On moral instincts

Dear Baruch,

So there I was, eight days into a two week trek through Ethiopia, staying in Axum in the North, when I had my breakdown. I just couldn’t go on like this, so removed from the internet for so long. I headed up the road, entered the nearest telecenter, and surfed.

That in itself was an adventure, what with a 56K modem and a spotty phone connection. Most web pages took actual minutes to download. But I persevered, and an hour later had paid $10 to a happy proprietor to print out 35 pages of interesting articles, which I took to the hotel to devour greedily.

The article that made most of an impression on me in that bunch was Steven Pinker’s The Moral Instinct, in the New York Times. It is a good overview of what psychologists, philosophers and evolutionary biologists have been working on recently to better understand the phenomenon of morality. In particular, Pinker talks about the work of a Jonathan Haidt, who counts five basic moral principles that all humans possess: “harm [avoidance], fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity”. While we all subscribe to these principles, we can rank them differently, and a society’s overall moral compass is determined by how its members predominantly rank them.

The “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” prescription that guides my morality is thus one that prioritizes harm avoidance and fairness over the others. But other societies, such as the one in Tigre that I found myself in as I read the article, might value a sense of community and authority more than I do.

I found this fascinating, as it offers an explanatory framework for comparing and contrasting the dominant moralities of the world’s different societies without requiring us to enter into the moral relativism trap. We can now presumably start to discuss which of these principles are the most useful in a world that is growing increasingly connected and technologically advanced. For example, I believe that blind obeisance to community, authority and purity is dangerous in a globalizing world (heck, it was dangerous in the first half of the last century too).

But is an absolute aversion to harm and a love of fairness also dangerous? Haidt’s talk at the just-ended TED argues that we should at least consider the possibility. Via Ethan Zuckerman’s notes:

Why should liberals care about these other three moral values? Because there’s a tendency for social order to decay. [Haidt] shows us the Hieronymus Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” – reading from left to right, we see purity, then sexual excess, then hell. This is true artistically, but it’s also true in terms of behavioral economics – research shows that cooperation in games delays without punishment. We may need authority and purity to maintain social order.

[I think he means that positive sum games don’t work if you don’t punish defectors.] It’s too soon for me to come out with conclusive statements about all this, but that is why I’m blogging it, so you can destroy any faulty logic. For example, I’m thinking that an obsession with purity makes sense in poorer societies, where contagious and infectious diseases are an ever-present danger, but that as we grow more well off, the usefulness of this impulse fades. And some of these moral precepts are surely there through a process of “natural” selection: More militant “patriotic” societies would tend to wipe out, over time, societies attaching less importance to militantly defending the community.

I’m sure Spinoza would have been intrigued by the notion of a taxonomy of moral principles. He came up with something similar, and also from the psychological perspective, but never really extended his work from the individual to the sphere of comparative sociology. At the same time, I’m not sure if Haidt’s taxonomy is complete. How would he explain mob rule, of the kind that tore Spinoza’s friends the de Witts to shreds? Community minus order minus authority? And is my strong belief in freedom of speech truly just a lack of regard for authority, or might it be a positive value, let’s call it tolerance? Might an affinity for rationality not be a moral precept? It’s the bedrock of the scientific method, after all. Your thoughts, Baruch?

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3 thoughts on “On moral instincts”

  1. No, I think morality has nothing to do either with scientific method or with rationality. You might be proud of your affiliation with those things, Bento, but that affiliation doesn’t make you moral.

  2. I have no problem with morality as some sort of evolutionary tool for us all to live successfully in groups. As Pinker points out, monkeys do unto others blah blah as well. Personally I am less into the whole purity thing, and prefer more the harm avoidance and fairness characteristics. Also I worry that Purity as a dominant characteristic of a group would tend to make that group less likely to expand and absorb others without a fight. A less purity obsessed rival may have more “soft power”, be less likely to inspire resistance to the death, and more likely to gain allies.

    Mobs, I think, could be viewed one or two of these 5 attributes gone haywire in ad hoc gatherings of many. Mobs can be associated with all 5 values; I don’t think mobs necessarily can be expressed in terms of combinations of the attributes like you suggest. Them that did in the de Wits were probably motivated by an aggrieved sense of harm avoidance: they thought the brothers had brought a French invasion on them, as far as I remember. They must have been jolly cross.

    What I think is cool about morality though is that we can change it if we don’t like it, or if we can think of a better prejudice. It is one inherent aspect of ourselves that we can change, and examples such as Spinoza’s Ethics show how we can do that.

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