Imagine you found out that a man from Bolivia attacked his wife without any provocation. He slapped her hard across the face for no good reason – just because he had a bad day. How does this make you feel? Do you not care about this since it was so far away, or would you react with outrage?
Researchers from the US, Canada, Australia and Slovakia as well as the UK, headed by Professor Dan Fessler at the University of California, recently suggested that that people are “moral parochialists”. They only care about morality if it is local to them, and this is a result of evolution. They suggested that people become less outraged about wrongdoing if they find out that it took place somewhere far away or long ago.
My colleague Paulo Sousa and I were sceptical about this, because we have noticed that people seem to be very moralistic in general, wherever an event takes place. The killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe led to worldwide condemnation. Our previous research backs this up, so we decided to take a closer look at their methods and findings.
In their research Fessler and his colleagues asked volunteers in seven different parts of the world about some harmful actions – extreme unprovoked actions such as perjury or rape. The societies they chose ranged from small clan or tribal based societies to Western industrial countries with formal legal systems.
Almost everyone agreed that the harmful actions were immoral in principle, and they were then asked to imagine that the action had taken in another place, another time, or was approved by an authority from their own society. The volunteers judged the actions on a scale from “extremely bad” to “extremely good".
We noticed that the original study didn't look at whether volunteers' still thought the same once they'd been asked to imagine the action taking place far away, or long ago. This is important to find out because it would show us how important the distance factor is in people’s judgement of harmful acts. We decided to work out whether imagining this distance made people change whether they disapproved of the wrongdoing – or whether they stuck to their original opinion.
Fessler and colleagues also argued that people might waste "biological effort" if they spent time trying to punish those who did immoral things far away from themselves – and that is why evolution may lead to people only caring about local morality. But logically deciding that an action is immoral doesn't necessarily mean you will try to punish the person who did it. Thinking something is immoral, wherever it happens, is not such an effort.
What we found when we analysed the study again was that most people, from all seven societies, still disapproved of the harmful actions. The original study concluded that evolution has led people to only care about morality when things happen close to them. But that isn't what the figures show. People don't stop caring about an immoral action once they are asked to imagine it happening a long way from home. They are more universal and less local in their moral thinking than Fessler and colleagues have said.
Piazza, J., & Sousa, P. (2016) When injustice is at stake, moral judgements are not parochial.
Proceedings from the Royal Society of London B, 283, 20152037.
Assistant Editor: Han Ke