Week 9 (5/28/19) – A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 4, 5, and Conclusion

This week we conclude our discussion of Michael Tomasello’s book A Natural History of Human Morality.

10 thoughts on “Week 9 (5/28/19) – A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 4, 5, and Conclusion

  1. I am interested in the power of social reality– how did morality transition from local traditions that encouraged prosocial behavior because it benefitted an individual and the group, to objective norms and culture. How did these traditions gain power in this process?

    A social reality in which prosocial behavior reigns has a surprising amount of power. People often feel deeply tied to meeting the needs of those around them, even when it is inconvenient for them or they do not want to: “An obligation always takes the form of a reaction against the threat of a loss of identity” — Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (85). Still, the power of certain roles we fill for each other like family, friend, or citizen are so powerful, that they put many constraints on our behavior.

    People rely heavily on social connection and feeling secure within their relationships, with friends and larger cultural groups: “Individuals naturally saw the self-regulating collective commitments into which they were born as legitimate because they identified with their cultural group” (86). Evolutionary emotional ties to kin and social sanctioning that defines roles and socially punishes people when they deviate from them. People start thinking of these roles as the objective moral duty to uphold, since they are deeply tied to their culture and the norms become strong enough and widespread enough to be considered rigidly objectively true.

    Social norms and the fear of being outcast from social groups is enough to create laws: “Social norms anticipate competition in potentially disruptive situations and make it clear how individuals must behave in such situations in order to cooperate” (99). While self-interest sometimes still wins out in moral decision making (162), the power of social norms is often overlooked.


  2. Tomasello talks about in-group favoritism and loyalty, nothing that the “tendency of modern humans to selectively help, cooperate, and trust those who behave like them, look like them, or are labeled with a common group name is so strong that is has led some theorists to posit homophily…as the basis of human culture” (92). He also provides experimental evidence where young children display behavior where they are more likely to help imitators, prefer people that speak the same language, help those that they’ve acted synchronously with, and help those labeled as in-group over out-group.

    There are clearly strong signs that humans are pushed towards in-group favoritism and the consequential out-group prejudice. This manifests itself in our modern day through issues like racism, sexism, and classism. It seems like Tomasello is pushing towards an analysis where it is almost inevitable that we have a tendency to stick to those that are our same race, same sex, or same class. This has implications on how society thinks about issues of inequality and prejudice. Should people be blamed for being racist or sexist if our biology makes us have out-group prejudice?

    Tomasello seems to mostly think this is a complicated multi-faceted issue where human beings “enter each and every social interaction with selfish me-motives, sympathetic you-motives, egalitarian motives, group-minded we-motives, and a tendency to follow whatever cultural norms are in effect” (128). He also seems to think that not all hope is lost, nothing that in “us” versus “them” scenarios between countries and ethnic groups, those involved “are doing many moral things with their compatriots on a daily basis” (162). Perhaps this means we can potentially structure society to have less groups, and thus less out-group prejudice as, in Tomasello’s view, the problem does not seem to be character but rather in/out groups.


  3. Tomasello delivers a satisfactory account of how small-group collaboration became a broader sense of morality for humans, explaining that culture-wide morality was evolutionarily necessary and that “the notion of reciprocity is not equipped to cover all the myriad aspects of human moral psychology” (ch. 5).

    He writes that “the challenge for modern human individuals was to scale up from a life based on interdependent collaboration with well-known partners to a life lived in a cultural group with all kinds of interdependent groupmates…what was needed were skills and motivations not just of joint intentionality but of collective intentionality” (4). Small, collaborative social groups weren’t a sustainable evolutionary strategy, it— “led to group competition for resources” (ch4. loyalty). It instead became crucial “to recognize, and to be recognized by, all of their many in-group compatriots, even those they hardly knew” (ch4. loyalty).

    Regardless of whether self-interest is what drove the transition process, it became necessary to adopt something that looks less overtly self-interested and a bit more idealistic. This new process was increasingly defined by a “dual-level structure” of “the cultural group” and “its individuals…who served as interchangeable cogs…that keep the culture going” (ch4. Conventionalization).

    Thus, our role in society tells us what we ought to do and we generally trust that playing our role is in our best interest. While perhaps unintended, I believe this provides some insight on the issue of selflessness. Sacrificing ourselves for people may result from our role as “interchangeable cogs”. I wonder if examples of sacrifice are perhaps 1) an individual helping another whose cultural role is perceived as “more valuable” (eg. a grandmother saving an infant) or 2) a way of mirroring the sacrifice one would want to receive (setting norms of kindness and selflessness).


  4. The question of why norms are abided by is central to anthropological and political-philosophical inquiry. Rational explanations suggest that because humans are “rational maximizer(s)” (158), norms are enforced by self-interest and fear: they are obeyed when aligned with individuals’ strategic motives or when violators face “punishment for nonconformity” (121).

    However, Tomasello describes numerous mechanisms through which norms are internalized rather than merely obeyed. Tomasello writes that the “constitutive norms” that institutions comprise are abided by because “human culture… encourages its members to sacralize… institutions” and makes subversion of institutionalized values taboo (104-105). Moreover, “inductive parenting styles, focused on providing children with reasons…, lead to more internalization of values” and less “strategic norm following” (156). Furthermore, people follow laws that “affirm… their… moral point of view” and laws that are morally illegitimate are a “recipe for revolt” (131). Finally, religion encourages norm-following not by coercion or obligation but by “conceptualiz(ing) cooperative and moral activities as something higher to be strived for” (132). There therefore exist mechanisms through which norms are internalized such that even in the absence of self-interest or fear, as with Plato’s Ring of Gyges (160), individuals follow them.

    While Tomasello speaks of institutions, parenting, law, and religion, he overlooks education’s role in instilling norms. Tomasello mentions Plato’s Ring of Gyges but not his belief that written laws are superfluous if citizens are well-educated in societal conventions[1]. Perhaps education does not fit into Tomasello’s narrative. Nonetheless, this exclusion is surprising given the age-old use of education to inculcate citizens with norms. Beyond teaching academics, educators of young children must impress behavioral and cultural norms upon them. In the absence of ethnic or religious homogeneity, education will likely serve as a central mechanism for disseminating and inculcating societal norms—whether about civic duty or interpersonal relations—on a large scale.

    [1] Plato’s Republic


  5. Tomasello discusses the ways that cultural and social norms construct an “objective morality” (87). He emphasizes how specific cultural conformity to ensure status and thus equitable sharing of resources lead to a culturally developed sense of an objective right and wrong (90). However, he also states that “distinctive in-group/out-group psychology” became the byproduct of divisive cultural norms and practices (91). Although children do have innate helping behavior that indicates a predisposition towards morality, they begin to learn the cultural and social norms of their given society to “[weave] them trustfully into their web of interdependencies” and become properly assimilated (106). With this in mind, Tomasello raises the concern of certain cultural subgroups have less of a voice, stating that “human morality and justice can emerge only among more or less equals, situations with a strong imbalance of power work against a cooperative morality” (133). Despite a young child’s proclivity towards helping behavior, they still have certain preferences towards their own language and on top of that, they then could still be influenced by unjust cultural and social norms and into a culture of sexism, racism, or xenophobia. He explains how we possess an innate morality, yet we still have the capacity for horrendous acts. He states that we justify these acts by viewing the victim as “not really human at all” (162). This is how intensely our out-group/in-group tendencies can influence our behavior. Tomasello is amazed by the capabilities of our human morality, but he is also aware of how complex our moral decisions can be. With all of this knowledge on how biases are formed, it is necessary to take intentional steps in order to expand or even eliminate the notion of our “in-group” and utilize our strong moral judgment in beneficial ways.


  6. Tomasello outlines the “scaling up” of early human morality to modern human morality, including the self-regulatory processes of moral identity. Again, we are reminded of the importance of looking inward to the self amidst this large-scale evolution of shared intentionality: “for better or for worse, there is no alternative to human individuals – however biologically and culturally equipped – making their own moral decisions” (157).

    Tomasello argues that individuals do the right thing due to a sense of obligation created by, “collective commitments to their supraindividual norms and institutions” (108). But what about when we do the wrong thing? Tomasello then claims that guilt is, “selectively aimed at the previous judgment of moral rightness” (110).

    Guilt, like obligation, is a sense: a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus, or a feeling that something is the case. Tomasello explains that humans feel a social responsibility to repair harm and prefer when guilt is displayed overtly (110), but this evidence comes from contemporary children. Beyond the reasoning that reflective endorsement and guilt embody a new type of internalized, reflective social regulation, I am still left wondering about the the “vital function” and evolutionary selection for these senses that provide the foundation for Tomasello’s emphasis on self-governance.

    Guilt is not necessarily a desired sentiment, in fact we have in built institutions that criminalize individuals based on whether they are considered guilty, or not guilty. Yet it is a sense that has survived for the good of collective commitment. How exactly are these powerful, “genuine feelings,” whether it be sympathy or shame, selected for (149)? Is any of it genetic, or is it culturally dependent? If sociopaths are “not moral persons” (111), I wonder if Tomasello would say that their biological and cultural equipment are not moral as well.


  7. In page 110, Tomasello discusses “reflective endorsement,” the ability to self-reflect on past actions especially when one has violated social norms. He states that “Humans quite often feel the need to display their guilt overtly, in everything from body postures to verbal apologies.” He also cites a study by Vaish et al. that “even young children feel more positively about the one who shows guilt for having broken it [social norms] than for someone who breaks it and seemingly does not care.” (Tomasello, 110)

    This, however, seems to be slightly at odds with The Boston Marathon Bombing case back in the Barrett reading. She describes how Tsarnaev, the perpetrator, was “stoned-faced” (Barrett, 230) during the court hearing. She then describes how Tsarnaev’s cultural background is from Chechnya, which “expects men to be stoic in the face of adversity. If they lose a battle, they should bravely accept defeat, a mindset known as the ‘Chechen Wolf.’” (Barrett, 231)

    Tomasello seems to be suggesting that humans feel the need to overtly show remorse after norm violations. Or at the very least have a tendency to do so. However, the Chechen culture seems to be breaking this tendency. A question that arises is whether the Chechen culture is an exception to the theory that Tomasello suggests, or is the theory based too heavily on western culture? I think that the latter is true since the study was done only in German day care centers [1]. Therefore, the Vaish et al. study should be repeated in Chechen boys as well as other cultures to see whether they have different tendencies. However, if the Chechen culture does turn out to an anomaly, it raises the question of how did this culture has developed in the first place.

    [1] https://www.the-brights.net/morality/statement_4_studies/DOI/10.1016_j.cognition.2016.04.011.pdf


  8. (Kindle version)

    In concluding A Natural History of Human Morality, Tomasello breaks down aspects of humanity within the last 150,000 years. While comprehensive, I wonder how much the history of human morality will influence the future, given technological advances made in just the most recent sliver of contemporary human history.

    A point made by Tomasello in concluding Chapter 4 is how LGBTQ and civil rights activists made their causes known – by getting onto televisions, onto “cultural common ground” (loc. 2631, end of Chapter 4). This, and to an even greater degree the internet, are methods by which no group had access to for the time period described by Tomasello.

    One significant way this has caused changed is in the definition of an “ingroup”. Before contemporary humans, groups were limited extensively by “Dunbar’s Number” of 150 intimate connections (loc. 1746, beginning of Chapter 4). Today, however, one can log into Facebook and instantly connect to groups of people (certainly an ingroup) that often approaches 1000 or more. Second, our ingroup acceptance of moralities different from ours has changed drastically, as has our knowledge and morality with respect to them. Until a few hundred years ago, one would have never learned of the perils of the globe thousands of miles away. Today, we hear of an earthquake in a third-world country, and instantly, millions of dollars begin pouring into a place most of us have never visited and never will. This stands in some contrast to the idea that, “to survive and thrive in this new cultural world, what individuals had to do most urgently was to conform to the cultural practices of the group”, with “group” here being an ecological niche (loc. 2383, middle Chapter 4).

    While the timeline presented by Tomasello is informative, we are moving rapidly beyond it. Our moralities are shaping quickly, and we must be prepared for the entirety of what the next chapter will bring.

    [300 words]


  9. In this week’s comment I will remark on the implications of Tomasello’s theory on cultures favoring capitalism and the free market.

    In Tomasello’s view, humans in free market economies operate within a culture-specific morality much like any other, with a strong bend towards “conventions and norms [that] empower [people] in certain contexts to pursue personal gain to the exclusion of everything else” (158). Underpinning the free market model is the conviction that a collection of self-interested actors, while not individually cooperative or civic-minded, can nonetheless bring about general stability and prosperity through the pursuit of their separate interests—this is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor [1], and it forms the foundation of modern capitalist thought [2].

    Cultures guided by the invisible hand (Britain, USA, etc.) have been undeniably successful on the global stage in the last two centuries. Their success is surprising, however, given Tomasello’s take on the general trajectory of cultural moralities; since “the specific cultural moralities of modern human groups could differ from one another significantly,” (129) cultural selection was bound to occur; it just so happened “that, on the whole, those of us who made mostly moral decisions [3] most of the time had more babies” (163). Free-market capitalist cultures, then, appear to buck the evolutionary trend—they reward individuals not on the basis of their adherence to a group-minded morality but on their success in context-specific competitive games (158). Does the success of cultures favoring competition over cooperation indicate a flaw in Tomasello’s theory? Or is capitalist culture but a perturbation? — a competition-centered blip in humanity’s long evolutionary march towards a more cooperative morality.

    [1] Smith, Adam, and Edwin Cannan. The Wealth of Nations. New York, N.Y: Bantam Classic, 2003. Print.
    [2] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20070411a.htm
    [3] While at times Tomasello uses the word ‘morality’ to indicate a relativistic set of cultural norms, in the context of this quotation he clearly uses it to indicate sympathetic and cooperative behavior.


  10. In this comment, I will outline Tomasello’s view of how ideals of moral right and wrong transitioned from “dyadic and local to universal and ‘objective’ (86).” As modern humans adapted to living in “larger, tribally organized social groups, (121)” “what individuals had to do most urgently was to conform to the cultural practices of the group (121).” “Conformity becomes a necessity (89)” in larger groups when it became difficult to “recognize in-group cultural compatriots (89).” Conformity allowed individuals to form “interdependent and trusting bonds with all in-group compatriots (89)” by becoming adept at social imitation. By “aligning oneself with others so as to show one’s affiliation (89)”, and thus establishing a sense of loyalty to the group individuals directly benefit from in-group biases (as discussed extensively by Sapolsky). This sense of loyalty established “a distinctive in-group/out-group psychology (91).” Some even believed that the “tendency of modern humans to selectively help, cooperate, and trust those who behave like them, look like them, or are labeled with a common group name … (is) the basis for human culture (92).” The drive towards conformity led to ceremonies that established common knowledge (94), “linguistic conventions (94)” specific to culture, the establishment of conventional cultural “roles” that were agent independent (insofar as the agent was an in-group member), and finally, a “cultural common ground (95)” which allowed for the establishment of an objective view of cultural roles.

    The objective view of cultural roles allowed for “intentional pedagogy (96)” in which a child is taught “important cultural information (97),” in a manner which is both “generic and authoritative (97).” Eventually the “set of expectations …. about how individuals must behave in various situations (98)” directly promoted cooperativity in order to establish “’objectively’ right and wrong ways to be cooperative, to be moral, with one’s compatriots (98).” The establishment of an objective view of right and wrong moral behavior guided individuals towards showing “compatriots sympathy and respect by conforming to “our” ways and by … see(ing) that others conform as well (106).”


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