Guest Post: To moralize, or not to moralize?Published 11 March, 2013
Today’s guest post is by Michael Bang Petersen (pictured). I posted it, blushing a little, unedited. His biography appears at the end of the post. – Rob Kurzban.
Humans show a remarkable moral interest in behavior that does not have any direct bearing on their welfare. People express condemnation of thieves, liars and adulterers even though they don’t have any relationship whatsoever with the victims of the actions in question. One traditional perspective (see here) on this zoologically unprecedented phenomenon is that it is about advertizing yourself as one of the good guys. By condemning antisocial acts, you signal to those people you do in fact have a relationship with that you would never do any such thing and that they can therefore safely interact, coordinate, and cooperate with you. Morality, in this perspective, evolved to make us do good things and condemnation is the signal we use to tell others that we are to be counted among the do-gooders.
One problem with this explanation is, however, that it does not really explain morality at a sufficiently general level. While some moral rules are, of course, about behaving altruistically towards others, huge amounts of moral energy is spend condemning behavior that has a much less clear negative impact on the welfare of others. Why, for example, do some people so strongly condemn consensual sex between two males (or two females for that matter)? Similarly, why – in some Muslim countries – are women who do not wear veils so strongly condemned? Neither homosexuality nor letting your hair show seems to have much direct negative impact on other people. These two examples could perhaps give the impression that the condemnation of strange things is something confined to politically conservative segments. But nothing is farther from the truth. Youth culture across the world, for example, provides plenty of examples that strong condemnation can also be directed against those who do not party hard enough or are the teacher’s pet. At the more general level it seems that morality and moral condemnation is less about doing good as it is about constraining behavior – and all sorts of behavior can be moralized.
Recently, such observations has sparked renewed interest in studying the underlying dynamics of morality and, as readers of this blog will know, our own Rob Kurzban has been doing important work on trying to understand exactly what is going on with all this condemnation (see here and here). A part of the answer that is emerging is that moral condemnation is not so much about being a do-gooder as it is about something very different, namely the strategic promotion of self-interest. Expressions of moral condemnation are a way in which we seek to mold our social environments in a way that is conducive to the particular interests that we pursue. For example, for individuals who pursue a long-term mating strategy (i.e., who invest in one particular long-term mating partner instead of seeking multiple short-term partners), a social environment that invites promiscuity is problematic because it increases that risk that one’s long term partner suddenly ends up with another one. For these individuals, any and all signs of a relaxed sexual morality should be condemned and penalized. This perspective has, for example, given rise to the interesting finding that people who follow long-term mating strategies are much more prone to find the use of drugs morally problematic compared to people following short-term mating strategies. The underlying reason is of course that having casual sex is a not too infrequent result of drug intake.
In this perspective, then, people condemn what is against their self-interest. Because interests differ across individuals, some people will condemn some behavior, while other people will condemn other kinds of behavior. Overall, however, we are all condemners, and while our moral compasses point in different directions, the sum of condemnation for each individual could be seen as about the same.
But is this really the case? Let us try to take a look at two pieces from the book of morality par excellence: the Bible. It is the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament and it is the Sermon on the Mount from the New Testament. In a way, these two pieces constitute what comparative researchers call a “most similar systems” comparative design: Both pieces are religious, Christian, antique etc. At the same time, they vary massively in their levels of moral condemnation. The Ten Commandments are prime examples of how morality seeks to constrain behavior with its forceful list of “Thou shalt not…”. Condemnation is here at peak levels. In stark contrast, a key message of The Sermon on the Mount is an explicit warning against condemnation as prominently coined in the line “Judge not, that you be not judged”.
If Biblical anecdotes provide any guidance on the landscape of human moral psychology, this suggests that there are systematic individual differences in proneness to moralize: Some people are prone to condemn others strongly (the “Old Testamenters”), other people are not (the “New Testamenters”). If valid, how are we to understand such differences? It all comes down to a matter of trade-offs, I have suggested in a recent article published in Evolution & Human Behavior. There are benefits to being a moralizer in general and there are costs. The costs of condemnation and moralization have been touched upon in the above: If you want to pursue a promiscuous sexual strategy, it is costly to help forge collective condemnation of promiscuity. That much seems pretty obvious. What might be less obvious is that there are in fact also benefits associated with condemning certain strategies even though you are pursuing them yourself. These benefits come about in terms of protection. From the perspective of individual strategies, an exploitive individual would stand to gain from refraining to moralize exploitive acts because a lack of collective condemnation will ensure that he can more freely pursue exploitive strategies. Yet, while this would help promote the self’s exploitation of others, this also creates opportunities for others to exploit the self!
So we have a classical situation of trade-offs. On the one hand, a person would like to pursue specific strategies and, hence, refrain from moralizing relevant behaviors. On the other hand, this person would not like to become the target of those very same strategies and, hence, would like to moralize those behaviors in others. An easy solution could be to sort of do both – that is, moralize the behavior in question (such as adultery) as a protective means but at the same pursue it yourself. However, as any casual observer of the press coverage of sex escapades of conservative politicians would notice, such hypocrisy – when detected – does not go unpunished. So, what to do? Here, the important thing to focus on is that the benefits of moralization relates to the protection of your interests. In other words, if alternative means of protection were available, the dilemma would be easily solved as there would be no need (at least, in this context) for letting moral condemnation interfere with the pursuit of self-interest.
In the article mentioned above, I focused on one specific alternative means of protection: having coalitional allies in the form of friends. One core function of friendships – as suggested by different researchers – is to increase the bargaining power of the self in disputes with others and, hence, protect the resources and interests of the self against encroachment. If the above line of reasoning is valid, this implies that people without protection in the form of friends should be more likely to moralize all sorts of behaviors that could be potentially harmful. Indeed, this was what analyses of a large cross-national survey, the European Values Study, showed. The more time people spend with friends, the less likely they were to moralize behavior across domains. Importantly, this effect of friendships was particularly large for particular segments: those segments where the trade-off between the promotion of one’s self-interest and the protection against others’ pursuit of their self-interest were most acute. In the domain of reproduction, for example, people following short-term mating strategy themselves kept condemning the promiscuity of others if they lacked social support. Similarly, in the domain of cooperation, people following a defection strategy themselves kept condemning defection in others if they lacked social support.
These analyses suggest that one important function of moralization and condemnation is to recruit the attention and help of third-parties in the service of trying to get protection from exploiters. So, in essence, if you lack other means of protection – whether in the form of physical size or a large number of coalitional allies – you can always try to avoid being exploited by crying out a “But it is wrong!” in the hope of mobilizing moral outrage. However, if you have these other protective means available, you might be better off by keeping moralization at a minimum and be free to pursue your own interests.
In this way, the game of moralization and condemnation is a complex social game and seems to contain all the ingredients of good drama: attempts to be a good person, attempts to promote your own interests and attempts to protect yourself against encroachment from others. With such a complex setup, it is safe to assume that the final word on the evolved functions of morality has not yet been said.
Petersen, M. B. (2013). Moralization as protection against exploitation: do individuals without allies moralize more? Evolution and Human Behavior, 34 (2): 78-85.
Guest Blogger Bio
Michael Bang Petersen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science & Government at Aarhus University in Denmark. He received his PhD from Aarhus University in 2007 and received training in evolutionary psychology at the Center of Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara. His core field of study is how modern individuals use psychological mechanisms designed for ancestral small-scale social interaction to reason about modern mass politics. More information as well as a number of his publications is available here.