Evolutionary Perspective on Moral Development

In his book of the same name, journalist Robert Wright labeled humans as moral animals, implying that we are the only animals with an express sense of good and evil. Furthermore, this perception is not only cognitive; strong emotions accompany it. When someone else conducts an immoral act, we are generally outraged or disgusted by their acts.

However, when we commit an immoral act, we are often filled with remorse, humiliation, or embarrassment. Those who exhibit tremendous morals, such as Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, are widely admired. Moreover, who has not felt pride when they do something nice for someone else? The fact that morality is a cultural universal and elicits such emotional solid reactions has been interpreted as evidence that it is part of human nature.

Evolutionary Function of Morality

Human nature was developed to enable gene transmission, which is best served by assisting the survival and reproduction of individuals who act as vehicles for these genes or their near relatives. It is counterintuitive to imply that natural selection may have given humans a moral sense. What possible benefit may it have for individuals and their genes to act morally towards non-kin?

Such a habit could only be explained by invoking group selection: the activities benefit the species. In truth, there appears to be no conflict; a moral sense offers some evident benefits to the individual, albeit, as we will show, not all of the benefits are wholly related to what is typically thought of as morality. The common understanding of morality in secular state societies owes much to philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, who helped lay the groundwork for liberal democracy.

The crucial point in this viewpoint is that anything is immoral if a human being suffers (or may potentially suffer) due to another's purposeful behavior. However, even in liberal countries, people's moral assessments surpass those dictated by the community, as seen in the following case.

Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworlds exhibition toured Europe and the United Kingdom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Human bodies were maintained at the show using a technique known as plastination, which essentially converts flesh into plastic. A skinned male body with his cranium cut in half to display his brain, crouched over a chessboard as if calculating his next move, and - most famously - a pregnant lady sliced down the middle to reveal the unborn child within was among the exhibits.

Bodyworlds sparked a storm of protest and moral indignation across Europe, and not just among conservatives and religious fundamentalists; many atheists and liberals also expressed moral concern at the exhibition; after all, these were once real, breathing human people. The issue is determining where the immorality of Bodyworlds rests. When the 'models' were alive, they willingly agreed to the following procedure of plastination and display (von Hagens still signs up potential subjects during his shows).

So, according to the usual paradigm, there is no moral violation, and the critics acknowledge this. Although many people thought the display was unethical, they had no evidence to support their claims.

The Origins of Morality

If morality is necessary for group existence, it should arise early in life since children are social creatures just like adults; toddlers as young as three years old have a sense of good and evil. There is also evidence that morality may have its foundations in childhood. According to research, newborns find pleasant facial expressions delightful and painful facial expressions stressful (the babies were hooked to stress-measurement equipment).

According to Hoffman (1982), while morality may have been selfish at first, painful faces provoke an 'empathic distress' reaction in a newborn, who subsequently tries to lower their stress by alleviating the person's misery. Because of this basic process, newborns can participate in seemingly prosocial behaviors before discriminating between 'self' and 'other.' Although this study may explain certain moral universals, it does not explain why morals differ from culture to culture. For example, the cow, extensively consumed in the West, is considered sacred in Hinduism.

Why are Morals so Variable?

Although it has been proposed that a moral sense is part of human nature (see above), the precise nature of moral values varies from person to person and culture to culture (except a few universals such as murder and rape). What may be the reason behind this? If morals are so important (which we must presume), why did natural selection not just wire in solid moral feelings? Evolutionist Robert Wright (1994) provides one response, drawing on William Hamilton's explanation of why reciprocal altruism appears to vary so greatly in the population.

Wright contends that the best ethical approach may be determined by the historical, cultural, and social situation in which the individual finds himself or herself. If you are born with a strong moral sense, you may be outcompeted by conspecifics willing to cheat, steal, and lie. On the other side, if you were born with little moral emotions, you may be shunned by a high-moralist group. In the same way that it may be advantageous to take a 'wait and see' approach to reproductive strategy, the same may be true of morality.

This is why morality differs from one culture to the next. A close one is presented by Haidt and Joseph (2004). They are interested in addressing why certain principles appear universal (rage at being tricked, loyalty to your group, sympathy for suffering) yet take different forms in different cultures. They contend that five intrinsic moral domains can be influenced by cultural learning.

These domains are mental modules, although they regard modules as more flexible than some. They adhere to Dan Sperber's teeming modularity, in which modules may be transformed by external input, can spawn new modules, and are, to some extent, under conscious control.

Theory of Mind and Morality

Behaving morally and forming moral judgments about the actions of others are not as simple as blindly obeying regulations. We are frequently obliged to make moral judgments, even if it is as simple as deciding whether to skip a line at the supermarket or take a tiny quantity of money lying on the floor in a diner. When faced with such scenarios, we cannot always rely on specific rules; we make judgments depending on whether or not someone would suffer and how much.

For example, we may be more willing to keep money discovered at an upscale restaurant than in a soup kitchen because the person who lost the money will be less likely to miss it in the first case. As we need to envision how someone could feel as a result of our activities, judging how people might feel as a result of our actions necessitates a fully functioning theory of mind. According to this perspective, infants begin to comprehend the nature of morality around the age of four, when the theory of mind begins to present itself in an adult-like way.

One topic that can be sparked by a discussion of the theory of mind is whether autistic people have problems with moral reasoning. There has not been much study on this topic, but people with autism may find moral reasoning exercises like the one above the complex. Temple Grandin's experiences might be helpful here.

Temple Grandin is a high-functioning autistic woman who has published extensively during her academic career in the Department of animal sciences at Colorado State University. Despite her cerebral talents, she confesses that the social world is a mystery. She describes how she devised a series of clear rules to assist her in her dealings with others, some of which were concerned with morality and others with various sorts of social transgression.


Morality is more than just a cognitive assessment or rule compliance; it is linked to powerful emotions such as rage, contempt, guilt, pride, and veneration. According to several modern moral theories, the primary assessments of good and wrong include an intrinsic component.

Although particular morality appears universal (for example, those prohibiting murder), the majority appear to be learned. Wright explains this by arguing that it is better to embed flexibility into the system when the environment is unknown rather than hard-wiring specific moral standards.

Updated on: 20-Apr-2023


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