• Updated
10 November 2022

Puritanical morality: why condemn harmless pleasures?

Why do many societies condemn pleasures that are seemingly harmless to other people, such as lust, gluttony, or even music and dance, and raise temperance, asceticism, sobriety, modesty and piety as cardinal moral virtues? What cognitive mechanisms can explain the cross-cultural recurrence of this puritanical morality? Mechanisms evolved for cooperation, according to the article "Moral disciplining: The cognitive and evolutionary foundations of puritanical morality" recently published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This publication synthesizes a large body of research in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science to articulate and test this hypothesis.

Interview with Léo Fitouchi, PhD student at the Institut Jean Nicod and first author of the article.

The cognitive origin of Puritanism: an enigma

Puritanism questions moral psychologists because it involves the very structure and origin of moral cognition. "Many current theories consider that the mechanisms of moral judgement have been selected by evolution for the needs of cooperation, which have been central to the evolutionary history of the human species, says Leo Fitouchi. This hypothesis is consistent with a large body of anthropological and psychological evidence, which shows that, across cultural differences, moral norms universally target issues of cooperation - such as reciprocity, group loyalty, or respect for authority and property".

In this context, puritanical morality appears as a puzzling anomaly: it condemns activities that are apparently socially harmless, such as the immoderate enjoyment of bodily pleasures (sex or gluttony), the consumption of alcohol and drugs, entertainments such as music or dancing, and a general lack of self-discipline. Yet these activities do not cause any harm to others, and therefore seem to have no consequences for cooperation. "In medieval Christianity, Neo-Confucian China, or Victorian England, for example, sexual pleasure is condemned, not only when it harms other people – such as in adultery --  but also in harmless instances, such as in masturbation, or frequent sexuality within marriage. Similarly, the sin of gluttony condemns the immoderate consumption of food and drink in itself - not just when it deprives other people of resources. Similarly, while recreational drugs may harm individuals who use them, they do not inflict direct harm on other individuals, unlike most behaviours that humans ordinarily condemn, such as stealing, betraying, lying, or adultery".

Leo Fitouchi explains that according to many researchers, the existence of such victimless crimes condemned by puritanism cannot be explained by theories of cooperation-based morality. These psychologists argue that human morality cannot be reduced to a cooperative function and that pluralistic theories of moral judgement should be adopted, according to which some moral judgements are produced by cognitive mechanisms independent of cooperation. "In particular, a common assumption is that puritanical morality emerges from disgust, says the PhD student. Disgust is a cognitive system that has evolved to avoid substances and conspecifics that may transmit pathogens - a function that is completely independent of cooperation. The idea is that ‘base’ instincts such as lust, gluttony, or drugs would be perceived as impure because they would activate this disgust system".

"Christ in Limbo", attributed to Jérôme Bosch, 1575, represents the punishment in hell of various behaviours condemned by Puritan morality.

Self-control is seen as necessary for cooperation

In contrast to these assumptions, the article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences proposes that, despite appearances, puritanical morality can actually be explained by evolved cognitive mechanisms for cooperation, due to the perceived link between the ability to resist the temptations of immediate pleasures (commonly called "self-control") and the ability to cooperate. "There is considerable psychological evidence to suggest that people perceive self-control as necessary for cooperation. Very intuitively, doing one's fair share of effort in a collective action may require overcoming lazy desires. Avoiding cheating on your partner sometimes requires resisting sexual temptations. Sharing resources means giving up consuming them yourself. All of this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: evolutionary models show that cooperation requires paying immediate costs (e.g. giving up an opportunity to exploit a conspecific), which are only compensated for in the long run by the benefits of reciprocity and good reputation".

The authors then propose that individuals with puritanical moral intuitions perceive that bodily pleasures, drugs, and lack of self-discipline impair self-control, and thus facilitate anti-social behaviour. "Alcohol and drugs, for example, are intuitively perceived as diminishing people's ability to resist temptation - and thus making them more prone to violence, selfishness, or infidelity, says Leo Fitouchi. Excessive consumption of bodily pleasures (masturbation, gluttony), even when intrinsically victimless, is seen as making people addicted to immediate pleasures, and thus more prone to give in to future anti-social temptations, such as infidelity". The logic behind puritanical morality would be that promoting more ascetic lifestyles would discipline individuals— that is, increase their ability to resist temptations—and thus make them better cooperative partners. 

In order to articulate and support this theory, the authors synthesise a large body of so far disconnected work in evolutionary biology (on the evolution of cooperation), social sciences (on the history and anthropology of puritanical societies), and cognitive sciences (on the mechanisms of moral judgment and the psychology of self-control). They examine the evidence supporting the testable predictions generated by this theory. "Converging data suggest, for example, that the more people perceive bodily pleasures and drugs as diminishing self-control and cooperativeness, the more likely they are to morally condemn these behaviours".

Furthermore, the doctoral student points out that the argument of the paper is not that puritanical norms are objectively effective in facilitating self-control and cooperation but rather that the individuals who promote them intuitively perceive them as effective. But are these intuitive perceptions accurate? Do puritanical norms objectively improve self-control and cooperation in a society? Hard to say, according to Leo Fitouchi: "Psychological experiments on the possibility of training self-control yield mixed results: it is not clear that repeatedly resisting temptations increases future self-control. This does not imply, however, that puritanical norms are always ineffective. For example, studies suggest that some religious crusades against alcohol consumption in the early 20th century may have had a causal impact on reducing crime and violent behaviour". 

Examples of the impact of alcohol consumption and dance on self-control. Left: "Alcohol, the immediate enemy of self-control at all ages. (Dr. C.W. Saleeby), 1915, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Right: Illustration from Jas. H Brookes "The Modern Dance" (189_?) stating that "the habit of dancing will not aid us to resist other temptations".

Towards the study of cultural variations of Puritanism

According to Leo Fitouchi, much empirical work remains to be done to test the article’s theory. To go even further in the study of Puritanism, he also proposes investigating its cross-cultural variations. "While psychology and the social sciences have paid much attention to the fall of puritanism in modern societies, which adopt liberal mores, little quantitative work has investigated the cross-cultural variation of puritanism among traditional societies themselves. Yet, preliminary evidence suggests that, while puritanism is particularly present in traditional societies at intermediate levels of development - typically those where world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism prevail - not all traditional societies are puritanical. In particular, puritanical moralizations seem less prevalent in small-scale societies such as hunter-gatherer societies". The PhD student explains that this cross-cultural variation in puritanism thus seems to draw a bell curve according to socio-economic development: low in small-scale societies, high in large-scale traditional societies, and then low again in modern post-industrial societies. "A key direction for future research would therefore be to map and explain more precisely the overall spectrum of variation in puritanism across human societies".



  • Léo Fitouchi did a preparatory class in social sciences (prepa B/L) before being admitted to the ENS and studying mainly cognitive science through a master's degree. He then discovered cognitive and evolutionary approaches in social sciences, which satisfied his desire to explain the recurrence of similar cultural traits across human societies, such as social norms or supernatural beliefs. Investigating the evolutionary origins of morality, the unsolved enigma of "victimless crimes" emerged as a natural subject for his PhD thesis, directed by Nicolas Baumard and Jean Baptiste André.
  • The Evolution and social cognition team at the Institut Jean Nicod
  • Léo Fitouchi, Jean-BaptisteAndré, Nicolas Baumard (2022). Moral disciplining: The cognitive and evolutionary foundations of puritanical morality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-71.