Moral Function and Moral Perfection

Morality is a self-serving adaptive strategy. Anything more requires effort.

Posted Jan 17, 2016

Is stealing from you just as wrong as stealing from a stranger? If a street gang kidnaps a Guatemalan oligarch, is it just as condemnable as kidnapping your brother?  If toxic waste is illegally dumped in a poor Bangladeshi village, is that just as reprehensible as dumping it in your town? Ideally, we’d like to think so, no? After all, right is right and wrong is wrong and it shouldn’t matter where or to whom the offense is committed – it’s still immoral. This is the reasoning behind the notion of universal morality; more technically referred to as universalistic moral evaluation. According to this view, a moral judgement should not depend on the time or place of the action involved, nor should it be biased by popular sentiment or the opinions of the powerful. So human trafficking was just as wrong in ancient Rome as it is today; just as heinous if it victimizes poor Asians as working-class Europeans.

miropink /
Source: miropink /

A recent study, however, provides evidence that universal morality is an oft-declared but rarely attained ideal. Instead, morality turns out to be more of a self-serving strategy we use to manage our reputations then a consistently applied set of principles that guide our thoughts and actions. The study approached morality from an evolutionary perspective where moral judgments are hypothesized to be adaptive tools we use to promote our fitness interests. If this view is correct, then our publicly pronounced moral condemnations and acclamations are strategically deployed to enhance our personal reputations, increase our social acceptance, and ingratiate ourselves to influential community members. Thus, moral judgments should be highly parochial – that is, exquisitely sensitive to prevailing local sentiments, especially those of influential authority figures.

To test this, researchers created seven simple vignettes where clear and substantial harm occurred to an innocent individual. The harm included stealing money, intentionally injuring someone, beating someone’s wife, spreading a false rumor about another, raping a woman, and so forth. The vignettes were presented to a cross-cultural sample of individuals from five small-scale traditional societies from South America (Tsimane’ and Shuar), Fiji Island (Yasawa), Indonesia (Karo Batak), and Melanesia (Sursurunga). Additionally, participants from a Ukrainian village (Storozhnitsa) and urban Santa Monica, California were also tested. Each participant was asked to give a moral judgement (using a five-point scale) of each of the seven vignettes (“How good or bad was the action that the character in the vignette did?”). After this initial judgement the participant gave judgements under three other circumstances: (1) a locally appropriate authority figure stated that the action was ‘not bad’; (2) the action occurred in the distant past; and (3) the action occurred far away, in another society.

The results were clear and consistent: Across all seven societies the same actions were judged as less wrong if they happened long ago or far away or were dismissed as ‘not bad’ by a local authority figure. To be clear, no one was saying that these obviously harmful acts were ‘moral,’ but they were consistently viewed as less immoral if they were occurring non-locally or if they were deemed acceptable (to some degree) by a local authority. This is exactly what would be expected if our moral thinking evolved as a flexible self-serving adaptive strategy. It is inconsistent, however, with the idealistic view of morality as a set of universally applied principles.

We tend not to apply our moral precepts consistently and universally because by adjusting our moral thinking to be sensitive to prevailing local sentiments, especially those of community leaders, we can reap the rewards of enhanced social standing. Since social standing is a reward that only our local context can bestow, it makes little sense to expend effort concerning ourselves with far-off moral violations or with potentially losing conflicts with local authority figures.

By nature we apply our morality practically, not ideally. The first step toward greater moral perfection is recognizing this. This is one of the critical lessons that humanity’s great moral exemplars – Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Francis of Assisi, etc. – taught: our natural morality is, by design, limited. Overcoming nature’s limitations requires study, practice, constant self-evaluation and heightened self-awareness. For many, increased moral perfection is pursued in a religious context. For others, it may be in a more secular, philosophical context. The important point, however, is that it must be consciously and effortfully pursued. It does not come naturally. Just as many of us regularly go to the gym to perfect our health or bodies, we must – as Socrates counseled – be similarly dedicated to the perfecting of our souls.  

Reference: Fessler DMT et al. 2015 Moral parochialism and contextual contingency

across seven societies. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20150907.

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