Kinship, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Moral Systems

Benjamin Enke

NBER Working Paper No. 23499
Issued in June 2017, Revised in October 2018
NBER Program(s):Political Economy

Across the social sciences, a key question is how societies manage to enforce cooperative behavior in social dilemmas such as public goods provision or bilateral trade. According to an influential body of theories in psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, the answer is that humans have evolved moral systems: packages of functional psychological and biological mechanisms that regulate economic behavior, including a belief in moralizing gods; moral values; negative reciprocity; and emotions of shame, guilt, and disgust. Based on a stylized model, this paper empirically studies the structure and evolution of these moral traits as a function of historical heterogeneity in extended kinship relationships. The evidence shows that societies with a historically tightly-knit kinship structure regulate behavior through communal moral values; revenge taking; emotions of external shame; and notions of purity and disgust. In loose kinship societies, on the other hand, cooperation appears to be enforced through universal moral values; internalized guilt; altruistic punishment; and an apparent rise and fall of moralizing religions. These patterns point to the presence of internally consistent, but culturally variable, functional moral systems. Consistent with the model, the relationship between kinship ties, economic development, and the structure of the mediating moral systems amplified over time.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23499

Published: Benjamin Enke, 2019. "Kinship, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Moral Systems*," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol 134(2), pages 953-1019. citation courtesy of

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