Today's post, Ethical Inhibitions was originally published on 19 October 2008. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


Humans may have a sense of ethical inhibition because various ancestors, who didn't follow ethical norms when they thought they could get away with it, nevertheless got caught.

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:21 PM

It seems to me that this is an attempt to appeal to evolutionary psychology to explain a cultural phenomenon. Maybe I'm provincial in thinking that property rights are grounded in sociology rather than biology, but if they were grounded in biology I would expect to see fewer convergences when different ethnic groups participate in a mostly common culture but still select reproductive partners who share their background. I would also find it trivially likely that within only a generation or two, the distribution of viewpoints regarding property rights would shift dramatically, unless there was significant selection pressure.

However, if property rights are memetic and cultural, I would expect both convergences due to social interaction without gene mixing, and large shifts in the course of a single generation, or even in one person during their adult life.

A basic conception of property rights is probably genetic whereas specific property laws are cultural. This is similar to the way our capacity for language as well as certain language universals are genetic while languages themselves are cultural.

Where do you see variances in the basic conception of property rights vary as though genetic and not cultural? Do children born of people who have a different set of property values than those with whom they are raised have the concept of their genes or of the people who raised them?

Based on the developmental cognitive science literature, I'd say that a sense of property rights can't develop until after the sense of other is developed. That means that most adopted children should develop the same concept of property rights as their family, if property rights are cultural.

What does the evidence say?

Where do you see variances in the basic conception of property rights vary as though genetic and not cultural?

I never said anything about variance. Due to the physiological unity of humankind there may not be very much variance in the genetic component.

Look at my analogy with language: people learn the language of their parents, but that doesn't mean language ability has no genetic basis.

I see different ideas of the basic concept of property rights when I look in the history of anthropology. Since those differences faded quickly during cultural interactions. From that I conclude that property rights divergently evolved, and subsequently converged, faster than genetic mechanisms would imply possible.

Did you even read the comment you just replied to?

Why didn't we instead evolve a bias for overestimating our chances of getting caught? That's what evo psych would have predicted in advance, I guess.

Why didn't we instead evolve a bias for overestimating our chances of getting caught?

Having "ethical" beliefs makes doubles as a hypocrisy aid.

If we evolved ethical inhibitions, and then we evolved to be intelligent enough to predict being caught so we'd know not to do it anyway, we'd overcorrect and have to either evolve away the inhibition, or evolve a particular inability to predict being caught. As such, I think the hypothesis that ethical inhibition is due to underestimating the chance of getting caught is clearly more reasonable. Even if we evolved it first, it would have gone away if we weren't underestimating the chance of getting caught.


A monkey can be trapped by a food reward inside a hollowed shell—they can reach in easily enough, but once they close their fist, they can't take their hand out. The monkey may be screaming with distress, and still be unable to override the instinct to keep hold of the food.

Is there any evidence that this is more than a folk tale? It illustrates the point so well I never thought, until this afternoon, to confirm it as a fact. My efforts to do so have failed so far. The story itself is a kind of monkey trap... it gets held on to even when it isn't real.


DanielLC: Thank you for your follow-up! I am not invested in the monkey trap being true or false, but I'd rather know if it was a folk tale or a fact before I speak of it in the future.

The video you found looks to me like a video of the folk tale, not evidence that monkeys have this behavior. I only speak English and American Sign Language, and so I don't know how much the narration adds or takes away from the credibility of the video. The video appears scripted and the critical event of a monkey that won't let go is shown as an animation, not as video. The video description says "The monkey trap is a metaphor for addictive emotional attachment among other things." The links in the video go to a motivational speaker and "COMING SOON - GLOBAL SOLALIGN COMMUNITY." There are plenty of motivational speakers talking about the monkey trap. I have yet to find confirmation of the monkey trap from a scientist who has a background in non-human primate behavior.

Evidence the monkey trap is fact would (I suggest) include something that: has been peer reviewed; names what kind of monkey; what group of men use this technique to capture a monkey; whether anyone outside that group of men observed the monkey trap in action and under what circumstances; why a monkey trap is better than a net / cage / gun; whether this monkey behavior has been observed in labs or zoos; etc.

If I trap 99 monkeys in a monkey trap, will the 100th figure it out? It seems to me the monkey trap is as much of a folk tale as the hundredth monkey. If only I had an infinite amount of monkeys to do random research on the issue...

Update: The story of The Boy and the Filberts goes back to 108 AD and perhaps earlier.