Picking Sides: How Judging Each Other Serves the Common Good
Our moral judgments may help us reduce costly conflicts.
Posted February 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Humans are uniquely judgmental of one another. If you see an adult mug a child, you think poorly of the mugger, even if you don’t know them. But other animal species show far less concern about third-party harms like this. And why would they? It is not their child that’s being harmed, after all.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that moral judgments help communities resolve conflicts while minimizing the costs associated with those conflicts. Moral judgments center around finding commonly-shared rules of conduct and comparing each party’s actions against those rules. For instance, when choosing sides, we would all tend to come to the defense of the child who was mugged. The mugger, after all, broke our commonly-shared rules about protecting the young and vulnerable, as well as rules about ownership and refraining from stealing. The mugger, in short, is judged to be morally wanting.
The key is that these common rules of conduct are tied to behaviors, rather than to a person’s genetic relatedness or identity. When choosing whose side to take in a conflict, an evolutionary perspective might first lead you to believe that one should come to the defense of those who are genetically related to you, or who are strong and powerful and can return the favor one day.
The problem is, on closer inspection, that these side-taking strategies fail to minimize harm within the community. If people always come to the defense of relatives, conflicts tend to garnish equal support on each side and become long, drawn-out blood feuds. But, if people always come to the defense of the physically stronger or resource-rich party, power becomes concentrated and the community is plagued with a despot. These strategies can backfire in terms of evolutionary fitness over time.
Instead, rules of conduct allow for side-taking to be at once coordinated (the sides in the conflict will be thrown out of balance and prevent blood feuds) while still dynamic (the more powerful person doesn’t just de facto win). This sort of dynamic conflict resolution hinges upon the rules of conduct indeed being commonly-known and agreed-upon.
And this may be the reason that people experience so much anxiety and dedicate so much time to exploring the nuances of who was right or wrong, why, and what others’ opinions are about it. Virtue signaling is a way for us to publicly declare which side of a conflict we are on, and to get a sense for what rules of conduct others in the community seem to agree or disagree with.
Psychologists have found much evidence that people regularly concern themselves with categorizing issues as moral or amoral. People enjoy a good deal of freedom and diversity in issues labeled as amoral preferences (haircuts, music choices), but experience little freedom in issues labeled as moral in which variation is thought of less as diversity and more as deviance. Moreover, when it comes to moral issues, people continue to scan their social environments to get a sense for which positions are objectively right, and which positions are somewhat debatable.
Until a critical mass of the population agrees on a position, enough space is made for discussion on even issues regarded as moral. Consider the debates that took place regarding same-sex marriages in the 2010s. While many agreed that the issue was indeed moral in nature, most people continued to peacefully dialogue about the topic. Once a very large majority of a population agrees on a position—that slavery is wrong, for instance—people stop viewing the issue as debatable, and simply no longer tolerate deviance in that realm. The common position comes to be seen as "objectively right."
This non-stop attention to which values are considered objectively (im)moral enables coordination at the scale of full populations. Moral judgments and rules of conduct act as moral traffic lights which allow large groups of people to minimize damage as conflicts arise. The tricky part is coming to agree on which signals to rally around in the first place. It seems that politics may be center-stage in this process, and may explain why people become both infuriated and infatuated by it.
DeScioli, P. (2016). The side-taking hypothesis for moral judgment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 23-27.
Wright, J.C. (in press). Diversity, deviance, and virtue within imperfect moral communities. Virtues and Virtue Education: Local or Universal? Routledge Press.