The side-taking hypothesis

Is morality not morality at all but just in-group solidarity? Peter DeScioli suggests it is.

Developmental evidence shows that children are nice to people before acquiring adult-like moral judgment. Moreover, when children develop moral judgment, it does not prevent them from taking actions they judge wrong such as lying or stealing. In adults, research shows that moral judgments differ from and can even oppose altruistic motives. Research on hypocrisy shows that people are mostly motivated to appear moral rather than to actually abide by their moral judgments.

Altruism can be in tension with morality – or at least with “morality”: reputation and appearance, as opposed to the real thing. Yes, that makes sense.

Here is a distinctive human problem that just might explain our distinctive moral condemnation: Humans, more than any other species, support each other in fights, whether fistfights, yelling matches, or gossip campaigns. In most animal species, fights are mano-a-mano or between fixed groups. Humans, however, face complicated conflicts in which bystanders are pressured to choose sides in other people’s fights, and it’s unclear who will take which side. Think about the intrigues of family feuds, office politics, or international relations.

Yes, because human social arrangements are so complicated.

For moral side-taking to work, the group needs to invent and debate moral rules to cover the most common fights—rules about violence, sex, resources, etc. Humans are quite motivated to do just this. Once moral rules are established, people can use accusations of wrongdoing as coercive threats to turn the group, including your family and friends, against you.

The side-taking hypothesis fits many otherwise puzzling observations from the laboratory and the world around us. For one thing, it explains why people sometimes oppose their own family or friends if they act immorally. Of course, people are not always impartial because they must weigh the value of their relationships against the costs of opposing other bystanders. Morality makes us betray friends and family when their (alleged) wrongdoing causes us too much trouble.

Hmm. Interesting, but perhaps more interesting than convincing. Of course, I haven’t seen the relevant research…


  1. quixote says

    The animal behavior research done recently has been indicating that all large-brained social animals have notions of justice, fairness, morality, or whatever you want to call it. Crows, for instance, have “enforcer” birds who actually go help another bird being unfairly — in the crow codex — deprived of food or attacked. (Don’t remember who the researcher was. A woman whose first name begins with an “S” which is not super-useful. I do remember the paper vividly because I was so surprised to read that about crows.)

    It looks like a sense of fairness is something social animals have to regulate their interactions on a sustainable basis.

    Where humans have an advantage with their 1400cc of brain is that they can think about which rules are truly consistent and sustainable, instead of finding out by having their group die out. And, as your earlier post mentioned, they even have philosophers to nag us when we’re fooling ourselves with self-serving nonsense.

    Tribalism, according to that thinking, has nothing to do with morality. Tribalism is the circuits for ingroup vs. outgroup survival, whereas morality is the circuits developed to prevent self-destruction.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    quixote, can you please explain how morality prevents self-destruction? Morality is, to my understanding, a set of “shoulds” that differ (often substantially) from society to society. That’s clearly going-along-with-the-majority thinking.

    For example, some decades ago, it was claimed that it was “immoral” for women to wear pants. In some extremist fundamentalist religions, that is still the case. It was “immoral” for women to wear makeup, or to dance, or any number of odd details, all designed to control women. I’m not seeing “preventing self-destruction” here – I’m seeing one group imposing rules upon another in order to subjugate the other group.

    Christians are the group most likely to label abortion as “immoral”, but for a great many woman, getting an abortion is a matter of survival, of preventing self-destruction.

    Bottom line: If morality was all about preventing self-destruction, I think we’d see a bit more consistency displayed in practice.

  3. quixote says

    Morality in the sense of “doing what’s right.” Not morality in the sense of patriarchal bullshit. The article Ophelia quotes from is talking about morality as (over-simplifying) why-we-have-rules-to-live-by and taking it back to tribalism. I’m saying that tribalism and morality have different roots.

    I’m trying to say that based on the behavior of social animals, the big-brained ones studied so far have rules-they-live-by too. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that having generally accepted rules would reduce friction in a social group, and that would save energy for more useful work, like finding food. So it makes sense that social animals with “better” rules (= better at reducing friction) would tend to survive better than more wasteful ones. In evolution-speak, there seems to be some selective pressure for concepts of what’s right and what’s just wrong.

    You’ll notice I’m using fairness, justice, morality, doing-what’s-right, interchangeably.I’m trying to talk about the whole nebulous ball. They’re all related concepts. What’s not related is patriarchal BS calling itself “morality.” That’s just self-serving power plays and has nothing to do with making life better for the whole group.

    So, if the terminology doesn’t work for you, just substitute whatever words you’d use for those concepts.

  4. Latverian Diplomat says

    “Moreover, when children develop moral judgment, it does not prevent them from taking actions they judge wrong such as lying or stealing. ”

    Wow. There’s a huge “always” missing from just before the word prevent.

    Here’s another statement from the article that’s a black and white overgeneralization: ” In short, people can be nice without morality and nasty with morality—altruism and morality are independent.” Things can correlate without correlating perfectly. Dependency is not either/or. The fact that we use laws, and ethical standards and other social structures that reinforce our morality does not mean those instruments don’t build on and depend on that moral sense. As the saying goes, “locks are to keep honest people out.” Because temptation is a real thing but easily discouraged by a slight barrier. But few locks can stand up to a determined criminal with no reluctance to steal.

    People do internalize moral codes and do experience guilt and remorse, and I do not think it this is completely explained by fear of being caught or exposed. And these emotions do restrain our behavior. That’s why antisocial personality disorder is, well, a disorder.

    Perhaps experiments don’t capture this well because the subjects know they are under observation, or perhaps because experiments can’t involve genuinely immoral behavior.

  5. John Morales says

    I distinguish between group morality and personal morality; though the two overlap, I only comply with the former to the extent it benefits me (usually by thus avoiding group censure).

  6. quixote says

    Oh, and one more thing re Blanche @2: going along with the group is not what distinguishes morality from tribalism. Humans being social animals, there’s plenty of going along with the group in most (all?) people’s understanding of morality. What distinguishes them is tribalism is us vs them. Morality is about what’s right, for some consistent value of “right.” (I know. That’s subject to tornados of debate.)

  7. says

    Also, I don’t think it was ever much called “immoral” for women to wear trousers. Improper, yes, but immoral, no. Convention and fashion are not the same thing as morality, and it’s not common to confuse them that thoroughly.

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