Tuesday, September 18, 2007

To love, and to be loved...Let's just hope that is enough

Article: Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

As an aside, its funny the author leads with "biologists" advocating the evolution of morality, given the entire article is based on work by a social psychologist at UVA. I'm a really big fan of that psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, but I think he's reasoning poorly with his current position, which he describes himself here. The argument that morality may be influenced by evolved mechanisms is a pretty common current position, and I'd guess most psychologists would agree with the claim. In his article he writes (and I agree with him):

(I)t seems to me that the zeitgeist in moral psychology has changed since 2001. Most people who study morality now read and write about emotions, the brain, chimpanzees, and evolution, as well as reasoning.

Where I fault Haidt is his refusal to differentiate clearly among (1) morality, (2) religion, and (3) social conventions. And I think part of that deals with not differentiating between moral psychology and moral philosophy. But when failing to do that, he fails his entire argument. Consider: He notes that people throughout the world make moral judgments that don't simply relate to harm and fairness. He says:

Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality...you've got to include...that morality is in large part about binding people together.

He is correct that people care deeply and morally about such things, but he gives no reason why such respect can't be dismissed as social convention. He says it can't. Why not? It appears because he's not differentiating morality from social convention. But if that's the case, why argue there is such thing as morality at all? It appears morality, in his view, is anything people care deeply about. He notes food taboos. If "Don't eat shellfish!" (because, indeed, God Hates Shrimp) is anything besides a religious dictate and a social convention, I can't see it. Certainly, it can't be seen as a moral principle in any reasonable argument. Thus, of course, his point that morality can be described as he does is correct. But moral philosophy is not about just describing how people make moral judgments. It's about how people *should* make moral judgments. Don't eat shellfish? Come on. One thing he's doing in defining morality poorly, I think, is taking descriptive moral judgments and saying they constitute reasonable moral thinking because they "bind and build" relationships among people. This again blurs moral judgments from religious or social dictates. He includes in the "binding and building" judgments of morality:

It seems that the moral domain (is) also about...issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.

Again, I don't deny that, descriptively, many judge "respect for authority" as a moral virtue. That's why the Bible says children should obey their parents and slaves their masters. And, agreed, these things do "bind and build" loyalty to groups. But are they moral? No. It's just people confusing moral judgments with social norms or religious dictates. Respect for authority as moral? Dr. Haidt, you're a damn social psychologist. Tell Stanley Milgram respect for authority constitutes morality. So, what is Haidt's definition of morality? He says:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

I'm not sure it is a good definition, again, because I don't see how it is different than certain social customs or relgious dictates that have the same goals of "regulat[ing] selfishness and mak[ing] social life possible." Even, though, if I accept that definition, I'm confused by his earlier statement that "menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods" are moral concerns. I can see some instances: Sexuality to limit rape or procreate. Respect for elders because we're physically helpless as infants so "because I said so!" better work sometimes. But menstruation? Moral judgments about menstruation "regulate selfishness and make social life possible"? Really? And respect for Gods? That's not a religious or social custom? And, again, God Hates Shrimp. In the end, Haidt makes some odd political comments that are addressed well in the first article, and he ends up saying:

“It is at least possible that conservatives and traditional societies have some moral or sociological insights that secular liberals do not understand.”

Agreed. Just tell me whether we're talking about moral insights or sociological insights. And don't just describe whether the insights are common within a society. Tell me whether they constitute moral constructs. That's where we need to address the difference between moral psychology and moral philosophy. For example, moral psychology is useful in answering whether different cultures view obedience to authority as a moral virtue. But only moral philosophy can address whether obedience to authority is indeed a moral virtue. When Haidt talks about "morality" I can't tell which he's discussing. Until we differentiate these thing, I think the argument is useless. Title reference here.

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