The biological evolution of conscience – from parent-offspring conflict to morality

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In this paper, two theories regarding the biological evolution of morality with conscience as its central regulatory agency are compared and contrasted. One theory (“navigator theory”) interprets conscience as a strategically operating agency for the optimum balance between selfish and altruistic behavioral tendencies to maximize gains in cooperation in view of social complexity. From this standpoint, conscience serves the evolved self-interest of the person having a conscience. In contrast hereto, the second theory (“helper theory”) locates the evolutionary origins of conscience on the battlefield of the parent- offspring conflict through intrafamilial demands for altruism. Functions of conscience, and thus human morality in a narrower sense, evolved during the transition of hominines to cooperative breeding and the novel helper conflict emerging through this evolution. The “helper theory” of the evolution of conscience can resolve some of the theoretical and empirical inconsistencies of the conventional “navigator theory”, in particular, the contradiction between the consequentialistic regulation of altruistic behavior and the non-consequentialistic nature of the judgment of conscience. And in contrast to the “navigator theory”, it is compatible with the observation that behavior guided by a conscience is not infrequently disastrous for one’s own fitness outcome.

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