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The Moral Instinct

Discussion in 'Society and Culture' started by ethics, Mar 10, 2010.

  1. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    I've linked to this article in the past but I feel it deserves its own thread, discussion.
    What I love about Pinker (most of the time) is how easy he can explain the wiring for human beings. And I don't mean just physiological wiring--he does that too--but the more of a mind wiring.

    Here's one piece in which he explains what... well hell, I would say our triggers, what makes us tick.

    First, he takes you to the shallow side of the pool:

    We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause. The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.

    Much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of behavior.
    Vegans aside, apply that entire explanation for almost every debate that goes on here. Yes, SOME can be swayed about a topic they feel lukewarm about--because in their moral gauge, it's down there with flour for Africa (unless you are passionate about that too!).

    But then Pinker makes us swim to the deeper end with the following:

    Rozin notes, for example, that smoking has lately been moralized. Until recently, it was understood that some people didnt enjoy smoking or avoided it because it was hazardous to their health. But with the discovery of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, smoking is now treated as immoral. Smokers are ostracized; images of people smoking are censored; and entities touched by smoke are felt to be contaminated (so hotels have not only nonsmoking rooms but nonsmoking floors). The desire for retribution has been visited on tobacco companies, who have been slapped with staggering punitive damages.

    At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to be people called bums and tramps; today they are homeless. Drug addiction is a disease; syphilis was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a sexually transmitted disease and more recently a sexually transmitted infection.
    Basically, any social construct that we feel deeply about, we will have our own explanation and levels of vehemence. I thought the article was profound and paradoxical in its simplicity. To actually explain human mind on such a basic level is astounding but there it is... in all of its glory.

    I leave you with this but urge you to read the whole thing:

    Its 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. That is why an older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the lines of reasoning that guided people to moral conclusions. But consider these situations, originally devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

    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?

    A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesnt want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

    A familys dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dogs body and cook it and eat it for dinner.
  2. mikeky

    mikeky Member

    I've been thinking about how to comment on this for a while, kept going back and forth. What was bothering me finally became clear: I think what he's describing is not a moral instinct at all, but moral rationalization that becomes so strong that it's confused for instinct. And to keep it clear, I define instinct as that inclination which arises as a result of no conditioning at all, as opposed to learned behavior of an individual (as opposed to a species) over time.

    In the examples he listed, have the behaviors truly been amoralized, or just rationalized? If these aren't moral issues anymore, why the need to rename to make the offense seem less? Perhaps because deep down, the offense still seems like an offense, and there is the need to rationalize it away?
  3. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    But how do we get to rationalize our morals? Sure, some of it is learned and picked up, but I think he is pointing to something more inherent.
  4. ditch

    ditch Downunder Member

    Yes he is emphasising what he sees as the inherent nature of our moral side. But I'm having trouble accepting that line of thinking. He's not giving enough emphasis to socialisation and it's influence on our moral development. I don't know if I can accept that humans are born with traits,moral or otherwise.
  5. mikeky

    mikeky Member

    I might accept that we are inherently selfish, able to rationalize our behavior (which in effect becomes our true morals) to fit our situation. Many of us get divorced these days, so divorce is now ok; many of us have sex before marriage or have affairs, so now these are ok; many of us have quit or never smoked, so now anyone that smokes is bad. And so on.
  6. ditch

    ditch Downunder Member

    I should have said INSTINCTS rather than TRAITS in my previous post.

    Sure, some of us rationalise our way out of feeling guity when we transgress. The divorce is ok as the bad marriage was doing the kids too much harm; the affair is only physical, I still support my family and am there when they need me (providing it doesn't clash with the affair):).

    But the article suggests there is a "universal morality" and Pinker offers a few examples of children behaving in ways that support this idea such as four year olds saying it is not ok to wear pajamas to school of hit little girls. But four year olds have already had a lot of time, 4 years, :), of mum and dad teaching them right from wrong and the teacher is a parental authority substitute. The examples he offers don't lend a lot of support to his ideas IMO. If we are born with an in built morality then it should manifest itself without any help from peers and parents and I doubt that that would happen. We'd learn to cooperate with eachother, as we have done, if we want to coexist, as we do, but that need is borne out of a community driven thing not an inbuilt moral gene we all have within us??
  7. Biker

    Biker Administrator Staff Member

    I have to agree with Ditch here. There is no way to really gauge something like this short of taking an infant at birth and isolating the child in order to observe whether this is true or not. And since we know that this will never happen (lord, could you imagine the howls of outrage if someone DID?!), there's really no valid means to test the theory.

    Unless they can pull a rabbit out of the hat and show, without a doubt, that some of it is inherent in our genetic makeup, I still have to say that morality is primarily socialization. Sure, there will be moral issues learned in the name of self preservation, but those would be rare in this day and age.
  8. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Ditch, I am not sure I agree with anything on that level because extra-ordinary claims demand like evidence. Pinker is not offering anything on that level so I will have to take his statement on the instinct with a grain of salt. Doesn't mean he is wrong, just means I'd like to see more science and research on this topic.

    Mike, if you accept that we are inherently selfish, perhaps this is where it all stems from and would tie in the entire "The Selfish Gene" in nicely. There is more proof that we do what we do due to preservation purposes. Having to rationalize is prudent, but perhaps we are born with a deposition to moralized from the day we are able to put thoughts together.
  9. ditch

    ditch Downunder Member

    Yes Biker, deliberatley separating a child from it's parents at birth, eww, only if you're prepared to suffer the consequences. The work done by the psychs with identical twins in determining the relative influence of nature / nurture with regards to personality development might be revealing though. Twins separated at birth by circumstances such as adoption or other unavoidable needs, with any measurable personality differences being due to environemtal factors as they are identical genetically. I don't know if any work has been done on moral development though I'd be surprised if it hadn't.

    Pinker is a bit light on when it comes to evidence ethics, I agree. But he's throwing some interesting ideas around, I'll give him that much.

    As far as selfishness goes, I know Sigmund Freud is out of fashion now, but as far as he was concerned we were all born 100% self gratification or Id as he called it. It was from the compromise between the Id and the forces of socialisation from parents, peers and the like, the Super Ego, that the Ego or self identity evolved. We were, according to him, born completey ignorant of morals any any sense of right or wrong. The complete opposite from Pinker's thinking.
  10. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Ooooh, I get excited when people bring in Freud and Id in to the debate. :)
  11. mikeky

    mikeky Member

    It certainly is a disturbing thought, that morals represent nothing more than the effect of a genetic disposition to follow the prevailing attitudes of the society of the moment.
  12. Steve

    Steve Is that it, then?

    I understand your point. On the other hand, isn't it to the credit of homo sapiens that the prevailing attitudes of society, over time, have resulted in a set of morals that condemn murder, lying, cheating, incest, etc.? Which is the "preferable" result: that human morals come from a higher power; or that we managed to figure it out by ourselves?

    I believe in the former but I can certainly understand the power of the latter....
  13. ShinyTop

    ShinyTop I know what is right or wrong!

    Hesitating to state the obvious, but to give any credit seems to fly in the face of both ideas. If we are to accept that the plane we are on now is good, is that the result of our environment? Is our current high moral standard good, bad, indifferent? How can we judge it when/if we are the product of our teachings, be they religious or that of man in order to create an atmosphere that we can live side by side? How can we judge?

    In the end we choose to live by the rules or not. What we believe is freedom is the perceived ability to influence what those rules are. And we <STRIKE>in this country</STRIKE> object to government that sets rules we do not approve. The beginning of the end of any form of government is when enough object to the rules being set. </STRIKE>
  14. Biker

    Biker Administrator Staff Member

    And how would a person figure out "on their own" that murder, lying, cheating, incest, etc. was immoral? You either have religious pressure or societal pressures. If there is no outside pressure to conform to "moral standards", how does one learn "morality"?
  15. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Empathy, something we are born with (well, except Sociopaths) that which allows us to put ourselves in other's shoes.
  16. Biker

    Biker Administrator Staff Member

    Except if nobody stated it was wrong to do so, how would you know it's wrong.

    This is where you start getting into that circular argument when it comes to "morality". Unless there is a standard by which you are "trained" to go by, one wouldn't really think that some moral taboos were really bad.
  17. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Empathy. If someone is beating the crap out of you, and then you see that being done to someone else, you'd know it's wrong. Pain != not a good thing. Same for all the other negatives.
  18. Biker

    Biker Administrator Staff Member

    Yet if you are the one doing the beating, empathy doesn't come into play.
  19. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    It does, it always does.
  20. mikeky

    mikeky Member

    But doesn't empathy greatly depend on the situation? Downs syndrome kid gets punched by angry big guy = moral outrage. Downs syndrome kid kicks child, gets punched by angry big guy = probably ok.

    And that's the potential problem with Steve's credit to man's self-discovery of the current high morals (no murder, etc.): if the world situation changes (overcrowding, food shortages, no cheap energy), the society accepted morals might not be so high compared to today's standards, at least in some cultures. That's certainly been the case in the past. In other words, don't pat man on the back just yet, since the story's not quite over yet.

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