May 17, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Can Morality Be Evolutionized?

A psychologist at the University of Virginia is probing the evolutionary origins of morality:

[Jonathan] Haidt shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles: 1) Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments; 2) Moral thinking if [sic] for social doing, which says that we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us; and 3) Morality binds and builds, which says that morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, which allows humans – but no other primates – to live in large and highly cooperative groups.
    “Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves,” says Haidt….
    Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of – and constrained by – a small set of evolved psychological systems….
    “We all start off with the same evolved moral capacities,” says Haidt, “but then we each learn only a subset of the available human virtues and values.  We often end up demonizing people with different political ideologies because of our inability to appreciate the moral motives operating on the other side of a conflict.  We are surrounded by moral conflicts, on the personal level, the national level and the international level.  The recent scientific advances in moral psychology can help explain why these conflicts are so passionate and so intractable.  An understanding of moral psychology can also point to some new ways to bridge these divides, to appeal to hearts and minds on both sides of a conflict.”

Moral psychology is thus squarely built on the notion that morality itself is a product of evolution – not a reflection of universal truths or ideals of right vs. wrong.  The article says Haidt’s ideas represent “a new consensus scientists are reaching on the origins and mechanisms of morality.”
    Apparently some even think one’s world view is an evolutionary artifact.  In a related story posted by EurekAlert, psychologists at New York University are probing the evolutionary origins of ideology.

If you are a veteran reader of these pages, it’s time for a pop quiz.  The commentaries here should not be doing all the work for you.  Each of you needs to think through these ideas and make sound reasoning part of your skill set in life.  So before we post a response to the article, please go read it, and list on a sheet of paper your own reasons why the ideas expressed are stupid, wicked, or both.  The quiz is open book and open notes.  You can refer to previous commentaries and our Baloney Detector for help.  Come back later for our reactions, or send your responses here.

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