The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, IV

Morality is the behavioral expression of innate and fundamentally emotional traits hard-wired in the human brain. The variety and complexity of moral behavior is increasing with extreme rapidity, at least in terms of evolutionary times scales, as the physical characteristics of the brain responsible for the emotions relevant to morality, which have changed little if at all in the last 10,000 years, interact with the vast cultural and environmental changes associated with, among other things, the spread of mass education, instant international communication, and the emergence of modern states and other mass social groups in creatures, such as ourselves, with a sufficiently high intelligence to actually think about moral behavior. This has resulted in the remarkable variety of behaviors and beliefs associated with morality we see today, including the arousal of furious passions over “goods” and “evils” attributed to a variety of social groups, beliefs, and ideologies that didn’t exist and were, therefore, utterly irrelevant at the time that the traits associated with morality evolved.

The fundamental nature of morality, including the fact that evolved, innate traits are responsible for its expression, and that they quite as capable of evoking hatred, rage, and aggression as they are of inspiring empathy, self-sacrifice, and love, has been evident to our best thinkers almost since the days of Darwin. However, it is a testimony to the extreme difficulty we have in reasoning about things as much a part of us as our emotions that the communities of scientific and academic experts in the fields such a psychology, anthropology, and sociology that are most closely associated with the study of questions related to morality have been unable to keep up. For the most part, they subscribe to secular or spiritual religions and ideologies that are defined by pronounced judgments about distinctions of “good” and “evil,” even though those categories can have no real existence as other than subjective mental constructs. As a result, acceptance of a fact as obvious as the association of morality with innate mental traits and predispositions was furiously resisted and successfully repressed for decades by orthodoxies such as behaviorism that better accommodated those ideologies. General acceptance of the fact that morality is the expression of hard-wired mental traits has only occurred in the last decade or so, but only after being forced on the grudging community of “experts” by the rapid accumulation of new evidence from a variety of fields that was too compelling to be ignored.

One would think it rather obvious that, if morality is the expression of mental traits evolved eons ago at a time when our consciousness and social existence were radically different from what they are today, and if those mental traits only exist because they promoted genetic survival in those long bygone days, rational beings would dismiss the idea of “updating” it and applying it willy-nilly to modern realities out of hand as doomed to failure and, in view of disastrous outcomes of applying such “updated” moralities observed in the 20th century in the cases of Nazism and Communism, potentially self-destructive. We are, however, not rational beings, and our faith in our own intelligence is highly exaggerated. As a result, we have not seen the advent of a new Age of Reason. Rather, old moral certainties have merely been superficially updated to accommodate new realities.

The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality has presented us with a case study of how this has worked out in practice in the case of experts who are members of what have been termed WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. As we have seen in the cases of three of the nine keynote speakers we have looked at so far, none of them are in the least bit dubious about applying morality, touched up here and there around the edges, to deal with modern realities, they believe in the notion of “moral progress,” and they have an implicit belief in good and evil as valid, legitimate things in themselves, somehow existing on their own, independently of the consciousness of individual human beings. In a word, when it comes to morality, we are far from being out of the woods.

In examining the remarks of some of the other speakers, we will see the same phenomenon repeated, including the most explicit attempt by any of the nine to justify faith in “legitimate” versions of good and evil, and an interesting example of how the behavioral traits associated with morality are “adjusted” to fit the Procrustean bed of new “goods” and “evils” required by WEIRD ideology.

First on the list today is fellow atheist Sam Harris. Sam doesn’t limit himself to merely implicit acceptance of WEIRD morality. He positively embraces it, proclaiming a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” In his words,

…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.

It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a preposterous claim. Consider, for example, the following statement by another speaker, Jonathan Haidt:

The problem is especially serious in moral psychology, where we all care so deeply and personally about what is right and wrong, and where we are almost all politically liberal. I don’t know of any Conservatives.

This, based on my experience, accurately represents the true state of affairs. Whatever their conclusions about the “intellectual basis” for good and evil, almost all of the people Harris is referring to are convinced ideologues, and moralists to the core. Furthermore, they see eye to eye with him about what good and evil “really” are. Read any history of the United States that has come out of these circles in the last 20 years. Does it contain no moral judgments? Can anyone point out one of these “right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people” whose work isn’t larded with morally loaded “shoulds?” Have the neuroscientists suddenly discovered that no emotional response can be detected in their brains to the names “Sarah Palin” and “Rush Limbaugh?” Journalists? Are you kidding me? Has any one of them of any note recorded in the history of the last 100 years been so much as capable of writing a book not characterized by a determined effort to make sure the reader can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys?” Are not such “public intellectuals” as Harris’ fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil? I personally would certainly agree that there is no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil, but, at least in terms of drawing any actual consequences from that conclusion, it seems to me that if I were thrown into a bag with a random assortment of “scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists,” I would be a distinct anomaly in that respect.

Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” By the fact that it promotes genetic survival, which is, after all, the only reason that morality exists to begin with? No, unsurprisingly, Harris is in full agreement with the other speakers regarding what is “really good.” It is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” as understood by self-described political liberals in the early 21st century.

We soon find out what kind of scientific proofs Harris has in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths. They amount to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.

And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit similar moral emotions in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove.

In closing, Harris plays a clever game with the word “value:”

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. (not, at least, if Harris is gatekeeper) I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.

Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not. In the second case, the “value” referred to is an emotional value. In its origins, it has not the slightest thing to do with “human flourishing.” Such emotional values, innate in their origins, are not infinitely malleable to promote “human flourishing” or whatever other utilitarian goal Harris might have in mind, and they come inextricably linked to another “value” – hatred directed at those who prefer, or seem to prefer, some other value. In other words, Harris would have us believe there is no difference between the means that are rationally chosen to achieve some goal and innate human emotional responses that have proven time after time after time to be incredibly bad means of achieving the social goals he has in mind. It’s as if Nazism and Communism never happened, as if precisely the same sort of desire for “human flourishing” didn’t give rise to them, and as if all that’s needed in the future to avoid their incredibly destructive outcomes is merely to tweak our method of discovering “moral truth” a bit. I have an alternative suggestion. Next time we want to promote “human flourishing,” let’s leave morality and all its associated passions out of it.

In our next installment, we will examine the remarks of the remaining speakers to see what rather remarkable adjustments to morality are required to promote human flourishing in the 21st century. Earlier posts on the Edge Conference can be found here, here, and here.

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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