Join Donate

The nature of morality: interview with Dr Oliver Scott Curry

Pictured: Dr Oliver Scott Curry

What is morality? Where did it come from? And how do humanists today approach these age-old questions? To explore the science of morality, we caught up with our Darwin Day Medallist, Dr Oliver Scott Curry, following our latest event ‘The Nature of Morality’, to talk about his research on the nature, content, and structure of human morality. 

Hi Oliver! What can science tell us about human morality?

We are finally beginning to fulfil the agenda set out by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man over 150 years ago. Darwin said that morality should be studied ‘like any other branch of natural history’. He argued that humans were social animals, with innate social instincts that emerged early in infancy. He speculated that these social instincts included parental affection, loyalty, obedience, and an appetite for glory. And he argued that these instincts give rise to what we call morality – ‘the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts’. Recent advances in our understanding of natural selection – in particular, the rise of evolutionary game theory – have shown that Darwin was right. It was once a problem to explain cooperation and altruism in nature; now we have many solutions. We can explain why organisms are nice to one other. And these same theories explain human morality. Questions that were once only pondered by philosophers are now being answered in leading scientific journals.

Why do you think it’s important that we better understand morality?

According to the latest scientific evidence morality is a collection of cooperative rules – rules that help us get along, keep the peace, and promote the common good. There are many types of cooperation, hence many types of morality, including love, loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness and property rights. These types of morality are evolutionarily ancient, genetically based, early developing, psychometrically distinct, and cross-culturally universal. Together, these rules tell us how to be good. It is important to understand this new science of morality in order to better analyse the moral problems we face, to better see how to solve them, to subject our current moral rules to critical scrutiny, and to try and come up with better ones

Could you briefly explore human morality in the context of nature versus nurture?

In one sense, it doesn’t matter where our morals come from. What matters is how well they solve our problems, and whether we can find better solutions. However, as a matter of fact, our morals, like most psychological traits, are a mixture of nature and nurture. They come in different shapes and sizes: instincts, intuitions, inventions, institutions. They are deeply rooted in our evolutionary history as group-living primates, they are moderately heritable, and they emerge unbidden early in infancy. Our morals are also flexible; they are up-and down-regulated by cooperative opportunities in our local social environments. And because we can invent and share new moral rules, some are truly cultural.

What can we learn about our own morality by looking to our ancestors?

Humans and their primate ancestors have been living in social groups for 50 million years. During this time we faced a range of different problems of cooperation – including caring for offspring, hunting in teams, exchanging food, pooling risk, and navigating hierarchies – and we evolved a variety of ways of solving them, of reaping the rewards of social life. More recently, humans made a living as intensely collaborative hunter-gatherers, and elaborated upon our benevolent biological base with new cultural rules and institutions. Understanding this context is crucial to understanding modern morals.

Can we learn about our morality by studying the animal world?  

Other animals have faced similar problems of cooperation, and evolved similar ways of solving them. The study of animals – while interesting in its own right – also provides us with simple illustrations of the basic moral principles that we share. Studying other animals can also make clear what’s different about humans. Central to this is ‘theory of mind’ – our ability to think about what others are thinking, to infer others’ desires, beliefs and intentions. This enables us to distinguish accidental from deliberate violations of moral rules (and factor these into our moral judgements); and to imagine how our own behaviour appears to others (the origins of ‘conscience’).

What else fascinates you about studying morality?

I’m particularly fascinated by the various codes of ethics that people have come up with in order to make sense of their moral worlds. I collect them like stamps. It’s fascinating to see what different people at different times have thought important, and try to explain why. There has been some fantastic work looking at similarities in vastly distant moral and legal codes. And my colleagues and I have argued that the complex moral ‘molecules’ found in these codes – filial piety, honour, gavelkind, mendicancy, revanchism, manrent, storge, escheat – can be explained as combinations of more basic moral ‘elements’.

What challenges do we still face in understanding the science of morality?

One problem is the cycloptic focus on only one type of cooperation – reciprocity. There are other types of cooperation that explain other types of morality. Even if there was no such thing as reciprocity – if it had never evolved or been invented – people would still love their families, be loyal to their groups, display heroism, defer to their superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others’ property. Taking game theory – the mathematics of cooperation – more seriously provides a broader, more comprehensive and systematic explanation of morality.

Another problem is the lingering feeling that there is something mysterious or magical about morality, and that it is somehow beyond the reach of scientific investigation. I have never seen a good argument to this effect – most people just misquote slogans about the fact-value distinction, or the naturalistic fallacy. But the smoke remains, mostly blown by philosophers and theologians.

The sooner we realise that morality is just another ordinary problem in psychology and the behavioural sciences, the sooner we will make progress understanding, evaluating and re-imagining how to be good.

Notes:

Dr Oliver Scott Curry is Research Director for Kindlab, at kindness.org. He is also a Research Affiliate at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford, and a Research Associate at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, at the London School of Economics. He received his PhD from LSE in 2005.

Oliver’s academic research investigates the nature, content and structure of human morality. He tackles such questions as: What is morality? How did morality evolve? What psychological mechanisms underpin moral judgments? How are moral values best measured? And how does morality vary across cultures? To answer these questions, he employs a range of techniques from philosophy, experimental and social psychology and comparative anthropology.

His work argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation and conflict recurrent in human social life. This theory of ‘morality and cooperation’ uses evolutionary game theory to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions; and it predicts that rules regarding cooperative behaviour – such as caring for family, helping one’s group, reciprocating favours, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting property – form the basis of all human morality.

Oliver has tested this theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ by means of a comprehensive cross-cultural survey of moral values. Analysis of the ethnographic records of 60 societies found that, contrary to widely-held moral relativist views, these types of cooperative behaviour were indeed considered morally good wherever they arose, in all cultures.

Oliver has also used ‘morality as cooperation’ to develop a new self-report measure of moral values – the Morality as Cooperation Questionnaire (MAC-Q). He is currently using this new questionnaire to investigate the heritability of moral values, and how they vary cross-culturally.

In addition to his research, Oliver has taught courses on evolution and human behaviour, covering evolutionary theory, animal behaviour, evolutionary psychology, cross-cultural psychology, statistics and research methods.

You can follow Oliver’s work on his website: www.oliverscottcurry.com.

Search Humanists UK