Morality, Evolution, and the Human Family

January 2009


I once asked a Jewish friend, during the height of the second intifada against Israel, how she felt about Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians – in particular, about the settlements that Israel continued to build on what was previously Palestinian land.  She wasn’t an Israel-can-do-no-wrong kind of Jew.  I was pretty sure she didn’t approve of the settlements.  But she was the daughter of holocaust survivors, and so her Jewish identity was far deeper than mine.  Her reply has stayed with me all these years.  She said that it’s like with one’s family.  If someone in your family does something wrong, you feel bad and wring your hands and try to convince him of the error of his ways, but you don’t disown him or publicly shame him because of it.  He’s family.

I’ve thought of her answer many times, because the issue isn’t only about Israel and the Palestinians.  The issue is about any country, and how it treats other countries – or, more broadly, about any group and how it treats other groups, and what one should do when one believes one’s group is in the wrong.  It came up in the United States during the Vietnam War and again, decades later, during the Iraq War.  For some Americans it seemed to be inconceivable that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq; for some, saying so publicly was tantamount to treason.

People formulate narratives about their country, or their ethnic group, or their religious group.  These narratives are like stories with protagonists and antagonists – good guys and bad guys – and it’s natural for people to identify their group as the good guys.  It sometimes seems, in fact, that people first identify their group as the good guys and only then consider the facts, and interpret them so as to support their prior hypothesis.  I believe many conservative Republicans took that approach to the war in Iraq.

In his recent essay, “What Makes People Vote Republican?,” Jonathan Haidt identifies five “foundations of morality.”[1]  The first of these he calls “harm/care” – i.e., do no harm to others and care about others.  The second, “fairness/reciprocity,” focuses on issues of fairness and justice.  These two foundations of morality are about how we treat each other.  They are aspects of the Golden Rule – “Do unto others …”

Haidt’s last three “foundations of morality” – “ingroup/loyalty,” “authority/respect,” and “purity/sanctity” – have to do with maintaining the group, keeping it strong and well-functioning.  In several large internet surveys, Haidt and his colleagues found that self-identified liberal Democrats endorsed the first two foundations but not these last three.  Self-identified conservative Republicans, in contrast, endorsed all five “more or less equally.”  One of the main reasons so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years, Haidt suggests, is that “they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.”  He suggests that Democrats “step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is.”  And so I have.

Haidt is a social psychologist interested in explaining why we have the moral attitudes we have, why they differ to some extent across cultures, and why there are certain key attitudes found in all cultures.  Considering anthropological research as well as research on other primates,[2] he argues that morality is largely intuitive – “feelings of approval or disapproval [that] pop into awareness as we see or hear about something someone did, or as we consider choices for ourselves.”[3]  He effectively defines “moral” acts as acts that elicit feelings of approval, and “immoral” acts as acts that elicit feelings of disapproval; and that definition is pretty much in line with standard dictionary definitions.  The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines “moral” as “of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character; conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior.”

Unless one thinks of “moral” or “immoral” as what God approves or disapproves of (and thus definitions that are beyond human feelings or opinions on the subject) – which I do not – what we approve of is moral, and what we disapprove of is immoral, by definition.[4]  Haidt considers what it is about human actions that we approve or disapprove of, and categorizes these underpinnings of our assessments into his five “foundations of morality.” People generally feel approval when they see someone avoiding harming others, being fair to others, being loyal to the group, respecting the group’s authority, or acting in ways that the group considers “pure and sanctified.”  People generally feel disapproval when they see someone unnecessarily harming others, being unfair, being disloyal, being disrespectful of authority figures, or acting in ways that the group considers impure or “dirty.” Since definitions (e.g., of “purity” or “harm”) can vary significantly from one group to another, acts that elicit the judgment “moral” versus “immoral” can similarly vary significantly.

Haidt suggests that all five of these categories of approval/disapproval reactions are largely intuitive, “put in our minds” by the evolutionary process of natural selection.  And it’s not hard to think of all five of Haidt’s “foundations of morality” as having potential survival value.  It is particularly easy to imagine how the three group-sustaining attitudes – loyalty to the group, respecting the group’s authority, and living in ways the group deems “pure” – might have been selected for, and, moreover, how these attitudes might have been more important than the first two when the survival of small groups could not be taken for granted.  When our ancestors were living in caves and foraging for food and trying not to become food themselves for other, stronger beasts, concerns about fairness and reciprocity may have paled in comparison to simply keeping the group alive.  So it makes sense that we would have evolved to have feelings of approval of group-sustaining acts and disapproval of acts that threaten the cohesion (and thus the survival) of the group.

One could also imagine a selection bias against individuals who didn’t adhere to one or both of the first two foundations.  Those in the tribe who didn’t treat others in the tribe decently might be at higher risk of being harmed themselves by angered fellow tribesmen.

It is less easy to see how acting morally towards those outside the group would have had survival value, and thus less easy to see how such behaviors would have been selected for.  It isn’t entirely clear, in fact, that such moral behaviors towards those who are not in one’s group have been selected for.  There is certainly abundant evidence of members of one group inflicting horrendous harm on members of another group – both throughout history and across continents.  There is generally overwhelming evidence that the supposedly universal dictum, “Do unto others …” has often not been applied to those outside one’s group (or within one’s group, for that matter) – consider the slave trade; the treatment of blacks by whites in the United States until relatively recently; the treatment of Jews by Christians in Europe; the treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese; the treatment of non-Muslims by Muslim fanatics in the Islamic world, or any of a multitude of other examples.  It might be argued, in fact, that application of the Golden Rule to those outside the group is the exception rather than the rule.

And yet we in the modern world do feel a twinge – often much more than a twinge – of moral discomfort when we see or read about Israeli bombs killing Palestinian civilians, whether inadvertently or not; we feel moral discomfort when we read about Hamas suicide bombers targeting and killing Israeli civilians; we feel moral discomfort when we hear about the American “enhanced interrogation” – that is, torture – of suspected terrorists in our custody; at least, some of us do.

Of course, it could be argued that all of these situations are examples of how enemies are treated in wars – the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the “war against terror” – and that how we treat our enemies is necessarily different from how we treat others who are not enemies.  Still, there are rules of conduct even in war, and all of the above examples, it has been argued, have violated these rules.  All are also examples of actions allegedly taken to protect the group against outside threats – examples in which the first two of Haidt’s “moral foundations” were violated in pursuit of the other three.

This conflict between Haidt’s first two “foundations of morality” and the last three is what jumped out at me when I read his essay.  Haidt defines morality as having to do with actions that can elicit feelings of approval or disapproval.  By that definition, all five of Haidt’s “foundations of morality” are about morality.  In contrast, I’ve always thought of morality as having to do with how we treat each other (liberal Democrat that I am).  By that definition, only the first two of Haidt’s “foundations of morality” are really about morality.  The last three, as he notes, are about maintaining the group, and they can easily conflict with the first two – that is, with morality, as I’ve always thought of it.  For example, loyalty to the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan could hardly be described as “moral,” since both these groups were engaged in acts that were immoral by any reasonable standard.

If, as Haidt suggests, many Americans “honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats,” I suspect it is because many Americans are more concerned with supporting their country than they are about how their country treats others.  Many Americans, I believe, identify the United States as “the good guys” and only then consider the facts, and interpret them so as to support their prior hypothesis.  Many Americans no doubt have supported the “enhanced interrogation” techniques endorsed by the Bush administration in the belief that these techniques will keep us safe.  The fact that torture is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, to which the U.S. is a signatory, and a clear violation of the first two of Haidt’s moral foundations, apparently paled, for these Americans, in comparison to their belief that such acts could help keep us safe.  I doubt that the Republican-controlled 109th Congress would have rolled over and played dead on this issue if more constituents had registered their outrage at the immorality of torture.

So here are two questions: First, which is more important – maintaining the group or doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, even others not in the group?  And second, who is in the group?

If attitudes about morality evolved because they had survival value – a plausible hypothesis – I suspect that all five of Haidt’s foundations of morality originally pertained to those within the group, that concerns about how we treat others were originally concerns about how we treat others within our group.  There is abundant evidence throughout human history and across human geography, as noted above, that this was probably the case.  So in our early history, there was probably no question – maintaining the group was paramount; we cared about others in the group; as for those outside the group, the dictum might well have been, “Do unto them before they do unto us.”  So why do we now, in the modern world, feel twinges of moral discomfort when we see either of the first two foundations of morality being violated even across groups?  I have a hypothesis.

At bottom, morality depends on empathy.  Our ability to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated may well rest on our ability to empathize with others.  To the extent that we define people as “the other,” it is harder to empathize with them and easier to treat them in ways that we ourselves would not want to be treated – that is, to treat them immorally.  But two modern trends have made it more difficult to think of people who are not “like us” in some way as “the other.”

First, modern technology has made the world smaller.  We now see more of, and can find out more about, people in other groups – people of other races, religions, cultures.  As we learn more about other people, as we live closer to them and get to see them “up close,” we are better able to see past the cultural barriers to the humanity beneath – to see that we are all human beings, with many shared human concerns.  We all feel pain when harmed; we all feel fear when threatened; we all feel resentment when treated unfairly.  In this sense, we’re all in the same human group.

Second, as oppressed groups have fought to gain entrance to realms traditionally denied them, barriers that acted as separators between “us” and “them” have gradually eroded.  As African-Americans have fought to abolish their “separate and unequal” status in American society and replace it with simply equal access – to housing, to education, to jobs – the  gap between the races has narrowed (although we still have a ways to go), and intermixing has increased.  It didn’t happen overnight, but over the  decades, the comfort level between the races has gradually increased as more and more blacks have entered the middle class, and the extent to which African-Americans are “them,” from the viewpoint of whites, and whites are “them,” from the viewpoint of blacks, has been diminishing.  We now have an African-American president, for whom many whites happily and eagerly voted.  Everyone is remarking on how amazing this is – and it is, given our history – but most whites seem to be quite comfortable with it.  The times have been changing, and with this change, the “otherness” of each race from the viewpoint of the other, has been gradually fading.  The same is true for women versus men, and for gays versus straights.

As barriers have eroded, we literally spend more time in each other’s company, we are more likely to live and work near each other, we see each other more fully, we think of each other more and more as just other people in the human group.  In 2003 when I saw a picture on the front page of the New York Times of a sobbing young Iraqi wife holding her dead husband – early “collateral damage” from the Iraq War – in her arms, I teared up myself.  I could feel her anguish; her different culture, her different religion, her different language – these paled in comparison to that.

So, who’s in the group?  More and more people who not so long ago were outside it.  The group is expanding, and this has made it harder to treat others in ways we would not want to be treated ourselves – because we see more and more “others” as similar to ourselves, as part of the human family, and so we can empathize to an extent we previously could not.

While in the early period of human evolution group-sustaining acts may have had the greater survival value, the force of cultural evolution in the modern world may be turning that tide.  Acts that sustain the group at the expense of Haidt’s first two foundations of morality may be maladaptive in this modern world, as those outside the group – that is, the rest of the world – watch and disapprove.  The world’s reaction to the election of Barack Obama showed the extent and force of these modern trends.  People around the world were thrilled at Americans’ electing Obama not only because of his intelligence, his character, and his policy ideas, but also in no small part because it showed that, in electing a black president, America had made a quantum leap forward in how we see each other within our borders – and this sent a message to everyone outside our borders as well.

To see everyone in the world as part of one “human family,” is, I know, idealistic, to say the least.  But in some ways we are moving – being shoved, perhaps – inexorably in that direction.  The world is shrinking psychologically; and the world’s problems are, in very real ways, indeed becoming the problems of “the human family.”   Nothing has made that more evident than the specter of climate change.  In this world, in a very real sense the survival value of Haidt’s first two foundations of morality are becoming paramount and the survival value of the traditional group-sustaining acts is becoming less apparent, as the role of traditional groups becomes less clear.

If the tide is indeed turning – if the survival value of Haidt’s first two foundations of morality is beginning to surpass that of his last three (group-sustaining) foundations – it cannot be due to natural selection.  The modern world has existed for only “the blink of an eye” in evolutionary time.  But perhaps the forces of cultural evolution act more quickly and have begun to have an effect – at least on me, and other liberal Democrats like me.  Hopefully, as the world shrinks, and we are all “shoved” closer to each other, more and more people will see the paramount importance of applying the “Golden Rule” foundations to everyone – or will see that, to some extent, in some ways, we’re all in the same group after all.

[2]  See, for example, Haidt, J. and C. Joseph.  Intuitive ethics:  how innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues.  Daedalus.  Fall 2004: 55-66.

[3] Haidt and Joseph.  2004. p. 56.

[4]  This includes only acts that affect other people.  One might say, “I approve of your choice of dress,” but choosing the dress is not a moral (or immoral) act.


One comment on “Morality, Evolution, and the Human Family

  1. “the forces of cultural evolution” has a new-ish word associated with it. Dawkins introduces it as the “meme”, in “The Selfish Gene”. It is indeed similar, even to the point that neither your genes nor the memes that your mind hosts are necessarily entities destined to do you good. Sexual urges, to take the obvious example, are intended to create experimental hosts for copies of the genes that provide these urges. It is known that the urges can be enjoyed, without the procreation “intended” by the genes. I think it was the Roman known to us as Horace that declared “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. This is clearly a meme that can benefit the rulers of the Patria, but they who become mortui by it, not so much. Whole gangs of memes get together to form religions. The good thing about meme descent is that it is more Lamarckian than Darwinian. There is not the same dichotomy as between genotype and phenotype.

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