Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

In “Defense” of Tiger Woods, AND of His Critics

Charles Darwin meets Tiger Woods meets self-righteous indignation.

From an evolutionary perspective, Tiger's sexual meanderings are not a sign of pathology. Instead, they are "natural." By saying this, I realize I am in danger of playing into the stereotypes of the P.C. police, who are inclined to strategically misunderstand the naturalistic fallacy, and use it as a weapon against evolutionary explanations of human behavior." By saying it's natural, you're saying it's good!!" They will protest. But wrongly so. Some natural things are indeed nice by human standards—butterflies, yellow warblers, and the scent of roses, for example. But cancer is also natural, and so is infanticide in lions, yet no one has suggested they are laudatory. There's nothing more natural than reproduction, yet it's not intrinsically good, as the rising world population demonstrates. On the other side, the reaction of Tiger's many critics, who are heaping mountains of scorn upon him, is also "natural." Again, that's not to say that his scornful critics are morally good. To say that Tiger's sexual misadventures and his critics' rebukes are both natural is not to say either is praiseworthy, nor is it to say either is intrinsically bad.

Tiger Meets Bhupinder Singh

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I will admit that taking a naturalistic position does sometimes take the winds of self-righteousness out of one's judgmental sails. Tiger is a man with immense wealth and social status. Throughout history, men with wealth and status have tended to trade it for access to multiple mates. Evolutionary historian Laura Betzig has documented this pattern in modern societies and throughout history, as in the abundant cases of Roman emperors, Indian maharajahs, Arabian sheiks, and Chinese mandarins. Bhupinder Singh, the wealthy and powerful Seventh Maharajah of the state of Patiala, for example, had 350 wives, and he by no means held the record. European and North American states tend to be officially monogamous, but of course they are unofficially polygamous as well. Rock stars, famous athletes, politicians and even television evangelists are reliable sources of public outrage, which fires up every time we learn about their frequently overactive private lives.

In this light, it is rather amusing to read both the amateur psychoanalytic accounts of Tiger's behavior, and the extent to which people unrelated to Tiger's wife feel justified in heaping condemnation on him. On the psychoanalytic side, we hear that maybe his sexual activities are the products of the stress of his professional life, the strain of managing the money from so many endorsements, the agony of being required to go on the road where he is bombarded with too many opportunities. Consider a simple alternative naturalistic explanation: Kinsey found that the typical male masturbated with some frequency, during such activities men often fantasize about novel women. What if the man was sufficiently attractive that those fantasy women were actually ready, willing, and eager to turn desire into reality? The average heterosexual man would, under those circumstances, perhaps act like the average homosexual man (who is unconstrained by a more selective target audience), or like the average rock superstar: he would take hundreds of partners.

In that light, let's think about the public reactions. Consider a recent article on the golf page of the Wall Street Journal. Writer John Paul Newport asks: "Whatever drove Mr. Woods to pursue, by most accounts, a massively duplicitous lifestyle-A thirst for danger? Anger at decades of imprisonment inside the bubble of fame? A mega-celebrity's delusion of immunity from consequence?" Mr. Newport goes on to express his personal disappointment in Tiger's behavior: "I projected. I half-convinced myself, I guess, that in that private universe that Mr. Woods so adamantly roped off for himself, he and his wife sat around on their yacht, named Privacy, reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently not. But at least I wasn't the only fool to be fooled." Newport's disappointment is magnified because he had previously viewed Tiger as having the potential to be a future U.S. president. Putting aside the question of whether being a great golfer qualifies one to be a great president, we can ask whether being promiscuous would make President Tiger an unusual occupant of the oval office. Of course, we already know the answer to that question—many, if not most, U.S. presidents sidestepped the official rules about monogamy and acted as much like maharajahs as they could when outside the public eye (we only know about the times they failed to keep the private from becoming public).

Why are Tiger's critics so self-righteous? Again, they're not bad people, they're just doing what comes naturally. In recent years, evolutionary theorists have put forward several interesting hypotheses about moral judgments. But one I heard recently may apply well in this case. Rob Kurzban and Peter DeScioli argue that moral reactions are not so much about checking our own selfish tendencies, as they are about keeping other people in line. Although we are equipped with guilt and shame, we may be disinclined to turn those self-punishing emotions on until we are caught (and need to quickly flash our sincere contrition). Otherwise, we are rather good at forgiving ourselves a few transgressions. But we have a much lower threshold for turning on the moral outrage when we see someone else with his or her hands too eagerly digging into the cookie jar.

Logically, Tiger never put himself up for canonization, or asked to be elected head of the local Sunday School. Bill Clinton did run for office, but as a political decision-maker, not a Catholic Cardinal. But both acquired immense power and popularity. Our emotional brains want to hold powerful individuals to a "higher standard" of behavior because, in ancestral times, it would have been in our selfish interests to keep our more successful fellows from drinking too freely from the limited common pool of mating opportunities. And in modern societies, where some people acquire immense amounts of wealth and power, monogamy can still reduce intra-male competition. 

So, an evolutionary perspective encourages a sort of Zen perspective on life. It helps us understand why sexual transgressions by successful males, as well as the seemingly irrational levels of moral outrage at those transgressions, are both "natural," regardless of whether you personally feel that either is intrinsically good or bad.

For further reading:

Betzig, L. (1992). Roman polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology, 13, 309-349.

DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2009). Mysteries of morality Cognition, 112, 281-299.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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