Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/10

9

From the eyes of babes

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The cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom has a long piece in The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Life of Babies. Such research always interests me because the biological and cultural shape that humans give to morality are important parameters in setting the framework for a society which can flourish. But in regards to morality I’ve always felt that the Christian Right and secular Left often share a strangely similar world-view. Bloom alludes to the former:

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

In other words, without God on High humans are consigned to depravity most deep. It is in its own way an implicit endorsement of the Blank Slate model, which finds praise in the eyes of Christian conservatives when it comes to homosexuality as well. But Bloom does not mention the other proponents of a purely cultural origin for all norms and the judge of human action, the secular Left. Here it is not the voice of God within our souls, but the revolutionary vanguard, the cultural intelligensia who can tell us how properly to flourish, for their own intuitions are the judge of man.

The piece ends a bit more strongly than it probably should with the current state of research, though I think the final outcome will broadly resemble what is described:

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” puts it, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.”

Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

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6 comments

  • Cephus · May 9, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    D’Souza is an idiot. The reason you give up your seat to the old woman has nothing to do with your genes, it has to do with being a part of a cooperative society. It’s based on rational self-interest, you would want someone to offer you a seat if and when you are in that condition, therefore you do it for others. It’s the same reason we don’t kill, rape, steal or molest kids, we don’t want any of those things to happen to ourselves or our families, therefore we don’t do it to others.

    It’s not that hard if you think about it, too bad D’Souza isn’t real swift.

  • Author comment by David Hume · May 9, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    i suspect he’s actually pretty rational. he makes $$$bank$$$ with his stupid books.

  • John · May 9, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    D’Souza has clearly never heard of reciprocal altruism or the handicap principle.

  • Anthony · May 9, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    “you would want someone to offer you a seat if and when you are in that condition”

    Maybe that’s part of it. When I think about why I give up my seat, it’s things like “It will help them, and it’s little cost to me” or “People will get annoyed if I don’t, and perhaps get angry, and I don’t want to experience negative emotions right now” or, most usually, I just want to do something nice for someone else because it feels nice to do it. Why does it feel nice to help someone? I can think of several evolutionary reasons, but one is: wanting to help someone else in my ‘tribe’ probably adds to my ‘favour’ credit, and in small communities helping other people could lead to them helping us (but not necessarily in the same situation) if they have a similar mechanism for reciprocal help, which probably would help in terms of survival for both …

    Donating to strangers is probably just an exaption of this evolutionarily selected for trait.

  • Susan · May 10, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Psychology is at work here, too. Acts of high altruism–such as donating blood to strangers–may do nothing for one’s genes, but very often the altruist feels just great about him or herself afterward. The feeling of uplift attendant on doing good may be sufficient reward for some people.

  • Anthony · May 10, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    @Susan,

    Exactly – people do altruistic acts because it makes them feel good. It might feel good for empathic reasons (I feel good about someone else feeling good), or because the act of giving means I am in some way important or superior … Nowadays, it probably does nothing for one’s genes, but these basic psychological mechanisms can probably be explained evolutionarily, assuming they evolved in a very different environment from the conditions of the modern world …

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