Meat made us moral: a hypothesis on the nature and evolution of moral judgment

Abstract

In the first part of the article, an account of moral judgment in terms of emotional dispositions is given. This account provides an expressivist explanation of three important features of moral demands: inescapability, authority independence and meriting. In the second part of the article, some ideas initially put forward by Christopher Boehm are developed and modified in order to provide a hypothesis about the evolution of the ability to token moral judgments. This hypothesis makes evolutionary sense of inescapability, authority independence and meriting. It does so by referring to the selection pressures generated in the Late Pleistocene by large-game hunting. If the hypothesis is correct, we can say that, in a sense, meat made us moral.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    “Morally required” and “morally forbidden” are interdefinable: something is morally forbidden if and only if not doing it is morally required. “Morally required” and “morally permissible” are also inter-definable: something is morally permissible if and only if it is not morally required not to do it.

  2. 2.

    Various influential objections to expressivism are discussed in the meta-ethical literature. As said, this literature will not be addressed here. For some useful suggestions about how to deal with these objections, see in particular Blackburn (1998) and Gibbard (2003).

  3. 3.

    Cf. Blackburn (1998) and Prinz (2007) for similar accounts of meriting, though neither of them thinks meriting is essential to moral judgment. One might object that accounts of meriting of this kind capture only in part the phenomenon that cognitivists like McDowell are trying to capture. It is certainly true that the account presented here is, in a sense, ‘deflationary’, the main idea being that, to the extent that those that in the literature talk about meriting are referring to a real phenomenon, this phenomenon, while important, amounts to nothing more than meta-anger, meta-guilt and their effects.

  4. 4.

    Is not it possible to have moral judgments without dispositional meta-emotions and vice versa? Consider someone who is disposed to feel meta-anger at etiquette violations. Would this person thereby judge etiquette violations to be morally wrong? According to H, if the other three dispositions are also present, then yes, this person moralizes etiquette, she regards etiquette violations as morally wrong, contrary to what most people do (at least in contemporary Western societies). Conversely, suppose you cannot help feeling anger at the wrongdoings of psychopaths but, because you are aware that some psychological mechanisms in the minds of psychopaths malfunction (see below), you have no longer a disposition to blame those who do not feel anger at the wrongdoings of psychopaths. That is, your knowledge of psychopathic minds affects your dispositions to feel second-order anger but not your dispositions to feel first-order anger. In this case, according to H, you would not any more judge the wrongdoings of psychopaths to be morally wrong (as opposed to undesirable, regrettable, etc).

  5. 5.

    Joyce (2002) argues that moral norms are different from rules of etiquette because they have (putative) authority independence in addition to inescapability. We agree with Joyce but we are not committed to his cognitivist characterization of authority independence in terms of reasons for action. We characterize authority independence in a more neutral way.

  6. 6.

    Turiel’s distinction between moral and conventional norms has been questioned by Kelly et al. (2007). See Sousa (2009), Fraser (2012) for replies. Some of Kelly’s results will be re-interpreted below.

  7. 7.

    Again, one might object the account of inescapable authority presented here captures only in part the phenomenon that cognitivist authors like Joyce and Mackie are trying to capture. It is certainly true that the account is, in a sense, ‘deflationary’. The main idea is that, to the extent that these authors are referring to a real phenomenon, this phenomenon, while important, amounts to nothing more than the robustness described above.

  8. 8.

    We can consider a scenario like this: you have some strong desire that can only be satisfied by violating a practical demand that you take to be a moral demand. You know that violating the moral demand will make you feel guilt unless you find ways to avoid the guilt feeling. You start considering stratagems for avoiding the guilt-feeling, such as getting drunk or distracted. The thought of such plans will in general trigger meta-guilt, which will motivate you not to pursue them.

  9. 9.

    Psychopaths understand inescapability: they understand that some norms (rules of etiquettes, laws of the state, etc.) apply to them irrespective of their interests.

  10. 10.

    So, why does this happen at 3½? Perhaps it is because children at that age become able to imagine situations where the authorities tell them that some violations are okay, or they become able to emotionally respond to such imaginings. This needs further investigation. Nichols (2004) offers an account of which violations are likely to trigger in children emotional responses that are robust with respect to imagined changes in the preferences of authorities. Much of what he says on this issue is consistent with the account given here.

  11. 11.

    There is also some evidence that people are disposed to punish in-group violators of norms more severely than out-group violators (Shinada et al. 2004).

  12. 12.

    An individual has high cultural fitness if, e.g. due to his perceived success, his traits are more likely to be copied by other individuals in the group.

  13. 13.

    Despite being unsatisfactory, Boehm’s account constitutes important progress relative to most other accounts of the evolution of morality in the literature, which routinely conflate the evolution of morality with the evolution of altruistic tendencies and ‘social instincts’ (cf. also Darwin 1871). Prosocial attitudes and the ability to token moral judgments are doubly dissociable.

  14. 14.

    Bunn (2006) claims that ‘meat made us human’: he does not talk about morality, but his view is that large-game hunting (and power scavenging before it) selected, directly or indirectly, for many important and distinctive features of human beings.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the following people for comments and discussion: two anonymous referees, Kim Sterelny, Cecilia Heyes, James Maclaurin, David Papineau, Lisa Bortolotti, Nicholas Shea, Iván Darío González Cabrera, and the audience at ISHPSSB 2013 and at FOLSATEC/SEMM.

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Mameli, M. Meat made us moral: a hypothesis on the nature and evolution of moral judgment. Biol Philos 28, 903–931 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-013-9401-3

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Keywords

  • Morality
  • Evolution
  • Emotions
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Egalitarianism