Question Center

Edge 327 — September 16, 2010
9,000 words


An Edge Conference

Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Joshua Knobe, David Pizarro


Liane Young, Robert Kurzban, Jonathan Baron, Linda J. Skitka,
Kees van den Bos, Daniel R. Kelly, Peter Ditto, Alison Gopnik, Randoph Nesse, M.D.



Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Randoph Nesse, M.D., Carl Zimmer


An Edge Conference


A statement of consensus reached among participants at
the Edge The New Science of Morality Conference
Washington, CT, June 20-22, 2010

In the last ten years, morality has become a major convergence zone for scholars in the sciences and humanities. The volume of research has increased rapidly, as has the diversity of methods employed. In an effort to take stock of this rapidly changing field, Edge convened a conference in Washington, CT, on June 20-22, 2010. The participants in the conference described their own work, and then attempted to draft a list of points on which all could agree. They reached consensus on the eight points listed below.

This Consensus Statement is not intended to speak for all who study morality, nor is it intended to be a definitive pronouncement about morality. Rather, the statement is intended to be a starting point for an Edge Reality Club conversation. It is proposed as a first draft of a partial description of the state of the art, submitted to the research community for commentary and editing.

In addition, a forthcoming set of individual statements will highlight areas of disagreement among this statements signatories.

Signed by:    

Roy Baumeister, Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University

THE REALITY CLUB: Liane Young, Robert Kurzban, Jonathan Baron, Linda J. Skitka, Kees van den Bos, Daniel R. Kelly, Peter Ditto, Alison Gopnik, Randolph Nesse, M.D.



1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word "innate," as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means "organized in advance of experience," although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.

Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form,  in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others' beliefs and intentions.

Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.

3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.

4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g.,  racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.

5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.

6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no "moral center" in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts.  For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.

7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.

Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.

8) Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.

The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an "anything-goes" version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of  moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.

Signed by:    

Roy Baumeister, Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University


To view videos and transcripts of the conference, please visit:

Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; coauthor, Why We Get Sick

What a great idea to ask people who study morality what they agree on! Most of the consensus statements are nice straight descriptions. Morality is intuitive, emotional, not in any one part of the brain, both biological and cultural, and somewhat different in different individuals and cultures. These statements seem bland, but they are sophisticated. The overarching conclusion, that morality can and should be studied scientifically as a natural and social phenomenon, seems undeniably correct to me.

Many will, however, find it provocative. I'd like to hear what they have to say. They should not be dismissed as merely religious or insufficiently rational. It seems entirely possible that there are good reasons, perhaps even evolutionary reasons, for widespread reluctance to think about morality as a natural phenomenon. It seems possible that people feel intuitively that an objective view of morality could undermine moral behavior.

On other thought…missing from the summary, but no doubt present throughout the detailed transcripts, is the back story that led to progress in studying morality. The death this week of George Williams makes the advances of the 1960s particularly salient. It seems to me that the discovery that natural selection does not work for the good of the species is a psychic trauma as great as that imposed by Copernicus and Freud. It still reverberates, as evidenced by Nowak's article in Nature last week, and subsequent commentaries.

I have a special interest in this, because I think Mary Jane West-Eberhard's ideas about social selection explain how selection can shape genuine altruism with no need for group selection. Just as sexual selection shapes extreme traits that make one preferred as a mate, extreme altruistic traits can be shaped if they result in being preferred as a social partner or group member.

I find this important not only as a way of escaping the interminable debate about levels of selection, but also because it could explain some otherwise mysterious things I see in the clinic, especially our shared extreme concern about what others think about us. I think this will prove crucial to any explanation of how selection shaped capacities for morality.

Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

We can agree that there are some innate building blocks for moral intuition and judgment. But surely one of the most dramatic and obvious features of our moral capacities, evident everywhere from democracy to feminism to gay marriage, is our capacity for change and even radical transformation with new experiences. Practices that once seemed self-evidently acceptable, such as slavery or the oppression of women, seem so no longer.

At the same time this transformation isn't just random but seems to have a progressive quality. How do we get to new and better moral conceptions of the world, if the moral nativists are right? The consensus statement , at least implicitly, suggests that the solution to this problem lies in a contrast between moral intuition and moral reasoning.

The implication is that change and revision are only possible through explicit moral reasoning which operates on top of an innate evolved set of moral intuitions. But, arguably, even young children seem able to understand both that social practices can change and that that change should minimize harm. The situation is analogous to that of our ability to learn about the world.

There also we might have thought that only self-conscious, explicit scientific reasoning allowed for change and progress. In fact, the developmental evidence suggest that, in both the cognitive and moral domains, we are capable of changing, revising and altering what we do and believe in the light of experience, and this ability is as deeply evolved a part part of our human nature as any.

Professor of Psychology, University of California, Irvine

People have a history of confusing what is with what ought to be. Any list of general principles underlying moral judgment should include this observation.

I agree with virtually everything in this consensus statement. This is not surprising given the quality of the contributors. But any scientific treatment of moral judgment must be clear about its defining characteristics, boundaries, and the nature of its relations with other kinds of judgment that have interested psychologists and philosophers. And yet the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive judgment has always been more blurry, both conceptually and empirically, than it first appears.

The is-ought problem has a venerable history in moral philosophy. Most attention has been directed toward our tendency to assume that what is ought to be. The naturalistic fallacy — assuming that what is natural is also morally good — is a classic example. More recently, Psychologist Paul Rozin has talked about the process of moralization, in which some behavior that is originally viewed as bad or good for pragmatic reasons — smoking cigarettes or vegetarianism — takes on moral value over time. Specifying the psychological process by which descriptive beliefs and pragmatic pressures are converted into vice and virtue will be crucial in understanding both personal and cultural variations in moral evaluation.

But it is the opposite process — our tendency to come to believe that what ought to be really is — that may be the more interesting and important confusion. Moral intuitions often violate principles of utility in that some act is treated as sacred or protected in a way which conflicts with cost-benefit logic.  If I refuse to betray one friend to save the lives of several others, my sense that disloyalty is morally wrong conflicts with well-rehearsed economic intuitions that an act of betrayal on my part would have produced a lower body count. 

Such moral dilemmas fascinate psychologists and philosophers, and capture the psychological lynch pin underlying real world political controversies regarding issues like capital punishment, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, and even embryonic stem cell research. But when was the last time you heard someone say that capital punishment is morally wrong while conceding that it is effective at deterring future crime?  Years of psychological research confirm that mental systems abhor such dissonance. Instead, people who believe that enhanced interrogation is morally wrong also typically believe that it is ineffective in producing actionable intelligence, and those morally opposed to embryonic stem cell research almost always doubt its likelihood of producing medical breakthroughs.  Our moral intuitions tend to shape our descriptive beliefs such that we construct a world in which the right course of action morally becomes the right course of action practically as well.

The fluid relation between descriptive and prescriptive belief is both an age-old observation and a theoretical and empirical challenge for modern morality researchers. It also has important practical implications. The intractability of the venomous culture war that plagues contemporary American politics flows from this tendency to reify moral intuition with factual belief. It is difficult to resolve differences of moral opinion when each side has its own facts.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Purdue University; Author, Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust (forthcoming)

Being a fellow traveler, it's difficult for me to find an easy point of disagreement with what's said in the Consensus Statement. But rather than just type out a verse of Kumbaya, I'll try to flesh out a more difficult concern. This sentence from Thesis 7 provides an entry point:

"Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions."

Here's a quick and dirty way to put my worry: I don't know how to unpack what the words "moral" and "morality" mean here, or what they are supposed to pick out, and exclude.

What falls within the "moral" domain is allowed to vary from one culture to the next, that much is clear. This suggests that the domain of "morality" is not characterized solely by the set of things that fall under it. The passage further indicates that something falls within the "moral" domain in virtue of a certain kind of response or regulation being brought to bear on it.

So while some cultures might "morally" regulate actions of type, A, B, C, and D, other cultures might "morally" regulate actions of type C, D, E and F, but not "moralize" actions of type A and B, leaving them unregulated, or regulated by something other than "morality". This would be one way to make sense of the idea that "morality" varies across cultures. But it doesn't answer my original question so much as redirect it: what does it means to "moralize", or what is distinctive of a type of regulation that qualifies it as "moral", and thus determines what falls in the "moral" domain?

An analogy with disgust might be helpful. We can make sense of the claim that the domain of disgust differs from one culture to the next by pointing to the fact that although what elicits disgust often varies between cultures — members of culture P are disgusted by oysters but love Funyuns, while members of culture Q are disgusted by Funyuns but love oysters — there is a distinctive response that is common to the members of culture P and culture Q, and can be characterized without reference to any particular elicitor.

So talking about a domain of "disgust" here can be unpacked fairly easily — it is the set of things that trigger this particular, common, psychologically unified response (gape face, a quick withdrawal, slight feelings of nausea, a sense of offensiveness and sensitivity to contamination). Saying the domain of "disgust" varies across cultures just means that what triggers people's disgust systems is a different mix or set of things from one culture to the next.

Returning to the question about "morality" or "moral" regulation, what is the analogous response or system that might be appealed to in order to characterize the domain of "morality"?

I am not sure how the authors of the consensus would answer this question. It seems especially problematic for two reasons. On the one hand the Consensus Statement suggests its authors hold that there is no such response or system; it contains the explicit claim that there is "no "moral center" in the brain". On the other hand, there is the idea, found in the work of several of the signatories, that another way in which "morality" can vary across cultures is that different cultures recruit different psychological systems (different emotions, for instance) to "moralize" or produce "moral" regulation. But if both the elicitors AND the responses or forms of regulation are allowed to vary, then I again lose my grip on what we're talking when we talk about "morality" or the "moral" domain.

In some moods, I worry that this sort of complaint just exhibits the sort of persnickety hairsplitting that is merely distracting rather than insightful. After all, we all seem to be able to recognize paradigmatic instances of, for example, moral judgment. Moreover, developing sciences need some slack in the key terms they use, since they attempt to gain knowledge about what we are interested in by doing more than just reflecting on meaning or analyzing concepts. And rather than stipulating rigid definitions of the subject matter at the outset, we need to be able to investigate the subject matter itself, and allow what is empirically discovered about the phenomena inform how we understand the terms we use to discuss it.

However, conceptual clarity is needed to make progress even in this project, especially as it moves beyond its early stages. While talking about the subdiscipline of "Moral Psychology" at a rather general level seems both useful and harmless, I suspect thinking about this issue carefully can yield rewards, for instance, in helping to formulate more fine-grained descriptive claims, distinguishing different explanatory hypotheses, and clarifying what, exactly, interesting and provocative statements like Thesis 6, which crucially turns on a distinction between moral and non-moral, might be denying.

Professor, Social Psychology, Utrecht University

The authors of the consensus statement should be commended for their attempt to formulate clear and insightful points on which they have consensus regarding the concept of morality. This is an important step toward real progress in what rightfully is called the new science of morality.

This noted, a striking observation is that a definition of what morality entails is missing from the statement. This suggests that there is no consensus on what the content of morality really is.

I would like to propose that the science of morality entails at least two issues: (1) what is right and wrong (normative morality), and (2) what people think is right and wrong (perceived morality). The second topic should not be equated with the first. The first issue is a topic for moral philosophers, and the second issue is of concern for moral psychologists (and others interested in behavioral science).

Is it merely an oversight that the consensus statement does not entail a definition of morality? I do not think so. My hunch is that there is no consensus about what is right and wrong because this issue has been hotly debated for centuries now (starting with the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle and Aristippus, going on with philosophers such as Hume and Kant, and continuing toward this day with psychologists such as Haidt and Bloom). 

My impression is that there never will be consensus about what is right and wrong. This is partly due to the fact that a lot of moral philosophers adopt an implicit or not so implicit rationalist or Kantian perspective on morality, and (secretly or quite openly) are not inclined to give way to more intuitionist notions of morality. Related to this, a lot of moral psychologists (including developmental psychologists) adhere to a reasoned-oriented, cold-cognitive Kohlbergian notion of morality and moral development.

The assumptions present in these research programs have been worthwhile, yielding several interesting top-down, theory-inspired research endeavors and theory developments. This noted, now is the time to let go of these top-down approaches, at least temporarily.

The new science of morality needs a paradigm shift, temporarily letting go of the rationalist-intuitionist and cognitive-emotion debates. Real progress would be made if we would include, and focus more on, out-of-the-box, creative bottom-up oriented research.

Sticking to issues dictated or suggested by theoretical stances that have been around (and hotly debated) for some time may not be the way to go for the new science of morality. Instead, it may be good to side-step longstanding debates in morality (such as whether morality is based on careful, deliberate cognitive thoughts or more intuitive, gut-based, affect-oriented reactions). One way to achieve this may involve scrutinizing carefully what exact psychological processes people are going through when making moral decisions.

Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois, Chicago

Moral motivations have inspired much good in human history, and morality does have important connections to what it takes to flourish both individually and collectively. However, a singular focus on the pro-social aspects of morality and moral motivation neglects the fact that people can and often do use morality to justify using any means possible to obtain their desired ends. By way of recent example, Scott Roeder approached Dr. George Tiller in a church foyer, and shot him once in the head, instantly killing him on the morning of May 31, 2009. Pro-life political action groups had specifically targeted Dr. Tiller's clinic for protests and legal action, in part because his clinic provided late-term abortions when they were medically indicated. Glenn Beck repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller as a "baby killer" on Fox news. Roeder had previously posted anti-Tiller comments on various Internet sites, such as "Tiller is the concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day and needs to be stopped." Scott Roeder thought he was taking a morally courageous stand against evil: Therein lies the problem.

Moral idealism is empirically associated with various kinds of prosocial implications, but it is also empirically associated greater intolerance of alternative points of view, greater resistance to procedural solutions to resolve conflict, greater distrust of otherwise legitimate authorities to "get it right," rejection of non-preferred decisions and policy outcomes regardless of whether they are associated with exemplary fair or legitimate procedures and authorities, and greater acceptance of vigilantism and violence to achieve morally convicted ends. When people moralize objectives, they also adopt the position that any means to attain them are permissible: in these cases "the ends justify any means." The normative implications of these findings are potentially reassuring (moral idealism acts as protection against obedience to potentially malevolent authorities) and terrifying (moral idealism associated with rejection of the rule of law, and provides a motivational foundation for vigilantism, acts of terrorism, war).

Whereas morality may indeed facilitate individual and collective flourishing, it is important to also keep in mind that moral motivations have served as the foundation and justification for any number atrocities that humans have felt justified in committing on others different from themselves, who no doubt also felt equally morally justified in their positions or causes. Moral motivations are therefore most accurately characterized as double-edged swords: they can give rise to great good or great evil. Moreover, the same behavior will sometimes be interpreted as good or evil depending on which side of the political, social, or cultural fence the perceiver happens to be on, or the group to which the perceiver belongs. For example, few in the U.S. would say that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were moral, but more than 67% in a Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries did. Good and evil therefore at times represent post hoc and subjective categorizations, not differences in the motivational foundations of the behavior of those being judged.

Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania

Moral judgments often favor non-optimal options. As a result, especially when judgments are collective, outcomes are worse than they could be if people simply tried to maximize the good (utility). Here are some examples, drawn from a much longer list:

• People prefer harmful omissions over less harmful actions. They favor passive euthanasia, even when it involves protracted suffering, over active euthanasia.

• They prefer indirect harms over less harmful direct ones. Some Catholic hospitals will perform a hysterectomy to save the life of a mother threatened by pregnancy (killing the fetus indirectly) but will not abort the fetus (allowing another pregnancy).

• They favor (on moral grounds) policies that provide a small benefit to an in-group or nation at the expense of a large harm to an out-group.

• They judge that criminal and tort penalties should be levied on the basis of the harm caused rather than their effect in deterring future harm or negligence.

• They prefer larger proportional risk reductions that benefit few people to smaller proportional reductions that benefit more.

Judgments consistent with utility maximization would be easy to explain by any functionalist theory: biological evolution, cultural evolution, and individual development. But judgments like these pose challenges.

One type of explanation, neglected in the consensus statement, is that moral judgments are sometimes biased in the same way as other judgments. For example, people attend to risk ratios ("reduce the risk to myself by 50%") when they ought to attend to differences ("reduce the risk from .000002 to .000001").

Indeed, many "moral biases" occur in non-moral domains. Many biases result from heuristics, simple rules that usually produce good outcomes, but which are over-generalized to cases in which some reflection would indicate that they subvert the purposes that justify their use in general. (Sometimes the decision maker can do no better than to use a heuristic, even though someone else could understand that it is non-optimal.)

These heuristics, including the moral ones, are sometimes used unreflectively, but sometimes they are non-intuitive and invoked only upon reflection. I suspect that this happens in the early stages of learning a culturally or institutionally endorsed moral system with rules that may require harmful choices, such as refusing an abortion that would prevent the death of both mother and fetus.
Moral heuristics could be associated with emotion, but need not be caused by it and can be used in its absence.

Individuals differ enormously in the sorts of judgments that I listed, partly as a function of culture and age. These differences cannot be fully explained in terms of differences in willingness to reflect.

One explanation is that heuristics arise in childhood when parents try to convey simple rules. Thus, they are not necessarily part of our evolved cognitive machinery, but, like children's misunderstandings in arithmetic, arise in the course of normal interaction in a social environment.

If some world problems are the result of potentially remediable flaws in citizens' reasoning, then, optimistically, we have a path to their solution.

Psychologist, UPenn; Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind

I agree with much of the consensus on morality, particularly in terms of its naturalness as a psychological phenomenon —  and so in need of an explanation in terms of evolved function — and its importance in our lives. I'm not as sure, however, that I am ready to agree that morality supports human flourishing. Or, perhaps more modestly, I think that it might be worth thinking not only about the good that morality does, but also reflecting on its destructive power, undermining, rather than promoting human potential and growth.

 As the consensus statement notes, morality is highly variable. What does this mean? It means that the particular things that are moralized — that are considered "wrong" — vary from place to place and time to time. And, importantly, to say that an act is "wrong" means, at its heart, that people who perform these particular categories of behavior can be punished with impunity by their neighbors or the state.

This is all (more or less) to the good when what is moralized are things such as intended harm of innocents. It is easy to imagine that flourishing is facilitated when the weak are protected by sanctions or the threat of sanctions on potential aggressors. But what of other acts that have been moralized? What are we to make of historical prohibitions on dancing, or on other forms of art? What about the moralization of various sorts of mutually beneficial transactions, or the prohibition on charging interest, which, historically, has acted as a substantial drag on economic growth and development? And what about the moralization of acts of consensual pleasure among consenting adults?

When we think about morality and its relationship to flourishing or well-being, we have the strong intuition that morality's opposite is immorality. But is that the right antonym? What would be the effect on human flourishing if human psychology — and thus the societies we produced — were amoral? Amorality doesn't necessarily mean selfish or cruel. It means an absence of rightness or wrongness. Given that "morality" is frequently the justification for various kinds of intolerance, surely it is worth reflecting on the balance between the flourishing morality supports, set against the coercive force morality enables.

Cognitive Psychologist, Post-Doctoral Fellow, MIT, Department, Brain & Cognitive Sciences

The notion of a "moral center" in the brain has fallen rapidly out of fashion. Just a decade ago, the quest for a moral center was at the core of moral neuroscience. Using brain imaging, researchers recorded neural responses to moral versus non-moral stimuli — across many people and experimental tasks. Subjects read statements with moral content versus non-moral content, statements about morally good or bad actions versus grammatical or ungrammatical statements, and statements describing moral versus social violations. Other studies presented pictures: moral scenes (e.g., physical assaults) versus non-moral scenes (e.g., body lesions). Stimuli were matched along a number of dimensions, including emotional salience and social content (e.g., number of people) — researchers were after the "moral center", not the "emotion center" or "social center".

In spite of efforts to eliminate confounds, what emerged, broadly, was neural evidence of greater emotional and social processing during moral cognition — but no moral center. This may have helped shape moral neuroscience, as we know it, which has all but forgotten its prior focus on uncovering psychological processes and neural substrates dedicated to morality. Now, the focus is on the very cognitive components previously identified as potential confounds, including emotion and social cognition, in addition to other cognitive capacities, i.e. cognitive control, causation, agency, group membership.

Where does that leave the moral center? Once we've accounted for all the domain-general components of morality, is there any kind of cognition that we could call uniquely moral, that resides in the moral center of the brain? What would constitute a moral center? Candidates include: a dedicated mechanism takes non-moral inputs from other cognitive domains and computes a uniquely moral judgment, a uniquely moral computation (e.g., universal moral grammar), or uniquely moral content in the computation (e.g., HARM, HURT).

This is what the early moral neuroscientists were after. In a sense, the first moral psychologists took the same approach. Developmental psychologists focused on the capacity to distinguish moral violations (e.g., hitting a classmate) from violations of social convention (e.g., wearing pajamas to class).

Making this distinction has represented one of the primary measures of moral maturity. Compared to conventional judgments, moral judgments have been hypothesized to be authority-independent (e.g., an act is still immoral even when endorsed by authority), and universal across space and time. Moral judgments have been thought to entail other consequences too, including punishment or reward, directed individuals or communities, and choices concerning friendship or other social alliances.

The moral-conventional distinction, as characterized, has been controversial, but it may nevertheless track a psychological boundary between the truly moral and the merely conventional. The longevity of this boundary in the science of morality reveals an intuitive interest in morality as its own domain — with unique cognitive signatures, and unique neural substrates. On this view, moral judgment could depend on domain-general contributions but, at the core, be fundamentally different from other kinds of cognition. The challenge then would be to first figure out what "morality" is — and then perhaps search for a "moral center" in the brain.

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Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Randoph Nesse, M.D., Carl Zimmer


EDITOR NOTE: A strong case can be made that in the past 50 years, the two most influential evolutionary theorists are George C. Williams and Robert Trivers. Here, Trivers remembers Williams ...


In memory of George C. Williams

The last time I spoke with George Williams was in 2002 when I called about something and he told me he had pre-Alzheimer's. There were simple memory tests now that were diagnostic, he said. In the background I could hear his wife Doris saying something and George said, "Doris always tells me not to tell people" and continued by saying that what he first noticed is that all words starting with capital letters were disappearing from his mind — arbitrary words for cities, buildings, people and so on.

A few months later, I sent my Selected Papers book but I never heard from him. He was gone. The person I felt for was Doris, a beautiful woman about half his size, and a very welcome compliment to him. It is those closest to someone with Alzheimer's who often suffer the most but George had a sweet disposition that, I hear, greatly reduced the cost to those closest to him.

We last saw each other at the William Hamilton memorial session at Amherst in 2000 during the meetings of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, at which both of us spoke. He was sitting behind me while others preceded us and I could hear Doris saying, "Now, George, don't do what you are thinking of. Just tell the stories you have about Bill, don't do it." So I was full of anticipation when George got up because I knew he was surely going to do exactly what his wife thought was a bad idea. George gets up and says "I wish Bill were here today, because I have a bone to pick with him".

And then he went and picked that bone for the entire talk. It had to do with the evolution of sex and patterns of evidence that George had pointed out years ago that contradicted (so George said) aspects of Bill's parasite approach. I thought it was wonderful. There were those that said it was inappropriate and why didn't he tell stories, but I thought it was perfect for the occasion, both vintage George Williams — no wasted motion with that organism! — and a tribute to the enduring importance of Bill's ideas.

My first contact with George was when as a graduate student. I sent him my chapter then in press on "Parental investment and sexual selection". When I wrote the paper I had completely forgotten that a key portion of the argumentation came right out of George's 1966 book, Adaptation and Natural Selection. I had only relearned this when I reread his book in preparation for teaching my first course on social evolution. There was "sex role reversed" species (as well as female choice for genes and investment) and the relevant pages were full of underlining and marginal comments by me. None of this was acknowledged in the chapter I was sending him, so I pointed this out and said I would try to put some in before the book was printed. I was therefore feeling a little nervous when a letter came from George Williams. I braced myself for an unpleasant experience.

Instead, I found one of the warmest and most generous letters I have ever received. Among other things, he said my paper had rendered obsolete a chapter in his own forthcoming book on "Sex and Evolution", namely the one on differential mortality by sex, which chapter he enclosed. He said nothing about not being properly cited but dealt only with scientific content. His chapter had my essential insight regarding male mortality — that higher variance in male reproductive success would often select for traits more costly in survival. The larger book was the first to systematically explore the consequences of seeing that sex usually had an immediate 50% cost in every generation (compared to asexuality) which cost had to be overcome in any successful model.

I invited him to Harvard in 1974 and he lectured on his ideas on sex. I do not say he was shy so much as reserved, but with a warm smile and sense of humor. A classic I use often occurred while telling me about the joys of grand-fatherhood. "If I could have figured out how to have grandchildren without having children first, I would have done so." I knew just what he meant — high relatedness, no work! Or as Melvin Newton (Huey's brother) puts it, "You can serve them ice cream for breakfast, what do you care?"

Having started with the evolution of senescence in 1957 in later life he tackled Darwinian Medicine, memorably saying that he did not think there was any compound — arsenic included — that was not beneficial if given in sufficiently small doses. This was almost surely an overstatement but a bracing and useful one. His knowledge of biology was so deep that he is the only person I know of to have predicted in advance the existence of an entire category of selfish genetic elements — androgenesis in which paternal genes eject maternal ones and take over the genome of an organism, a system now known from three very different groups of organisms.

He was a beautiful man, with a very simple and clear style of thinking, in a warm and humble personality.


George Williams was one of the great evolutionary thinkers of my lifetime. Universally respected, he was a tall, shy, diffident scholar, rather like W D Hamilton in character, his legendary wisdom seeming somehow enhanced by a physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. A wonderful scientist and a great gentleman, sadly missed.


I find that I really can't improve on what I said before in The Third Culture (on Edge). I think I nailed it then. That someone so incisive, such a corrosive corrector of sloppy thinking, could be so gentle and generous is something of a marvel. He was a lover of truth, not a lover of his own perspective and reputation.


[Dennett's 1995 comments:]

As other people have said, George Williams is the Abraham Lincoln of his field. He has a wonderful, laconic, pithy way of talking, and he seems to be an amazingly astute and clearheaded thinker. Reading George Williams showed me for the first time how hard it is to be a good evolutionary thinker, and how easy it is to make simple mistakes. Again and again, Williams issues his pithy little correctives to otherwise superficially good ideas and just calmly, firmly, wipes them out. Then you realize that this is a harder game to play than any of us realize, and George plays it better than anybody else in the world.

His main contribution, of course, was blowing the whistle loud and clear on the idea of "good for the species." In his 1966 book, he saw that Wynne-Edwards' — and others' — ideas, which were very familiar fare in the textbooks and popular treatments of evolution, had to be wrong. This was a wake-up call. Williams pointed out that it's not "What's good for the species is good for the organism (or vice versa)"; it's "What's good for the gene is good for the gene." Usually, other things being equal, what's good for the gene is good for the organism — and thus, you might say, for the species. But the gene is in the driver's seat.


Though he edited a major intellectual journal, for much of his career George really did not know much about the publishing world outside of the domain of university presses. He was incredulous when I told him, during a casual breakfast conversation in Sweden many years ago, that publishers do in fact offer advances on books! Indeed, I presume you got him one.

I never had the chance to tell him this, but many years later, while working on the Darwin exhibition, I found out that Darwin was one of the first authors known to have obtained an advance —  for the Origin of Species —  so upset was he that he apparently never received a farthing for his immensely popular Journal of Researches (aka Voyage of the Beagle)first published 20 years earlier. I can imagine George grinning at that little piece of news.


It is wonderful that you recall our first meeting. I remember your skepticism at first about our book, and George's skepticism about anyone in a fancy suit, and how, when George left the room, you said, "Someone told me George IS somebody. Is that true?" . You were by no means alone in not knowing his accomplishments. He never advertised himself. He just did his work. It is a great shame that is over, but a select few live on in their work. George is one of them.

Here are my extended comments on George:

George C. Williams died on September 8, 2010 at the age of 84. One of the most important biologists of the 20th century, his influence came not from big grants, flashy talks, magazine articles, or scores of graduate students. Instead, he pursued methodical thinking about important questions and distilled his conclusions into crystal clear prose. His approach was consistent. He would be struck by some apparent contradiction between fact and evolutionary theory, and work on it until a resolution emerged. Senescence, sex, menopause, and vulnerability to disease, all are hard to explain in evolutionary terms. In each case, he thought and thought, eventually coming up with a major contribution.

My tribute to his influence on the field and my life is in: Nesse, RM: Maladaptation and natural selection. Quarterly Review of Biology 80(1):62-70, 2005. In that article, I noted that he had a cognitive anomaly, I called it "Williams vision," that made it very difficult for him to blind himself to evidence that contradicted his ideas. Instead of marshaling all the evidence for his theory, and disparaging the rest, his work is a model of objectivity. In that article I also argued that he was neither an adaptationist nor an anti-adaptationist; if anything, he was a "maladaptationist." We shared a fascination with aspects of bodies and minds that just didn't seem to make sense in evolutionary terms. Gradually, we figured out ways of providing evolutionary explanations for many such traits. Now, scores of researchers are expanding the field of evolutionary medicine. In typical fashion, he insisted on naming the field "Darwinian medicine," because that term was slightly more accurate, too bad about readers who might better accept a blander designation. He is, and will always be, the father of Darwinian medicine.

Many other commentators will confirm the magnitude of his influence. Here, I want to offer a more personal perspective. His 1957 paper on senescence and antagonistic pleiotropy changed my career. I started trying to figure out senescence in 1968, as a sophomore at Carelton College. It is highly heritable and highly deleterious, so why didn't natural selection reduce its influence? Days spent paging through volume after paper volume of Index Medicus turned up all kinds of great ideas about aging, but not George's article. So, I wrote a paper arguing that senescence might have evolved to speed up the evolution of a species. My professors, not having read Williams, 1966, loved it.

In 1983, after I had joined the medical faculty at Michigan, I was spending lots of time with evolutionary biologists. It was clear they had a scientific foundation for understanding behavior that was lacking in psychiatry. Finally I got up my nerve and told them my theory about senescence. They laughed and laughed. Hadn't I ever read Williams, 1957? Didn't I know about the problems with group selection? I realized then that a truly excellent medical education had left me fundamentally ignorant about why organisms are the way they are, and why diseases exist. Once I recognized that senescence had at least two potential evolutionary explanations, I wanted to try to explain everything else about the body that seemed suboptimal. Why is obesity so common? Why is the birth canal so narrow? Why hasn't natural selection eliminated the genes that cause schizophrenia?

I started looking for an evolutionary biologist who might want to collaborate on this project. It was my great good fortune that Michigan was at the center of new evolutionary thinking in the 1980s. Richard Alexander and his grad students meet weekly for riveting seminars, and Bill Hamilton and George Williams came by often. Colleagues at Michigan, some of the best and brightest evolutionary biologists you could hope to find, were remarkably patient with my often embarrassingly ignorant questions. When I finally met George, it turned out that he had been thinking along similar lines; he was looking for a physician collaborator. We spent months talking and exchanging notes, trying to find evolutionary explanations for cancer, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease. The process was frustrating. Finally, in a simple but profound reframing, we recognized that diseases do not have evolutionary explanations. Instead, we turned our focus to aspects of the body that leave us vulnerable to disease. Then we made progress.

Our first major paper came out in 1991 with the grand title, "The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine." The bravado turned out to be somewhat justified. The field has grown exponentially. We wrote our 1994 book, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine in an engaging style, hoping that people would read it just for fun. That has worked out well.

Hundreds of publications on aspects of evolution and medicine are now available. In 2009, second editions of major edited volumes and a new textbook were published. A web journal, The Evolution and Medicine Review, provides a central information source. The field is healthy and growing, with one exception: medical schools seem to have no way of incorporating yet another basic science into the curriculum, not even something as fundamental as evolutionary biology. This isn't really surprising. There are no evolutionary biologists on medical school faculties to explain what is missing, and few evolutionary biologists bring in the kind of big grants that make medical school deans eager to start new departments. With time, undergraduates now learning about evolution and medicine will become deans. In the meanwhile, things are developing nicely everywhere else.

George was a wonderful collaborator. We wrote the book by sending drafts of chapters back and forth on computer disks. One of us would write a first draft, the other would completely rewrite it. We agreed on a simple method for staying friends. The revising author could make whatever changes seemed sensible, but was not allowed to look back at his earlier draft. After half a dozen iterations for each chapter, we forgot about who came up with what. We argued at length about many issues, allergy, defenses, menopause, senescence, and morality. It was real back and forth, the kind of very productive careful listening and hard arguing that carves away vagueness.

His wife Doris was not only his steady and loving companion, but a vigorous early research collaborator, and my friend as well. Their joint paper in 1957 on the evolution of altruism came close to describing inclusive fitness, but they veered away and relied instead on a variation of group selection. In typical fashion, they explicitly avoided the engaging word "altruism" and instead advocated using the more neutral terms "social donors" and "social non-donors." As memes, these were non-starters; selfish genes displaced them completely.

Some have described George as a bit curmudgeonly. I loved his directness. He was never trying to manipulate, always trying to understand. If he thought someone was wrong, he felt it was his obligation to talk with them to figure out what was correct. He was always polite, but he didn't pretend to agree just to be congenial. Not everyone liked that.

There was also a private side of George that few know about. For instance, he devoured fiction and history. He wrote a long work of fiction, an Icelandic saga. Eventually biographers will tell us more, but he has made the task challenging. He had the habit of keeping all of his notes and Icelandic. Such a characteristic quirk.

It was Alzheimer's disease that took him. The irony is nearly unbearable. We spent hours discussing why such a devastating disease should be so extraordinarily common. The obvious answer, of course, is that selection is weak at advanced ages. The alternative hypothesis, while unlikely, also needed consideration. Perhaps some aspect of the mechanism that causes Alzheimer's disease offers some kind of advantage. For decades I have asked neurologist friends for their thoughts about this, without much luck. Then, just a few months ago, an article appeared about beta-amyloid (Soscia, et al., PLoS ONE, 2010) , the substance contained in plaques on the neurons of those with Alzheimer's disease. It turns out to be quite a potent antimicrobial.

How George would've loved that! We would have talked for hours about what this means. Are infectious processes involved in Alzheimer's disease? Or is beta-amyloid merely a response to inflammation? Or is it an epiphenomenon? We also would have talked about the failure of drugs intended to disrupt beta-amyloid formation. In publications just last month, they were shown to be worse than useless, they speed the progression of Alzheimer's disease. And yet, in all of reports of the failure of the drug, there was no mention about the new evidence that beta-amyloid might have some useful function. I wish I could talk with George about all of this, and what we can do about it. I do so miss him.


...In 2004, I wrote a profile of Williams for Science. The occasion was a meeting that was held in Williams's honor, in which one scientist after another stood up to talk about the influence he had had on their work. They investigated everything from human behavior to the mating of fish to disorders of pregnancy. How on Earth could he have so much influence in so many different directions? Permit me to self-plagiarize... [MORE]

Back to: GEORGE WILLIAMS (1926-2010)


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