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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Evolutionary Roots of Morality and Professional Ethics

By John Gavazzi
Originally published in The Pennsylvania Psychologist

          Every aspect of human existence stems from biological and cultural evolution.  Even though evolutionary psychology is not a priority for clinical psychologists, the goal of this article is to highlight the evolutionary roots of human morals and professional ethics.  At the broadest level possible, morality is defined as the ability to differentiate between right and wrong or good and bad.  Most research in moral psychology highlights that many moral decisions are based on emotional responses and cognitive intuitions of right and wrong.  Moral judgments are typically affective, rapid, instinctive and unconscious.  The speedy cognitive processes and emotional responses are shortcuts intended to respond to environmental demands quickly and effectively.  Most individuals do not take long to determine if abortion is right or not; or if same-sex marriage is right or not.  How are our morals a function of evolution?

  Primatologist Frans de Waal (2013) attempted to answer this question in his book, The Bonobo and The Atheist.  The book is based on his work studying primates as well as other animals, like elephants.  According to de Waal, morality originated within animal relationships first, prior to homo sapiens culture.  He used observations to determine if there are any similarities between primates and humans in terms of morality.  Both are social creatures who depend on relationships to function more effectively in the world.  In order for primates to cooperate, form relationships, and work as groups, reciprocity and empathy are the two essential “pillars of morality” reported by de Wall.  Reciprocity encompasses the bidirectional nature of relationships, including concepts such as give and take, returning favors, and playing fairly.  Empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, can occur at both the cognitive and affective levels.  In terms of cognitive empathy, a person or a primate needs to have the mental capacity to understand another group members’ perspective.  People and primates also need to gage or feel the emotions of others.  As an example of empathy, humans and primates can both see emotional pain in others, demonstrate distress at what they are witnessing, and seek to console the sufferer.

The entire article is here.