Morality: evolutionary foundations and policy implications

Article in a working paper series

Ingela Alger and Jörgen W. Weibull, "Morality: evolutionary foundations and policy implications", IAST working paper, n. 16-48, August 2016.[Full text]


Since the publication of Adam Smithís Wealth of Nations, it has been customary among economists to presume that economic agents are purely selfinterested. However, research in experimental and behavioral economics has shown that human motivation is more complex and that observed behavior is often better explained by additional motivational factors such as a concern for fairness, social welfare etc. As a complement to that body of work we have carried out theoretical investigations into the evolutionary foundations of human motivation (Alger and Weibull 2013, 2016). We found that natural selection, in starkly simpliÖed but mathematically well-structured environments, favors preferences that combine self-interest with morality. Roughly speaking, the moral component evaluates oneís own action in terms of what would happen, if, hypothetically, this action were adopted by others. Such moral preferences have important implications for economic behavior. They motivate individuals to contribute to public goods, to give fair o§ers when they could get away with cheap o§ers, and to contribute to social institutions and act in environmentally friendly ways even if their individual impact is negligible.

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