Explanatory Power for Myriad Facts

Past and present enforced cultural norms (enforced moral standards) are superficially often diverse, contradictory, and bizarre. The existence of these enforced moral standards are descriptive facts of the form “these norms were or are enforced in this culture”.

If, as I claim, the universal function of social moralities is “To increase the benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts”, then this function must be consistent with and have explanatory power for virtually all past and present enforced moral standards. I say “virtually all” because in the vagaries of human culture, it seems likely that some exceptions, perhaps of short duration, should be expected. To date, I am not aware of any exceptions, but normally refer to consistency with “virtually” all because I am unable to make an argument that exceptions are impossible. I encourage suggestions for counterexamples.

Some examples should clarify what I mean by consistent with the universal function of social moralities. “Do not steal, lie in court, or kill” advocates behavior that can be costly to the individual when they resist urges to steal, lie in court, or kill (and believe doing so would benefit themselves) in order to benefit society in general by not reducing cooperation benefits in the society.

But “slavery is moral” has been a moral standard and that does not advocate altruism! Right, but “slavery is moral” is also not an enforced moral standard. I am aware of no culture where not owning slaves was judged to merit punishment. In such cultures, behaviors that did merit punishment could include free men not  altruistically cooperating to put down slave revolts and slaves not altruistically serving their masters. Those were enforced moral standards and did advocate altruism.

Also, “Be circumcised and do not eat shrimp or pigs” can be costly to the individual but beneficial to the group as a marker of membership in and commitment to a cooperative sub-group that discriminates against outsiders. Some of the best known “marker” moral standards are from Judaism, such as are listed in Leviticus. Leviticus can be read as the aftermath of an internal arms race as to who is a member of the holiest subgroup. I can imagine conversations along the lines of “I am a member of holier group than you because we have tassels on our clothes!” “No, we are holier than you because we do not  cut the hair at the sides of our heads or clip off the edges of our beards!” And “Actually we are the holiest group because we do not do any work on Saturday, not even lighting a fire!” No one wanted to be left in the out-group.  As a matter of biological inclination, people generally desire, for good reasons, to be in the in-group.

Here are some other examples of explanatory power and consistency with descriptive facts.

1. Explanatory power for the diversity and particular commonalities and contradictions of cultural moral standards:

1.1 Why the Golden Rule is perhaps the most common moral guide

The many variations of the Golden Rule are perhaps the most widespread and useful expressions of day-to-day morality (Wattles, 1996).  A 3500 year old version of the Golden Rule is attributed to an Egyptian called the Eloquent Peasant.  It has been translated (Parkinson 1991) as “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.”  This admonition advocates initiating reciprocal behavior with a person “who may do for you” and provides a rationalization of why this action promises to be beneficial even if it risks not being reciprocated: “that you may cause him thus to do”.   The translated version is remarkably apt advocacy for initiating direct reciprocity [reciprocal altruism as originally defined by Robert Trivers (1971)].

Christianity provides a more recent version.  Jesus is quoted as stating that the Golden Rule, all by itself, summarizes morality: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” New International Version of the Bible, Matthew 7:12.

Advocating the initiation of reciprocal behavior by altruism whether by initiating direct reciprocity with someone fully capable of directly reciprocating, the Eloquent Peasant’s version, or treating others  as you would like to be treated (unselfishly) regardless of their ability to reciprocate (the New Testament version, which is commonly interpreted as not restricted to “doing for those who may do for you”) are the essences of these two versions of the Golden Rule.  Game theory shows that indirect reciprocity (Nowak and Sigmund 2005) – where altruism may be reciprocated by others in the group besides the recipient  – can evolve, be maintained, and can produce more cooperation benefits than is possible in groups which only practice direct reciprocity (provided reputations are known and agents who can reciprocate but do not are penalized).  The proposed Altruistic Cooperation theory of moral behavior thus explains, based on the science of game theory, why versions of the Golden Rule are the most widespread and useful expressions of day-to-day morality.

However, the synergistic benefits of cooperation would be reduced if the Golden Rule was interpreted as forbidding penalizing individuals (at least by social condemnation) who can reciprocate but do not, (Axelrod 1997; Nowak and Sigmund 2005) or if the Golden Rule was strictly followed when dealing with criminals and in time of war.  Consistent with Evolutionary Morality’s explanatory power for moral behaviors, these are roughly the same points at which cultural moralities commonly also depart from strictly following the Golden Rule.

1.2 Explains signaling (marking) behaviors showing “in-group” membership being called moral

Behaviors defined as moral obligations for members of religious groups include circumcision (Judaism), prohibition of the cutting of men’s beards (Orthodox Jews, strict Muslims, Sikhs), and prohibition of certain foods (such as pork for Muslims and religious Jews).  These obligations may appear to have little to do with the benefits of cooperation.  But their function in signaling membership and commitment to a cooperative subgroup can allow people in the subgroup additional opportunities for cooperation because these signals can be a stand-in for knowing someone’s reputation (Henrich 2009; Smith and Bliege Bird 2005; Nesse 2001; Frank 1988) which can increase cooperation between individuals in the sub-group who otherwise do not know each other.  The more accurately reputations are known, even if reputations are based only on reliable markers of membership in groups, the more common the circumstances under which cooperation can be maintained among egocentric agents (Nowak 2006).

1.3 Explains emergence of stark contradictions in cultural moral standards and moral sentiments

Nazism is an archetypical example of what is considered an evil culture in the Western world.  It promoted a morality that was starkly different from other cultures of the time and from present day German moral standards.

That morality was primarily the product of three strategies that were essential to Nazism’s initial success. All three are what I have previously described as Dark Side strategies. First, they claimed an outside threat, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy represented both by all Jews and a Marxist inspired Jewish-Bolshevik alliance (Welsh 1993, p.66) and they claimed group superiority: that Aryans were a genetically superior race (Welsh 1993, p.67).   Claims of outside threats and group superiority are effective means to sway opinions and loyalties by exploiting the irrational emotional responses of human moral sentiments which can imbue these claims with justificatory force beyond reason.  The Nazi’s third strategy was to appeal to the self interest of the in-group based on the claimed rightness, supported by the first two claims, of exploiting everyone else (Aly 2006, p.324).   Significantly based on these strategies, the leadership of the Nazi party was able to create a sub-group, Aryan Germans, whose level of cooperative and loyalty can be understood as largely motivated by the biological components of their moral sentiments triggered by Nazi propaganda.   That level of cooperation and loyalty was part of what allowed them to dominate all of Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga (Shirer 1959, p.5) within a little over two years from their declaration of war.

For the Nazi soldier or party member who believed their leaders’ propaganda, the emotional components of their moral sentiments could have provided assurance that actions classified as archetypical evil by almost everyone else could not only be moral, but could even be moral obligations.   Their moral sentiments could judge moral what the rest of world viewed as evil because those actions were, in fact, increasing the material and emotional benefits of cooperation within their subgroup just as the cooperation benefits theory tells us the components of our moral sentiments have evolved by doing.

The Nazi example shows how strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in a sub-group at the expense of others can create stark contradictions in what individuals in different cultures believe, and feel according to their moral sentiments, are moral behaviors.   The collapse of Nazism amidst the destruction of Germany, however, shows that the Nazis’ strategies were staggeringly unsuccessful in the long term due to cooperative opposition from people who were provokable when they or people they sympathized with were treated unfairly.

Claims of outside threats and group superiority (either genetic group superiority or, as is now more common, moral superiority) continue to be popular strategies for efficiently swaying opinions and loyalties by exploiting our moral sentiments’ irrational emotional responses.   These strategies remain popular in part because individuals who employ them are often able to gain or maintain status and benefits as leaders.  Particularly stark differences in cultural moralities can arise when such leaders have, either through deception or self-serving delusion, falsely claimed external threats, group superiority, and sometimes the rightness of exploiting people outside the in-group.

1.4  Explains the common evolutionary origins of apparently incompatible ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ virtues:

Oliver Curry (2007) points out that the ‘pagan’ virtues (beauty, strength, courage, magnanimity, and leadership) and so-called ‘Christian’ virtues (humility, meekness, quietude, asceticism, and obedience) appear to be more than just diverse cultural standards; they appear to be opposites.  Curry then argues both can be explained as the products of genetic evolutionary processes.  Specifically, these virtues are as “two sides of the same coin” which originally evolved under the influence of a single selection force: the benefits of reduced conflict.  A biological capability to appropriately display dominance or submission can increase reproductive fitness by reducing the risk of injury for the dominant competitor, and can also increase reproductive fitness for the weaker competitor by reducing the risk of injury in conflicts that are likely to be lost.  The ability to appropriately show dominance or submission in order to reduce harm from conflicts is commonly observed in mammals and birds, so that ability can clearly be a product of genetic evolution.

But if the culturally defined ‘pagan’ virtues are only displays of dominance, then why do they include beauty, magnanimity, and leadership, but exclude ruthlessness? Beauty, magnanimity, and leadership will be included and ruthlessness will be excluded if the ‘pagan’ virtues are displays that show the individual is a good person to cooperate with even if one is subordinate in the relationship.  Even the perhaps puzzling inclusion of ‘beauty’ as a virtue makes evolutionary sense if beauty is understood to be an indicator of health and longevity.  Apparent health and longevity are characteristics of a person who it may be useful to both imitate and cooperate with (all else being equal).

The ‘Christian’ virtues appear consistent with being displays indicating a good subordinate person to cooperate with.  Being a good person to cooperate with from the standpoint of being able to be both a leader and a follower is critical to the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies.  For humans, the ability to maintain hierarchies (as in businesses, governments, and armies) is among the most powerful strategies people employ for obtaining the massive synergistic benefits of cooperation most modern societies enjoy.   Overall, the selection of the above traits as virtues to be culturally advocated (and their absence condemned) is perhaps better explained by the synergistic benefits of cooperation made possible by our ability to cooperate in hierarchies rather than as Curry suggests, as dominance/submission displays selected for only by avoiding direct harm due to conflict.

The ‘pagan’ virtues leave the critical submissive side of the coin to our biological heuristics without cultural reinforcement.  The ‘Christian’ virtues leave the critical dominance side of the coin to our biological heuristics without cultural reinforcement.  As Curry suggests, these choices for culturally reinforcing either the dominance or submissive sides of our biological heuristics for avoiding conflict (and enabling cooperation in hierarchies) may be explainable by which was the more successful strategy in the environments in which these two cultural definitions of virtue evolved.

The picture, from the movie ‘Agora’, shows the remarkable Hypatia teaching a class. Hypatia was a brilliant Greek mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and pagan. She was brutally murdered by Christian monks in 415 AD. If people had understood the intimate, irrevocable  kinship of ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ virtues, perhaps events could have come to a better end.


Aly, G. (2006). Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and The Nazi Welfare State. New York: Henry Holt and Company

Axelrod, R. (1997). The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent Based Models of Competition and Collaboration. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Curry, O. (2007).  The Conflict-Resolution Theory of Virtue.  In Sinnot-Armstrong, W. (Ed.), Moral Psychology Volume I, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness (pp. 251-261). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frank, R H. (1988). Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: W. W. Norton.

Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244-260

Nesse, R. M. (Ed.) (2001). Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Nowak M.A. and Sigmund, K. (2005). Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature, 437: 1291-1298

Nowak, M.A. (2006). Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation.  Science, 314: 1560-1563

Parkinson, R. B. (1991). The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. (pp. 109 – 110) Oxford: Griffith Institute, Oxford University.

Shirer, W. (1959). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: MJF Books

Smith, E., Bliege Bird, R. (2005). Costly Signaling and Cooperative Behavior, In Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R. and Fehr, E. (Eds.), Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (pp. 115-148). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Trivers, R. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, Quarterly Review of Biology, 46: 35-57

Wattles, J. (1996). The Golden Rule. New York: Oxford University Press.

Welch, D. (1995). The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. London: Rutledge

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