About morality



Definition of Morality

According to Darwin, morality evolved from other animals and evolved in humans through four stages (as cited in Krebs, 2008). Some of this morality is shared by other animals and some is unique to humans. The first stage was acquiring prosocial instincts such as sympathy. The second stage was acquiring more sophisticated intellectual abilities, such as a conscience and language. Without language we cannot pass judgment on events, prescribe to others in the group how they should behave, resolve differences through negotiating and engaging in moral argumentation, and establish reputations. The third stage involved using these more sophisticated intellectual abilities to express how each member should act in order to accommodate the wishes of the community. Finally, habit strengthened these moral actions.

Avoiding harm, promoting people's welfare, ensuring fairness, and protecting rights are the basis for justifications about moral issues (Turiel, 2008). Morality has been defined as the closeness between individual ethical standards and those of society (Wendorf, 2001). Standards of conduct developed to coordinate and facilitate group living (Janoff-Bulman, Sheikh, & Hepp, 2009). Morality “pertains to the formal and informal rules and sanctions that uphold the systems of cooperation that enable members of groups to survive, to reproduce, and to propagate their genes” (Krebs, 2008, p. 168).

Morality is Universal

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Morality is a universal component of human nature (Krebs, 2008). It is situational, with people sometimes behaving selfishly and other times nonselfishly. Moral norms are a result of the interaction between genetics and culture (Krebs, 2008). Moral norms are created, selected, retained, transmitted, and revised through genes in order to uphold mutually beneficial cooperative relations. All people believe that they have a duty to fulfill their social obligations, reciprocate with others, refrain from hurting others, and to avoid behaving in impure and sinful ways (Krebs, 2008).

Cultures experience different adaptive problems and solve problems differently. Therefore, moral intuitions differ across cultures. Each culture has some form of the “Golden Rule.” It has been suggested that all cultures organize information about four types of social relations into cognitive “schemata” that give rise to the beliefs and judgments of social conduct (Krebs, 2008). These schemata are affectionate relations among people who share social bonds, hierarchical relations among people who differ in social rank, egalitarian exchanges among equals, and economic relations aimed at maximizing cost-benefit ratios across different commodities.

There is evidence that there are three ethics, or codes of moral thought, which cultures rely on to different degrees (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993). The first is ethics of autonomy, where the point of moral regulation is to increase choice, autonomy, and control. The second is ethics of community, where the self has a role in a larger interdependent and collective enterprise. Finally there are ethics of divinity where the self is a spiritual entity striving to avoid pollution and attain purity and sanctity.

Moral Emotions

Emotional systems in the brain interact with cognitive structures and lower-level physiological and motor outputs (Narvaez, 2008). As a result, most thoughts evoke emotions and all emotions evoke a behavioral or physiological outcome. The pattern of this emotional circuitry is established early in life as some genes turn on and others do not (Narvaez, 2008). Caregivers essentially regulate the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and limbic systems. They determine whether moral optimization is possible for the child (Narvaez, 2008).

Prosocial behaviors are closely tied with emotional systems (De Groot & Steg, 2009). These behaviors include helping, sharing, and cooperating, all of which benefit other people. Prosocial behaviors are often accompanied by affective experiences, which activate a sense of duty (Krebs, 2008). Feelings of moral obligation to act prosocially are increased through responsibility feelings (De Groot & Steg, 2009). Morality encompasses feelings such as entitlement, gratitude, forgiveness, guilt, shame, disgust, and righteous indignation (Krebs, 2008). Specifically, prosocial mechanisms evoke fear, awe, righteous indignation, disgust, guilt, shame, gratitude, indebtedness, forgiveness, contrition, love, sympathy, empathy, loyalty, and solidarity. Guilt, for example, is activated when one violates their moral standards and typically results in reparative behaviors. Gratitude is evoked when others contribute to an individual's welfare. This individual will likely reciprocate. The feeling of indebtedness motivates people to redress inequities. Gains can be maximized for some by coercing members of their groups to behave prosocially (Krebs, 2008). Tactics such as begging, administering rewards and punishments, and issuing threats are typical coercion methods that evoke moral emotions.

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Empathy is activated through feelings of similarity and sympathetic concern for others and can result in altruistic behaviors (Krebs, 2008). Darwin argues that empathy evolved into morality through group selection because groups that had it out-competed those that did not (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). In other words, morality was designed to benefit the group. Healthy brain development in childhood is a requirement for empathy and secure attachment promotes this brain development (Narvaez, 2008). Without secure attachment aggression may result.

Our conscience includes moral emotions such as pride, guilt, fear, shame, sympathy, empathy, disgust, and righteous indignation. These emotions are evoked when we imagine how others will approve or disapprove of our actions. Discrepancies between moral standards and behaviors typically evoke emotions such as guilt. Some of these emotions have an immediate effect on moral decision-making processes. There is difficulty in justifying the moral decisions derived from these emotions when this happens. People are “naturally inclined to do the right thing and to invoke rational thinking to figure out ways of shirking their duties” (Krebs, 2008, p. 166).

Moral Decisions and Judgment

When moral decisions are not emotional impulses they involve complex, iterative, sequential interactions among automatic and controlled processes (Krebs, 2008). Moral intuitions can be changed through factual information, interpretive processes, perspective-taking, and moral reasoning. This happens through activating empathetic reactions, overpowering intuitions, and generating affective reactions and motivational states. Sometimes welfare concerns reflect a post hoc rationalization instead of being the driving force behind moral judgments (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009).

Moral judgment is a process of applying logical rules (Haan, 1978). People seek and communicate information about the wrongdoings of others. These moral judgment functions allow people to evaluate altruism and selfishness in others. Acting or failing to act, acting intentionally or accidentally, acting with contact or at a distance, violating directly or as a byproduct, and punishments and revenge are of particular interest with functions of moral judgment. When people make sense of a behavior they use the concept of intentionality, which is comprised of desire, belief, intention, awareness, and skill (Malle, 2006). In other words, there needs to be a desire for the outcome of the action, the intention to perform the action, beliefs about the action leading to the outcome, awareness about what the individual is doing, and the skill to be able to perform the intended action. Some researchers found that people do not consider the skill component when judging the intentionality of an immoral action (as cited in Malle, 2006). Cognitively, the concept of intentionality is believed to increase the blame for negative behaviors and increase praise for positive behaviors (Malle, 2006).

Consequentialism states that the consequences of an act, or its effects, define it as morally right or wrong. The opposite of consequentialism is nonconsequentialism, which is the view that moral rightness depends on more than just consequences and can allow an action to be judged on its properties. Failing self-regulations and competing motives can cause immoral behavior. Also, a conscience may allow for immoral behavior if condemnation is unlikely. Some view moral decisions as being “conscience-centered” in that these decisions focus exclusively on for moral self-regulation systems (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). Morality surrounds the concepts of “right” and “wrong,” which are used in the conscience to guide behavior. The moral dimension, which has the endpoints good and evil, is constant across all moral judgments.

Prescriptive and Proscriptive Morality

Prescriptive morality represents what we should do by activating “good” behaviors to approach positive outcomes (Janoff-Bulman et al., 2009). Proscriptive morality, on the other hand, represents what we should not do by inhibiting “bad” behaviors to avoid negative outcomes. These two types of morality are based on approach and avoidance motivational systems respectively. Approach systems are based on positive end-states, goals, rewards, and incentives whereas avoidance systems are based on inhibition action tendencies for negative end-states, threats, punishments, and anti-goals.

Behaviors that help others by advancing their well-being or relieving suffering are prescriptive. The proscriptive morality system is more harsh and demanding and includes the inhibition of harmful behavior and restraint of behaviors that violate norms. There is a negativity bias in that undesirable outcomes are stronger, larger, and more consistent than desirable ones (Janoff-Bulman et al., 2009). Proscriptive morality is regarded as more mandatory than prescriptive morality because the costs of failure are greater than the rewards of success.

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Whistle-blowing, the choice between betraying one's company and one's humanity, is a good illustration of prescriptive and proscriptive moralities. It entails an employee disclosing what he or she believes to be unethical or illegal (Bouville, 2008). Whistle blowers run the risk of losing their homes and marriages. This leads some to believe that suffering defines the whistle blower and is an essential part of whistle-blowing. Morality stresses the duty to the population here. This suffering may lead individuals to decide not to whistle-blow, which is typically attributed to having a duty to one's family to not sacrifice one's career (Bouville, 2008). Whistle blowers are in a no-win situation. Inaction may make them a scapegoat but speaking out may label them as a squealer and result in negative end-states. It may be very difficult to whistle-blow and still keep ones job. The decision to whistle-blow is prescriptive because it is something that we should do. It is an approach to the positive outcome of helping others. The decision not to whistle-blow, on the other hand, is proscriptive because it is normally done to avoid hurting one's family.


Fundamental social dilemmas are conflicts of interest among members of groups (Krebs, 2008). These problems can be solved selfishly by taking more than their fair share or altruistically. One example of selfishness is “social loafing,” where people exert less effort in group tasks than they do when undertaking the same activities alone. Social loaders, free riders, and rule breakers are often punished, sometimes at a significant cost to the party punishing them. Punishments are intended to induce individuals to uphold group norms, cooperate, and contribute to the welfare of the group. Mind-reading is a valuable skill for resolving these dilemmas. This skill allows people to view events from others' perspective and understand what others are thinking, feeling, and planning.

Prosocial behaviors come in several varieties. There is obedience to authority, cooperation, and altruism (Krebs, 2008). Obedience to authority benefits the dominant members of the group because they do not have to coerce others, and benefits the subordinate members by enabling them to avoid the costs of fighting a losing battle. Cooperation can involve working together to obtain a resource, by exchanging resources tit-for-tat, the delayed exchange of resources where one may gain from the trade. Cooperation also involves choosing who to be cooperative with and who not to. The goal here is usually to cooperate with cooperators who will reciprocate, which requires the ability to distinguish between cooperators and non-cooperators. This actually ostracizes those who behave selfishly, lowering the benefits of being selfish.

Altruism involves members of a group behaving in a way that will increase others' fitness at a cost to their own (Krebs, 2008). It is believed that sexual selection, kin selection, and group selection are the three ways in which altruism can biologically evolve. Sexual selection explains how altruism can evolve because people are attracted to certain traits in the opposite sex, allowing traits that inhibit survival to still be passed down. Altruistic traits may be preferred because the mate will treat their offspring altruistically and because the mate has survived despite the cost of being altruistic. Kin selection involves sacrificing oneself in order to preserve others that share copies of their genes, which increases the frequency of their genes. For this to work with altruism, people must be able to discriminate between kin and nonkin. This is normally done through familiarity, proximity, and phenotypic similarity. Group selection relies on between-group selection for altruism outpacing within-group selection for selfishness since it can be expected that altruistic individuals in a group would fare better than selfish individuals.

Morality induces individuals to foster their interests in ways that also foster the interests of those they interact with. A major question concerning altruism is how altruistic individuals could produce more offspring than selfish individuals. One theory is that selfish individuals who have more than their fair share contribute more to their offspring than those who do not, thereby increasing the number of selfish individuals. As the number of selfish individual increases the benefits of being selfish decrease because there will be fewer cooperators to exploit (Krebs, 2008). This assumes that selfishness has a better outcome than more flexible and conditional social strategies, which may not be the case.

Theories on Moral Development

Originally, moral development in children was believed to be the evaluation of moral conflicts on the basis of obeying authority and avoiding punishment (Killen, 1990). This view has changed as research has showing that children evaluated acts that violate of moral rules as wrong on the basis of fairness, welfare, and intentions. Children felt that individuals were not obligated to prevent these acts unless in a conflict situation (Killen, 1990).

Psychologists were interested from early on about how moral reasoning develops within the individual (Wendorf, 2001). Society tends to drive an individual's moral development and the individual tends to shape his or her own beliefs. The three theories on the development of morality and moral reasoning are social learning theory, cognitive-developmental theory, and life history theory.

Social learning theory states that children learn morality through the norms of their cultures (Krebs, 2008). Children are rewarded when they obey these norms and punished when they disobey. Social learning theory states that one way which moral beliefs are acquired is by internalizing the moral judgments made by others. Cultural norms evolved as a result of needing to solve adaptive problems. Norms that are maladaptive would eventually become extinct because of their deleterious effects on group members and between-group competition. Unfortunately, this theory does not explain how norms originated and why some still deviate from them. Cognitive-developmental theory, on the other hand, states that children acquire the capacity to understand moral issues, perceive others, and make rational decisions naturally as they get older (Haan, 1978; Krebs, 2008). The domain of the theory only includes actions that affect the material or psychological well-being of other people. This theory suggests that moral issues involve questions of harm, rights, and justice in all cultures, but that rules differ from one culture to the next (Haidt et al., 1993). This theory fails to explain the affective influences on moral judgment, justifying immoral acts through moral reasoning, and situational influences on moral cognition. Life history theory suggests that moral reasoning abilities become more sophisticated because of the necessity to solve increasingly complex and embedded social problems people encounter as they grow older.

In all likelihood, moral development probably involves all three of those theories. It is likely that our moral beliefs are acquired naturally, through internalizing the moral judgments of others, and through needing to solve increasingly complex social problems. Regardless of how moral beliefs develop, both genes and culture play a role.


Morality evolved from animals and is now a universal component of human nature. Genes and culture together produce moral norms. As a result, moral intuitions do differ across cultures that have had different adaptive problems. All cultures operate on a moral dimension that ranges from good to evil. Universally, all people have moral emotions that evoke behavioral and physiological outcomes. These moral emotions make up part of our conscience and can have an immediate effect on an individual's moral decisions. As people get older they morally develop, which is natural, driven by their culture, and through increasingly complex social problems that need to be solved. Overall, morality pertains to solving problems within groups. It induces individuals to foster their own interests as well as those of others.


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