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Evolution and Moral Diversity PDF Print E-mail

1 March: Evolution & Moral Diversity Tim Dean (PhD Candidate University of NSW)

1 March 2011: Evolution & Moral Diversity
Tim Dean (PhD Candidate University of NSW)

Why is it people of different moral persuasions – such as liberals and conservatives – just can't seem to see eye to eye on many issues? The latest research in evolutionary biology, moral and political psychology, and game theory suggests a startling revelation: we have an evolved moral psychology, but that this psychology operates in different ways in different people – and it does so for very good evolutionary reasons. The end result is a ‘moral ecology,’ with a vast plurality of moral approaches that enables us to respond to a wide range of environmental situations.
Sometimes it pays to be nice. Sometimes it pays to be nasty. And often it’s unclear which is the best strategy to employ. This, in a nutshell, is one of the great problems that faced our distant ancestors, the solution to which lends insight into our diverse and conditional evolved moral psychology. For one of the greatest adaptive challenges we as a species faced in our evolutionary past was how to live successfully in large social groups of unrelated individuals, thus gaining the benefits of cooperative and group effort without suffering the deleterious consequences of free-riders from within or invaders from without (Hamilton, 1963; Dawkins, 1976; Axelrod, 1981). To this end we evolved a complex moral psychology for regulating our behaviour in a social context, directed towards solving the problems of social living (Haidt & Kesebir, 2009).
However, it turns out there is no one perfect strategy to solve the problems of fostering prosocial and cooperative behaviour in large groups of unrelated individuals, such as those our distant ancestors lived in. Instead, different behavioural strategies yield different results depending on the circumstances and environment in which they’re employed: i.e. sometimes it’ll pay to be highly altruistic, particularly in a population of other altruists; and sometimes it’ll pay to be more cautious and forego some potentially lucrative cooperative interactions in order to reduce the risk of becoming a ‘sucker’ at the hands of a free-rider, particularly when the population contains many potential defectors. This dynamic is very well modelled using the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, which serves as a model for many possible social interactions (Trivers, 1971; Lomborg, 1996; Binmore, 1998). These models show that it often takes a mix of strategies – for example, some very trusting, some more cautious – that interact in such a way to promote cooperation within the group without suffering the deleterious effects of defection or free-riding.
This, I believe, is analogous to the problem of creating a set of behavioural norms that seek to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour – i.e. ‘moral’ norms. Sometimes encouraging ‘nice’ behaviour will yield the greatest rewards, such as employing norms that encourage forgiveness, trust or tolerance. Sometimes more cautious behaviour will prove more beneficial to those who follow that particular norm, such as encouraging more suspicion or harsher punishments for those who transgress. Often a mixture of the two approaches will actually foster more cooperation than thoroughly cautious strategies, while being more resilient to invasion by free-riders than thoroughly cooperative strategies.
Our minds evolved under the influence of this complex dynamic, raising the intriguing prospect that evolution didn’t steer our psychology towards promoting one particular strategy to solve the problems of social interaction, simply because there isn’t one strategy that lent an adaptive advantage to all who employed it. Instead, evolution provided us with a diverse range of responses to the dynamic problems of social interaction. One of the mechanisms that fuels this diversity of strategies is individual psychological differences, such as variation in personality and cognitive style. Some people are naturally more prone to be open and trusting, while others are naturally predisposed towards being less trusting and more punishing. This natural variation, which is well documented in the psychology literature (Bouchard, 1994; Penke & Denissen & Miller, 2007), influences the way we interact with and experience the world around us, which in turn influences our attitudes when it comes to issues of how other people ought to behave, i.e. morality.
However, while there has been tremendous progress over the past decade in revealing the psychological mechanisms by which we form moral attitudes, and the possible evolutionary influences on these mechanisms, relatively little attention has been given to this notion that individual differences contribute to variation in moral attitudes. Most moral psychology studies tend to look for the universal patterns that underlie moral attitudes formed by normal functioning individuals within a particular environment, such as: (i) teasing out the relationship between deliberative reason and emotion (Haidt, 2001; Greene & Haidt, 2002); (ii)  the employment of particular heuristic processes, such as the principle of double effect (Hauser et al., 2007); or (iii) the existence of an incest-avoidance module (Lieberman et al., 2003). Much evolutionary psychology also concerns itself with uncovering the universals of human nature, the cognitive modules that have been shaped by natural selection over generations, which reside in us all (Cosmides & Tooby, 2004). Relatively little evolutionary psychology literature addresses the influence of evolution on individual differences – although there are exceptions (Wilson, 1994; Bateson, 2004; Buss, 2009).
Yet moral attitudes vary, leading to a tremendous amount of moral disagreement. This disagreement, it should be noted, doesn’t only exist between cultures, where environmental or cultural differences might account for a great deal of moral diversity. Moral disagreement also occurs within cultures, which is a more challenging phenomenon to explain away through appeal to environmental contingencies. Consider the following quote from a great pioneer of moral relativism, Edward Westermarck, in the introduction to his book, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, expresses a sentiment with which I’m sure many can identify:
[I] was once discussing with some friends the point how far a bad man ought to be treated with kindness. The opinions were divided, and, in spite of much deliberation, unanimity could not be attained. It seemed strange that the disagreement should be so radical, and the question arose, Whence this diversity of opinion? Is it due to defective knowledge, or has it a merely sentimental origin? And the problem gradually expanded. Why do the moral ideas in general differ so greatly? And, on the other hand, why is there in many cases such a wide agreement? Nay, why are there any moral ideas at all? (Westermarck, 1906, page 1)
Moral disagreements such as this are a far from being an exception. They are, in fact, a hallmark the modern world as much as the ancient (Herodotus, 1996 ; Westermarck, 1906; Stevenson, 1937; Mackie, 1977; Bloomfield, 2001; Tersman, 2006).
One variable that could account for a portion of the observed moral diversity and disagreement in the world, and which could be more comprehensively explored is variation in personality and other psychological predispositions. However, there is precious little research that addresses this notion, at least little outside the literature on psychopathy or concerning brain damage on moral judgement (Casebeer & Churchland, 2003; Huebner et al., 2009). Yet we know that besides variation due to pathology or injury, normal functioning humans vary to a tremendous degree in terms of personality and cognitive function. Could not some of the variation in moral judgement be influenced by this variation in psychology?
While there is a dearth of research in moral psychology directly tackling this question, there is another source of literature that could act as a proxy and lend some insight into the impact of psychological variation on moral diversity: political psychology. This field is primarily concerned with understanding why individuals identify with certain political ideologies, and how they come to form political attitudes. One of the intriguing aspects of political psychology is that many of the ideological attitudes being assessed have a moral dimension, such as attitudes towards equality, fairness, the treatment of outsiders or lower class individuals, attitudes towards war, and even highly morally charged issues such as attitudes towards abortion or euthanasia. Some moral psychologists have already drawn a link between moral attitudes and political attitudes, with Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham finding that self-identifying liberals and conservatives rate different moral issues – such as those concerning harm compared to those concerning authority – with a different level of importance. Liberals tend to ratie harm/care and fairness/reciprocity as more important than authority/respect, in-group/loyalty and purity/sanctity, and conservatives rate them all as similarly important (Haidt & Graham, 2009).
Many other political psychology studies have found variation in political attitudes to be significantly associated with other personality variables. One example is associating the psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat – real or imagined – with politically conservative attitudes (Jost et al., 2007). There is similar variation in tolerance of ambiguity and its opposite, a tendency to stick to dichotomous conceptions and hold attitudes dogmatically (Frankel-Brunswik, 1948). Another variable is the propensity to perceive the world as being a dangerous place, and to have a somewhat pessimistic assumption about human nature at large (Altemeyer, 1998; Duckitt, 2001). All the above are strongly correlated with holding politically conservative attitudes.
Another metric related to the above is integrative complexity, a ‘cognitive style,’ which refers to how people tend to integrate and process information. An individual with low integrative complexity will tend to take a black and white view of issues and will employ simple evaluative categories to attitudes, such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rather than taking a more complex view considering strengths and weaknesses of one particular notion. High integrative complexity is correlated with liberal views, while low integrative complexity is associated with conservative views (Tetlock, 1983).
One source of variation that would, on the surface, appear to have little to do with politics is personality as measured by the Five Factor Model (the ‘Big Five’): openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. However, two of these variables have considerable predictive power when it comes to political attitudes. High levels of openness – which is often defined in terms of a propensity to seek our novel stimuli, to engage in intellectual pursuits, to be creative and express a general intellectual curiosity – are positively correlated with liberal self-identification and liberal views. High levels of conscientiousness – which is often associated with being organised, dependable, punctual and self-controlled – are positively correlated with conservative self-identification and attitudes. The other three factors have either conflicting or inconclusive evidence suggesting correlation with political attitudes (Mondak, 2010).
The finding that personality is somehow predictive of political attitudes is particularly illuminating, because personality is something that appears to be relatively stable over one’s life, and is robustly heritable (McCrae & Costa, 2003). This is also borne out by studies that find political attitudes are also strongly heritable (Alford et al., 2005).
An individual’s ‘worldview’ – their broad framework for understanding the world and investing it with meaning and value – has a heavy influence on political attitudes (Lakoff, 2006). So if someone perceives the world to be a dangerous place, they are more likely to hold conservative views than someone who perceives the world to be a relatively safe place (Jost et al., 2003). Likewise, if they perceive the world to be a meritocracy, where people reliably get what they deserve – both rewards and punishments – then they are more likely to tilt towards conservative attitudes (McCoy & Major, 2006). This suggests that the link between psychology and politics is mediated by a middle step – one’s ‘worldview’ – such that an individual’s worldview has a strong influence on their political attitudes.
Yet, personality and other psychological proclivities have a strong influence on worldview. For example, someone who has a naturally strong fear response, or a naturally low tolerance for ambiguity, is likely to undergo a very different experience when presented with a certain situation than an individual who has a mild fear response and high tolerance for ambiguity. As such, the very same environment can alter one’s worldview dependent on one’s experience of it. This, in turn, makes an individual more likely to find particular political ideologies and attitudes more appealing, such as someone with a strong fear response being more attracted to the more security-inclined approach offered by conservatism. However, ideology also works to influence worldview, leading to a feedback that serves to reinforce the worldview associated with a particular ideology. The strength of this effect, if it exists, is unknown, and will likely remain so until specific empirical studies are conducted to put it to the test.
Given there appears to be a link between psychology and political attitudes, we should reflect on the fact that genes, in turn, influence psychology (McCrae & Costa, 2003). Indeed, there is already evidence that genes influence political attitudes (Alford et al., 2005). The question that stems from this is: why might it be that biology predisposes people towards one set of political attitudes or another? The answer may come from the notion discussed above that there was no one solution to the problems of social living – of how to keep a group bound together; how to discourage and punish defectors; how to discourage and punish those who harm the social order (such as by harming others within their social group); as well as the problems of how to protect the group against threats posed by competing groups – that might have allowed evolution to settle on one solution. Instead, the genes that contribute to our psychological proclivities such as personality settled into a ‘stable polymorphism,’ where many genetic variations persist in a population over time. A similar stable polymorphism can be found in our immune system, particularly in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which play an important role in keeping us one step ahead in the arms race against the multitude of ever-changing pathogens that populate our environment.
If it is true that genes influence political attitudes via personality and psychology, what does this say about morality? While moral issues and political issues are often conceived of as belonging to different realms, many of the problems that political attitudes and moral attitudes are directed towards solving are very similar, whether it be problems of dealing with those who break the rules of social behaviour, of the permissibility or impermissibility of certain practices, such as abortion or euthanasia, or the fair distribution of wealth and opportunity within a society. The overlap is substantial enough that the results in political psychology warrant attention from moral psychologists. And the findings mentioned above suggest, at least on a descriptive level, that morality could be even more complex than we might have thought (or hoped). Instead of being a matter of right and wrong, it’s been a matter of better and worse solutions to problems in an ever-changing environment. Perhaps the reason we’re not hardwired with the a single solution to all the problems of social interaction is not that evolution is clumsy in arriving at the correct answer, but that there is no one correct answer to be found. Instead, evolution has equipped us with a highly conditional and plastic moral psychology, and hardwired adaptability by investing in genetic diversity that ensures a spectrum of psychological proclivities exist within any particular population, thus increasing the likelihood that it won’t fall foul of one particular invader, either internal or external.
The next step will be to put this theorised association between psychological variation and moral diversity to the test. The research in political psychology is intriguing, but it’s not asking the same questions as moral psychology. However, I strongly suspect that should moral psychologists develop the appropriate tests, they will find that variables in psychology and personality will contribute to variability in moral judgement and behaviour. We just need to go out and see.

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