Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Why do we moralize?

MoralizingWe humans are one of the most social species in the world. We live together in hives of millions and, as children, we fail to thrive unless we’re given adequate social support. But all this social integration comes at a cost – living in such close quarters and depending on each other for our well-being, we have to be alert for people who might try to cheat, harm, or take advantage of us. Researchers have theorized that moralizing, the tendency to harshly judge certain behaviors, is one strategy for guarding against exploitive peers. Recently, though, a Danish researcher has found that how much you moralize may depend on how many friends you have – and whether those friends are religious.

Michael Bang Petersen, a political science researcher at Aarhus University, based his investigation on premises taken from evolutionary psychology. Namely, humans – being the very social animals that we are – have had to evolve ways to avoid being taken advantage of by the dozens or hundreds of people with whom we share our lives. One of the most important strategies we’ve evolved for this purpose is punishment: imposing a cost on a troublemaker or a competitor for harming us or our kin.

But human societies are very complex, and in reality punishment itself often isn’t necessary. Instead, the threat of punishment plays the major role, motivating the people around us to treat us nicely so that they don’t get ostracized, or banished…or sued. Of course, the threat of punishment is a more effective deterrent when it comes from people who have the ability to follow through. For example, a person with a lot of friends is probably popular, competent, and influential. If you cross such a person, the likelihood is high that he or she will actually be able to, for example, convince all of his or her many friends to ostracize you. On the other hand, a person with relatively little power probably can’t mount as credible a threat of punishment.

This distinction between people with formidable social capital and those with few friends implies that people with different levels of social support ought to pursue different punishment strategies. In a recent paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Petersen studied the use of moralizing in protecting one’s self-interest, conjecturing that moralizing is a way of getting the entire group to see a particular behavior as being undesirable, and thus recruiting more people to commit to punishing any potential offenders. For example, if you’re an outspoken critic of dog owners not cleaning up after dogs, pretty soon you might convince your whole neighborhood to be on the lookout for lazy dog owners who leave waste on your sidewalks. In short order, you’re recruited the whole community to attend to a moral concern, even if it might not always affect them directly.

Because moralizing seems to be directed at making third-party bystanders more willing to  punish undesirable behaviors, Petersen hypothesized that people with fewer friends ought to moralize more. After all, people with large friend circles already have a large group of people willing to go to bat for them. Why should they need to get unrelated third parties upset about such-and-such a sin?

To test his hypothesis, Petersen analyzed data from the European Values Survey, which asked residents of 32 countries questions about their moral rejection of various behaviors. Petersen assumed that more judgmental responses – for example, strongly agreeing with the statement “Adultery is never justifiable” – reflected levels of moralizing in day-to-day life. Questions also asked about level of social support from friends, religious groups, and family.

The results supported Petersen’s hypothesis, but with qualifications. Having more friends made people less likely to moralize. So did having a higher income and more education. But having greater family or religious support had the opposite effect – religious respondents were more likely to rate the various behaviors in question as “never justifiable."

You might be thinking, sure – religious people are often moralistic, and people with more education are more likely to be broad-minded, especially about behaviors relating to sexuality and personal liberties. But looked at through the lens of evolutionary psychology, this set of correlations supported another hypothesis: people with low-investment social strategies tend to moralize less, while people with high-investment strategies moralize more.

For instance, consider the mating realm: since a long-term mating strategy emphasizes commitment to a single mate and pooling resources with that person to rear children, it’s a natural fit with religion, which in most contexts strongly encourages long-term strategy norms like marriage, avoidance of divorce, and investing in children. People who follow such a strategy ought to be more suspicious of behaviors that smack of short-term mating strategies, like having casual sex or cheating on one’s partner.

In further analyses, Petersen found that, indeed, two types of people tended to moralize more than others: people with high-investment cooperation styles – people who responded that they would offer help to people such as neighborhood residents, and the elderly, and so forth – and people with long-term mating strategies. But having more friendships still predicted lower rates of moralizing even when these high-investment versus low-investment cooperation and mating strategies were controlled for. 

Thus, moralizing seems to be a multifaceted phenomenon. For some, moralizing may be a strategy for recruiting outside help against bad behaviors. People with fewer friends are more likely to moralize in this way. But other people – such as the highly religious – may moralize in order to obtain support for their moral program. They perceive low-investment lifestyles, such as having casual sexual relationships and avoiding community involvement, as being a threat to their own, high-investment strategies.

Of course, Petersen’s interpretation of the data focuses on the individual’s protection of his or her own social strategy. Each person, Petersen claims, makes a more or less rational calculation based on which social stratagems are most likely to work out. However, there is another, possibly complementary, explanation. People whose main social support comes from family and religion rather than friends are likely to represent in what some researchers, such as Harvard’s Martin Nowak, believe are adaptive cooperative arrangements. Many religions stabilize cooperative behaviors within their groups by encouraging high-investment strategies, suppressing sexual behavior that’s likely to lead to competition and disharmony, and otherwise encouraging individuals to behave in ways that stabilize the group. The group stability itself then provides support and material assistance to each individual.

It seems plausible that people who receive most of their social support from friends instead of family or a religious community are less embedded in such cooperative arrangements, instead deriving their material well-being from large-scale economic systems. Such people are likely to be more urban, more creative, and more suspicious of tradition. Their difference in strategy may represent not just an individual-level decision, but a decision at the group level. Religious people and people with high-investment lifestyles may be running a program, so to speak, based on small-scale living. Moralizing against behaviors that disrupt the local group (for example, adultery – which  can disrupt a tight-knit community more than almost anything else) makes sense for such people. For those who live separated from such tightly woven communities, moralizing against such things may simply not be as important. Their broad-mindedness may be a function of their decision to strike out on their own – into a world where sociability means something very different, even as it still dominates their lives.

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