moral sense

In brains we trust, or do we?

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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

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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

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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 reÂŻect 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.

The Five Moral Foundations

Jonathan Haidt studies Morality and he , with Joseph and Graham, has discovered what he calls the five major moral foundations or ethical areas of concern. A Steven Pinker article that is doing the rounds these days introduces these as follows :

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

In a Science Magazine article Haidt originally listed these scenarios as follows and requested that we do a though experiment as to how much money someone would need to give us to perform the following acts (the first act is relatively amoral, while the second presents a moral dilemma) :


  • Stick a pin into your palm.
  • Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know.


  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend got the television a year ago when the company that made it sent it, by mistake and at no charge, to your friend.
  • Accept a plasma screen television that a friend of yours wants to give you. You know that your friend bought the TV a year ago from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family.


  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in your nation.
  • Say something slightly bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation.


  • Slap a friend in the face (with his/her permission) as part of a comedy skit.
  • Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit.


  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 min, including failing to solve simple problems and falling down repeatedly on stage.
  • Attend a performance art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 min, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.

As one can easily see from ones responses, the second of the set of questions appears to be morally reprehensible, though the category to which it belongs and the moral intuitions which guide our reaction to the underlying dilemma is different in each case. for the child-pricking-with-needle scenario we are focussed on harm avoidance and rely on empathy; while in the artists-running-naked we are more moved by our intuitions on what is aesthetically pure and sanctimonious.

Haidt also believes that these moral foundations have different evolutionary roots: while harm and fairness may rely on evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism respectively, the other dimensions like ingroup/ loyalty may be due to group selection acting at group levels. The other foundations like respect for authority and desire for purity may have their own evolutionary mechanisms:

If I asked you to define morality, you’d probably say it has something to do with how people ought to treat each other. Nearly every research program in moral psychology has focused on one of two aspects of interpersonal treatment: (i) harm, care, and altruism (people are vulnerable and often need protection) or (ii) fairness, reciprocity, and justice (people have rights to certain resources or kinds of treatment). These two topics bear a striking match to the two evolutionary mechanisms of kin selection (which presumably made us sensitive to the suffering and needs of close kin) and reciprocal altruism (which presumably made us exquisitely sensitive to who deserves what). However, if group selection did reshape human morality, then there might be a kind of tribal overlay (—a coevolved set of cultural practices and moral intuitions—that are not about how to treat other individuals but about how to be a part of a group, especially a group that is competing with other groups.

In my cross-cultural research, I have found that the moral domain of educated Westerners is narrower—more focused on harm and fairness—than it is elsewhere. Extending a theory from cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, Jesse Graham, Craig Joseph, and I have suggested that there are five psychological foundations, each with a separate evolutionary origin, upon which human cultures construct their moral communities . In addition to the harm and fairness foundations, there are also widespread intuitions about ingroup-outgroup dynamics and the importance of loyalty; there are intuitions about authority and the importance of respect and obedience; and there are intuitions about bodily and spiritual purity and the importance of living in a sanctified rather than a carnal way. And it’s not just members of traditional societies who draw on all five foundations; even within Western societies, we consistently find an ideological effect in which religious and cultural conservatives value and rely upon all five foundations, whereas liberals value and rely upon the harm and fairness foundations primarily.

To me, these five moral foundations fit beautifully with the five factor models that I have been considering. Harm being more physically rooted, fairness/ justice more subjectively rooted; ingroup/ loyalty more rooted in interactions between group members; respect/authority more socially rooted; while purity/sanctity more individualistically rooted.

Also this framework is broadly compatible with Kohlberg’s moral development theory, with harm based reasoning predominating at stage I and so on. To elaborate:

  1. Stage 1 thinking is marked by Obedience and Punishment Orientation. This orientation clearly relies on Harm based reasoning to discern morality of acts- whether harm is caused by the cats and whether the results (including punishment ) would be harmful.
  2. Stage 2 thinking is marked by Individualism and Exchange. This exchange mentality is typical of those advocating reciprocal altruism or those who emphasize fairness and the golden rule.
  3. Stage 3 thinking is marked by Good Interpersonal Relationships. this reasoning is marked by emphasis on good relationships within a ingroup and loyalty to it and all its members.
  4. Stage 4 thinking is marked by Maintaining the Social Order. Here respect of authority is clearly evidenced as one wants to respect the authority inherent in the social order.
  5. Stage 5 thinking is marked by Social Contract and Individual Rights . Here the purity/ sanctity dimension is more prominent and one focuses on the purity, sanctity and inalienability of human rights. These rights are sort of divine.

I am excited to see how these five major moral foundations could still be under evolutionary selection and thus, we may not even be aware of the processes by which the later stage mechanisms work. While the evolutionary earlier kin selection and reciprocal altruism are well understood, we are still evolving the other traits and hence no clear mathematics for that yet in place- hence we are baffled by group selection or deny that other dimensions like purity/sanctity have anything to inform on moral matters. That may just be due to the fact that western morality is still not developed to higher stages of Morality as compared to other civilizations (or for that matters liberals less developed than conservatives? ). I am sure that there would be three more qualitatively different moral foundations taking the eventual number to eight moral foundations, but we must first appreciate the five moral foundations better before we move up and broaden the moral horizons.

Lastly let me briefly mention the relationship of these five major foundations to emotions. It has been found in studies that people respond with disgust (expressions) when confronted with an immoral act belonging to purity/sanctity dimension. They respond with contempt if they witness moral transgressions in respect/ ingroup dimensions and react with anger while witnessing transgressions of harm/ justice dimension. Thus, we may even relate these five moral foundations with the primary affects. But that is food for a later post!

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