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Office of Graduate Student External Grants and Fellowships | GradFund

“Am I a good person?”, Evolution and Morality

by | Aug 3, 2017 | Doctoral Funding Mentoring Program

This post is part of a series of blog posts written by incoming and second-year graduate students in the Early Graduate Fellowship Mentoring Program. Students were asked to provide a brief description of their research interests and how they came to those interests. 

My topic of interest is the evolution of morality. As a research question, I’d like to better understand how humans developed moral systems and how science can be used to shed light on existing conflicts in moral imperatives, behaviors, and beliefs. More specifically, I’d be interested in studying how mutual aid and cooperation is a source of economic and emotional support among people within religious groups, the evolutionary basis for these behaviors, and how they may contribute to individual fitness- fitness as in, the reproductive success of an individual in terms of sexual selection.

I may expand this question to groups with shared moral beliefs though not necessarily religiously rooted. I’d also be interested in looking at how, cognitively, we’ve evolved to be able to question our moral behavior and the implications of that ability.

In college, I’d wanted to major in philosophy because of my interest in moral philo, but after taking an intro to anthropology class, I was hooked and switched immediately. From there I’d become interested in the anthropology of religion and later in sexual selection theory. After graduation, I worked for a few years in wealth management and then digital marketing, and sort of, forgot about my interest in anthropology. Then, about a year ago I took an online course taught by Paul Bloom, a moral philosopher at Yale, at the same time as I was completing a yoga teacher training program. That period of moral exploration- both from an academic point of view but also experientially as a yogi, had me asking myself a question I hadn’t asked for a long time- “Am I a good person?”. Naturally, I wanted to explore the question scientifically.

Author and philosopher Sam Harris begins to tackle the topic of how we can explore morals scientifically in his book, The Moral Landscape. Considering how divisive moral beliefs can be, he posits that through science we can come to more objective moral grounds and that science should work toward advising in moral issues. Other authors like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and moral philosophers like Peter Singer have also written about this topic. I would, in some ways, want my research to expand on the foundation laid by these authors- but without the focus on atheism and admonishment of religion that many of these authors typically express.

I’m also interested in behavioral economics and think there’s a synergy between behavioral econ, evolutionary anthropology, and moral behavior that I’d like to explore. This, I’m still unclear about, but am looking forward to starting classes- including a behavioral econ class- in the fall so I can work it out.

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