The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, II

As mentioned in an earlier post, the recent Edge conference on The New Science of Morality was addressed by nine eminent speakers who together represent a reasonable sample of current thinking on the subject in scientific and academic circles. Their remarks reveal a fact that has been abundantly obvious for some time; that the ideologically driven orthodoxy of the “Not in our Genes” school admirably described by Steven Pinker in his book, “The Blank Slate,” has been largely abandoned in favor of general acceptance of innate or “hard-wired” human nature, including human moral behavior.

By its own account this milieu is primarily to the left of center and “progressive” in its political outlook. Their conservative and religious critics have had no difficulty grasping an obvious implication of these recent adjustments to their world view; these self-described “secular liberals” have abandoned any rational claim to the objective legitimacy of moral distinctions, or on the existence of good and evil as other than subjective constructs of individual human minds. I might add that they have never had a basis for such a claim, even in the heyday of the “blank slate.” Now, however, it’s more obvious than ever. Regardless, as we shall see, in every case their remarks reveal an implicit belief in an objectively valid and legitimate morality. This faith of theirs in something for which there can be no rational justification is a remarkable demonstration of the power of innately driven and fundamentally emotional moral judgments over the human consciousness.

To study the phenomenon in action, let’s begin dissecting the remarks of the nine speakers. The first was University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Like many of the speakers who followed him, Haidt discussed his own scientific work, centered around what he calls Moral Foundations Theory, which “specifies a small set of social receptors that are the beginnings of moral judgment.” He likens these to taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, etc., and identifies the five most important of them as “care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, and sanctity and degradation.” I will leave it to future generations of geneticists to document where, if at all, these “moral receptors” appear in the human genome. In developing his taste metaphor, Haidt cites a variety of famous thinkers and authorities from days gone by. In doing so, he sticks to the most sound and approved remarks of the most sound and approved thinkers, a pattern that will repeat itself with the remaining speakers. It is essential to establish and maintain academic gravitas in this milieu, and novelty or wandering off the reservation in the choice of authorities is therefore assiduously avoided. In Haidt’s case, the list includes Mencius, unlikely to raise any eyebrows outside of China, and David Hume, currently in high fashion as an early proponent of innate human nature.

Haidt goes further than any of the other speakers in explicitly recognizing the consequences of morality understood as the manifestation of evolved, hard-wired behavioral traits. In his words,

So, as I said, morality is like the Matrix. It’s a consensual hallucination. And if we only hang out with people who share our matrix, then we can be quite certain that, together, we will find a lot of evidence to support our matrix, and to condemn members of other matrices… I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups.

But wait! Before you conclude that Haidt “get’s it,” and has managed to get his mind around the reality that morality is the manifestation of evolved traits that exist because they promoted our survival under conditions that existed in the misty realms of our prehistory, read on. Without missing a beat, Haidt goes on to discuss the possibility that the various types of morality may be “right” or “wrong,” and concludes,

And as I said before, nearly all of us doing this work are secular Liberals. And that means that we’re at very high risk of misunderstanding those moralities that are not our own. If we were judges working on a case, we’d pretty much all have to recuse ourselves. But we’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.

And so Haidt wanders back off into the swamp in search of the “true good,” which, although none of mankind’s greatest thinkers has quite managed to capture it yet, in spite of thousands of years of trying, is apparently “coherent, humane” (whatever that means), and promotes what I suppose we are to understand as the objectively justifiable “goods” of “living and flourishing.” As we shall see, Haidt is not unique in attaching transcendental moral significance to such vague notions as “living and flourishing,” nor is he unique in never cutting to the chase and explaining why we should take his word for it that such things are “legitimately good.” It is just one of those things that are “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”

In later posts we will examine further artifacts of this implicit belief in the “true good” among the remarks of the remaining speakers, and consider the future ramifications thereof in our quest to better understand ourselves.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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