Mysteries of morality

Cognition 112 (2):281-299 (2009)
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Abstract

Evolutionary theories of morality, beginning with Darwin, have focused on explanations for altruism. More generally, these accounts have concentrated on conscience to the neglect of condemnation. As a result, few theoretical tools are available for understanding the rapidly accumulating data surrounding third-party judgment and punishment. Here we consider the strategic interactions among actors, victims, and third-parties to help illuminate condemnation. We argue that basic differences between the adaptive problems faced by actors and third-parties indicate that actor conscience and third-party condemnation are likely performed by different cognitive mechanisms. Further, we argue that current theories of conscience do not easily explain its experimentally demonstrated insensitivity to consequences. However, these results might be explicable if conscience functions, in part, as a defense system for avoiding third-party punishment. If conscience serves defensive functions, then its computational structure should be closely tailored to the details of condemnation mechanisms. This possibility underscores the need for a better understanding of condemnation, which is important not only in itself but also for explaining the nature of conscience. We outline three evolutionary mysteries of condemnation that require further attention: third-party judgment, moralistic punishment, and moral impartiality.

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