The most hotly debated issues in culture and politics tend to get framed in moralistic terms, such as the fairness of income inequality, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, the ethics of campaign finance laws, and the obligation of society to protect unborn children. But when people use these terms, how much rational understanding do they have about morality itself? Usually not much. Usually they’re just voicing emotional reactions: they perceive some action as wrong or selfish, they experience anger or disgust, and they express moral outrage. Little rational reflection on the outrage is needed in order to feel that it is justified. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Basing a moral judgment on passion more than reason is everyday human behavior (a well-known finding of psychologist Jonathan Haidt), and does not necessarily produce an invalid judgment. But moral judgments are too important to leave to passion alone. In order to be more rational about morality, we need to consider the origins, nature, and usefulness of morality, and doing so requires an evolutionary perspective.

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Michael Price, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Psychology at Brunel University, London, and co-Director of the Brunel Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology.