I find some of the books that are being published these days mind-boggling. “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, is one of them. Perhaps it’s not really the book that’s mind-boggling, fascinating as it is. What’s really astounding is the public reception it’s received. Consider, for example, its review in the New York Times. It’s positive, even enthusiastic, cites a few interesting tidbits from the book, and then closes with some suggestions about questions Lehrer might take up in future works. The astounding thing is that there is no allusion whatsoever to matters of political correctness, no suggestion that the author is a minion of fascism, no dark hints that his conclusions border on racism, and no tut-tutting about his general lack of moral uprightness.
All this is mind-boggling because it attests to a sea change in public attitudes, to a transformational change in the way certain seemingly obvious truths are received. Changes like that don’t happen over years. It takes decades, and I suspect you have to be around for decades yourself to notice them. Underlying every anecdote, every example, and every assertion in the book is the tacit assumption that our behavior, outside of such fundamental traits as hunger and sexual desire, is not just an artifact of our environment, a reflection of our culture, imprinted on minds of almost unlimited malleability. Rather, its underlying theme is that much of our behavior is conditioned by innate characteristics hard-wired in the circuitry of our brains. Forty or fifty years ago, many books with a similar theme were published by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Robert Ardrey. Inevitably, whenever a new one turned up, secular religious fanatics of the Marxist and related schools began frothing at the mouth. Their authors were demonized and denounced as perpetrators of every sort of evil and immorality. Any suggestion that certain aspects of human nature were innate posed a threat to their plans to create an earthly paradise for us, and then “re-educate” us to like it. In a word, it threatened the whole concept of the “New Soviet Man.” They became just as furious as any fundamentalist Christian at the suggestion that the earth is more than 7,000 years old. Richard Dawkins has done a particularly able job of dissecting one of the literary artifacts of this school of thought, “Not in our Genes,” by R. Lewontin, et. al., demonstrating his virtuosity at dissecting secular as well as traditional religions.
Secular religions have certain disadvantages not shared by the more traditional, “spiritual” varieties. For example, they promise heaven in this life instead of the next, and so are subject to fact-checking. The history of the Soviet Union is a case in point. They are also more vulnerable to demonstrable scientific facts, because they cannot point to a superhuman authority with the power to veto common sense, and they typically claim to be “scientific” themselves. All of these have contributed to the sea change in attitudes I refer to, but I suspect the great scientific advances of recent years in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have played the most decisive role. Many of those advances have been enabled by sophisticated scanning devices, with which we can now peer deep into the brain and watch its workings in real time down to the molecular level. Lehrer cites many examples in his book. The facts are there, in the form of repeatable experiments. Lehrer cites the evidence, treating the innate in human behavior, not as a heresy, but as a commonplace, obvious on the face of it. I can but wonder at how rapidly the transformation has taken place.
“How We Decide” is a pleasure to read, and it will surely make you think. I found the chapter on “The Moral Mind” particularly interesting. Among other things, it demonstrates the absurdity of the misperception, shared by so many otherwise highly intelligent people from ancient to modern times, that we will not act morally unless we have some rational reason for doing so, such as the dictates of a God, or the systems of philosophers. As Lehrer puts it,
Religious believers assume that God invented the moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a list of imperatives inscribed in stone. (As Dostoyevsky put it, “If there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. Everything is permitted.”) But this cultural narrative gets the causality backward. Moral emotions existed long before Moses.
Lehrer also cites some of the many great thinkers who have, throughout our history, drawn attention to the remarkable similarities in our moral behavior that transcend culture, and came to the common conclusion that there was something innate about morality. For example, quoting from the book,
Although (Adam) Smith is best known for his economic treatise “The Wealth of Nations,” he was most proud of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” his sprawling investigation into the psychology of morality. Like his friend David Hume, Smith was convinced that our moral decisions were shaped by our emotional instincts. People were good for essentially irrational reasons.
What Smith and Hume couldn’t know was how morality is innate, or why. Now, as Lehrer shows us, we are finally beginning to find out.
Do yourself a favor and read the book.