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Evolution and Ethics

b2ap3_thumbnail_justice.jpgWhile ethics is one of my favorite subjects, Pagans don’t have a set that we all agree upon. (duh) Some follow the Charge of the Star Goddess, or the Three-fold Law, and some work to cultivate virtues as opposed to following laws. But if we’re all working to be good people, why can’t we mange to get along a little better? In his TED talk, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, says that if you’ve ever been confused about why people just can’t get along, he might have an answer for you.

Haidt researches human morals and started by asking the question of why do human morals around the world have more to do with just how people treat each other? The norm in all cultures but Western, is that morals have to do with all sort of things that we often mock. For example, what you can and cannot do during menstruation, what you eat and with whom, and what you wear. For most Americans – let alone the small subset that is our religion – such questions are weird and alien. That’s because we live in a WEIRD culture. The term WEIRD stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, and was created by psychology researchers Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. As Pagans in an industrialized culture, we cannot escape this.

The reason I am excited about Haidt’s work is because he is interested in the biological basis for our moral behavior. And it seems there are evolutionary arguments to be made that much of our moral preference is, in Haidt’s words, "organized in advance of experience." Haidt postulates six moral foundations:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). 
6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

Which brings me back to Pagan ethics.

In my own experience that not all of these foundations are meaningful to all of my Pagan friends. My Wiccan friends tend to favor the first two, while my Heathen friends find all of them important to some degree. The reason for my interest is that these morals tend to fall out on both on intra-Pagan and political lines and could easily explain some of the difficulties in communication.

I have believed for some time that we need to be aware the biological basis of our behaviors. Tied to the Earth as we are, biology is a sacred ground of being. I encourage you to check out Haidt’s book and his other lectures on Youtube.

Last modified on
Tagged in: ethics Jonathan Haidt
Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Wednesday, 29 January 2014

    Thanks for posting! I appreciated your insights and the insights presented in the Ted talk you linked.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Wednesday, 29 January 2014

    I've really found Haidt's work to be transformative and will be writing more about him in the future.

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