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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Origins of Morality

In a detailed review of The Righteous Mind in The New Republic’ critic John Gray has highlighted the author’s principal contentions – the most important of which are a defense of Charles Darwin’s disputed theory of group evolution; and an equally committed defense of ‘intuitionism’ – the importance of valuing intuition at least as much as logic and rational thought when determining the origins and expressions of morality.  http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism

The core of the book is an attempt at a Darwinian explanation of morality, contending that moral behavior emerges from a natural process of competition among human groups. “Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously,” Haidt writes. “Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins.... But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists.”

What this argument ignores, and what recent critics have observed, is that groups are usually as selfish, aggressive, and predatory as the individuals which comprise them.

Haidt’s account of the emergence of morality is disputed by other evolutionary psychologists, who argue that group selection is a part of Darwin’s inheritance that should be discarded. The debate has been heated and at times rancorous, an exercise in sectarian intellectual warfare of the kind that is so often fought in and around Darwinism.

History, if it teaches no other lesson, is that countries behave like individuals – they are perpetually concerned with self-preservation, extension of power and influence, and the acquisition of land and resources.  The author of the review comes to the same basic conclusion:

Understanding morality as a group phenomenon neglects the fact that human groups are complex, historically shifting, and internally conflicted. Tribes and nations are not natural kinds of things like genes and blood types. They are historical constructions whose existence depends on human recognition. Human beings rarely, if ever, belong to only one group. One of the tasks of morality is to arbitrate the clashing loyalties that regularly arise from the many group identities that human beings possess.

In short, individuals group together to maximize and leverage their power, and may shift loyalties to assure the greatest personal returns.  I, however, do not agree with the author’s conclusion that the task of morality is to ‘arbitrate clashing loyalties’.  Morality is rather an internal mechanism which regulates behavior within a group, allowing it to be more coherent and therefore more powerful.

The other argument posited by Haidt is that intuition should be considered alongside of reason when determining the origins and applications of morality.  That is, it is not enough to deconstruct history only from a scientific perspective, analyzing the psycho-social, economic, and cultural determinants of individual and social behavior – and concluding that man as a social animal is no more that a collection of individuals acting in their own self-interest.

Haidt is a strong supporter of moral intuition, telling us that “gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments.” We must “reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism” and “be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” Individual rationality clearly is suspect for Haidt; but “if you put individuals together in the right way ... you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. That is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity.”

As he puts it, “the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist.” Reason can never be other than rare in human affairs.

His argument that groups can be manipulated to produce ‘good reasoning’ is silly and a transparent defense of liberal social engineering.  Groups are organized and constituted to preserve, protect, and extend the interests of individuals within them, and in Nietzsche’s terminology ‘beyond good and evil’.  There is no question of good or bad, right or wrong.  There are only questions of social cohesion around a set of beliefs and a consistently coherent policy of dominance and extension.

His other point – that reason is rare in human affairs – is equally silly.  Reason is not at all rare in human affairs, and most actions are deemed irrational only by those observing them, not those carrying them out.  Given the powerful Darwinian impulses for survival, the aggregation of individuals who together have a greater chance of extending their social, economic, or even intellectual perimeters will always be rational.  Religious fundamentalists who reject evolution and take a non-scientific approach to the origins of life are irrational to those who believe in scientific method, but these beliefs are perfectly legitimate as a cohesive social system designed to expand influence and power. 

Haidt, arguing against himself agrees with this principle when he says that ‘irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally.” He is arguing for the primacy of religious beliefs as intuition rather than reason and their important role in the determination of morality; but he is guilty of using his own ‘external’ reason to ignore the very deliberate ‘internal’ reason of groups. 

Haidt believes that morality is a construct which has emerged out of society to serve individuals, not the other way around; and thus has argued against any sense of ‘intuition’. .

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” He acknowledges that, if it were applied normatively, “it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they achieved high levels of social cooperation by creating a shared social order.”

Haidt makes only brief reference to the role of the individual in a moral system.  While morality is conclusively a social construct, does the individual behave morally only within a group?  Of course not, and although the individual responds to individual crises or events morally (or immorally), the morality is based on group beliefs and principles.

This is a useful reminder that the modern Western conception of the individual as the central protagonist in moral life is far from being universally accepted. Notions of individual responsibility are not prominent in the Iliad, where moral life turns on issues of shame and social recognition; nor do they figure much in many non-Western cultures today. Even in modern Western societies, it is easy to underestimate the extent to which morality remains a group-centered phenomenon. You have only to read the novels of Evelyn Waugh to see that in interwar England ethical life was largely a matter of being seen to conform to the mores of one’s circle and class.

The distinction here, however is important.  American society has been based on the primacy of the individual and the individual rights and liberties which enable him to develop a personal relationship with God and to pursue the wealth which Calvinism judges a sign of salvation.  European civilization has been based more on the importance of groups.  This perhaps is a logical outgrowth of the close proximity of rival kingdoms and the relative scarcity of land and resources and the need to group together for continual wars; and the vastness of the American continent, and few socio-political barriers to impede expansion. 

At the same time, it makes no difference to the question of morality.  In the early Wild West morality was a function of individual survival because social groupings were few and far between; but as soon as threats emerged, groups quickly formed to fight the Indians, to extend American lands, and to fight imperial powers.  Form follows function.  Morality on the plains was a mano a mano kill-or-be-killed savagery until group membership and collective action became necessary.  Haidt felt, referring to the conclusions on European civilization, above, that: 

Part of the appeal of religion to some of Waugh’s characters, and to Waugh himself, came from the fact that it recognized individual moral responsibility in a way that the England described by Waugh did not.

Again I maintain that this is a false distinction.  Individuals’ morality is derived from group morality regardless of how far removed.  The plains cowboy had a Christian and very American morality even though there was no intimate group to enforce and reinforce it.  The plains morality became a group morality, albeit with necessary changes to direct aggression outside the group and not within it.

Freud tried to develop a view of human nature in terms of which morality could be better understood; but he accepted that much that comes naturally to humans—such as sexual predation and other types of violence—had to be repressed in the interests of a civilized life. Civilization sometimes requires the repression of natural human traits, including some that may be sanctioned by prevailing moral codes.

In other words, morality is a result of human nature modified and combined within the social structure of groups constituted to promote and protect his interests.  If an individual is removed from the modifying influence of groups, he is likely to revert to a more primitive morality which has little in common with the norm.  I have recently written about Angola prison and the inverted morality which occurs there; and also about the Shakespearean, Nietzschean villains who act alone according to their own force of will and own vision of self-preservation and –promotion.

In conclusion, morality is a social construct derived from groups which act in the interests of the individuals which comprise them.  Individuals whether within these groups or outside them, will act according to these laws and principles unless they are forced to adopt those of other groups, such as prisons.  In rare cases, individuals revert back to a totally individualistic, primitive state of nature.

The book reviewed is interesting but flawed.  It has no consistent thesis, and mixes social Darwinism with scientism and intuition, individualism with group dynamics.  The question of the origins of morality have been debated for centuries, and while this book helps to return our attention to this important issue, it adds little to the discourse.

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