Tuesday, January 15, 2008

On The "Moral Instinct"

Scientists work feverishly to unravel the mysteries of the mind and they are many. In The Time's Magazine this week, Stephen Pinker writes about what motivates man's moral decisions. He calls it the "moral instinct". Instinct implies that men are born encoded with morality--it's instinctual. Perhaps. My thought is that man is born with the bias toward morality.

So there are five factors that appear to be encoded to people's moral sense no matter where they live in the world:

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.
So every culture exhibits these traits to one extent or another. However, buried in the midst of the article is this fascinating tid-bit:
The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.
So, Republicans do value a broad-based morality after all. Well, according to the writer, not so fast. Morality, even Hitler's, is relative and can be understood:
At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. (The actor Will Smith had many historians on his side when he recently speculated to the press that Hitler thought he was acting morally.) But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance. With affirmative action, for example, the opponents can be seen as arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify conservatives’ concern with families while noting that gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.
So there is no objective right or wrong, morality is subjective. What Pinker fails to acknowledge is how to come to a moral decision when both parties feel morally correct. Clearly, there are psychopaths, clearly. But maybe the psychopath believes he's being moral--how many serial killers exact their form of "justice" on prostitutes? And who are you to say he's wrong?

Who is any man to decide, indeed? The whole article is worth reading, but like most things scientific, don't expect any answers to the big questions. Expect more questions.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe theologians would refer to all this discovery as little more than what they've,for centuries, referred to as "natural law."

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the Atheist's patently contradictory maxim, "I absolutely believe there are no absolutes!"

If a man rejects the plain, obvious, observable, essence of his spirit, then he rejects its Creator, and THAT is what this is ALL about!

Dominic
San Diego
56yrs-Single White Male Grandparent Biblical Christian - Independent

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