The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, Conclusion

The resistance of orthodoxies, secular as well as religious, to freedom of thought and the advance of human knowledge did not end with the persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno. As a species, we are predisposed to react with hate and hostility to the “out-group,” the “others” whom we perceive to be different from and a potential threat to our own “in-group.” Now, however, we live in a radically different world from the one in which the wiring in our brains responsible for such behavioral traits evolved. The boundary between our own “in-group” and the “others” is now as likely to be defined by ideas as by geographical features that separate the next group of hunter-gatherers from our own. As a result, furious hatreds accompanied by violent warfare have been spawned by now long-forgotten differences over such things as the role of images in religious belief, or the details of the ritual associated with the sacrament of Communion. In fact, human history is incomprehensible unless one grasps the significance of this in-group/out-group behavior of ours, sometimes referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex. It is one of the more interesting phenomena of our own day that recognition of this most obvious and most inconvenient of all truths itself became one of the defining markers of the “out-group,” and a threat to the belief system of an ideological in-group that had gained control of and managed to impose its own orthodoxies in psychology, anthropology, and several other fields of scientific inquiry.

The hypothesis that innate mental traits or “human nature” plays a significant role in mediating human behavior has been around since long before the days of Darwin. However, beginning in the 1960’s with the popular works of thinkers like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz and continuing with the publication of “Sociobiology” and “Human Nature” by E.O. Wilson in the 1970’s, recognition of the significance of innate behavior gained a much wider acceptance. Such ideas were, however, a direct threat to the ideological orthodoxies then prevailing in the academic and professional communities. Those communities reacted in the time-honored fashion of human “in-groups” in all ages to this challenge from the “others;” with hatred, irrational hostility, and demonization. I will discuss the manifestations thereof in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that, unlike differences of opinion over whether Christ was the real or adopted Son of God, controversies over the factors that impact human behavior can be informed by the observation of repeatable experiments. In a relatively short time, the ideological orthodoxy of the 60’s and 70’s regarding human nature was buried under a mountain of facts. In the resulting paradigm shift, culminating only in the last decade or so, the profound impact of the innate on human behavior has finally gained general acceptance.

In a sense, however, the old defenders of the faith in “nurture, not nature” were right. The hypothesis of innate human behavior was a direct threat to their whole belief system. Then as now, by their own admission, the expert communities in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and related fields occupy ideological ground that is substantially left of center. They are predominantly, if not exclusively, characterized by an implicit or explicit belief in legitimate, objective good, more or less vaguely characterized by terms such as “human flourishing” and “human brotherhood,” and by a perception that they should play an active role in guiding the rest of us towards “the good.” However, once the significance of the innate on human behavior has been accepted, it follows that the evolutionary origins of these aspects of our nature must be accepted as well. It is quite obvious that they did not evolve because they had a “purpose,” and that “purpose” was to promote “human flourishing” in a world radically different from the one in which they evolved. It is also quite obvious that they evolved for reasons that had nothing to do with promoting the ideological goals of self-described “liberals” in the 21st century. Those facts have and will continue to have a highly corrosive effect on the belief system of the academic and professional experts who specialize in the study of human behavior, and particularly those who focus on that aspect of our behavior that comes under the general heading of morality.

In previous posts I have discussed the impact of all this on the thought of nine representatives of this expert community who were the keynote speakers at a recent conference on “The New Science of Morality.” As we have seen, all of them, whether explicitly or not, recognize “the good” as a real, objective, thing in itself, independent of what goes on in the brain of any individual human being. As any good Christian or Moslem could tell them, there is no logical basis for this faith of theirs in “the good.” The fact that they believe in it anyway is a testimony to the power of the emotions associated innate human morality in creating the perception of something real where none exists.

The result has been a kind of remarkable doublethink. The role of the innate on human morality is accepted, but it comes with the chimerical belief that, against all odds, those innate qualities of the human brain can be adjusted at will to achieve the kind of “human flourishing” that is the goal of latter day ideologues. The phenomenon was clearly in evidence at the Edge Conference. The keynote speakers all revealed their perception of “the good” as a real thing, and several of them spoke of morality as an adjustable tool for achieving “the good,” going so far as to speak of this form of toying with innate human behavioral traits as “moral progress.” There was an atheist who based his argument on the real existence of moral good on his own capacity for pious indignation, and a professor of psychology who asserted that morality exists to promote the better working of “the system” in the 21st century. A great deal of attention was paid to experimental evidence of innate human “kindness” and “niceness,” and commensurately little to the possibility that hatred, aggression, and demonization of “others” might also be behavioral traits with innate origins. It will be recalled by those who were around at the time that these were the aspects of human behavior that thinkers like Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, who were generally recognized by the professional community at the time as the most significant and articulate proponents of the importance of innate factors in human behavior through the 60’s and early 70’s, wanted to draw attention to. It turns out that, as far as innate influences on human behavior are concerned, they were right, and the professional community of experts was wrong. Under the circumstances, it would seem unwise, if not foolhardy, to dismiss their hypotheses about those aspects of human behavior that aren’t “nice” out of hand.

One finds grounds for optimism that the prevailing illusions about “moral progress” will not be supportable for long in the remarks of the three speakers whose remarks we have not yet discussed. For example, psychologist Paul Bloom discussed experiments designed to explore the emergence of innate “niceness” in very young children and even babies, before such behavior can be taught or acquired via culture or environment. Among other things, he described the ability to infants to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys” as early as six months of age. He notes work by others that points to the conclusion that “kindness” is “part of our hard-wired inheritance.” However, he is not quite so optimistic. As he puts it:

Our minds have evolved through processes such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism. We should therefore be biased in favor of those who share our genes at the expense of those who don’t, and we should be biased in favor of those who we are in continued interaction with at the expense of strangers. Also, there is now a substantial amount of developmental evidence suggesting that this kindness that we see early on is parochial. It is narrow. It is applied to those that a baby is in immediate contact with, and does not extend more generally until quite late in development.

After citing some experimental work in support of this conclusion, he continued:

This shouldn’t surprise us. Maybe it’s even better than we could have expected. The dominant trend of humanity has been to view strangers – non-relatives, those from other tribes – with hatred, fear and disgust. Jared Diamond talks about the groups in Papua New Guinea that he encountered. And he points out, for an individual to leave his or her tribe and just walk into another, strange tribe would be tantamount to suicide.

It is noteworthy that Diamond, who is nothing if not politically correct by the standards of the current time, could have so casually written something like this. If he’d said it 45 or 50 years ago, anathemas would have reigned down from him on all sides, and he would have been dismissed as a heretic. As for Bloom, he continues,

So there’s a puzzle, then, because the niceness we see now in the world today, by at least some people in the world, seems to clash with our natural morality, which is nowhere near as nice. How did we end up bridging the gap? How have we gotten so much nicer? Note that I’ve been focusing here on questions of our kindness to strangers, but this question could be asked about other aspects of morality, such as the origin of new moral ideas, such as that slavery is wrong or that we shouldn’t be sexist or racist. These are deep puzzles.

It seems a great deal less puzzling to me. It can only be puzzling if you ignore the obvious fact that, as human culture and human knowledge have expanded and these new kindnesses have emerged as the ancient, innate and virtually unchanged human emotions associated with moral behavior have found expression in the new environmental context, new hostilities have evolved right along with them. The kindness of the French revolutionary proponents of human rights came with the guillotine, and the kindness of the universal brotherhood of Communism came with the deaths of tens of millions of class enemies. Now we see the kindness Bloom seems to so admire in our own day associated with furious hatred and hostility directed by the political left at the members of the Tea Party movement, representing a substantial proportion of the citizens of the United States and openly expressed desires for the deaths of prominent political opponents like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

Psychologist David Pizzaro discusses the influence of emotions in shaping what may seem at first glance to be judgments based on reason, focusing on the role of disgust. As he put it:

We’ve shown that disgust sensitivity, that is, people who are more likely to be disgusted, over time end up developing certain kinds of moral views. In particular, we’ve shown that not only are people more political conservative if they’re more disgust sensitive, but they specifically are more politically conservative in the following ways: they tend to adhere to a certain kind of moral view that the conservative party in recent years in the United States has endorsed, that’s characterized by being against homosexuality and against abortion.

Pizzaro goes on to consider the emotional component of liberal as well as conservative beliefs, thereby obliquely undermining the notion that they are logically consistent and legitimate. As any medieval churchman could have told him, such thoughts lead to heresy. We must hope they will do so in the future as they have in the past.

Philosopher Joshua Knobe begins his talk as if he’d been asleep for the last half century:

So far we have been talking about questions in moral psychology. So we’ve been talking about the questions: How is it that people make moral judgments? Do they make moral judgments based on emotion or reason? Is it a capacity that’s just learned or is it something that’s innate?

However, he goes on to describe recent work by philosophers that entailed leaving the ivory towers of pure reason and actually conducting experiments. The result:

But what’s really exciting about this new work is not so much just the very idea of philosophers doing experiments but rather the particular things that these people ended up showing. When these people went out and started doing these experimental studies, they didn’t end up finding results that conformed to the traditional picture. They didn’t find that there was a kind of initial stage in which people just figured out, on a factual level, what was going on in a situation, followed by a subsequent stage in which they used that information in order to make a moral judgment. Rather they really seemed to be finding exactly the opposite.

What they seemed to be finding is that people’s moral judgments were influencing the process from the very beginning, so that people’s whole way of making sense of their world seemed to be suffused through and through with moral considerations. In this sense, our ordinary way of making sense of the world really seems to look very, very deeply different from a kind of scientific perspective on the world. It seems to be value-laden in this really fundamental sense.

These, too, are conclusions that are fundamentally at odds with the notions of objective good and “moral progress.”

It would seem, then, that based on the sample we have been considering, while comfortable orthodoxies still prevail in the world of “expert” opinion about morality, general acceptance of the fact that innate, emotional components play a very significant role in moral behavior must inevitably undermine those othodoxies as long as freedom of inquiry prevails. There is room for optimism. Heretics will appear, as they always do, and will start doing experiments and studies of brain function that will demonstrate and establish the less “kind” aspects of human moral behavior. It is to be hoped that this happens sooner rather than later, and when it does, the “experts” will realize that attempts to foster “human flourishing” by manipulating human moral behavior are not only doomed to failure, but will continue to be extremely dangerous, as they always have been in the past.  If we really want to flourish as a species we would do well to finally learn to understand ourselves.  After a long struggle with obscurantist ideologues, we have finally gained general acceptance of the significance of the innate in human nature, but we seem to balking at the next logical step.  We have a marked preference for studying the “nice” and “kind” in human behavior, and ignoring the “not so nice.”  It is time we pulled our heads out of the sand, because unless we thoroughly understand the darker side of our nature, we will have no chance of controlling it.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, the need seems rather obvious.  It’s hard to flourish if you’re dead.

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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