Explanatory Power for Puzzles About Morality

If “To increase the benefits of altruistic cooperation” is the universal function of enforced social moralities, then in addition to explaining and being consistent with known facts, it should have explanatory power for puzzles about morality.

For me personally, it explains every puzzle I have ever had about morality. This does not mean it provides easy answers to questions such as when is abortion moral, but that it provides a fixed basis for determining what is moral.

The puzzles of morality it explains are of the type listed below. These are historical puzzlement about the origins and nature of morality, mechanisms for moral sentiments evolving that favor the good of the group, and ‘strange’ common moral judgments concerning “trolley problems”.


2. The Altruistic Cooperation Morality explains three puzzling aspects of moral behavior:

2.1 Explains historical puzzlement about the origins and nature of morality

The origins and nature of moral behavior remained well concealed from the time of the first moral philosophers in ancient Greece to the recent past.  While behaving morally was admired in ancient Greece, it was observed to often have little connection with having more children than immoral people (increasing reproductive fitness) or increasing material wealth.   Soldiers who risked their lives in battle and people who were faithful to their spouses often reduced their chances of having larger numbers of children.  People who were generous to others often limited their material wealth.  The most reliable benefits of acting morally seemed to be emotional.  But why should people feel the common experience of justificatory force beyond reason for moral behaviors which usually put them at a disadvantage?   Moral behavior did not seem rational from the standpoint of the individual.

Even the proposed Evolutionary Morality may appear at odds with the commonly observed products of moral behavior: perhaps increased emotional benefits, but often decreased reproductive success and material wealth.  How can these be the products of the biological components of our moral sentiments (which exist because they increased the inclusive reproductive fitness of our ancestors) and the cultural moral standards selected based on human intent and preferences that are significantly shaped by desires for material benefits?

These circumstances can be explained by two major events which, prior to the first historical moral philosophers, forever changed the benefits of behaving morally in civilized societies.

The first major shift in the benefits of behaving morally occurred when culture first emerged.  For our pre-cultural ancestors, the only benefit of cooperation that shaped ‘moral’ behavior was increased inclusive reproductive fitness.  (Here ‘moral’ is in quotes to acknowledge the common assumption that our pre-cultural ancestors were unable to consciously choose to act morally.)  Their moral sentiments consisted of a very limited set of biological heuristics (perhaps only somewhat more effective than a chimpanzee’s) for exploiting the benefits of cooperation.  The biological moral heuristic components of our moral sentiments have continued to evolve based on increased reproductive benefits even to the present; but the emergence of culture marked the end of the time when ‘moral’ sentiments were determined only by the inclusive reproductive fitness benefits of cooperation.

The emergence of culture provided a second evolutionary path for evolving new heuristics to exploit the benefits of cooperation.  New heuristics (cultural moral standards) were selected by human intent and preferences which in their turn had been shaped by both the material and emotional benefits of cooperation.  Emotional benefits became important selection forces for moral standards because a moral standard which produces emotional benefits is much more likely to be adopted and practiced than one that does not.   Also, reproductive fitness may influence the evolution of cultural moral standards, but as moral standards requiring self-sacrifice to defend the group illustrate, moral standards can reduce individual reproductive fitness, and sometimes, as when there are moral standards advocating celibacy, can reduce group reproductive fitness.  Emotional and/or material benefits are the only benefits we can be confident always influenced the evolution of cultural moral standards which increased the benefits of cooperation.

The second major shift in the benefits of cooperation was caused by the inventions of money and rule of law.  These inventions tremendously increased the efficiency of creating material goods.  This occurred because people no longer had to rely only on knowing reputations to know who to risk cooperating with.  Money and the rule of law allowed cooperation, even between people who know nothing about each other, that can produce material goods perhaps orders of magnitude more efficiently than can be done in the absence of money and the rule of law.   The inventions of money and rule of law made moral behavior’s function of providing material benefits largely obsolete even in the cultures of the first historical moral philosophers.

Thus puzzlement about the ‘purpose’ and origins of our morals sentiments have been largely due to two circumstances.  First, the lack of clear examples in civilized societies of the critical role of moral behavior in obtaining the material benefits and reproductive benefits of cooperation.  Second, the mysterious common emotional experience that acting altruistically (a critical aspect of acting morally) sometimes has emotional justificatory force beyond reason, which is seemingly in conflict with increasing material and reproductive benefits.  For most people in advanced societies with money and the rule of law, the dominant benefit of behaving morally is the only one left: the emotional benefits originally evolved by our ancestors as a means to motivate behaviors that increased their inclusive reproductive fitness by increasing cooperation.

The proposed Altruistic Cooperation morality, plus recognition of the two major shifts in the benefits of behaving morally caused first by our ancestor’s invention of culture and second by the inventions of money and the rule of law, thus solves the historical puzzle concerning the origins and nature of moral behavior.

2.2 Clarifies mechanisms for moral sentiments evolving that favor the good of the group

Charles Darwin pondered the apparent contradiction between evolutionary origins, which he reasoned should favor selfishness in competition with others in a group, and human moral sentiments, which often motivate unselfishness.  He suggested this might be explained by selection during inter-group competition (Darwin 1874).  David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson (2007) have recently reviewed arguments supporting the importance of multilevel selection processes in the evolution of altruism for all biological organisms.

The cooperation benefits theory of moral behavior clarifies two additional mechanisms that can in part account for observed human behavior favoring unselfishness, the good of the group at the expense of the individual, and even biological altruism toward non-kin.

First, as previously described, game theory shows (Axelrod 1997; Nowak 2006) that at least short term unselfishness among independent, egocentric agents can be readily produced by evolutionary processes as part of strategies to exploit the synergistic benefits of cooperation.  Such strategies can be the products of evolution even if they are successful only in the long term and only on average for most agents.  They cannot be expected to be perfect strategies.  Thus, the evolved strategies represented by our moral sentiments should be expected to frequently ‘fail’ to provide net benefits to the individual in the short term (prior to on average gaining net benefits in the long term), and for some unlucky individuals, to fail irrecoverably to provide net benefits.  When they fail irrecoverably for an individual, true biological altruism can be observed.   Cases of biological altruism to non-kin motivated by our moral sentiments can thus be understood, at least in part, as only byproducts of imperfect heuristics which evolved by exploiting the synergistic benefits of cooperation.

Second, our moral sentiments are strongly shaped by adopted moral standards.  Moral standards are more effective at increasing the benefits of cooperation if they are uniformly held (Axelrod 1997, p.40) since the behavior of other people can be more accurately predicted and free-loaders and cheaters more readily sanctioned.  This increased effectiveness favors cultural standards that are uniform in a group.  That uniform consensus may sometimes favor the good of the group rather than the individual because it must in some sense be agreed upon.   For example, a group might decide hunters are morally obligated to share large kills with everyone in the group.  Rejecting common moral standards like this that favor the group is likely to reduce the benefits of cooperation for the individual and may make them worse off in terms of emotional and perhaps even material penalties than if they had conformed to the moral standard.  Also, as mentioned previously, moral standards selected by human preferences and intent (which may be formed predominately based on material and emotional benefits) can reduce rather than increase the reproductive fitness of practitioners by advocating actions that may result in biological altruism to non-kin.

Thus the evolution of uniform cultural moral standards provides another mechanism by which evolution (as a generic process acting on cultural standards) can incorporate unselfishness into people’s moral sentiments that, in turn, can sometimes motivate individuals to real biological altruism toward non-kin such as a soldier jumping on the grenade to save his friends.

2.3 Explains ‘strange’ moral judgments concerning “trolley problems”

“Trolley problems” are a class of moral dilemma stories involving trolleys that have been used to tease out subtleties in moral judgments.  John Mikhail (2007) refers to one experiment in which 94% of people said it is moral to throw a switch that will result in a run-away trolley being diverted from a track, where it would kill five men, to a track where only one man would be killed.   But only 10% said it is moral to push a very large man in front of a trolley where he will be killed provided that action would save the five men.  These are described as puzzlingly inconsistent responses.

If our moral sentiments evolved due to being selected for by the benefits of performing some sort of Utilitarian highest good calculation to determine what is moral, this might truly be an inconsistency.  However, these judgments are fully consistent with our moral sentiments having evolved by being selected for by the synergistic material and emotional benefits of cooperation.  The deaths of the five men would decrease future benefits of cooperation, at least for cooperation with those five men.  But those benefits would likely be reduced far more if everyone in the general population (due to hearing about the large man being pushed in front of the trolley) became constantly on guard against anyone they were in close proximity to suddenly deciding to sacrifice them for the “greatest good” using risky strategies that might, or might not, stop bad events like the trolley killing the five men.

Throwing the switch is a much more reliable strategy to save the five men.  Also, that action was taken by someone who did not directly interact with anyone.  So people’s willingness to interact with other people (and produce future benefits of cooperation) may not be significantly reduced by learning about the switch being thrown even though the innocent man was killed.  Throwing the switch to save the five men was the action least likely to reduce future benefits of cooperation and, consistent with the proposed theory, was judged moral by 94% of the people being tested.

While the cooperation benefits theory tells us what the dominant selection force for our moral sentiments has been, it cannot inform us directly what the actual heuristics are that guide our moral sentiments’ judgments.  However, Cushman et al (2006) have identified two of these heuristics that people commonly use for intuitive judgments about the relative morality of behaviors such as presented in trolley problems.  Both can be explained by the proposed theory as evolved heuristics selected for by their ability to increase the future synergistic benefits of cooperation.  First, “Harm involving physical contact with the victim is worse than harm involving no physical contact” because harm involving physical contact, consistent with the above referenced test data and discussion, reduces willingness to be in proximity, and cooperate with, other people. Second, “Harm caused by action is worse than harm caused by omission” because inaction that causes harm is much less likely to reduce willingness to interact with other people (and thereby reduce the future synergistic benefits of cooperation and be immoral) than an action that directly causes harm.

The picture illustrates The particular “Trolley Problem” described above. In one experiment, only 10% said it is moral to push the very large man to save five people.  But 94% of people said it is moral to throw the switch to save five people.


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

Cushman, F.A., Young, L. and Hauser M.D.  (2006). The role of reasoning and intuition in moral judgments: Testing three principles of harm.  Psychological Science 17(12): 1082-1089

Darwin, C. (1874). The Descent of Man. (p. 178-179) Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.net.

Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: theory, evidence and the future. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.11 No.4, 143-152

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

Wilson, D.S. and Wilson, E.O. (2007). Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology, Quarterly Review of Biology, 82: 327-348

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