite as pessimistic about our potential for overcoming coalitional biases. Take animal rights activists, for example. I'm not sure how decreasing the suffering of animals could conceivably be in line with their interests. Same thing goes for people who want to conserve wildlife, protect endangered species, feed the hungry in distant countries, help tsunami victims, help earthquake victims, help counter the AIDS crisis in Africa, etc. One could argue, I suppose, that these people just want to signal their prestige through such acts of altruism/activism. That may be true, but who cares? At the end of the day, they're still doing a good thing and it shouldn't really matter what their deeper (unconscious?) motives are.

Perhaps, then, another strategy that might improve "the wellbeing of conscious creatures" is to simply increase the amount of deference we pay to charitable people: that is, pay them more status points, if you will.

Note how this line of thinking I am taking part in -- how to increase the "wellbeing of conscious creatures" -- is exactly what you are saying human beings will never be able to do. Note also how you overcame this tendency in your blog post by offering ways in which we can actually increase wellbeing in spite of our inherited psychological constraints. Though perhaps your unconscious coalitional interests may lie in increasing the moral status of your tribe of evolutionary psychologists... :) And, come to think of it, my coalitional interests kind of overlap with this project, which might explain why I am writing this comment. Hm... you may be on to something...

Blogger's Reply

Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. Yes, a lot of moralizing certainly focuses on beneficiaries that are not themselves the moralizing individual or his/her coalition. Nevertheless, the adaptations that enable moralizing evolved to benefit the genes of the moralizer. If the fundamental assumptions of evolutionary psychology are to be taken seriously, I don't see how this conclusion can be avoided.

So I'm not saying that an animal rights activist can't genuinely care for the well-being of animals. I'm just saying that the ultimate reason the animal rights activist is promoting the rights of animals is in order to promote the interests of him/herself and other animal rights activists, against the interests of an opposing coalition (composed of people who are opposed to or indifferent about animal rights).

I also think that most people, including many evolutionary psychologists, are not aware of (or are not willing to admit) that their moral beliefs are ultimately in the interest of their own coalition as opposed to some greater, more abstract good. But I don't understand how the evolutionary psychologists can believe this about themselves, knowing what they do about how evolution builds adaptations.


Hi Dr. Price, thanks for the reply. I agree with you that the logic of gene-selfishness is ineluctable, which means that ultimately there must be some selfish basis for our moralizing. However, there are some who would disagree with both of us and argue that a kind of group selection scenario (either cultural or multilevel) played a role in the evolution of our moral intuitions -- actually, I'd be interested in your opinion on this at some point. Nevertheless, I think there is enough potential for ingroup expansion, even with our selfish genes, to allow for some realization of Sam Harris's vision: that is, if I can come to see all conscious creatures as part of my coalition, I can fight for global welfare without defying my moral adaptations. I think Peter Singer's work testifies to this possibility. Anyways, good brain food and look forward to future posts.

First Nations of Canada

The Cree, the Ojibway, the Blackfoot, the Dene, the Sioux, among many other nations before colonization all had different moral teachings all from different spiritual beliefs and they harmonized with each other in mutual respect. Occasionally, someone would disrespect the other either in-group or out-group and things would escalate. They would rarely escalate to killing each other because the concept of life was a sacred principle for all of these groups that all would respect. So there was some universal moral teachings the people honored. There was no class systems among some while it is true that others did classify their membership based on a hierarchical structure. The people were born into these systems and enculturated in it. There were at times special events that would happen where a person was born with cognitive behavioral deficits and the people had to morally adjust due to anti-social characteristics. They either banished them or the had to kill them. Other teachings made them sacred people who could heal the people. At other times, the person would just leave. As an Ojibway, I can tell you that there was no agency involved in these egalitarian societies and the moral teachings served their purposes, the create balance and harmony between oneself and others including out-groups. Colonization changed all of that. The resources became scarce and the moral teachings became corrupted due to over hunting and over fishing. The moral rules changed especially when the missionaries came, moral justification became rampant and our societies are now very sick as a result and consequence to colonization. Things like the Indian Residential School have corrupted the children and we now live in the wake of multi-generational dysfunction. Can you explain how moral teachings serve the individual while this psychopathic, self-centred, individualistic behavior runs rampant in our societies today destroying and corrupting our youth? How does your model fit into this equation? I do not believe life was heavenly in the old days before colonization, but the systems never recorded the use of jails and prisons. I would rather agree to Sam Harris’s idea of moral truth because it is truth, undeniable truth. That is how the moral truths were developed eons and eons ago, before the great corruption came. For one, the people would never agree to build a dam as that would be counter-intuitive to the balance and harmony of the eco-systems that care for us poor two leggeds. We would just go away and find another sacred place to live. If some came that was their choice if others stayed that too was their choice. But in every decision, the teachings, the people, the children foremost, the flying creatures and the creepy crawlies, the four legged ones and all other relations were considered before anything happened. It was your idea that corrupted the children of the earth I think. If I understand your words correctly.

More on the First Nations of Canada

What I am saying is that we have been here for eons and eons. We have always said that we will negotiate a treaty with the newcomers and it will be based on mutual respect, not favoring one over the other other, but so that all, ALL will flourish! That never happened. For our part, we still beleive that can happen, for the colonizers, they do not have the faith that it can happen. Faith and trust are what is needed in the belief of a sacred treaty for that is what a treaty is, it is sacred and to be revered honestly with moral teachings where everyone is taught in their own cultural ways that honor the treaty. Treaties are what kept the harmony for the most part back in the day. We still believe that this can happen and we have always said it can happen and we hope that it will happen for the sake of our children, seven generations!

More on the First Nations of Canada

I am resending this as I am not certain it came through the first time I sent it. With all due respect, here it is again. What I am saying is that when we struck a treaty, we understood that all was sacred including the very words and agreements in our treaties. This was to be honored in a sacred way. It is what kept the harmony and allowed everyone to flourish. That is what the intention was with the newcomers, the colonizers, our treaty would allow everyone, EVERYONE to flourish. This did not happen. There was no faith and trust in the treaties and there was corruption within them which originated on the part of the colonizers. We have always believed in our teachings and have always pointed to our treaties and have honored them even to the death of us, for it would be better to die than to corrupt the sacred treaty. that made it very advantageous to exploit the First Nations of Canada. Nevertheless, here we still are and we still point to the treaties. This principle defies the individualism inherent in your teaching. The teachings of respect and our sacred law keep us here, I think that is why we do not go away. We do not operate as individuals in a collective, we are all connected and that is the truth that we understand. I think again, Sam Harris has a good grasp on this truth. With all due respect to your teachings, I humbly submit my words.

one rule that i hate is that

one rule that i hate is that as soon as you grow up you must "leave your home" !!!!! this is a horrible rule and no doubt you will defend this rule "why"? kids yell and scream when they're 3 then, they "grow up!". i obsess literally about this because it bothers me. i see people on television being called "cling on kids" and/or "moochers"

Thought Provoking Indeed

Very glad to have discovered your blog. This column dovetails nicely with a book I read several months ago; "The Faith Instinct" by Nicholas Wade.

Thanks for enlightening us!

Missing the Point

I think you're somewhat missing the point Harris is trying to make. You're discussing the way we come to view an action as morally right or wrong, while Harris is attempting to answer the philosophical question about why an action is objectively right or wrong, irrespective of the whims of any one person or group.

I'd also like to point out that in the 2nd half of your article you end up advocating essentially the same idea Harris is advocating. You say "the most effective way to overcome coalitional moral conflicts: by appealing to the interests of a larger group to which two competing coalitions belong." I would say "conscious beings" is a group to which every coalition belongs.

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Michael Price, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the psychology department at Brunel University, West London. He is also the co-director at the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology.


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