Evolutionary Psychology in 30 Seconds

  1. A community of people who help each other will survive and flourish better than one which does not. Hence we evolved emotions which incline us to be altruistic—that is, to help other people: Sympathy; Compassion; Empathy. We are rewarded with a good feeling when we help someone.

  2. We also evolved emotions which incline us to praise others who act altruistically. Praising emotions—gratitude, and an emotion that may be called elevation, moral awe, or being moved—prompt one to reward altruists.

  3. However, cheaters might take advantage of our altruism. So we evolved emotions to detect and deal with cheaters. Contempt; Anger; Disgust. When we feel we have been wronged we get angry, mad, upset. We may seek retribution, restitution, or revenge.

  4. And we evolved emotions which prevent us from becoming cheaters ourselves. The self-conscious emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, prompt one to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.
    (Psychopaths lack this fourth set of emotions. Thus they may be very nice people, who feel sympathy, compassion, and empathy towards others, and feel contempt, anger, and disgust when others cheat, but feel no self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment, to prevent them from committing heinous acts.)

  5. Isolation Distress.
    (This one could fill a book.)
In summary we possess:
  1. Emotions which incline us to be altruistic: Sympathy; Compassion; Empathy.
  2. Emotions which reward others for being altruistic: Praise, gratitude, and an emotion that may be called elevation, moral awe, or being moved.
  3. Emotions which detect and deal with cheaters: Anger; Contempt; Disgust; Mad; Upset.
  4. Emotions which prevent us from being cheaters ourselves: Guilt; Shame; Embarrassment.
The above only applies to people in our "In" group — our metaphorical "family". Starting with our own family, the "In" group circle may expand to relatives, friends, neighbors,... possibly up to "our nation as a family" metaphor, and possibly beyond. Who is included in the "In" group can vary and lead to political differences. We are quite capable of within-group amity and between-group enmity.

"The emotions of sympathy, gratitude, guilt, and anger allow people to benefit from cooperation without being exploited by liars and cheats."

"We have an emotional repertoire — sympathy, trust, guilt, anger, self-esteem — that impels us to seek new cooperators, maintain relationships with them, and safeguard the relationships against possible exploitation."

"The emotions undergird a desire for justice: the implacable need for retribution, the burning feeling that an evil act knocks the universe out of balance and can be canceled only by a commensurate punishment. People who are emotionally driven to retaliate against those who cross them, even at a cost to themselves, are more credible adversaries and less likely to be exploited. Many judicial theorists argue that criminal law is simply a controlled implementation of the human desire for retribution, designed to keep it from escalating into cycles of vendetta."

Quotes from Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Year: 2002):

Emotions are the foundation of Morality
The above emotions are the foundation of morality. An action is ultimately deemed moral or immoral because we feel it is moral or immoral.

David Hume made the connection between morals and emotions way back in 1759 in his book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. However, you have to get all the way to Appendix I.—Concerning Moral Sentiments before he makes the connection. In another book Hume said, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." ("Passions" back in 1759 are what we today call "emotions". Same with "Sentiments." It's all in the emotions.)

When you think of life rationally, it appears to have no meaning. but when you think of life emotionally it is suddenly full of meaning.

Altruism vs. Hedonism:
"A community of people who help each other will survive and flourish better than one which does not."

This means altruism and hedonism are the same thing. Being helpful to others who in turn are helpful to you increases the chances of your survival, which in turn increases the propensity of your genes being propagated to the next generation. It's altruism because it's good for other people, and it's hedonism because it's good for you too.

So for example, abortion is wrong to some because they feel it is wrong. They have an emotional reaction to the thought. But for others abortion is OK, because they don't have any emotional reaction to the thought of aborting a small clump of cells. They don't feel it is bad.

In a real situation though, people often have mixed emotions. And which ever emotion wins out is what we do. So a woman may have an emotional reaction to the thought of having an abortion, but may also be having another emotional reaction to the thought of having a baby, perhaps predicting that the baby will suffer a bad life, so the woman may struggle with a choice between two bad feelings. Whichever feeling is the least bad will win out. Rational thought can help, but my opinion is it's ultimately the emotions which drive our life and give it meaning.

(See David Hume Appendix 1 of his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)

No emotions in science and math
I'm into science and physics and math. Science and Math are totally devoid of emotions. We're not supposed to introduce emotions into science and math. We're supposed to be objective. We don't prove a math theorem by saying it feels right. Emotions were always something we set aside when dealing with math an science. And I've always put my faith in science and math to explain the world in a rational coherent way.

But suddenly I discover emotions are exactly what I need to study to understand a whole slew of things about our world that I always beforehand turned to science and math to explain. It's quite a surprise.

It is rather unsettling for me to realize I'm full of emotions which are not of my own choosing. I can only hope that evolution did a good job of providing me with the emotions that will help me survive. I think of animals that never went to school to develop their rational thought and don't have language to help them exchange ideas. They must rely entirely on their emotions to guide them through a successful life.

Two concepts of Morality

Morality is Empathy vs. Morality is Obedience

In my studies I've discovered quite to my surprise that there are two completely different concepts of Morality. One is "Morality is Empathy;" we care about what hurts others. This is the Liberal view. The other is "Morality is Obedience;" to a set of rules, such as a list of sins you're not supposed to do. This is the Conservative view.
(I think I'll expand on this in the future.)

For more on this dichotomy I recommend the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff (1996, 2nd edition 2002).

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