Is Morality Instinctual?

"Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within” - Immanuel Kant

“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell”
– Bertrand Russell

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Language Instinct” and “The Stuff ofThought” asks in his article ‘The Moral Instinct’ (NY Times – January 13, 2008):

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

In an earlier thread God: Why Do They Hate Him there was a substantial discussion on whether morality can have arisen from evolutionary forces or whether morality must have its origins in a divine source. These points again arise in Pinker’s article as he writes:

It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. So dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.

Pinker disusses several elements pertaining to morality:

1. The Moralization Switch
Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

2. Reasoning and Rationalizing
It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

3. A Universal Morality?
According to
Noam Chomsky, we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness. Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.

4. The Varieties of Moral Experience
People everywhere 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.

5. The Genealogy of Morals
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm can be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.

The other two moralized spheres match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve … Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future. .

Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies.

Juggling the Spheres
All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion,
diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

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.

Is Morality a Figment?
Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Far from debunking morality the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

Can science of the moral sense clarify what morality is and how it should steer our actions?

Posted January 16, 2008


Helen Wright said...

This was a really interesting article and it made me think quite a bit about what morality is.

I was particularly intrigued by the question of Julie having sex with her brother Mark just for the fun of it. My initial reaction was that this was quite definitely wrong and immoral but then as pointed out elsewhere in the article smoking used to be considered moral but now it is slowly being treated as a bad, dirty habit and therefore immoral.

Therefore, I wonder if sex between siblings did not have the negative downsides of children with birth defects would we consider it immoral for brothers and sisters to have sex, marry, procreate etc? Indeed, if evolution had made birth defects more likely when children were born of unrelated couples and were lower the closer that parents were related, would we not consider it immoral for strangers to marry and have children?

Great article – looking forward to the discussion on it.


Megan Zamprelli said...

Hi Helen .... I too wrestled with the brother/sister sex thing.

As I see it morality does appear to be instinctual in that if something harms me in the same way as it harms everyone else then we define that as immorald but only when the harming agency has the capacity to exercise free will. Therefore a rock falling on my head and killing me is not immoral, nor can a lion that kills me be acting immorally, but a rational person who kills me is performing an immoral act.

This brings up an interesting question - could it be argued that people who kill are not 'rational'? Therefore is it legitimate to punish them with a death sentence. Obviously, irrational people who cause harm must be restrained in some way, through imprisonment for example. But should society execute them?

If one thinks about it, Wall Street executives who trade on inside information to steal millions of dollars from other investors are rational and immoral. Why not apply the death sentence to these types of immoral actions. Would we not have a good deterrent to preventing such immorality?

Agree that this is a very stimulating article!


Avid Reader said...

Helen, Megan et al

Another article pertinent to this discussion is The Tyranny of Science in which Frank Furedi talks about how scientific evidence is being repackaged as ‘The Science’: a superstitious dogma used to hector us on everything from sex to saving the planet.

Furedi makes the following points about the dangers of allowing science to tell us what is ‘moral’.

Scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into a dogma.

The relentless expansion of the authority of science is paralleled by a sense of distrust about science.

Today, the environmental lobby depends on the legitimation provided by scientific evidence and expertise. In their public performances, environmentalists frequently use the science in a dogmatic fashion. ‘The scientists have spoken’, says one British-based campaign group, in an updated version of the religious phrase: ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ ‘This is what the science says we must do’, many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is ‘finished’.

Moral judgments are often edged out even from the most sensitive areas of life. For example, experts use the language of medicine rather than morality to tell young teenagers that having sex is not so much ‘bad’ as bad for their emotional health.

Despite its formidable intellectual powers, science can only provide a provisional solution to the contemporary crisis of belief. A belief in the power of science to discover how the world works should not be taken to mean that science itself is a belief. But turning science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate.


Michael N. Hull said...

My comment refers to the statement that:

people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”

I agree with the comments that Neil made in the thread The Death Penalty Saves Lives?

Shouldn’t the punishment of an immoral act require that the individual involved in the immoral act be acting rationally? For example, why punish acts of serial killers by using the death penalty? Might one not argue that such people are not acting ‘rationally’ and while they should be restrained by incarceration, perhaps for life, they should not be subjected to any form of ‘punishment’ per se. Does the death penalty deter serial killers? Obviously not.

On the other hand we know that Wall Street insiders who act on inside information to steal millions of dollars from the pockets of small investors are acting in a perfectly rational and immoral manner. Might one not argue that the death penalty used in these types of case might have more of a deterrent effect that in the case of the serial killer?