Questions concerning human nature provoke controversy across disciplines, particularly when it comes to explaining evil or ‘immoral’ behaviours. Endeavours to explain actions that are considered immoral strike at a fundamental philosophical issue: whether people are innately good and it is the world that corrupts them; or whether people are innately evil and their tainted proclivities are more or less inevitable.
While it is now apparent that the extreme version of the first claim – i.e. the ‘blank slate’ dogma combined with the noble savage myth – is difficult to validate (Pinker, 2003), the exact extent to which people might be considered depraved remains highly contentious as well. The view that we are innately evil and that there are no forces within us that would stop us from the worst atrocities also seems wrong. We are capable of choosing moral behaviour even if the alternative brings us more immediate benefits. Still, it is not clear how certain behaviours should be interpreted. Specifically, how should we understand fairness? Is it the case that people are naturally fair? What forces drive so-called ‘moral’ behaviour and its alternative?
This study explores research relating to a certain type of immoral behaviour – cheating – and evaluates this work in light of evolutionary theory. This type of behaviour is especially perplexing because in many cases where the opportunity to immorally gain is available, cheating is still not chosen or, more often, not maximized. While it seems the answer to the question “why do people cheat?” is obvious – if they can profit from it, monetarily or otherwise, they will cheat – the answer to the question “why do people refrain from cheating?” is far from obvious.
The most interesting issue in cheating behaviour is its formation within an individual. Particularly, what is the default option when one encounters an opportunity to cheat? Is it the case that people have an automatic desire to serve their interests even if it involves cheating? Do they have to suppress their vicious inclinations in order to behave morally? Alternatively, it may be the case that moral (fair) behaviour comes naturally and people will cheat only when they start to engage in cognitive reconstruction of a situation.
The other problem relevant to research on cheating is the interpretation of fair behaviour. One common standpoint is that people refrain from cheating because they are moral people. Good people do not do bad things. This explanation, however, is questionable: it is not clear whether such good behaviour may exist per se. Organisms, including humans, are motivated by self-interest and from the biological perspective there is no such thing as non-self-interested behaviour. How it is therefore possible to explain fair interactions between self-interested individuals?