Towards Understanding Morality — a renewed start?

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by Neil Godfrey

Concluding my series on the evolution of morality as per Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. . . .

The previous posts:

  1. Towards Understanding How Morality Works
  2. Towards Understanding Morality – another step?


Pinker writes that over the past three centuries there has been a progression of away from communal and authoritarian values to values arising from equality-sharing and rational-legal/market-pricing concerns, that is, “toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights.” He is relying upon Fiske’s relational and evolutionary model of morality that we set out in the first post of this series.

The historical direction of morality in modern societies is not just away from Communality and Authority but toward Rational-Legal organization, and that too is a pacifying development.

(Pinker 2011, p. 637)

One of the explanations for this development, Pinker suggests, is the people’s more realistic awareness of the feelings and plights of others as a result of advances in communications and popular literature. The latter has been able to move readers to have deep sympathies for characters as representatives of classes and races that had hitherto rarely entered their awareness.

As a lay reader without my own background reading in Fiske’s analysis I can only repeat Pinker’s claim that morality has evolved away from communal relationship values in the past three centuries and do no more than register my own questions at this point.

Does not  our expanded sense of “equality, fairness, autonomy, rights” rest upon an expanded view of what constitutes our community? Yes, Pinker addresses this question and if my recollection and understanding of his argument is correct he disagrees on the basis that we don’t really have feelings for others as we do for our own immediate families.

The other problem with empathy is that it is too parochial to serve as a force for a universal consideration of people’s interests. Mirror neurons notwithstanding, empathy is not a reflex that makes us sympathetic to everyone we lay eyes upon. It can be switched on and off, or thrown into reverse, by our construal of the relationship we have with a person. Its head is turned by cuteness, good looks, kinship, friendship, similarity, and communal solidarity. Though empathy can be spread outward by taking other people’s perspectives, the increments are small, Batson warns, and they may be ephemeral. To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst 20th-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.

Nor is it necessary. The ideal of the expanding circle does not mean that we must feel the pain of everyone else on earth. No one has the time or energy, and trying to spread our empathy that thinly would be an invitation to emotional burnout and compassion fatigue. The Old Testament tells us to love our neighbors, the New Testament to love our enemies. The moral rationale seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following ideal: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them.

What really has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy as a circle of rights—a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation. Empathy has surely been historically important in setting off epiphanies of concern for members of overlooked groups. But the epiphanies are not enough. For empathy to matter, it must goad changes in policies and norms that determine how the people in those groups are treated. At these critical moments, a newfound sensitivity to the human costs of a practice may tip the decisions of elites and the conventional wisdom of the masses. But as we shall see in the section on reason, abstract moral argumentation is also necessary to overcome the built-in strictures on empathy. The ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need.

(Pinker 2011, pp. 591-592)

Questions. Are not our communal relationships grounded on those with whom we identify in some sense? We don’t love all our fellow national citizens but we very many of us identify with our national communities. And this is a communal relationship. Come to think of it, we may not even love everyone in our families but we often defend them against outsider criticism or register outside criticism as an embarrassment to us personally. Do not communal relationships have more to do with our sense of identity than with our feelings of “love”?

Such discussions inevitably involve our personal biases. My own bias arises from my own personal history when I came to identify myself with “all of humanity” along with my other identities, such as belonging to a particular nation. I began to feel the rightness of identifying even more with humanity globally than with my nationality.

If this is how things work then is not our “expanded circle of rights” really, at least for many of us, an indication of our expanded communal relationships? The “brotherhood of man” and all that.

Later in the book Pinker acknowledges this to some extent, although he reverses the direction of the process from how I would understand it. He suggests that it is our belief in human rights that manipulates our innate sense of communal relations in order to expand the reach of whom we think deserving of those rights:

If the recent theories of moral psychology are on the right track, then intuitions of community, authority, sacredness, and taboo are part of human nature and will probably always be with us, even if we try to sequester their influence. That is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

Relational models can be combined and embedded, and Rational-Legal reasoning that seeks to minimize overall violence can strategically deploy the other mental models in benign ways.

If a version of Communal Sharing is assigned to the resource of human life, and applied to a community consisting of the entire species rather than a family, tribe, or nation, it can serve as an emotional undergirding of the abstract principle of human rights. We are all one big family, and no one within it may usurp the life or freedom of anyone else.

Authority Ranking may authorize the state’s monopoly on the use of violence in order to prevent greater violence. And the authority of the state over its citizens can be embedded in other authority rankings in the form of democratic checks and balances, as when the president can veto the bills of Congress while at the same time Congress can impeach and remove the president.

Sacred values, and the taboos that protect them, can be attached to resources that we decide are genuinely precious, such as identifiable lives, national borders, and the nonuse of chemical and nuclear weapons.

(Pinker 2011, pp. 637-638 — my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

If this is the case, if humans have evolved in a way that makes communal sharing, authority ranking and sacred values the necessary matrices of our moral values, then we have another question arising from Pinker’s view of what distinguishes “conservatives” from “liberals”.

Pinker sees “liberal” or “progressive” values as a move away from communality and towards “harm/care” and “equality matching” while on the other hand “conservatives” give

equal weight to all five foundations, including In-group loyalty (values such as stability, tradition, patriotism), Purity/Sanctity (values such as propriety, decency, religious observance) and Authority/Respect (values such as respect for authority, deference to God, acknowledgment of gender roles, and military obedience).

(Pinker 2011, p. 633)

This conclusion seems to be implying that conservatives are not as evolved as liberals. Liberals are outgrowing their biological evolutionary urges and embracing a more highly reasoned basis or relational matrix for their values.

While part of me likes the idea that certain conservatives (or do we mean “reactionaries”?) are closer to Neanderthals than Homo Sapiens (sorry, dear conservative readers) I’m nonetheless suspicious. Surely the Purity/Sanctity foundation for morality is just as firm when it addresses human life as it is when it speaks to religious observance. Even more so, surely, since human life is a tangible reality. I find it difficult to accept that our beliefs in “human rights” are really more an intellectual and abstract notion than they are an intuitive sense that is expanded through an expanding sense of the community with which we identify.

Furthermore, are “liberals” really so easily described? Are not large numbers who call themselves “liberals” supportive of policies that punish other less powerful nations while facing denunciations from smaller groups of “liberals” for these positions? Are these critics “less evolved” liberals? Would not a higher foundation for morals be leading us right now to be making structural changes to remove the situation where 1% own 99% of the resources, of dismantling nuclear weapons, of crash programs to reduce global warming, etc?

I’m fully aware this is my personal bias speaking. I am open to further understanding up ahead.

Most sacred values are pseudo-sacred?

But let’s return to what is required to end seemingly intractable conflicts.

[M]ost sacred values are in fact pseudo-sacred. People can be induced to compromise on them if the tradeoff is obfuscated, spin-doctored, or reframed. 

(Pinker 2011, p. 630)

Pinker attempts to demonstrate this by means of an experiment conducted with three groups of Israelis and Palestinians. One group was asked for their response to a peace deal that flatly required all sides to compromise on a sacred value.

In the first deal Israel was required to withdraw from 99% of the West Bank and Gaza while Palestinians would largely surrender the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Absolutists on both sides rejected the proposal outright.

In the second, generous financial incentives were offered along with the above deal. Absolutists on both sides were even more outraged.

The third deal did see a movement in the numbers of absolutists who were prepared to shift ground:

In the deal presented to the Israeli settlers, the Palestinians “would give up any claims to their right of return, which is sacred to them,” or “would be required to recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel.” In the deal presented to the Palestinians, Israel would “recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Palestinians to their own state and would apologize for all of the wrongs done to the Palestinian people,” or would “give up what they believe is their sacred right to the West Bank,” or would “symbolically recognize the historic legitimacy of the right of return” (while not actually granting it).

The verbiage made a difference. Unlike the bribes of money or peace, the symbolic concession of a sacred value by the enemy, especially when it acknowledges a sacred value on one’s own side, reduced the absolutists’ anger, disgust, and willingness to endorse violence.

(Pinker 2011, p. 639)

Treat others as moral actors

The lesson of the above would follow thus:

… they must treat the disputants as moralistic actors, and manipulate the symbolic framing of the peace agreement, if they want a bit of daylight to open up. The human moral sense is not always an obstacle to peace, but it can be when the mindset of sacredness and taboo is allowed free rein.

(Pinker 2011, p. 639)

That does not happen when the respective sides call each other “cockroaches” and “dogs”.

I’ve found Pinker’s discussion useful to the extent that I think it has opened a doorway for me to understand the nature and source of the values underlying the perspective of “the others”. At the same time I have found his own applications of the models questionable (as biased as my own!). It’s a start, or another new start, towards understanding exactly what it is that makes us what we are, and it’s a new set of questions and alternatives to think through. Let’s see which ones we find the most useful.

Pinker, S. 2011,  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Allen Lane, London


  • Bee
    2015-08-16 09:52:34 UTC - 09:52 | Permalink

    This excellent series of posts shows how ideas from Social Science can take many useful directions.

  • Latverian Diplomat
    2015-08-20 15:11:22 UTC - 15:11 | Permalink

    The difference between liberals and conservatives is on which factors they value is established in research by Jonathon Haidt and others. I believe he uses it primarily to explain why liberals and conservatives argue at cross purposes, not to say that one is better than the other. He would contend, I think, based on sociological studies, that most Americans rank these moral values in one of these two ways and that the competition and conflict between these two rankings shapes our political discourse.

    Personally, I think there are demonstrable drawbacks to things like viewing purity/sanctity as values equal to harm/care. Virtually every argument against gay marriage takes this form. As does the conservative obsession with limiting or punishing women’s sexual activity.

    And yes, I think these core values are often influential in more abstract debates. Someone who values harm/care and equality matching over the other values is likely to fine redistributive social policies more acceptable than someone unwilling to put those values above authority/respect or ingroup loyalty. (Many arguments against welfare programs, for example, are couched in in group/out group terms. “Bureaucrats in Washington want to take your money and give it to those people.”

    So, yes, I think a case can be made for the pragmatic benefits of the “liberal” ranking, and perhaps that is the argument Pinker is making (I have not read Angels). If so, I’m sympathetic to that point. AFAIK Haidt assiduously avoids that sort of discussion. And I think comparing it to evolution, and specifically outdated ideas about Neanderthals vs Homo Sapiens is at best clumsy and probably not useful at all.

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