Morality & Cooperation

Session Date: 
Mar 23, 2019

Morality is a social behavior seen in mammals, including humans, that depends on an interlocking brain organization shaped by four factors: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith, and the pain of isolation), (2) recognition of others’ psychological states (goals, feelings, needs); (3) learning social practices that emerges from the interactions of the reward system, hippocampus, and cortex (4) problem-solving in a social context (figuring out what modifications to a social practices serve stability and prosperity). Between species, the importance of these factors can vary. Social benefits are accompanied by social demands; we have to get along, but not put up with too much. Hence impulse control -- being aggressive or compassionate or indulgent at the right time -- is hugely advantageous. In hominins, the greatly expanded prefrontal cortex probably aided self-control, as well as problem-solving skills in both social and nonsocial domains, and augmented by the capacity for language. For most of our 300,000 years on the planet, hominin groups were small and moral practices were part of the shared tradition, encapsulated in habits as well as in songs, stories, and rituals. With the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and the formation of much larger groups of humans, writing of laws became a tool to ensure everyone knew what was expected. Outstanding questions include how to foster cooperation when groups are very large and national self-interest is strong.