The ugly little brothers of the moral instincts

The Judgement of Solomon by Nicolas Poussin

Let’s face it. Our popular moral vocabulary is a bit on the fluffy side.

When we think of what constitutes moral traits and behaviours, we tend to invoke “motherhoood and apple-pie” concepts like altrusim, helping, kindness, empathy, co-operation and consolation.

This is all well and good, but it fails to take into account the need to discourage defectors, cheats and aggresors to defend the space in which co-operation is possible. Reciprocity is at the heart of morality, and the flipside of recopricity is retribution. Evolution has equipped us with emotional impulses to repay both kindness (gratitude) and cruelty (indignation).

But much of the language associated with moral enforcement is inflected with negative associations – like revenge – and two of the key emotions which drive moral enforcement are generally associated with immorality!

These neglected emotions are none other than spite and schadenfreude. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the moral dimension of these two overwhelmingly unpopular emotions.

Spite, of course, is the urge to make another suffer even when it disadvantages yourself. This admittedly sounds pretty bad at first, and it definitely characterises some of the meanest, pettiest, most vindictive behaviour we encounter. Perhaps the archetypal example is related in the Judgement of Solomon, where a woman falsely claiming to be the parent of an infant is prepared to let it be slaughtered rather than give custody to the true mother.

But now lets take spite and recruit it to moral enforcement: it now becomes the urge to punish norm-breakers and defectors even when it incurs a personal cost. It becomes the emotional motivator of heroism, encouraging self-sacrifice in defence of the community. Revealingly, ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour) uses the term “spite” to describe both the prosocial and antisocial variations of the urge.

Similarly, schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”) is commonly understood as the perverse pleasure we take in observing another’s suffering. It is essentially spite for bystanders; spite without the personal cost. But let’s again recruit this emotion to moral enforcment and it becomes the moral satisfaction of the social community in seeing justice carried out, be it human or poetic.

In the examples above, I’ve talked of spite and schadenfreude being “recruited for” moral enforcement, but it strikes me as more likely that these nastier emotions are spin-offs of moral impulses which first evolved to advance the survival and reproductive fitness of our anscestral communities. Garden variety spite does not advance the evolutionary interests of anyone involved.

This reading also gives us a helpful insight into the psychology of everyday evil. We are all prone to recruiting moral frameworks and language to justify our petty grievances, jealousies, and personal humiliations. We are all liable at times to confuse common hatred with moral contempt, spleen for outrage, and vindictiveness for justice. Some people are habitually prone, and will even interpret legitimate moral reproval as a personal affront.

This all-too-human tendency to confuse common aversion with moral aversion is not helped by the paucity of our language to distinguish them. Perhaps we need to coin new words to do so, or revive old ones that have fallen out of use. I’d be interested to hear readers suggestions on this front, as I don’t think Gutschadenfreude will take-off anytime soon!

A better vocabulary to describe the morally retributive emotions, or at least a better understanding of them, might also play an important role in bridging the deep inchoate moral divisions which traditionally separate the political left from the political right.

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Welcome to Moral Menagerie!


Moral Menagerie is dedicated to providing an overview of the scientific evidence for sophisticated cognition and social relationships in animals and exploring how this impacts on some of the big questions about morality, intelligence and sentience.

I’m a firm believer that seeing is believing in regard to animal competencies, and in that spirit will attempt to use videos and photos wherever possible to illustrate them. I hope to make Moral Menagerie a one-stop-shop for people seeking evidence of the important continuities between animal and human capacities and encourage readers to contribute with links to compelling footage, images or studies they’ve discovered in their travels.

You’ll notice some initial structures in place on the site to tantalize and give a hint of things to come. As a general rule, and especially to get us started, new page entries elswhere on the site will be posted to the blog first.

Thanks for dropping by and stay posted!

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