Huffendiek’s Research Group

ORCID: 0000-0002-6523-5471

Explaining Human Evolution: Morality and Its Ideological Assumptions

Evolutionary explanations of morality often make assumptions about what moral thought should be given a certain moral theory, while ideological thought often entails a moralizing dimension. This project addresses this issue from both a theoretical and an experimental perspective.

Theoretical component: Many philosophical and empirical approaches to moral cognition make different unifying assumptions about the nature of morality (14). A central theme in these approaches is that people are moral objectivists—i.e., they believe that moral truths are independent of subjective opinion (520). Another central unifying assumption of several models of morality is that moral cognition evolved as a human-unique adaptation for cooperation (13, 2124, 2430).These assumptions are ideologically loaded. They make predictions about what counts as a moral judgment, what aspects of moral thought set us apart from other species, or the role of culture in shaping moral cognition. But they easily lead to wrong and/or hard-to-test generalizations. First, some predictions are difficult to test because these assumptions lead to ignoring differences in data while overemphasizing similarities (31). Second, since they are considered unifying features of morality, these assumptions are also prone to both Type I errors (false positives) and Type II errors (false negatives) in statistical testing (3, 4). Third, these assumptions similarly carry their own ideological burden in the form of claims that are not directly tested (“Morality is an adaptive trait”) or critically examined by their models (“Moral objectivism is cross-culturally universal”). Finally, assumptions of folk moral objectivism and morality as a human-unique adaptation for cooperation conflict with each other since an objective understanding of morality erodes trust among the disagreeing parties, leading to the collapse of cooperation over time. My goal in this part of the project is to critically examine the ideological aspects of these two conflicting assumptions of folk moral thought and the problems that they bring about.

Experimental component: Although it is often assumed that ordinary folk are moral objectivists and morality is a human-unique adaptation (13, 20, 32), empirical research is lacking in many fronts. First, while folk metaethical objectivism has been the focus of recent attention in the empirical literature, the available evidence comes from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) countries. Second, no published research to date has focused on the interaction between folk metaethical objectivism and other ideological domains such as politics or religion. Finally, no research to date has explored the impact of objectivist intuitions (in morality or any other normative domain) on human cooperation. This data is crucial to shed light on the relationship between assumptions of folk metaethical objectivism and morality as a human-unique adaptation for cooperation. The proposed project aims to carry out cross-cultural research on how folk metaethical assumptions about the objectivity of morality interact with other ideological domains such as politics or religion, and their potential influence on cooperative behavior.

To achieve this goal, I plan to carry out cross-cultural research (online and/or in the field) to integrate experimental paradigms (see Test 1 and Test 2 below) into a single test battery to study participants’ understanding of normative disagreement across different normative domains (morality, politics, religion) and its differential impact on cooperative behavior (for an overview, see Fig. 1).

  • Test 1: Is people’s understanding of disagreement across different normative domains influenced by sociocultural distance? Studies of adults’ folk metaethical beliefs about the objectivity/relativity of moral disagreements show that these beliefs are relative to the sociocultural differences between us and those holding opposite moral views (4043). However, it is unclear whether a similar effect can be found in the political and religious domain, how this effect is influenced by the mutual interaction between domains, and to what extent these results vary across populations given that studies to date have focused on WEIRD populations only. I plan to adapt experimental setups I have developed in the past (40, 44) to cross-culturally study these questions in both WEIRD and non-WEIRD populations through online and/or in the field questionnaires.
  • Test 2: Do people’s understanding of disagreement across different normative domains influence cooperative behavior in a stag hunt game? No research to date has investigated the impact on cooperative behavior of people’s metaethical beliefs about the objectivity/relativity of disagreements in morality and other normative domains such as politics or religion. Stag hunt games offer an ideal experimental setup to investigate the differential impact of these beliefs on cooperation. In these games, players can either jointly pursue a high-value resource (a stag) or individually pursue a low-value reward (a hare). Although hunting stags is always the best option for everyone, it requires trust among partners since the chances of obtaining the stag alone are low. I plan to adapt this widely used paradigm in experimental economics to study the differential influence of these beliefs in participant’s cooperative behavior (45, 46).

Figure 1. Overview of the proposed research.


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