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Precís of a natural history of human morality



Here I summarize the main points in my 2016 book, A Natural History of Human Morality. Taking an evolutionary point of view, I characterize human morality as a special form of cooperation. In particular, human morality represents a kind of we > me orientation and valuation that emanates from the logic of social interdependence, both at the level of individual collaboration and at the level of the cultural group. Human morality emanates from psychological processes of shared intentionality evolved to enable individuals to function effectively in ever more cooperative lifeways.
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Precís of a natural history of human morality
Michael Tomasello
To cite this article: Michael Tomasello (2018) Precís of a natural history of human morality,
Philosophical Psychology, 31:5, 661-668, DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2018.1486605
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Precís of a natural history of human morality
Michael Tomasello
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA;
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
Here I summarize the main points in my 2016 book, A Natural
History of Human Morality. Taking an evolutionary point of
view, I characterize human morality as a special form of coop-
eration. In particular, human morality represents a kind of we >
me orientation and valuation that emanates from the logic of
social interdependence, both at the level of individual colla-
boration and at the level of the cultural group.Human morality
emanates from psychological processes of shared intentional-
ity evolved to enable individuals to function eectively in ever
more cooperative lifeways.
Received 18 September 2017
Accepted 27 October 2017
Cooperation; morality; social
1. Introduction
I did not start out to look at morality, onlyat cooperation. But when one
starts looking at which psychological processes cognitive, motivational,
and self-regulatory processes make human cooperation dierent from that
of other primates, one ends up with things like: humans make commitments
to cooperate, they feel an obligation to fulll their commitments, they
respect individuals who cooperate, they blame individuals who defect on
cooperation, they feel guilty if they themselves fail to cooperate (especially if
they have committed), they feel obligated to be fair in the division of spoils
(especially with co-equal cooperators), they are more cooperative with in-
group than out-group individuals, and on and on. Others had previously
made connections between primate cooperation and morality mostly in
terms of sympathy and reciprocity but I attempted to begin with more
articulated philosophical accounts of morality.
Cooperation and morality both refer to intentional actions in which the
agent is not just pursuing its own self-interested motives, but is also con-
cerned with the well-being of others. As a further similarity, there is also an
analogy between, on the one hand, the classical distinction in philosophy
between the morality of sympathy and the morality of fairness, and, on the
other hand, the modern distinction in biology between altruism and
CONTACT Michael Tomasello Department of Psychology and
Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
2018, VOL. 31, NO. 5, 661668
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
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mutualism. The rst member of each pair represents cases in which the
agent puts the interests of others ahead of its own interests, and the second
represents cases in which the agent attempts to balance the competing
interests of all participating parties, including the self. Sympathy/altruism
represents fairly straightforward cases in which the agents benevolent
motives outweigh its selsh motives. But mutualism/fairness is more com-
plex. Here we are typically in potentially competitive situations for exam-
ple, involving the acquisition and distribution of resources in which there
is a kind of cooperativization of competition,such that the agent feels
obligated to take into account the welfare of all participating individuals in a
fair manner, and, moreover, resents being treated unfairly by others.
Fairness is thus a much more complex psychological phenomenon and
may be uniquely human.
From a Darwinian perspective, thepuzzleisthatindividualswho
must be concerned with their own survival and reproduction care about
the fate of others at all. But the key insight, curiously neglected in most
analyses, is that in social species individuals depend on groupmates for
their survival, at the very least for protection from predation, and this
means they must care about what happens to them. The individuals of
many primate species are interdependent in many and varied ways.
Thus, chimpanzee coalition partners depend on one another for success
in dominance contests. Mating partners depend on one another for
their reproductive success, obviously, so that if they approach food at
the same time, it is in both of their interests to make sure that both of
them get food. The point is that to account for cooperation, and so
morality, we need a psychology that recognizes individualsinterdepen-
dence with one another that makes it rational for each individual to be
concerned that their groupmates survive and thrive, and that those
groupmates reciprocate this concern.
My account of the evolution of human morality takes the form of an
evolutionary story not focused on the details of human evolution using
fossil evidence and the like, but rather on two major transitions in the
way early humans cooperated that almost everyone agrees occurred: a
rst step in which humans began foraging cooperatively (interdepen-
dently) in some new ways and a second step in which they began forming
large-scale cooperative (interdependent) groups known as cultures (com-
prising not only familiar individuals, but also in-group strangers). At
each step there was a change in the ways that human individuals were
interdependent with one another and so related to one another. At each
step individuals were naturally selected not so much by the physical
environment as by the social environment, in which each of them was
seeking good cooperative partners and those who were excluded could
not survive on their own.
2. First transition: From apes to collaboration and second-personal
Humansclosest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, may be taken
as a starting point, as the closest thing we have to models of humanslast
common ancestor with other primates. Chimpanzees and bonobos forage
for food in small parties, but when they nd it each individual scrambles to
obtain food on its own. If there is a conict, it is solved by dominance
(basically, ghting ability). In the closest thing to collaborative foraging,
small parties of male chimpanzees surround a monkey and capture it, but
this is arguably more similar to what lions and wolves do than human
collaborative foraging. Each individual maximizes its own chances in the
situation by trying to block one possible avenue of escape. If the captor
can, he will consume the whole carcass himself, but normally he cannot,
and all the individuals in the area converge on the captured prey and begin
grabbing at it. The captor must allow this to happen or else ght all the
aspirants, which would likely mean losing the food in the melee.
Like chimpanzees and bonobos, humanslast common ancestors with
other primates presumably had more or less long-lasting social relation-
ships with selected groupmates. These were based mainly on (i) competi-
tion and dominance and (ii) cooperation and friendship.Like many
primates, they combined these two types of relationship into one interac-
tion as they cooperated with a partner to ght for dominance with a
competitor. To cultivate good partners for these conicts, they did various
things, such as groom and share food, to make friends. They also helped
one another when not in food competition situations. In general, the last
common ancestor very likely had a special sympathy for friends, but
friends mostly meant those who supported them in competitive interac-
tions. Their cooperation was grounded in competition for dominance.
Overall, as paradoxical as it may sound, our best guess is that the last
common ancestors had rich social lives with long-lasting relationships,
but as compared with humans their sociality was still somewhat
individualistic. When hunting, they could not put their heads together
with others to form a shared goal of working together, and they had no
tendency to share resources fairly among all relevant parties. Chimpanzees
and bonobos, and so the last common ancestor, are and were very social,
but only in a kind of individualistic way.
Humans diverged from other great apes around 6 million years ago. For the
next 4 million years they were basically bipedal apes with ape-sized brains.
Then, around 2 million years ago, there emerged the genus Homo,withlarger
brains and new skills in making stone tools. Soon after, a global cooling and
drying period led to a radiation of terrestrial monkeys (e.g., baboons), who
outcompeted Homo for many resources. New options were needed. A
transitional option was scavenging carcasses killed by other animals, but then
some early humans (the best guess is Homo heidelbergensis some
400,000 years ago) began obtaining the majority of their food through more
active collaboration; indeed, the collaboration became obligate. This meant
that individuals were interdependent with one another in much more
immediate and urgent ways than before.
An essential part of the process of obligate collaborative foraging was
partner choice. Individuals who were cognitively or otherwise incompetent
at collaboration for example, those incapable of forming a joint goal or
communicating eectively with others were not chosen as partners, and
this meant no food. Likewise, individuals who were uncooperative in their
collaborative interactions with others for example, those who tried to hog
all the spoils were also avoided as regular partners and so doomed. The
upshot was that there was strong and active social selection (West-
Eberhardt, 1979) for cooperatively competent and motivated individuals.
The radically new psychological process that emerged at this time was
what we may call joint intentionality based on joint agency. A joint agent
comprises two individuals who have a joint goal, structured by joint
attention, each of whom has, at the same time, her own individual role
and perspective. This may be called the dual-level structure of joint
intentionality: simultaneous sharedness and individuality. The partners to
a joint agency relate to one another dyadically, second-personally, in face-
to-face interaction, and over time they create with one another shared
experiences a common ground on which their collaborative eorts may
rely. The creation of a joint agent while still at the same time each
partner maintains her own individual role and perspective created a
completely new human psychology, especially social psychology.
The key point for current purposes is that early human individuals who
were socially selected for collaborative foraging with partner choice related
to others in some new ways. Most important, they had strong cooperative
motives, both to work together with others toward cooperative goals and
to feel sympathy for and to help others who were, or might be, their
partners. If an individual depended on a partner for foraging success,
then it made good evolutionary sense that the individual help this partner,
with the result that he was in good shape for future outings. In addition,
their own survival depended on others seeing them as competent and
motivated collaborative partners, and so individuals became concerned
with how others evaluated them as well (an aspect of the process in
which chimpanzees apparently do not engage).
Beyond this, early human individuals who were socially selected for colla-
borative foraging also developed a new kind of cooperative rationality that led
them to treat others as equally deserving partners, that is, not just with a sense
of sympathy but also with a sense of fairness. This was in turn based on asense
of self-other equivalence: partners understood that either of them could, in
principle, play either role in a collaboration and that both of them were
necessary for joint success. Moreover, as two individuals collaborated repeat-
edly with one another in a particular foraging context, they developed a
common ground understanding of the way that each role needed to be played
for joint success, what we may call role-specic ideals (e.g., in hunting
antelopes the chaser must do X and the spearer must do Y). These ideals
were impartial in the sense that they specied what either of us must do to
fulll the role properly,that is, in a way that ensured our joint success. All of
these things together led to the attitude that, since we both were needed for
success, and we were interchangeable in our roles (each of which had mutually
known and impartial standards of performance), we are equally deserving of
the spoils. This is in contrast to cheats and/or free riders, who did not
participate and so were not deserving of the spoils at all.
In choosing a partner for a collaborative eort, early human individuals
wanted to choose someone who would live up to their role-specicideals
and who would divide the spoils fairly. To reduce the risk inherent in
partner choice, individuals who were about to become partners could use
their newfound skills of cooperative communication to make a joint com-
mitment, pledging to one another to live up to their role ideals, including a
fair division of the spoils. As part of this joint commitment (Gilbert, 2003),
the would-be partners also could pledge, implicitly, that whichever of them
might renege on the commitment would be deserving of censure, and so the
deviant, if she wanted to stay in good cooperative standing, would actually
join with the partner in condemning herself (internalized into a sense of
guilt): a kind of we > me morality. During a collaboration initiated by a joint
commitment, the joint agent weself-regulated each of the collaborative
partners Iand you(perspectivally dened).
The social outcome of early humansadaptations for obligate collabora-
tive foraging, then, was a kind of second-personal morality: the tendency to
relate to others face-to-face, with a heightened sense of sympathy for
(potential) partners and a sense of fairness based on a genuine assessment
of both self and other as equally deserving partners in the collaborative
enterprise (self-other equivalence). This sense of fairness was innervated by a
feeling of obligation, seen as a kind of cooperativized sense of instrumental
rational pressure. That is, whereas all primate individuals feel instrumental
rational pressure to pursue their individual goals in ways they believe will be
successful, in the interdependent social contexts that structured early human
lives, individuals felt cooperative rational pressure to treat others as they
deserve to be treated, and to expect others to treat them in this same way
(Darwall, 2006). This kind of second-personal morality with (potential)
collaborative partners was not yet a fully human morality, but it already
had all of the important elements in nascent form.
3. Second transition: From collaboration to culture and objective
The small-scale collaborative foraging characteristic of early humans was
eventually destabilized by two demographic factors that ushered in modern
humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, some 150,000 years ago. First was compe-
tition with other human groups. Competition with other groups meant
that a loosely structured population of collaborators had to turn into a
more tightly knit social group in order to protect its way of life from
invaders. The result was the sense that our entire social group was one big
collaborative activity with various kinds of division of labor aimed at
group success. Second was increasing population size. As human popula-
tions grew, they tended to split into smaller groups, leading zxto so-called
tribal organization in which a number of dierent social groups were still a
single super-group or culture.This meant that recognizing others from
ones cultural group became essential, and, in the context of sometimes
hostile group competition, one needed to be recognized by others in ones
group oneself. Such recognition in both directions was important because
only members of ones cultural group could be counted on to share ones
skills and values and so be good and trustworthy collaborative partners,
including for group defense. The dependence of individuals on the group
thus led to a sense of group identity and loyalty, and a failure to display
this group identity and loyalty could be fatal.
Contemporary humans have many diverse ways of marking group
identity, but the original ways were mainly behavioral: people who talk
like me, prepare food like me, and otherwise share my cultural practices
are very likely members of my cultural group. And so emerged the modern
humanstendency toward active conformity to the group and its conven-
tional cultural practices. Teaching ones children to do things in the
conventional way thus became mandatory for their survival. Teaching
and conformity generated cumulative cultural evolution characterized by
the ratchet eect,and so cultural organization in the form of the groups
specic set of conventions, norms, and institutions. Individuals were born
into these supra-individual social structures, and had no choice but to
conform to them. The key characteristic of individuals adapted for cultural
life was thus a kind of group-mindedness in taking the perspective of the
group cognitively, in caring about the groups welfare, and in conforming
to the groups ways.
Individuals in a cultural group had to conform to the group in order to
coordinate with others in conventional cultural practices, in order to advertise
their identity with the cultural groups way of doing things, and in order to be
in line with the groups social norms. Some social norms were only about
conformity and group identity, but others touched on humanssenses of
sympathy and fairness (inherited from early humans), and these became
moral norms. And so just as conventional norms codied the right and
wrong way of doing things in instrumental activities, moral norms codied
the right and wrong way of treating other people morally. Because the
collective intentionality and cultural common ground of modern humans
created a kind of objectiveperspective on things, modern human morality
came to be characterized as objective right and wrong.
Of course one could act against moral norms. But when called to task by
other group members, the options were limited: one could ignore their
criticism and censure, and so place oneself outside the norms and values
shared by the cultural group (perhaps leading to exclusion from the
group), or one could accept it as legitimate and deserved. And indeed
modern humans did think of the cultural norms into which they were born
as legitimate means by which weregulate us,and it was part of their
group identity to think in this way. This meant that when one deviated
from the groups social norms, it was important to justify this deviation to
others in terms of the shared values of the group (e.g., I neglected my
duties because I needed to save a child in trouble). In this way, modern
humans internalized not only moral actions, but also moral justications,
and so created a reason-based moral identity within the moral community.
Modern humans thus self-regulated their thoughts and actions not just
based on what they imagined other individuals to be thinking about them,
as did early humans, they also self-regulated their thoughts and actions
based on the normative standards of the group. They began self-regulating
their thoughts via the groups publicly accepted norms of rationality and
their actions via the groups publicly accepted norms of morality: not just
social self-regulation but normative self-governance (Korsgaard, 1996).
4. Final thoughts
What we call human morality is a bit of a motley. An important dimension
of this motley is what Scanlon (1998) dubs what we owe to each another.
In the current formulation, what we owe to each otherderives from an
evolutionary history of extreme cooperation based on social interdepen-
dence. We owe each other for our very lives. But it also means holding
others accountable. Thus we have compassion for people in trouble, but
perhaps not for those who have committed heinous crimes against our-
selves or groupmates. We naturally share resources with cooperative part-
ners and groupmates fairly, but perhaps not with those who do not deserve
it or who belong to some out-group. The motley that is human morality
involves many and various motivational and emotional processes, such as
sympathy, obligation, guilt and shame, and many and various psychologi-
cal attitudes, such as resentment, trust, blame, responsibility, and respect.
And these may or may not be applied to individuals whose membership in
the moral community is uncertain (out-group members, animals, etc.).
In A Natural History of Human Morality, I proceed from the assump-
tion that a major part of the explanation for human moral psychology
comes from processes of evolution by means of natural selection. But,
importantly, in this case the selecting is not done primarily by the physical
environment but rather by the social environment. In contrast to evolu-
tionary approaches that instantiate this premise in terms of processes of
reciprocity and reputation management, I stress that early human indivi-
duals understood that they were at the same time both judger and judged,
so that the concern was not just for what theythink of me, but rather for
what we,including I,think of me. The essence of my account is thus a
kind of we>mepsychological orientation, and that is what gives the
individuals moral notions their special powers of legitimacy in individual
decision making. None of which is to say that biological evolution in any
way determines an individuals moral decision making. Nature makes us
creatures capable of making moral decisions, but we make those decisions
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Michael Tomasello is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University,
Durham, North Carolina and emeritus Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany. His research interests focus on processes
of social cognition, social learning, and communication/language in human children and
great apes. His recent books include Origins of Human Communication (MIT Press, 2008),
Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, 2009), A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard
University Press, 2014), and A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard University
Press, 2016).
Darwall, S. (2006). The second-person standpoint: Respect, morality, and accountability.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gilbert, M. (2003). The structure of the social atom: Joint commitment as the foundation
of human social behavior. In F. Schmitt (Ed.), Socializing metaphysics (pp. 3964).
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littleeld Publishers.
Korsgaard, C. (1996). The sources of normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scanlon, T. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
West-Eberhardt, M. J. (1979). Sexual selection, social competition, and evolution.
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,51(4), 222234.
... Human survival and success depends on banding together, collaborating, and cooperating with one another (Tomasello, 2016). This interdependence has meant, in turn, the need to ensure the wellbeing of our (potential) cooperation partners. ...
... Yet there is much to be learned about the early origins of human prosocial behavior and its affective bases. In our view, a promising path forward is to adopt an evolutionary perspective based on the interdependence hypothesis (Tomasello, 2016) and take an interdisciplinary approach combining psychophysiological and behavioral methods with the aim of uncovering the foundational affective mechanisms of early cooperative behaviors. ...
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Humans have evolved to be highly interdependent: We rely heavily on one another to survive and succeed as individuals and as a species. This interdependence has meant, in turn, the need to ensure the well-being of those with whom we are – or could potentially be – interdependent.
... Whatever standards prevail, quests to demonstrate mental and behavioral responses conforming to others' preferences pave the way for internalizing group norms (Gavriletes & Richerson, 2017) and for behavior that group members consider "moral" (Boehm, 2012;Tomasello, 2016). It is exactly this third-party perspective that is so strikingly deficient in nonhuman primates (Burkart, Brügger, & van Schaik, 2018), absent in creatures who otherwise exhibit many critical building blocks for morality (de Waal, 2006;Silk & House, 2016). ...
... By the Late Pleistocene as cooperative hunting of big game, division of labor, and sharing of food became more important, hominins of both sexes must already have become predisposed to read the intentions of others in order to coordinate with and help them (Hawkes, 2014;Hrdy, 2009Hrdy, , 2016aTomasello & Gonzalez-Cabrera, 2017). By the time coordinated hunting of large animals was established in the human repertoire-whether by 400,000 years ago as in Tomasello's reconstruction or closer to Chris Boehm's "magic number" (Boehm, 2012, p. 313) of 250,000 years ago-it was probably accompanied by "punitive social selection" against stingy or overly domineering men as documented for hunter-gatherer societies (Boehm, 2012, p. 164;Tomasello, 2016Tomasello, , 2018. If so, these members of the genus Homo would have already become motivationally very different from their more self-centered, solipsistic ape ancestors. ...
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... Estas limitaciones se hacen más evidentes en nuestro mundo global actual con aspiraciones éticas exigentes y universalistas. Rasgos fundamentales de la psicología moral humana se forjaron evolutivamente en el Pleistoceno, cuando se vivía en pequeñas comunidades interdependientes y con lazos cercanos (Schaik et al., 2014;Burkart et al., 2018;Tomasello, 2018). La idea de que muchas de esas características han quedado desfasadas en el mundo contemporáneo ha sido, de hecho, uno de los argumentos principales para demandar la biomejora moral (Persson y Savulescu, 2012). ...
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... Although human morality shares certain features with nonhuman primates, our commitment-driven morality, or the notion of cooperation due to commitments and feeling guilty if we do not fulfill our obligations to those commitments, is uniquely human (Tomasello 2018). ...
... These "harmless wrongs", thus, are often deemed as critical blind spots of cooperationbased theories of morality, which regard morality as a cognitive adaptation to the challenges of cooperation recurrent in human social life (Alexander, 1987;Baumard et al., 2013;Curry, 2016;Stanford, 2018;Tomasello, 2016). Explaining the full breadth of the moral domain, researchers argue, requires (i) recognizing that "there is more to morality than harm and fairness" (Haidt, 2012), and (ii) adopting "pluralist" theories of the moral mind that make room for mechanisms generating moral intuitions without functioning for cooperation (Graham et al., 2013;Haidt, 2012;Haidt & Joseph, 2007; see also Beal, 2020). ...
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... Although human morality shares certain features with nonhuman primates, our commitment-driven morality, or the notion of cooperation due to commitments and feeling guilty if we do not fulfill our obligations to those commitments, is uniquely human (Tomasello 2018). ...
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... Interpersonal relationships matter in morality: our moral 18 LOVE, FRIENDSHIP AND MORAL MOTIVATION judgments change depending on our relationships with those involved in them (Bonnefon et al., 2016;Haidt & Baron, 1996;Lee & Holyoak, 2020), as change our moral obligations towards people depending on our relationships with them (Chalik & Dunham, 2020;Earp et al., 2020;McManus et al., 2020;Rhodes & Chalik, 2013). Furthermore, our moral tendencies evolutionarily come from relational dynamics: specific interactive practices, prospects to cooperate with particular others, reputational consequences, and punishment (Boyd & Richerson, 1992;Gintis et al., 2003;Tomasello, 2016). Given this relational dimension of morality, it makes sense that we might be specifically motivated to act morally towards particular others, especially if they are our friends. ...
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We investigated children's positive emotions as an indicator of their underlying prosocial motivation. In Study 1, 2‐ and 5‐year‐old children (N = 64) could either help an individual or watch as another person provided help. Following the helping event and using depth sensor imaging, we measured children's positive emotions through changes in postural elevation. For 2‐year‐olds, helping the individual and watching another person help was equally rewarding; 5‐year‐olds showed greater postural elevation after actively helping. In Study 2, 5‐year‐olds’ (N = 59) positive emotions following helping were greater when an audience was watching. Together, these results suggest that 2‐year‐old children have an intrinsic concern that individuals be helped whereas 5‐year‐old children have an additional, strategic motivation to improve their reputation by helping. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved
ICL2021 was the 24th edition of the International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning and the 50th edition of the IGIP International Conference on Engineering Pedagogy. This interdisciplinary conference aims to focus on the exchange of relevant trends and research results as well as the presentation of practical experiences in Interactive Collaborative Learning and Engineering Pedagogy. ICL2021 has been organized by Technische Universität Dresden and University of Applied Science Dresden, Germany, from September 22 to 24, 2021, as a hybrid event. This year’s theme of the conference was “Mobility for Smart Cities and Regional Development – Challenges for Higher Education”.