21st-century science adds little to our understanding of moral philosophyby Jonathan Rée / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tuschman “seeks to locate the sources of morality in imperatives of primate survival” but it ends up sounding “like a just-so-story.” ©Federico Gambarini/DPA/Corbis Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us By Avi Tuschman (Prometheus Books, £15.40) Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them By Joshua Greene (Atlantic, £15.99) Utilitarianism is, by common consent, the harshest and dreariest of philosophical systems, and its inventor, Jeremy Bentham, one of the biggest buffoons of all time. He seems to have imagined that misery could be eliminated by discarding old-fashioned moral notions of virtue and moral beauty and replacing them with quantitative estimates of what actually makes people happy—a perfect example, surely, of the fanatical 18th-century rationalism that gave rationality a bad name. In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times Bentham’s doctrines became “the Gradgrind philosophy”—the creed of a predatory industrialist who tramples on the “subtle essences of humanity” to make room for a calculus of lifeless facts: “nothing but facts, sir,” as Gradgrind puts it, “nothing but facts!” There was a void in his heart where the rest of us have sentiments of love and good fellowship, and anyone with a scrap of humanity would be repelled by the ruthless old box-ticker with his “utilitarian, matter-of-fact face.” Dickens’s satire on utilitarianism was published in 1854 and has gone on reverberating ever since. It was endorsed, for example, by the literary critic FR Leavis, who taught generations of students to dismiss “Benthamism” as an “aggressive formulation of an inhumane spirit” and an insult to “our profoundest ethical sensibility.” The philosophers have piled in too, accusing Bentham, together with his disciple John Stuart Mill, of underestimating the richness of our moral language (words like piety, heroism, humility, patience or obedience) and the subtlety of our intuitions about good and evil and right and wrong. The funny thing is that Mill produced a rebuttal of these objections several years before Dickens started dishing them out. Those who boast of an innate moral instinct, he said, are just trying to shield their judgements from critical scrutiny. When they appeal to “immutable principles,” they are dressing up hoary prejudices as unarguable truths. A glance at the record of human infamy will show that their fine phrases function not as incentives to kindness and generosity but as covers for bigotry and intolerance, or excuses for exploitation, slavery and the subjection of women. The quarrel between utilitarianism and traditional doctrines of “internal conviction,” in short, was “the contest of progressive morality against stationary—of reason and argument against the deification of mere opinion and habit.” For Mill, the stories, feelings and ideas that flood into our minds when we confront moral dilemmas were not intimations of heavenly perfection, but unconscious residues of the poetry and priestcraft of Mosaic or Homeric times. Before long the new discipline of anthropology was pushing the history of moral intuitions back to the rituals and taboos of a “primitive” or “prehistoric” age; and if modern evolutionary theorists are to be believed, we can now extend the genealogy of morals to the life and death struggles of our pre-human ancestors. Avi Tuschman’s Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us seeks to locate the sources of morality in imperatives of primate survival that were encoded in our genes millions of years ago, long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. The book is full of remarkable facts, one of them being that in the US in the weeks after 9/11, miscarriages of male foetuses seem to have risen by 12 per cent, and the rate of male births fell by around 4 per cent over the next four months. The biological bias against bearing sons in times of stress is well established, though its evolutionary function—if it has one—is not obvious. In any case Tuschman concludes that when a population is under threat, our bodies are programmed to increase the supply of future mothers in order to replenish the gene pool in the next generation. And if archaic genetic legacies are still in charge of our reproductive systems, what is to stop them governing our moral and political existence as well? Tuschman develops his theme with verve and alarming confidence. Around six million years ago the earth was swarming with various strains of primates, some better than others at begetting large and vigorous families. In the long run only the best survived, thus becoming the ancestors from whom we have inherited our genetic constitution, including—and this is Tuschman’s most distinctive suggestion—our tendency to disagree about morality and politics. Building on the work of Jonathan Haidt, whose book on The Righteous Mind caused consternation amongst kind-hearted liberals last year, he argues that the pre-human tribes that were destined for reproductive success must have encompassed considerable diversity: not just a division of labour between the sexes, but variations in individual character too. In order to maximise their overall fertility, a healthy set of siblings would have exhibited, in the first place, a range of different preferences when seeking reproductive partners—some of them fancying their closest relatives, thus guarding against excessive dilution of the family genes, while others preferred more exotic mates, thus reducing inherited susceptibilities to disease. Secondly, in order to accommodate their personal differences, they developed a variety of attitudes to family structure, ranging from hierarchical authoritarianism as a protection from external threats, to generous egalitarianism as a way of building trust and co-operation. Thirdly, they were endowed with differing degrees of egotism, some of them caring for nobody except themselves, their siblings and their own children, while others were willing to lay down their lives in order to boost the overall fertility of the tribe. In Tuschman’s scheme these three dimensions of instinctual diversity line up neatly with three aspects of political personality recognised by modern psychologists—namely degrees of tribalism, attitudes to inequality, and expectations of selfishness or generosity. If he is right, these three traits combine in each of us to determine our location on the political spectrum, from the convivial inclusiveness of the Occupy movement on the left, to the authoritarian paranoia of the Tea Party and the Ku Klux Klan on the right, with Clinton, Obama and the Bushes, père et fils, somewhere in between. If we imagine that our rightward or leftward leanings depend on “our views about the main issues of the day, on our economic circumstances, or on our longtime affiliations” then, according to Tuschman, we are simply deceiving ourselves: studies of identical twins prove that our political orientation depends almost entirely on our genes. Historians may like to think of the left-right spectrum as a local historical phenomenon associated with the French Revolution, but evolutionary science, in his opinion, demonstrates that it is a biological universal, and that nothing we might do can ever change it. If Tuschman’s argument sounds like a facile just-so story about US politics today, then Joshua Greene provides a welcome antidote. Greene is a self-confessed utilitarian, and in Moral Tribes he follows Bentham and Mill in seeing our inherited systems of value not as fates we have to accept but as prejudices we need to confront. Tuschman might regard this project as wishful thinking rather than serious science—there is after all not much we can do to change our DNA—but Greene promises to “use 21st-century science to vindicate 19th-century moral philosophy.” He sets the scene by citing a depressing experiment in which people were invited to choose their favourite item from a range of pantyhose that all looked much the same. They provided elaborate justifications for their choice, with fine discriminations of texture, fit, feel, weight and smell that might have been very impressive—except that the items presented to them were in fact indistinguishable. Greene goes on to describe an equally dismaying body of research which shows that when people are asked to give reasons for their attitudes to divisive issues of policy, such as gun control, student funding, or caps on carbon emissions, they tend to make up their minds first and think out their arguments later; and when they are challenged they end up backing themselves further and further into dogmatic extremes. But finally he comes up with an encouraging new finding: if people are asked to give an account of the policies they favour and those they oppose, they are liable to be brought face to face with their manifest ignorance, incompetence and confusion. After that they can be expected to moderate their rhetoric and even change their minds. Greene concludes that public debate would be greatly improved if participants were required to analyse the points at issue before airing their views, and he buttresses his suggestion with the hypothesis of a “dual-process brain.” Our brains are like modern cameras, he says: they come with various pre-programmed settings, which work very well in ordinary circumstances; but they also offer us the option of switching from automatic mode to manual, and making our own deliberate adjustments one by one. We would starve to death if we had to assess the benefits and dangers of every morsel of food before putting it in our mouths, and we would never walk very far if we always had to calculate how to place one foot in front of the other; but in special situations we can decide to override our instincts and exercise detailed conscious control. It seems to be much the same with morality. On the whole we can trust our instincts to get us to smile at little babies, avoid hurting or humiliating other people, and show consideration to those we share our lives with. But when personal hostilities flare up, and we find ourselves hurting the ones we love, we may start to suspect that our emotions are letting us down—that it is time to consult our prefrontal cortex rather than our amygdala, as Greene puts it, or our heads rather than our hearts. We need to slow down and have a think. The need for careful thought will be even more obvious when we shift our attention from local difficulties with friends, family and everyday acquaintances to global problems like mass poverty, disease, illiteracy or climate change. Such issues do not feature on old-fashioned moral maps, and our instinctive responses will almost certainly mislead us: we will be inclined to expend our beneficence on a few individuals we can identify with, when we know we could do more good by trying to alleviate the plight of anonymous populations whose sufferings we can barely imagine. Greene then moves his argument from the latest gizmos in neuropsychology to some old chestnuts of moral philosophy. If you have already had enough of the so-called “trolley problem”—a series of brain teasers that ask you over and over again whether you could justify sacrificing one life in order to save several others—then your patience may come under strain. But Greene’s style is breezy, and his overall conclusion is irresistible: once you start thinking globally rather than locally, or trying to reach an understanding with people whose moral vocabularies and ethical instincts do not mesh with your own, you have to resort to a standard of value that does not presuppose any specific and distinctive moral tradition—and from that point of view the utilitarian idea of overall happiness is the only game in town. Fair enough; but it is hard to believe that the journey through experimental neuropsychology and evolutionary theory was really necessary, since in the end we find ourselves back in a conceptual landscape where nothing has changed since the time of Bentham and Mill.