Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

The One Percent Dissolution: Your Moral Brain

Vanishing virtue?

It may be hard to believe, but you and I are very abnormal in terms of evolution, human nature, and our intelligence. Yes, maybe we fit into a group with other folks from the last 2,000 to 12,000 years, but that's only 1% of human genus existence. That one percent is very unusual.

Let's just look at virtue. Based on studies of small-band hunter-gatherer societies, virtue was commonplace among our pre-agricultural ancestors (representing 99% of human genus existence). The ancestral human mammalian milieu (AHMM; Narvaez & Gleason, 2011) was characterized by egalitarianism, deep collectivism and group identity, leisure time spent in social enjoyment (play, music, laughter), cooperation, partnership with nature, autonomy, generosity and sharing. The majority of time was spent in activities that generate "moral moods" (e.g., from oxytocin). Virtue was linked to survival. A cheater, aggressor or rapist would have been killed or expelled (near certain death without the group).

Virtue was fostered by early care practices, practices that evolved to fixation more than 30 million years ago with the catarrhine (social) mammals. These practices foster bottom-up virtue not top-down rule following. We have culturally abandoned virtually all of these principles. What are the characteristics we have abandoned and what does it matter? Here is a table of what we are examining in my lab.

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ancestral parenting practices
Triune ethics theory (Narvaez, 2008; see below for links to more information) describes the effects of early experience on neurobiology and moral functioning. When children do not get what they need, they develop a more self-protective orientation (Security Ethic) because their prosocial emotion circuitry was inadequately developed and because extensive distress wires the brain for stress reactivity (incongruent with compassion) so they rely on suboptimal emotional circuitry or even more primitive brain systems for social interaction. The have a minimized or absent Engagement Ethic (relational attunement) and subverted Imagination Ethic (reflective abstraction). As a result of our declining emotional and moral intelligence from the increasingly poor childrearing, standards for what is "normal" keep dropping (e.g., self-regulation, concern for others). Thus, modern societies increase immoral exemplarity (villians) and make moral exemplarity (heroes) more impossible to cultivate or find. (As I have said in previous blogs, in the USA children's self-regulation is declining, empathy, moral reasoning, and creativity are declining in college students and cheating is widespread among adults in every realm of life.)

Experiments on regular people in the laboratory gives us insight into evolutionarily unusual brains (Narvaez, 2011) that represent a WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) subset of the world's population (see Heinrich et al, 2010). These brains (ours!) are more self-centered, less perceptive, less tuned into living things, less aware of contexts and relationships.

As studied moral heroes are more likely to have had positive early life experiences (e.g., McAdams, 2009; Oliner & Oliner, 1988), they are more likely to have well-developed prosocial emotion brain circuitry, perhaps because their early experiences more closely match the AHMM. We should study that circuitry and the contexts for its development, maintenance and use. Before it is too late and we don't care anymore.


REFERENCES

Bystrova, K., Ivanova, V., Edhborg, M., Matthiesen, A.S., Ransjö-Arvidson, A.B., Mukhamedrakhimov, R., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Widström, A.M. (2009). Early contact versus separation: effects on mother-infant interaction one year later. Birth, 36(2), 97-109.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33:61-135.

McAdams, D. (2009). The Moral Personality. In D. Narvaez & D. K. Lapsley, (Eds.) Personality, Identity, and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology (pp. 11-29). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119. For brief explanation see here and for a slide show see here.

Narvaez, D. (in preparation). Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing Up to Become "A good and useful human being." In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., & Gleason, T. (in press). Developmental optimization. In D. Narvaez, J., Panksepp, A. Schore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Oliner, S.P., & Oliner, P.M. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: Free Press.

 

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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