moral sense

The Stages of Moral Development


I have alluded to Kohlberg’s stage theory of Moral Development a few times in this blog, but never devoted an entire post exclusively to that; time to rectify that. For those not familiar with the Kohlberg model, I suggest that they read up an excellent description here.

Morality Play (novel)

Morality Play (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, Kohlberg argues, that we go through three levels (and two stages within each level) as we advance on our path of moral development. He arrived to this conclusion, among other things, based on a long-term study of 58 young men over a span of two decades. The stage of moral development was assessed by analyzing answers to moral dilemmas like the famous Heinz dilemma. (in which a not-so-well-off person steals from a druggist a drug to save his dying wife).

After presenting people with various moral dilemmas, Kohlberg reviewed people’s responses and placed them in different stages of moral reasoning. According to Kohlberg, an individual progresses from the capacity for pre-conventional morality (before age 9) to the capacity for conventional morality (early adolescence), and toward attaining post-conventional morality (once Piaget’s idea of formal operational thought is attained), which only a few fully achieve. Each level of morality contains two stages, which provide the basis for moral development in various contexts.

The standard stages, as deciphered from say the below responses to Heinz dilemma, are as follows:

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

  • Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison which will mean he is a bad person.
Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband.
Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal.
Or: Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law.
Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person.

Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

From the above it should be amply clear what is salient for each stage and level.

Today I came across an old article by William Damon in Scientific American (PDF here) and he does a pretty good job of describing the stages, and levels, using terminology that is easy-to-understand and correlate.



Stage 1:PUNISHMENT “I won’t do it, because I don’t want to get punished.”
Stage 2: REWARD “I won’t do it, because I want the reward.”





Stage 3: INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS “I won’t do it, because I want people to like me.”
Stage 4: SOCIAL ORDER “I won’t do it, because it would break the law.”





Stage 5: SOCIAL CONTRACT “I won’t do it, because I’m obliged not to.”
Stage 6: UNIVERSAL RIGHTS “I won’t do it, because it’s not right, no matter what others say.”

Now, long time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology and the eight stage model of development. To recap, the four dimensions important for any psychological model are Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Dynamic (motivational/social) – the right order of development is A->B->D->C. There exist two polarities relevant at each dimension. For Affect, it is the polarity of Pain-Pleasure; for Behavior, the polarity of Active (approach/reward)-Passive(avoidance/ punishment) , for dynamics (or social) it is Self vs Others and finally for Cognition, it is Narrow vs Broad. This model is based on the pioneering work of Theodore Millon and combines various other theoretical frameworks.

If one were to see the Kohlberg’s levels/stages from an ABCD lens, it is clear that SELF-INTEREST is a Behavioral level, with the people moving from a passive (punishment avoidance perspective) to an active (reward approaching perspective) way of reasoning and acting as they function and evolve at that level; SOCIAL APPROVAL is a Dynamic /Social level where people move from a primarily Self focus (avoiding social disapproval) to a primarily Others focus (keeping the glue of society intact); and finally The ABSTRACT IDEALS is a Cognitive level with people moving from a narrow view of morality as utilitarian/ social contract based to more broader conceptions like based on universal human rights.

All the above is fine, but what about A or Affect based level/stages in our model? Are there moral reactions and behaviors of children (less than 9 or say even 5 years of age) that cannot be explained solely as a matter of rewards and punishments? Did Kohlberg miss on an important moral foundation on which many of our initial moral acts are based? My contention is yes, Kohlberg did leave out an important moral foundation. I will call that Affect based moral level Level 0.

The Level 0, of moral action and reasoning, is before an infant/ toddler/ child start thinking of, and justifying, their moral actions in terms of self-interests or rewards and punishment. This Level 0 is the Level of EMPATHY. Research in infant and toddler development has shown that the first moral or pro social behaviors develop out of an ability to empathize with others; if an infant or toddler will witness another person crying they will try to soothe the other person even if their means of helping may be inadequate; similarly toddlers, given an opportunity to help another person by saying opening a cabinet, when a stranger has his hands filled with books, will help the stranger, without any regards to any rewards or punishments, but because of the sheer joy of seeing the other person become happy as a result of their actions.

It’s unfortunate that infants cannot speak and many toddlers haven’t developed a good vocabulary, so the verbal responses to dilemma approach cannot be applied as is to them; but clever researchers have developed ingenious protocols to observe and ascertain moral behavior in children of that age group, and probably can develop new techniques to figure out their moral reasoning too. For example, in one of such experiments, children are shown animated clips of figures like squares and triangles that are either helpful or hurtful (pushing around a loved object ) and based on which figures the child prefers, one determines that indeed children like helpful figure/ animation characters over hurtful/ bullying characters; one could modify this paradigm by varying the distress felt by a loved object, that is being pushed around, by increasing the squeaking noise that object makes, to find whether more squeaking leads to more empathy and thus more moral/ pro social action.

The point I am making is that the prediction that there is an earlier moral reasoning/action stage characterized by empathy, is an empirically testable fact and I do hope someone conducts appropriate experiments to modify and add to Kohlberg’s theory.

To reiterate, there does exist a Level 0 of morality based on EMPATHY and the stages here are that based on Avoiding Pain and Enhancing Pleasure; the Avoiding Pain reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, because it will cause the druggist to become sad (as the druggist has lost something dear to him)” ; the Enhancing Pleasure reasoning goes like ” Heinz should not steal the medicine, so that the druggist can live happily based on profits he earns” .

So the bottom-line, we all start with EMPATHY on our paths to moral development and that provides a solid foundation on which higher stages like those based on abstract ideals are achieved.

In brains we trust, or do we?

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

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Much has been written about the seductive allure of fMRI brain images accompanying research papers and giving them more credence than is deserved; similarly much has been written about the whole enterprise of fMRI based research that tries to find the neural correlates of X,Y,and Z, as if X/Y or Z being human/animal faculties could have a substrate other than neural.


In both of the above cases, while the neuro babble seemingly provides more authority to the underlying argument, it is not clear what value , if any , one gets by just identifying a brain area responsible for X/Y or Z.


Patricia Churchland‘s quest for roots of human/animal morality is similarly besieged by the allure of all things neural- it is to her credit that despite being a philosopher she gets the neuroscience part not just so-so right, but precise and accurate with all caveats included;  but what one is left at the end of reading ” Braintrust : what neuroscience tells us about morality” is the feeling that she could have spent more time bolstering her main point that morality arises from sociality rather than talking about oxytoctin or mirror neurons.


While she does treat mirror neuron hyped research with the contempt and dressing that it deserves by trying to explain more than is warranted; her own enthusiasm for Oxytocin as the magical trust molecule or the epitome of moral foundations, deserves similar treatment. Again it is to her credit that she does not shy away form discussing latest studies that have shown oxytocin in not so moral light as in when it is involved in out-group prejudice; but still the discussion of neurotransmitter or vasoprassin or mirror neurons detracts rather than amplifies her thesis that morality evolved from social living.

I am much sympathetic to her main argument that morality may have arrived as the care system became enlarged to cover self, kids, kith and kin, partners and finally strangers. That caring and sharing might be the roots of all goodness in the world was apparent even to miss universe like Sushmita Sen back in 1994, not an unremarkable achievement considering the latest miss America contestants views on evolution. But I digress. The thing is that Patricia should have spent more time on this and bridging the leap from social behavior to moral behavior by maybe using philosophical devices/arguments rather than just peppering her statements with neuroscientific jargon and assuming that that will settle the point.

Along the way she casually dismisses the important work that may support her position like that of Jonathon Haidt- she claims that morality is innate but seems reluctant to grant that it could also have a universal structure.

If you want to know the latest neuro research around sociality – go read this book; you will read all the proper studies with all caveats and without misrepresentations. However, if you were yearning for any philosophical insight into the nature of morality, how ‘is’ and ought’ are not necessarily the same and from where to derive the ‘oughts’ in life you might be in for a disappointment. At least I was.


ps: Disclosure of interest. : I received a free copy of Braintrust for review from Princeton university press.

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Ethical BlindSpots and what to do about them

Ford Pinto. Foreground car is a restored examp...

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This is a review of Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel’s new book ‘Blind Spots: why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it‘ published by Princeton. Before I start a disclaimer seems right. I receive review books from Princeton and have received this book free of cost for review. Considering that I love free stuff, esp if it is good psychology / neuroscience books, and considering the fact that Princeton editors are more likely to send review copies to those who give a positive review, there is a potential conflict of interest. Now that I have disclosed this conflict of interest, my review should be less biased and more responsible. Or so you thought!

Not so, if we go by Max and Ann’s research. They don’t specifically study the problem of bias in book reviews🙂 , but have gathered a pile of evidence in related conflicts of interest scenarios like a researcher publishing on efficacy of a drug where the sponsor of the study is a drug company ; or the auditors disclosing their other consulting businesses with the audited firm; all of which point to the fact that disclosing (or being mandated to disclose) our conflicts of interest , sort of gives us a license to be biased; and more so when authors are explicit about the conflict of interest, the readers are less likely to detect the bias.

The above is just one of the numerous examples of what the authors call bounded ethicality, in the same vein as bounded rationality. As per the bounded ethical view of human nature, we have limited resources esp the conscious deliberate decision making moral system resources as compared to the other fast and intuitive decision making system. The trouble lies with the fact that we are blind to how we will act in a future ethical dilemma (because we have hard time visualizing that our ‘want’ self will override our’ should’ self in the heat of the moment) or even if we will see the issue as an ethical issue at all (the case of ethical fading) .

When those in our organizations or government try to make policies that don’t take into account these psychological realities or blind spots, what effects they have on ethical issue is either sub-optimal or may even backfire. To take two well known examples: if an organization uses punishment as a tactics to enforce ethical behavior it may backfire. Consider the well known daycare center/ school study wherein parents were punished with a minimal fine if they didn’t pick their child at time after school. Thsi resulted in more parents being late to pick their child as instead of seeing it as a a moral or ethical issue involving the guilt system, they re-framed it and started seeing it an economical terms and using a reward (cost/benefit analysis) system.

Another famous example is that of opt-in or opt-out forms for organ donation and the corresponding different rates of organ donations in different countries. Here Max and Ann advocate Richard Thaler style Nudges to make best use of human blind spots to achieve ethical policy goals.

Max and ANN touch on a vriety of t=ethical issue aand blind spots at individual , organizational and society level and the discourse is peppered with actual real world examples like Enron – Arthur Anderson fiasco or Ford Pinto gas-chamber disaster. The examples, although taken from the US point of view, have global appeal and visibility and would be accessible to people form other nations too. This book is a must read for those who are in charge of organizational or society level implementation of ethical policies and programs, but is also helpful for us , the corporate or academic individual contributors/ mangers/administrators as to how we can apply the psychology of bounded ethicality to change ourselves and the world around us.

Despite having a strongly ethical/ moral agenda, the book strays clear of imposing a particular set of ethical values , either implicitly or explicitly, on others. The only appeal they make is to be true to oneself and if one wants to be ethical how to not be foooled into thinking that one is indeed acting ethically while indulging in unethical (by ones own standard) behavior. If you want to be an ethical person or organization and are sometimes left nonplussed by the unethical behavior that still ensues nonetheless, then this is the right book to help you understand and correctly ensure that ethical behavior happens when push comes to shove.

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The factor structure of virtues and perosnality: a continuing mess

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.
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Continuing my theme of focusing on human character strengths and virtues and relating them to personality,  I have been doing more reading of the literature and want to discuss three papers today.

First up is Shyrack et al’s recent paper that again explores the factor structure of VIA-IS and finds support for a 3 or 4 factor solution. They discuss the various conflicting/mutually supporting factor analytical results and the resulting 4 or 5 underlying components or factors. the VIA-youth scale consistently gives 4 factors while the VIA-Is (adult form) gives 5 factors.

However, I have issues with the samples on which the factor analysis is done. the mean age in Shyrack’s current study was 50 years approx, but in most other analysis, the analysis is conducted on university students. The age and developmental stage of the sample is important because as per a developmental stage perspective many of the virtues will not become manifest/ apparent and bloom in full strength until a particular age has been reached. for eg, till age 50 people have perhaps mastered the first 6 stages (including intimacy as per Erikson’s model) but still have not finished to satisfaction the developmental tasks of generativity (seventh stage) and integrity (eights stage). Not faced with any developmental challenges to these situations, the people may have lacked incentives to develop the corresponding virtues; thus I would not be surprised if people identify / relate to only at most 6 virtues. I would suggest that new tests be developed for post middle age and senior citizens than the normal adult scales and their data analyzed to understand the true factor structure of virtue. This is akin to their being different measurement instruments for children, adolescents and adults for character strengths and perhaps rightly they reflect different underlying factors thus validating a developmental stages approach. If analyzed this way I am sure the data for aged people will support a eight factor structure. Much of the data obtained from college students, in my view would only support 4 or 5 factor virtue structure.

Shyrack et al find support for 3 or 4 factor model, but based on a cursory look at their extraction using goldberg technique (see figure) I can extrapolate that a support for eight factor structure , with social strengths splitting in justice and humanity, and temperance splitting in temperance proper (restraint) and emotional strength. I hope someone perofmrs extraction till 8 factors and tries to label them, especially with aged poulation.

That bring me to Munro et al paper that also used undergraduate students as samples and performed factor analysis to come up with 5 factors ; however they also centered their data and after centration (to reduce social desirability effects). Their scree plot supported a 9 factor structure. See the scree plot that clearly shows at least eight factor (eigenvalues > 1) . to me it is not understandable why they left this centered data and instead went on to derive a five factor structure from the non-centered raw data.

That brings me to the last paper. It is by Cawley et al and is based on lexical analysis of virtue adjectives and nouns and also uses a different Virtue scale the Virtue Scale instead of VIA-IS. This approach too yielded a found fold structure (Empathy, Order, Resourceful, Serenity), but I believe there is much scope for more exploration with their data. However the best take home from the very insightful article is that virtue and ethics are separate. Virtue is related to being; while ethics is related to doing. Ethics is more cognitively grounded , especially the one gauged by DIT or Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas and is not related much to virtue which is more grounded in character or personality. And they found support for this in their data. That I believe is an important difference an finding to keep in mind. Also I liked this paragraph that lists the attributes that give rise to moral domain competency. To me they follow naturally , as stage tasks and issues , in reverse order as one undergoes moral development:emotions (1st stage), will (second stage) , motivation (3rd stage), Ethics (4th stage) and Virtue (5th stage).

The independence of this measure of the virtues and the personality measures from the more cognitive DIT measure of moral development may also reflect the independence of the mental (cognitive±intellectual) and moral (emotional±motivational) domains in psychology and philosophy (Averill, 1980). Averill observes that the mental domain evolved from studies of epistemology, while the moral domain (including personality) evolved from studies of virtue ethics, motivation, will, and emotion. Thus, from Averill’s observation, one would expect a measure of virtue to be more strongly related to measures of personality than to measures of cognitive moral development. Additional empirical data on the relationships among virtue, personality, moral cognitive development, and epistemological style can be found in Cawley (1997).

Also, I liked this para, that distinguishes between temperance proper (2nd stage doing with restraint) and Activity (7th stage that is more agentic):

McCrae and John (1992) also acknowledge that there are two components of Conscientiousness (C): an inhibitive view and a proactive view. They note that:
A number of di?erent conceptions of C have been o?ered. Tellegen’s Constraint and Hogan’s Prudence re¯ect an inhibitive view of C as a dimension that holds impulsive behavior in check. Digman and Takemoto-Chock’s Will to Achieve represents a proactive view of C as a dimension that organizes and directs behavior. The term Conscientiousness combines both aspects, because it can mean either governed by conscience or diligent and thorough. Empirically, both kinds of traits seem to covary. (p.197)
Perhaps the virtues factor Order represents the inhibitive, non-impulsive aspect of Conscientiousness as a virtue, and the virtues factor Resourcefulness represents the proactive, diligent aspect of Conscientiousness as a virtue (see also Johnson & Ostendorf, 1993).

Overall, I highly recommend reading the Cawley et al paper (available freely on the web) and encourage more research that utilizes multiple approaches to correlating Virtues with other constructs as outlined in this bit from munro et al:

In addition to developing their classification system, Peterson and Seligman (2004) have also suggested how their classification of character strengths and virtues is related to, but distinct from, already established theories of values. For example, Peterson and Seligman (2004) see their classification of character strengths and virtues as being related toMaslow’s (1973) idea of self-actualised individuals, the Five FactorModel (FFM) of personality (McCrae & John, 1992; Costa & McCrae, 1994), Cawley’s virtue factors (Cawley,Martin, & Johnson, 2000), Buss’ evolutionary ideas about what is attractive in a mate [i.e. what character traits are essential for survival and propagation, (Botwin, Buss, & Shackelford, 1997; Shackelford, Schmitt, & Buss, 2005)], and Schwartz’s (1992) Universal Values.
Some research into establishing the validity of these claims has begun. Haslam, Bain, and Neal 2004) found that both Schwartz’s (1992) Universal Values and the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality were conceptually linked to the 24 character strengths. However, as these constructs were defined and subsequently measured by only one or two terms that were ranked and grouped together by participants on the basis of conceptual likeness, more thorough research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.

Heer is toast to more such research!

Shryack, J., Steger, M., Krueger, R., & Kallie, C. (2010). The structure of virtue: An empirical investigation of the dimensionality of the virtues in action inventory of strengths Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (6), 714-719 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.007
MACDONALD, C., BORE, M., & MUNRO, D. (2008). Values in action scale and the Big 5: An empirical indication of structure Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (4), 787-799 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.10.003
CAWLEY, M., MARTIN, J., & JOHNSON, J. (2000). A virtues approach to personality1 Personality and Individual Differences, 28 (5), 997-1013 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00207-X

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The Varieties of Altruistic Experiences

Altruism is a very heavily loaded word  in evolutionary psychology/ biology and I would not add to the confusion by defining the term myself. Suffice it to say , that I will use it in all of its various intuitive and theoretical usages.

The evolution of biological Altruism is generally considered as a challenge to Darwinian evolution and there are thought to be two main theories of how Altruism is possible or has evolved. These are Hamilton’s Kin-selection and inclusive fitness theory and Trivers’ Reciprocal Altruism theory, though some prominent people disagree that there are indeed two separate phenomenon at work and try to argue that they are one and the same phenomenon

I would argue instead that there are more varieties of Altruism than the above two- and that it may also be beneficial to decompose the phenomenon of kin selection and reciprocal altruism into their sub components and to to derive/ elucidate the proximate mechanisms that are involved in these phenomenon as opposed to a single-minded focus on the ultimate explanations of why and how such models can give rise to altruism.

To that effect I would like to separate the parental-investment and parent-child ‘kid-selection’ effects from other genetic relatives or ‘kin-selection’ effects. The reason I believe they are separate is because having a child or Kid involves bringing in a new relative with 0.5 relatedness in this world , so the cost to bring in to the parent can be very high as post facto (childbirth) the inclusive fitness becomes 1.5 +0.5b-c (cost) while earlier it was only 1.  Thus, the act can be undertaken if 0.5 +0.5b>c.  In the kin selection case however the inclusive fitness is 1-c +0.5+ 0.5*b after the altruistic act vis-a-vis 1.5 before the act ; so  the act can only be undertaken if 0.5b>c . the addition of a constant 0.5 to the first equation changes the dynamics to a large extent and thus my idea to keep the two phenomenon separate.

Also, reciprocal altruism can itself be broken into some differing phenomenons. The first phenomenon is generalized reciprocity (which is even found in rats , see also this) and others are direct, indirect and strong reciprocity. To summarize form an earlier post:

As per what is know about the evolution of Altruism, it is surmised that co-operation in groups emerges based on four types of reciprocity- direct, indirect, strong and generalized.

In direct reciprocity, one helps another person/animal because the other animal has helped oneself in the past. This requires cognitive capacities to recognize different individuals and require social memory as to which member of the group had helped and which had defected or free loafed. While some animals like the Elephant have good social memories and the ability to remember and recognize different individuals, most animals fall short on these traits.

In indirect reciprocity, one helps another because one has observed the other guy to have helped someone else. This again requires cognitive capacities to recognize and also to remember This is more so based on a reputation system, wherein you start trusting someone more if you observe him doing good deeds. In return you are likely to help the do-gooder , when he is in time of need.

In strong reciprocity, people punish the defectors or free-loafers or non-cooperators. This requires sophisticated cognitive abilities to recognize the defectors and a willingness to undergo cost to oneself while punishing the defector. This too, along with the above two, has rarely been observed in animals apart from humans.

Finally, generalized reciprocity happens when one indulges in good deeds towards a stranger just based on the fact that one has in the near future received such help from other strangers/ con specifics. There are variations on this theme, whereby if people have been put in a good mood (which is a substitute for having received a good deed) they are more likely to indulge in altruistic acts like picking up books dropped by a confederate. This type of reciprocity does not make very strong cognitive demands as one just has to remember the summary of whether the environment is cooperative or not, to produce the right kind of behavior.

So based on above I would like to differentiate between two clusters of reciprocity: Generalized reciprocity not requiring sophisticated cognitive mechanisms, but requiring global assumptions about the social environment; and strong, direct and indirect reciprocity – all involving sophisticated cognitive mechanisms but not dependent on assumptions about the global social environment.

With this I would now like to move to my main thesis. I argue that altruism is a social and group phenomenon and to understand all the proximal mechanisms that are involved in altruistic acts we have to appreciate the mechanisms and drives that lead to group formation, group cohesion and expansion and finally group thriving or differential success from other similar groups based on selection of members belonging to the group such that their is non-zero sum benefits of being in the group.

I would argue that all of the above can be understood in the eight stage framework, with the first three stages related to group formation; the next two related to investment in group (expanding or making it cohesive) and the last three related to populating the group with better individuals/ creating a suitable group that has maximum payoffs for all.

To start with , let us revisit the eight basic adaptive problems as elaborated here and here.

  1. The first problem to be solved ‘foe’ is also the first primary driver for the evolution of groups. Groups or herd evolve per se, because a solitary creature is more vulnerable to predation than as part of a group. This is how herding evolved. The proximate mechanism working at this level is that of merging with a group. 
  2. The second problem to be solved ‘food’ is the secondary driver for evolution of groups. It is envisaged that hunting/ gathering as part of a group leads to better  and bigger catches than are individually possible. this provides the incentive to work with other group members to hunt/ forage. This introduces the problem of who would eat the catch when one of them kills, but others are part of the raid party. The solution to the above problem is achieved using the mechanisms of sharing of the spoils. Thus, the proximate mechanism working at this level is a tendency to share the food / resources when begged for by those who are of the same band/ herd/ raiding party.  
  3. The third problem to be solved is ‘friends’ or con-specifics themselves. As all the group members  are competitors in the same niche, they have to learn to form alliances and co-operate in non-zero sum games with other partners when such co-operation does not entail a price and leads to mutual benefit.the example here would be that of grooming. A bird cannot remove lice from the top of its own head , but can do so easily if another friend removes the lice for her. This is a nonzero sum game. by co-operating both gain and nobody loses. The grooming can happen simultaneously so there is no reciprocity or memory involved. The proximate mechanism here is that of grooming or befriending (spending time with other just to make the alliance better).
  4. The fourth problem to be solved is that of ‘kids‘ and how to help those vulnerable, but related individuals. The kid-selection and parental investment concerns dominate here and lead to emergence of altruism directed towards ones offspring. Now the proximate mechanism devised to help in kid selection is that of care or empathy and this extends to all those who are sick,  vulnerable, infirm or unable to fend for themselves. The care ethic is born and is most visible in contexts where the mother-child or provider-infirm relationship can be activated. Help in rearing infants by related aunts etc is an example of this mechanisms.
  5. The fifth problem to be solved is that of ‘kin’ or all the other related individuals in the group. Kin selection comes into picture, but for it to work one has to properly identify ‘like’ people, who are likely to share genes. It is presumed that selection favored those who can judge likeness of phenotype from likeness of genotype and a a simplistic scenario could be that all the group members are considered as like and one tries to identify with them. This is as opposed to trying to differentiate from them and treating them as not-like. Thus, the proximate mechanism involved could be that of loyalty to the group and identification with the group as opposed to rebelliousness/ unconventionality/ differentiation from the group. The drive to find ‘like’ and ‘related’ individuals could easily lead to the ethic of community/ loyalty towards the self identified group. Also, forgiveness instinct towards those considered part of group and hence pertaining to valuable relationships that should be maintained despite small annoyances.
  6. The sixth problem to be solved is that of ‘selecting’ a partner/ partners with which one could indulge in altruistic games. Here the payoff to another would be at a cost to oneself and hence it is not a simple case of co-operation or mutualism in which both parties would benefit. Ideally, when partners have not been determined a priori and one has to discover the characteristics of the majority of the partners (or the population)  and at the same time not harm oneself by unconditional altruistic costs, the viable strategy would be to play with many diverse individuals and play using a generalized reciprocity scheme. At the end of many iterations, one can look at ones strategy and depending on how much altruistic or selfish it is, determine the characteristics of the population. This requires minimal cognitive demands as in not requiring the ability to remember individual interactions. In simple words this can be dubbed as Trust. You trust other people as you do not really know them, except in so far as they are part of the group and hence likely to have a majority group characteristic.  thus, a typical example would be ultimatum game. though the person with which you may playing may be stranger, you know a few things from your generalized reciprocity interactions with other individuals to know that majority of them are fair (make offers at 50 %) and also punish small splits. Thus, based on how you yourself have been given endowments in the past (and how others have rejected endowments given by you) you can reasonably play an ultimatum game with a stranger with same population wide results. Thus, the proximate mechanism here is that of Trusting others to be like the general population stereotype. thus, in humans, most of us are ‘altruistic’/ ‘good’ and hence we trust well rather than be suspicious.             
  7. The seventh task is that of seducing or attracting the right kind of partners so that the payoff the group, and hence yours, increases. Three separate mechanisms are at work here. Direct reciprocity harnesses our ability to remember individuals to pay them back in the future. Gratitude is the proximal mechanism that ensures that we do indeed pay back when time comes. Strong reciprocity ensures that we pay back, in another sense of the term, to the free-riders / defectors. By having punishment in the system one can ensure that the group is not overtaken by free-riders and defectors. The proximal mechanism active here is that of vengeance and not letting the culprits go off scot free. Indirect reciprocity on the other hand works on third party interactions and is based on respect , that is a generalized reputation of an agent to be ‘good’/’bad’ and acting towards them based on their reputations rather than their immediate behaviors. The proximate mechanism active here is respect/ authority. 
  8. The eighth task is to secure the group or keep the group well-knit and isolate form other ‘corrosive’ groups. One problem that poses a hurdle to group securing is unexpected payoffs (like war loot) and how they are handled by the group. They may be distributed to everyone equally, distributed as per a hierarchy or consumed by a few dominant individuals.Here the ethics of fairness and equality is the proximate mechanism that is used to settle matters. Another important factor here is not to let other group members infiltrate the successful group and subvert it from within. This gives rise to the ethic of purity and sanctity : the group is considered pure and sanctimonious and only other pure individual are allowed to join the group. The perverts within the group may be destroyed/ redeemed/ salvaged.                     

Thus, in my view, altruism involves all these proximal mechanisms: merging, sharing, grooming and befriending, caring, loyalty (identifying and forgiving), trusting; justice as in gratitude (positive justice),vengeance (negative justice) and respect (generalized justice); and finally the ethics of fairness/equality and purity /sanctity. Some of these can be easily mapped to Haidt’s five basic moral foundations.

In a follow-up post I will try to show how these eight altruistic proximate mechanism are reflected in personality traits especially with reference to HEXACO personality model to which one of my readers pointed me to.

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