Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Highly moral - yet highly irrational. Steven Pinker and the colors of morality

When we hear people who express horror at things like homosexuality, stem cell research, abortion, taboo language, inter-racial marriage etc. we tend to think they are either irrational in their world view or evilly attempting to exert their power over others and shamelessly using these issues as an extension of that purpose.

What we often fail to consider is that most people react on these issues from a moral viewpoint. They genuinely want what they believe is the best for everyone in society and just see things from a different moral viewpoint. What is the mechanism within each human being that makes this so? What could go on inside of the heads of two people, who are both loving, caring, giving and tolerant, to have totally divergent ideas about something like abortion?
I don't claim to have the answers. I don't think anyone yet has close to a rigorous theory of mind that would account for it. But it seems clear that Harvard Professor of Cognitive Science, Steven Pinker, is on the right track and certainly identifies some major points for further research and study. Pinker got my attention (and a whole lot of other people's) when he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, back in 2002. At the time The Blank Slate came out, Publishers Weekly said this about it –

"Drawing on decades of research in the 'sciences of human nature,' Pinker, a chaired professor of psychology at MIT, attacks the notion that an infant's mind is a blank slate, arguing instead that human beings have an inherited universal structure shaped by the demands made upon the species for survival, albeit with plenty of room for cultural and individual variation."

Anyone who has read this blog for any period of time will know that I completely buy into the direction of Pinker's studies and conclusions. I very much see evolution as being not only the driving force in species but even in human nature. Certainly my friend The Exterminator is well aware of my position and my feelings about Pinker – that he is one of the truly exceptional researchers and writers working on some of these intriguing problems. With that background, it’s easy to see why Ex recently emailed me a link that I’ll be referring to in this post, and that I hope you’ll take the time to read.

Ex’s link was to this strongly recommended article by Pinker that appeared in The New York Times just a couple of weeks ago entitled The Moral Instinct. Reading it will greatly illuminate my following comments. It's a rather long article, but I feel certain that anyone who takes the time to read it will (a) get the opportunity to see what a scintillating mind Pinker possesses and (b) gain valuable insights into the reasons for moral differences between equally fine people. I'll tell you what - go read it and then come back. I'll wait right here.

You are a fast reader. It took me a lot longer!

I'm sure you read the entire article, but I'm going to ask you to review this short two paragraph excerpt:

"When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

"The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture."

If we assume this to be correct - that there are five "primary colors" of our moral inclinations (in no order of greater or lesser importance), "(no) harm", "fairness", "group loyalty" (also called "community"), "authority" and "purity" - then let's see how these could play out across cultures and even between individuals within a culture.

Now recall that research shows that virtually everyone has these "primary colors of morality" and that everyone has all of the colors in his or her toolkit. None of us (save those handicapped by a disease or disorder, such as psychosis or brain damage) are lacking a single "color". Then why wouldn't rational beings tend to congregate at near-identical conclusions about the moral imperative in any given situation?

Let's think first about two distinct cultures - and I'll use Southeast Asian and Western European. It's very likely, as Pinker shows us, that different cultures would have distinct "colors" that are more heavily emphasized than others. We might expect that in Southeast Asia, the moral values of "authority" and "purity" are given higher moral emphasis. For the Western European cultural community, we might see "harm" and "fairness" as more heavily expressed moral features, while each may treat "group loyalty" approximately the same.

Within cultures you will have this same sort of dichotomy based on politics, religions, race, ethnicities, etc. One group may most heavily weigh "group loyalty", another "purity" and yet a third group views "harm" as the highest moral consideration (and so on).

Remember that we are not talking about mutually exclusive concerns. Everyone will have moral diligence regarding all five of the "primary colors of morality". It's just that the more important ones (for that individual or group) will tilt the scales in their moral reasoning on each issue they confront.

If a woman happens to have a brain that puts its highest moral importance on, first, “authority” which she personally gets from reading a bible and then “harm” which she interprets the bible as indicating that abortion causes, then this is where her emphasis on the issue will reside and one can at least understand the basis for her moral decision about abortion.

No one reading this blog will think I would argue that all belief systems are equally valid or that a so-called “holy book” is a legitimate source of authority. Indeed, as an atheist, I suggest that she has engaged in a flawed use of reasoning and I reject the framework that she is attempting to patch rationality on to. Still, that doesn’t mean that she is in any way acting out of an ulterior motive of “getting us”. To the contrary we are dealing with human beings striving to live morally. Once those of us who attempt to use reason as a major tool in our day to day method of interacting with our environment understand this, we will then be better positioned to deal with irrational belief systems.

Because once we have an understanding of the structural underpinnings of how they arrive at moral intuitions, then we can deal more exclusively with the rational (and evolutionary) basis for morality itself. It’s probably going to be an easier task if we are not approaching the process from the idea that we are dealing with malignant personalities.


The Exterminator said...

It’s probably going to be an easier task if we are not approaching the process from the idea that we are dealing with malignant personalities.

But you know what? Sometimes we do have to deal with malignant personalities, and they become leaders or persons of great influence. I'm not thinking only of the most extreme examples, the great monsters of history: Hitler, Stalin, Vlad the Impaler, Attila the Hun. I'm thinking of examples that strike many people as benign: George W. Bush, Pope Benedict XVI, Julius Caesar, the Emperor Constantine.

How would Pinker -- or you -- explain our attraction to these people as leaders?

I'd agree that some moral sense must be evolutionarily determined. But I remain dubious about the specifics. I wonder, too, whether humans look for leadership from those very people who seem least constrained by "traditional" morality.

John Evo said...

But you know what? Sometimes we do have to deal with malignant personalities

Yes we do. And I probably sounded a little to confident in that sentence (you know me)...

But the real point I'm making in the post (with a whole lotta Pinker) is not about the exceptions - but the MANY rules! Your neighbor; the lady who works at the mini-mart; the librarian; all who you just know are basically good people, until they say something about abortion that makes you suddenly view them differently. This is just a reminder that most of those people are not malignant personalities. They are basically nice folks, very moral. And Pinker is on to how this is possible.

Now that I covered my concern with the basis of your question, let's deal with your question.

I don't know! And I don't know that Pinker has ever written about the attraction people seem to have to these guys. I could do a little group pop psych here, but that's all it would be and you are usually better at that stuff than me. You probably would have made a great EST instructor (remember THAT crap?).

Ordinary Girl said...

I went to lunch with a co-worker and friend today. She's a Christian, an evangelical Christian actually. We kind of briefly, tentatively discussed the primaries. She voted for Huckabee (which makes me shudder).

Anyway, I know she's a good person, but we have different values. She supports values I can't support like theocracy and anti-gay discrimination. I support values she can't support like universal health care and science education.

Every time we socialize I struggle with it. Can I really think that someone who believes in things I hate is a good person?

But I understand where she comes from. I know that there isn't any way that she'll ever change her mindset without exposure to different ideas. And maybe she'll never change her mind. She's supporting what she thinks is right, for what I think are the wrong reasons.

So I can see a little bit of how that works, Evo.

John Evo said...

OG - I hear you. I'm surrounded with believers in various things. Mostly Evangelicals, but also Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah Witness, Buddhists, New Age, etc.

They are mostly good, caring people and I have to set their "beliefs" aside from the person. It's kind of difficult where the beliefs intersect with the natural world. Most (if I like them) I just tell them, nicely, that I disagree. If they want to know why, I'll expand on it.

Spanking Instinct said...

I was struck, from reading this, with the notion that these intuitive moral colors are what we call "hardwired" in us, by evolution. The other thought was that because they can be emphasized in no discernible predictable proportion, certain combinations can have subjectively, or even objectively, negative results. So in those instances (like your abortion example) we have to force ourselves to overcome these hardwired instincts. Yet people on the other side would question why. Why, if they are hardwired, should they be overcome? Isn't it just evolution keeping us on the straight and narrow?

Evolution has no morality, however, no purpose other that continuation of the species. Bad things can be naturally selected to increase the likelihood of survival. So are we impeding evolution by recognizing this, and changing its course?

OK, I'm blathering. Set me straight. Nice thought provoking post, though.


John Evo said...

Spanking, first of all I just want you to know that I now know about 6 other people in the Atheosphere with the initials SI... they seem to be popping up all over the place!

We are the only species that actually can (and does) strive at times to overcome our own evolutionary instincts. The classic example is the condom, but there are many others. We don't like to think about it but, evolutionarily, we would sooner club someone over the head than negotiate with him (though "negotiation" is also hardwired).

The point is, there is nothing wrong or unusual with us overcoming our evolutionary history, because we evolved to do just that! Like you implied, the genes don't care one way or another as long as the end result means their perpetuation. (Even then, they don't "care" - I just use it in a manner of speaking).

Lifeguard said...

GREAT freaking post, Evo. Incredibly insightful.

Oddly enough, I had several inexplicably theistic thoughts come to mind. One was the biblical idea of the law being "written in our hearts."

The second something that C.S. Lewis wrote about all of us having an innate sense of some kind of moral yard stick that we use when discussing moral issues. What we disagree about, he said, is how specific circumstances should be handled with reference to that "tertium quid," or third thing we measure decisions against.

Lastly, I thought about St. Augustine's theory of free will. He claimed that no one ever pursues evil for evil's sake, but almost always seek some lesser good. We're all in a sense "good intentioned" insofar as we are seeking some perceived "good."

Other than the theistic implications, I think we could all likely agree with those statements in principle. The question, though, is what's our basis then for deciding what IS right or wrong? Or is there even such an idea in existence, independent of our own judgements?

Incidentally, if this post doesn't land you a Stermy then the awards are either fixed or Ex secretly has it in for you. Perhaps his moral traffic light is on the flitz or something.

Seriously... bravo, my friend.

John Evo said...

Damn Lifey, what am I going to do with you? Make you Majority Whip at EM?

I would NEVER lobby for myself to receive a Stermy. I'm tempted to delete your comment just in the name of fair-play.

But let's go back to morality.

The question, though, is what's our basis then for deciding what IS right or wrong? Or is there even such an idea in existence, independent of our own judgements?

Morality evolves. Genes 'n Memes.
How simplistic is THAT?

The Exterminator said...

Morality evolves. Genes 'n Memes. How simplistic is THAT?

Too simplistic. First of all, take the memes out of the equation because not everyone is convinced that memes exist in the sense of actual self-replicating phenomena, or even phenomena at all. The idea is a very nice metaphor for how ideas spread, but not necessarily a reality. It's just a step above Jungian "race memory," as far as I'm concerned.

Genes are real, and I think science could develop and test a theory of moral evolution, although I wouldn't trust it just on the basis of Pinker's say-so. I'm very leery of classing anthropology and sociology in with other measurable sciences like biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and genetics. I'm not sure where psychology falls in that spectrum, but I'm inclined to think that it's somewhere between the two artificial groupings.

John Evo said...

Ex -

Eaaaasy, big fella! Why do think I used the word "simplistic" rather than "simple"?!

But I do disagree with you about memes. They need not be replicators in the sense Dawkins originally proposed them to still have value as an explanatory notion for the spread of culture - amd culture is impossible without morality.

You're suckering me into giving my long explanation of the interaction of culture and genetics regarding morality and I'm not going to let you do it.

Bring it up tomorrow night!

Ordinary Girl said...

I think environment has a huge impact on what type of morality a person will chose. That's why groups freak out over having their children exposed to differing ideas.

Ordinary Girl said...

Oh, and I second the nomination.

PhillyChief said...

That article is something I'll no doubt be rereading many times to come. I put off reading it because it was so big, so I'm sorry to be arriving late to the party here.

I guess personally during my 20s I started to come around from viewing some people as "evil" to being wrong or misguided. Sometimes even what they may do may not be with the intent of causing harm, but that is the result, or perhaps they just didn't think of the harm to some because they were compelled to do what they did for some "higher" reason like self preservation or favoring a friend or loved one.

Many moons ago I decided to throw in the towel and get a "real" job. I shopped myself around and had 3 companies interested in me. One of them was a very small company run by a husband and wife (well really the wife, with the husband being a gelded fool). While trying to decide where to go, they played on my personality by both hyping the creative independence I'd have with them and talking up my fears of going to a big, regimental company like the other two I was considering. So I went with the little company and 4 months later when the major project I was working on was about to end, they told me I'd be cut to maybe just 2 or 3 days a week. When I fumed, they pretended like they never meant to imply I was being hired full time from the beginning, but rather just contracted. Were they evil? At the time I thought so, but I've learned from that and seeing them handle other situations and people to see that they do what they need to do to keep the company going, which in term keeps their family going. I was that lone man on the other track, although I do believe that if the situation arose, I could have been the fat man thrown off the bridge, too.

Ex's comment is interesting. My opinion is people both allow others the means to carry out things that seem distasteful or look the other way because they agree with the end result. I see it as the example of throwing the switch on the train tracks vs throwing the fat man off the bridge. Many wouldn't personally be able to condone torturing people for example, but they'll empower someone else to do it for what they see as the greater good. They wouldn't blow up an abortion clinic but they'll say they can understand why someone would. It's ends justify the means philosophy, something very popular with the religious.

I think what OG said is important, and why I go to certain sites and post. There are people who honestly think they're doing the right thing, like her coworker, but is way off. Now maybe they can't be convinced they're not acting for the greater good or, like that company I worked for, be persuaded to overlook their personal advantage for the sake of others, but I still think it's worth attempting. Especially if these are people who may be making decisions based on thinking like the train track example, perhaps if you can shift their thinking to see that their actions are really more akin to throwing the fat man off the bridge, they may reconsider. Yes, ideally we'd like them to see their fundamentally wrong, but the next best thing is to get them to be repulsed by their own actions. This is the philosophy that drives people to compel religious moderates to speak out against the actions of their extremists.

I guess the theme for all this is the old saying, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". Anyway, give this man a Stermy already. :)

PhillyChief said...

I should also tell you Evo you can combine two passions, nature and Pinker, in May by traveling to the Amazon with him (and others) - CFI Travel

The Exterminator said...

You're suckering me into giving my long explanation of the interaction of culture and genetics regarding morality and I'm not going to let you do it....Bring it up tomorrow night!

I don't think this is an appropriate topic for live discussion by non-scientists. So let's have that long explanation -- maybe as a separate post. You may fire when ready, Gridley.

HappyNat said...

Great read and article. Pinker is pretty amazing. This will give me something to think about as I'm grilling up my neighbor's cat on the grill tonight.

John Evo said...

Happy - NOOOOO!! Not the CAT!!

Philly - I'm proud of you for taking the time to read the whole article. I don't think many did, and it's a lot better to read the article than to read my post on it.