Brosnan - A Comparative Approach to Morality

Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Brosnan, Sarah
Year 2018

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A Comparative Approach to Morality

Sarah Brosnan; Georgia State University

Distinct among animals, humans have the ability to develop and shape systems of morality that guide social interactions. Although humans’ capacity for morality stands alone, humans are not the only species to have developed rules or norms surrounding social decision-making, and understanding how other species negotiate these interactions provides insight into the evolution of the behavior in humans. In this talk, I will focus on three key questions. First, how do we study moral behavior in other species, which do not show morality in the same sense that humans do? The answer to this question leads into the second topic, which is that there are behaviors we see in other species that relate to moral behavior, which I term precursor behaviors. These behaviors, such as reciprocity and prosocial behavior, are not in and of themselves moral, but understanding how they manifest in other species provides insight into why and how we evolved moral behavior. Finally, I consider what understanding these precursor behaviors in other species can tell us about the evolution of human morality. Throughout I will use as an example decision-making in the context of inequality, a precursor to the human sense of fairness. Ultimately, I argue that while other species do not show morality in the human sense, there is much to learn about how and why our behavior evolved in the ways that it did from studying other species.

SARAH BROSNAN is Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Neuroscience at Georgia State University and holds a visiting professor position at the Michale E. Keeling for Comparative Medicine and Research, MD Anderson Cancer Center. She studies the evolution of decision-making behavior, using an experimental economic approach to compare responses across multiple species, primarily in non-human primates and human adults and children. A major focus of her work is how individuals decide in what situations and with whom to cooperate, particularly in situations in which they receive a different outcome from a social partner. She is a Fellow of the APA and SESP. Dr. Brosnan has published in Nature, Science, PNAS and Current Biology and has been funded by NSF, NIH, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Templeton foundation. In 2009, she was named one of the 150 most influential alumni in the 150-year history of her alma mater, Baylor University. Her personal website is