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Friday, November 11, 2022

Moral disciplining: The cognitive and evolutionary foundations of puritanical morality

Fitouchi, L., André, J., & Baumard, N. (2022).
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-71.


Why do many societies moralize apparently harmless pleasures, such as lust, gluttony, alcohol, drugs, and even music and dance? Why do they erect temperance, asceticism, sobriety, modesty, and piety as cardinal moral virtues? According to existing theories, this puritanical morality cannot be reduced to concerns for harm and fairness: it must emerge from cognitive systems that did not evolve for cooperation (e.g., disgust-based “Purity” concerns). Here, we argue that, despite appearances, puritanical morality is no exception to the cooperative function of moral cognition. It emerges in response to a key feature of cooperation, namely that cooperation is (ultimately) a long-term strategy, requiring (proximately) the self-control of appetites for immediate gratification. Puritanical moralizations condemn behaviors which, although inherently harmless, are perceived as indirectly facilitating uncooperative behaviors, by impairing the self-control required to refrain from cheating. Drinking, drugs, immodest clothing, and unruly music and dance, are condemned as stimulating short-term impulses, thus facilitating uncooperative behaviors (e.g., violence, adultery, free-riding). Overindulgence in harmless bodily pleasures (e.g., masturbation, gluttony) is perceived as making people slave to their urges, thus altering abilities to resist future antisocial temptations. Daily self-discipline, ascetic temperance, and pious ritual observance are perceived as cultivating the self-control required to honor prosocial obligations. We review psychological, historical, and ethnographic evidence supporting this account. We use this theory to explain the fall of puritanism in WEIRD societies, and discuss the cultural evolution of puritanical norms. Explaining puritanical norms does not require adding mechanisms unrelated to cooperation in our models of the moral mind.


Many societies develop apparently unnecessarily austere norms, depriving people from the harmless pleasures of life. In face of the apparent disconnect of puritanical values from cooperation, the latter have either been ignored by cooperation-centered theories of morality, or been explained by mechanisms orthogonal to cooperative challenges, such as concerns for the purity of the soul, rooted in disgust intuitions. We have argued for a theoretical reintegration of puritanical morality in the otherwise theoretically grounded and empirically supported perspective of morality as cooperation. For deep evolutionary reasons, cooperation as a long-term strategy requires resisting impulses for immediate pleasures. To protect cooperative interactions from the threat of temptation, many societies develop preemptive moralizations aimed at facilitating moral self-control. This may explain why, aside from values of fairness, reciprocity, solidarity or loyalty, many societies develop hedonically restrictive standards of sobriety, asceticism, temperance, modesty, piety, and self-discipline.