Monday, October 01, 2007

Moral Universals

Nicholas Wade offers a summary (PDF here) of some of the evidence that humans have an evolved moral intuition that appeared before the development of language. (This has been the subject of several previous blog posts), focusing on the views of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt suggests that there are five innate moral systems, or rather, innate psychological mechanisms that predispose children to absorb certain virtues. Some concern the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together. Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

A striking demonstration comes from experiments that show that people will say it is morally acceptable to pull a switch that diverts a train, killing just one person instead of the five on the other track. But if asked to save the same five lives by throwing a person in the train’s path, people will say the action is wrong. This may be evidence for an ancient subconscious morality that deters causing direct physical harm to someone else. An equally strong moral sanction has not yet evolved for harming someone indirectly.

1 comment:

  1. It makes more sensible the seeming moral hypocrisies that emerge in war and central planning: Sending soldiers to certain death, shooting looters, economic shock therapy, etc. Who says genocide is bad?