Saturday, March 15, 2008

Nature and Nurture
I am consistently fascinated by the writings of the evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker. His ability to distill complex theories of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology into easy to grasp concepts for the layman to understand is quite a gift. His field of evolutionary biology revolves around the emerging understanding of how evolution has guided the development of the human brain and how this has influenced our moral reasoning capacity. Perhaps the most fascinating crux of this new field of science is how much new light it has shed on the age old argument of nature vs. nurture. For example, as detailed in Pinker's book The Blank Slate he "explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and The Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in the desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them."

In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Pinker reports how our moral judgments can be grouped into five spheres of relation - harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity and offers the following pairings of moral dilemas with one item in each pairing typically more at odds with most people's moral sense (the offensed moral sphere listed in parenthases)

-Stick a pin into your palm.
-Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)

-Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
-Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

-Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
-Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

-Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
-Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

-Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
-Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

From these five moral spheres, Pinker explains how our handling of each works into our moral reasoning, that
In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant. Most of the moral illusions we have visited come from an unwarranted intrusion of one of the moral spheres into our judgments. A violation of community led people to frown on using an old flag to clean a bathroom. Violations of purity repelled the people who judged the morality of consensual incest and prevented the moral vegetarians and nonsmokers from tolerating the slightest trace of a vile contaminant. At the other end of the scale, displays of extreme purity lead people to venerate religious leaders who dress in white and affect an aura of chastity and asceticism.

Pinker goes on to show how our evolutionary experience has hardwired into our brains the moral guideposts we need in order to navigate ourselves away from dangers that would have otherwise led to our extinction.


At 4:05 AM, Anonymous Jack Diederich said...

The thing that bothers me about evolutionary biologists is that it's turtles all the way down (a very handy phrase to use at cocktail parties, btw). Their explanations are plausible and sometimes useful but as the saying goes the plural of anecdote is not data.

Believers in the free market suffer a similar problem. True believers often paint themselves into a corner by saying that all market situations are optimal or soon will be. This is nonsense. Market behavior is often worse than the optimal situation as any good socialist will tell you - after all the average corporate profit margin is 5% so the product could be sold at least 5% cheaper!

I'm generally sympathetic to the market-knows-best viewpoint but people are involved (on both the buying and selling ends) so the results are frequently crap. The best rebuttal to the government-knows-best line is that people are still involved on the government end but have magnified powers to screw things up. And being people they do.

A much harder argument than free markets for efficiencies' sake is liberty for liberty's sake. Liberty is not intrinsically desirable as one billion Chinamen will tell you (Also dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature). Because it is a harder argument than "government will do it worse" people, including me, make the liberty argument last even when it should be first. Arguing for results is always easier than arguing for principals.


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