14 May 2021

Moral outrage as adaptation to defection

Posted by jofr

This week a podcast episode where David Sloan Wilson and Elliot Sober discuss multilevel selection made me wonder if moral outrage could be a mechanism which has evolved to reveal rule breakers and to discover selfish individuals in a group of altruists. What is moral outrage?

American neuroscientist Molly J. Crockett defines moral outrage as “a powerful emotion that motivates people to shame and punish wrongdoers”. She says moral outrage would be at least as old as civilization itself [1]. Outrage itself could be older since it is based on anger, and even monkeys and chimpanzees can express anger and outrage over inequity and unfair behavior. It begins with the offspring that protests if a sibling has received more maternal care. The classic example is the wrongdoer who steals food from a companion. Primates will protest against defectors who steal their food and punish them [2]

In human groups who adhere to social and moral norms which we learn from our parents outrage about unfair personal behavior of deceivers and defectors has apparently evolved into moral outrage which is triggered when a moral norm has been violated [1]. Moral outrage could be a mechanism which has evolved over time to reveal rule breakers and to discover selfish individuals in a group of altruists. Punishing defectors clearly increases the fitness of altruistic groups [4]. But before defectors can be punished the culprits must be identified, the members of a group must be aware of them and they must be aroused enough so that they are ready to punish the defector which has been unnoticed so far. This is the function of outrage.

In this sense moral outrage can be seen as an adaptation to defectors in altruistic groups. Just like disgust helps the body to get rid of toxic substances and fear helps to avoid external threats, moral outrage can help a group to identify defectors so that overly selfish individuals which violate social norms can be expelled or punished. Social norms can be as simple as “do not steal food from your companion” or “do not make secret plans to harm someone”, which even chimpanzees understand well (as we know since Frans de Waal’s book “Chimpanzee Politics” [3]).

Molly J. Crockett writes that moral outrage is indeed a powerful emotion that motivates people to shame and punish wrongdoers [1]. The problem is in the modern age of the 21st century the world has changed. The Internet can amplify this ancient mechanism on a global scale and result in things like “Cancel Culture” and “Wokeism”, where we get trapped in escalating conflicts characterized by righteous anger [5,6]. Paradoxically, an emotion that has evolved to ensure cooperation in small groups and tribes can lead to endless conflict and polarization in a globally connected society.

[1] Molly J. Crockett, Moral outrage in the digital age, Nature Human Behaviour, 1(11) (2017) 769-771
[2] Frans B.M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Harvard Univesity Press, 1996
[3] Frans B.M. de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (25th Anniversary edition), Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
[4] Ernst Fehr, Simon Gächter, Altruistic punishment in humans, Nature Vol. 415 (2002) 137–140
[5] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Simon & Schuster, 2021
[6] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage, 2012

(Chimpanzee image from Pixabay user suju-foto)

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