Moral parochialism and contextual contingency across seven societies

Daniel M.T. Fessler, H. Clark Barrett, Martin Kanovsky, Stephen Stich, Colin Holbrook, Joseph Henrich, Alexander H. Bolyanatz, Matthew M. Gervais, Michael Gurven, Geoff Kushnick, Anne C. Pisor, Christopher von Rueden, Stephen Laurence

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43 Scopus citations


Human moral judgement may have evolved to maximize the individual's welfare given parochial culturally constructed moral systems. If so, then moral condemnation should be more severe when transgressions are recent and local, and should be sensitive to the pronouncements of authority figures (who are often arbiters of moral norms), as the fitness pay-offs of moral disapproval will primarily derive from the ramifications of condemning actions that occurwithin the immediate social arena. Correspondingly,moral transgressions should be viewed as less objectionable if they occur in other places or times, or if local authorities deem them acceptable. These predictions contrast markedly with those derived fromprevailing non-evolutionary perspectives onmoral judgement. Both classes of theories predict purportedly species-typical patterns, yet to our knowledge, no study to date has investigated moral judgement across a diverse set of societies, including a range of small-scale communities that differ substantially from large highly urbanized nations. We tested these predictions in five small-scale societies and two large-scale societies, finding substantial evidence of moral parochialism and contextual contingency in adults' moral judgements. Results reveal an overarching pattern in which moral condemnation reflects a concern with immediate local considerations, a pattern consistent with a variety of evolutionary accounts of moral judgement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150907
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1813
StatePublished - Aug 5 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


  • Moral judgement
  • Moral parochialism
  • Morality


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