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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wellsprings of Our Morality

Daniel M.T. Fessler
What can evolution tell us about morality?

Mother Nature is amoral, yet morality is universal. The natural world lacks both any guiding hand and any moral compass. And yet all human societies have moral rules, and, with the exception of some individuals suffering from pathology, all people experience profound feelings that shape their actions in light of such rules. Where then did these constellations of rules and feelings come from?

The term “morality” jumbles rules and feelings, as well as judgments of others’ actions that result from the intersection of rules and feelings. Rules, like other features of culture, are ideas transmitted from person to person: “It is laudable to do X,” “It is a sin to do Y,” etc. Feelings are internal states evoked by events, or by thoughts of future possibilities: “I am proud that she did X,” “I am outraged that he did Y,” and so on. Praise or condemnation are social acts, often motivated by feelings, in response to other people’s behavior. All of this is commonly called “morality.”

So, what does it mean to say that morality is universal? You don’t need to be an anthropologist to recognize that, while people everywhere experience strong feelings about others’ behavior—and, as a result, reward or punish that behavior—cultures differ with regard to the beliefs on which they base such judgments. Is injustice a graver sin than disrespect for tradition? Which is more important, the autonomy of the individual or the harmony of the group? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask.

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