Morality and the Epiphany of Joshua Greene

The manifestations of morality are complex, but its origins are simple.  Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for its existence.  In all of its many facets and forms, it only exists because of them, and would not exist without them.  Those behavioral traits evolved without a goal, and without a purpose.  They exist because they happened to increase our chances of surviving and procreating at a time when our mode of existence as well as our social and physical environment were radically different from what they are now.

There are certain obvious implications of these simple facts.  Perhaps the most obvious is that we are unlikely to achieve any desirable end by blindly following our moral intuitions in a world which has become so different from the one in which those intuitions evolved.  In the first instance, this applies to the individual goals of surviving and procreating, which at least have something to do with the reasons that morality exists in the first place, but even more obviously to those goals, such as the promotion of “human flourishing,” which do not.  The 20th century supplied us with abundant experimental data to establish these facts.  Two highly moralistic secular creeds of that era devoted to the cause of “human flourishing” are particularly noteworthy; Communism and Nazism.  Both produced huge crops of moralistic idealists, and both resulted in levels of mass slaughter unprecedented in the bloody history of our species that preceded them.

There was nothing accidental or improbable about these disastrous outcomes.  A detailed understanding of the workings of human moral predispositions and emotions must await a vastly expanded understanding of the brain, but certain of their more obvious qualities can be sketched with broad brush strokes.  Among other things, human moral systems invariably include the perception of ingroups and outgroups.  To the best of my knowledge, this truth was first formally stated by Sir Arthur Keith, was treated as a commonplace by Robert Ardrey, but has only finally begun to penetrate the collective consciousness of the intellectual elite among us in the last 15 years or so.  It is one of the main reasons why attempts to promote social ideals by tinkering with morality are not just unlikely to succeed, but downright dangerous.

Which brings us back to the title of this post.  In an article at entitled “Deep Pragmatism,” by moral psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene, we can almost literally watch the scales falling from his eyes.  Here are some of the more interesting bits:

Another possibility is that what we’re seeing here are the limitations of intuitive human morality; that we evolved in a world in which we didn’t deal with people on the other side of the world—the world was our group. We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. The people on the other side of the hill—they’re the competition. We have heartstrings that you can tug, but you can’t tug them from very far away. There’s not necessarily a moral reason why we’re like this, it’s a tribal reason. We’re designed to be good to the people within our group to solve the tragedy of the commons, but we’re not designed for the tragedy of common sense morality. We’re not designed to find a good solution between our well-being and their well-being. We’re really about me and about us, but we’re not so much about them.

Another, in my view, more plausible possibility is that we’re seeing the limitations of our moral instincts. That, again, our moral heart strings, so to speak, were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away. But it’s not for a moral reason. It’s not because it’s good for us to be that way. It’s because caring about ourselves and our small little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about the other groups—the competition—didn’t help us survive. If anything, we should have negative attitudes towards them. We’re competing with them for resources.

what this suggests that if you agree that the well-being, the happiness of people on the other side of the world is just as important as the happiness of people here—we may be partial to ourselves, and to our family, and to our friends, but if you don’t think that objectively we’re any better or more important or that our lives are any more valuable than other people’s lives—then, we can’t trust our instincts about this, and we have to shift ourselves into manual mode.

To bring this all full circle—two kinds of problems, two kinds of thinking. We’ve got individuals getting together as groups—me versus us—and there we want to trust those gut reactions, we want to trust the gut reactions that say, “Be nice, be cooperative, put your money into the pool, and help the group out,” and we’re pretty good at that. When it comes to us versus them—to distrusting people who are different from us, who are members of other racial groups or ethnic groups, when it comes to helping people who really could benefit enormously from our resources but who don’t have a kind of personal connection to us, us versus them, their interests versus our interests, or their interests versus my interests, or their values versus my values—our instincts may not be so reliable; that’s when we need to shift into manual mode.

Maybe a discussion for another time is: Should we trust those instincts that tell us that we shouldn’t be going for the greater good? Is the problem with our instincts or is the problem with the philosophy? What I argue is that our moral instincts are not as reliable as we think, and that when our instincts work against the greater good, we should put them aside at least as much as we can. If we want to have a global philosophy—one that we could always sign onto, regardless of which moral tribes we’re coming from—it’s going to require us to do things that don’t necessarily feel right in our hearts. Either it’s asking too much of us, or it feels like it’s asking us to do things that are wrong—to betray certain ideals, but that’s the price that we’ll have to pay if we want to have a kind of common currency; if we want to have a philosophy that we can all live by.

In a word, instead of continuing our attempts to blindly apply evolved behavioral traits to the solution of problems that have nothing to do with their evolutionary origins, perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to address them rationally for a change.  It’s very encouraging to occasionally run across such recognition of the obvious by thinkers as well-regarded as Prof. Greene.  It’s not out of the question that, as the thinking class continues to digest the implications of the biological origins of morality, we will see much more of the same.  Such optimism may well be unwarranted.  After all, the academy is filled with “experts” on morality and ethics, not to mention a host of professional philosophers, whose self-respect and livelihood depend on successfully bamboozling the rest of us into believing that they actually know something about “good” and “evil,” that is, objects that exist only in their imaginations.  On the other hand, change happens.  The behavioral sciences were dominated by the Blank Slate orthodoxy for decades, and yet today one can actually suggest that there is such a thing as human nature without being shouted down as a fascist.

As I have pointed out before, understanding the nature and origins of morality will not cause us all to suddenly start dancing naked in the streets.  It is our nature to be moral creatures, and we will continue to be moral creatures.  It is not in our nature to be “moral relativists,” and we will not all become moral relativists.  It is no more possible for us to jettison morality than for a leopard to change its spots.  We may, however, find it useful to restrict morality to its proper sphere of regulating our day to day interactions with other individuals, and seek to come up with moral system(s) that are simple, in harmony with our innate behavioral traits, and that enable us to live together and pursue our individual goals as comfortably and with as little friction as possible.  Meanwhile, we should be wary of those who seek to exploit moral emotions to achieve social ideals, promote holy causes, and peddle political nostrums.


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.

3 thoughts on “Morality and the Epiphany of Joshua Greene”

  1. We do not have to be the unquestioning agents of our genes. Morality stamps meaning and purpose on an uncaring universe. If we, the conscious part of the universe, say the universe has meaning, then it does.

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