Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature


2016-06-28

Atheism without the extras, please

by Neil Godfrey

voltaireWhen Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and those absurdly provocative big bus advertisements for atheism burst on the scene I loved it. Wow! A loud voice shouting back at what had been a steady rise of conservative and fundamentalist religion’s popularity and even political influence — what a refreshing turnaround. So refreshing that at first I tried to overlook a few lines by both authors that betrayed a certain ignorance of the religious mind, but that could not last. It was Sam Harris’s End of Faith that disturbed me enough to want to do my bit to publicly share evidence-based understandings of the causes of Islamic and other terrorism. It hurt to see public intellectuals promoting both atheism and ignorance about religion and human behaviour in the one breath.

New Atheism enters the 21st Century straight from the 18th

This blanket attack on religion and the irrational in human behaviour was all very fine and wonderful and in may ways “a very good thing” back in the days of the Enlightenment. Écrasez l’infâme, crush the infamous, especially the clergy, Voltaire demanded in every letter. But the Enlightenment also ushered in a new wave of learning that has deepened our understanding of how humans work and even what religion actually is. It’s crazy to carry on the war cry of Voltaire and the other philosophes as if we have learned nothing about what makes people religious in the first place.

Of course we ought to do whatever we can to écrasez l’infâme wherever we can, but if our intention is to rescue our fellow creatures from bondage then it must follow that we do so with understanding, even some brotherly or sisterly compassion. If we don’t seriously make an effort to inform ourselves of what scientific research has been learning about religion, religious ideas, and human proclivities in these directions, then we risk sounding like ignorant bigots. Or maybe it’s healthy to temper our activism with good old common sympathy for our fellow creatures. I happen to be one of those who, on becoming an atheist and then looking around for a new sense of place in the world, concluded that we, all of humanity, are made of the same stuff, living on the same rock, all with the same fate, the same desires and needs, and that the best thing we can do in our short time here is to help make life a bit more comfortable for any and every one else we pass by. Many others had found this place long before I did and I know many others continue to do so.

Zeal for righteousness belongs to the cults. In modern parlance that phrase can be translated as devoted to principles. In one sense a principled life is (another) good thing, but principles also kill. Ideologies are grounded in virtuous principles. To live with a sense of common humanity, with compassion, is far better than a life focused on abstract principles.

The more I listened to Hitchens and Dawkins the more I felt that they were losing their compassion and understanding. It is too easy to sound like an brain dead bigot if we are too busy attacking religion to have time to learn something serious about it and why people embrace it.

20120828-A_theismCropped

http://phawrongula.wikia.com/wiki/Atheism%2B

ftbAtheism+ — the morality police, judge and hangman

Then there’s that break away from the New Atheists, the morality police. Merely attacking religion in the manner of the eighteenth century deists and atheists is not enough for these people. They need to attack morals, too. which in practice means attacking persons they deem to be falling short of the higher secular values atheists are supposed to be gifting to the world. I had not fully realized the nature or origin of this particular group of atheists until I read James Lindsay’s blog article, Atheism+: The Name for What’s Happening to Richard Carrierread more »


2016-05-26

Morality Increases as Christianity Declines

by Neil Godfrey

A landmark in national life has just been passed. For the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. Some 44 per cent of us regard ourselves as Christian, 8 per cent follow another religion and 48 per cent follow none. . . . We can more accurately be described now as a secular nation with fading Christian institutions. . . . .

Christians, for their part, should not automatically associate a decline in religiosity with a rise in immorality. On the contrary, Britons are midway through an extraordinary period of social repair: a decline in teenage pregnancies, divorce and drug abuse, and a rise in civic-mindedness.

That’s from a leading article in the 28th May 2016 edition of The Spectator: Britain really is ceasing to be a Christian country.

 

 


2016-04-07

I Believe I Should but I Don’t, and Vice Versa (Do Muslims Have the Same Psychology as the Rest of Us?)

by Neil Godfrey

Connections between beliefs and behaviour are not routine and when they happen they require explanation. Personal experience and a passing acquaintance with a thing we call the subconscious both tell us that.

I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”. The context in which this is dogmatically asserted is discussion relating to Islam. I really can’t imagine the same dogmatism surfacing if almost any other mainstream religion or non-religious belief system were being addressed.

If a terrorist shouts “God is Great” before opening fire or blowing himself up in a crowded place then bizarrely that one phrase is taken to represent the entire motivation of that act. To point to videotapes and other remnants of far more wide-ranging conversations and arguments in the lead up to that murder will not change some minds.

So I quote here a piece that has long been in waiting to be included in my next post on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s book on the causes of radicalization and terrorist acts, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. It won’t hurt to use it now and repeat it later:

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

One possibility is the degree to which the era was swept up in a culture of change. Tectonic plates of Russian society were shifting, and the young generation who grew up amidst this change, themselves beneficiaries and victims of new hopes and new norms, felt that it was their job to rewrite history. 

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States: 

3. Abelson, R. (1972). Are attitudes necessary. In B.T. King and E. McGinnies (Eds), Attitudes, conflict, and social change, pp. 19-32. New York: Academic Press.

   . . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically. the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

As U.S. students of the 1970s discussed, dared, and modeled their way to the excitement linking new ideas with new behaviors . . . , so too did Russian students of the 1870s. [Friction, Kindle version, bolded emphasis mine]

It happens in reverse, too, as we well know (except when some of us have Islam on our minds). Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment where an unexpectedly high number of people behaved contrary to their beliefs about how they should treat others and suffered emotional stress for a time as a consequence.

 


2015-12-19

Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view

by Neil Godfrey
Revised some hours after initial posting.

This post introduces the general idea of the fundamental principles of morality being universal and innate in human beings, yet being tweaked and expressed in different ways according to culture, much the same way different languages derive from the same basic principles of grammar that are part of our unconscious makeup.

According to this theory, we rationalise moral judgments and respond emotionally to them. That is, the moral judgments to acts that we witness come first (intuitively, unconsciously) and we react emotionally to these and may attempt to explain our judgments rationally. But reason and emotion are not the origins of our moral judgments, as Kant and Hume thought respectively.

Kant

Kant

Immanuel Kant: It is through our reason and rationality that we determine what is right and wrong. Emotions incite us to acting selfishly and foolishly so true morality ought to be guided by reason alone. We should use our reasoning faculties to determine general moral obligations that would apply universally. Hence his “categorical imperative:

I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law.

This principle meant that we should never treat people merely as a means to an end, be we should respect others as having their own desires and goals.

hume

Hume

David Hume: Our moral judgements come to us through our emotions. Just as we recognise immediately a beautiful painting or an ugly one, so our emotions tell us immediately when an act we witness is virtuous or immoral. Some personality traits, Hume said, are innate, while others are acquired through our culture. An innately generous person who gives to charity is recognised as doing a morally good thing. One who has learned from society the importance of acting fairly and who resolves to act fairly even against self-interest, is also recognised as a morally good person.

It is our emotional response to some action that is the basis of our judgment on whether or not the act is moral.

rawls

Rawls

John Rawls: Not emotions, nor reason, but unconscious principles drive our moral judgements. We accordingly cannot always explain why a certain action is right or wrong — it just “is”.

We possess an innate moral grammar akin to the Chomskyan notion of an innate and universal linguistic grammar.* Just as we have a faculty for language, one that is hidden beneath our conscious awareness, so we also have a faculty for moral judgments. read more »


2015-10-12

Monogamy is not so bad (at least for men) after all

by Neil Godfrey

robertwrightAnother work I’m finally catching up with is Robert Wright’s Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1994). We all know the usual narrative about men being shaped by their genes to want to reproduce with everything in sight while women are always on the shrewd lookout for the best candidate to protect and provide for her children.

To cut to the chase and speaking in broad evolutionary/social psychological terms, Wright raises an interesting question (at least for me who is shamefully twenty years late in reading his book!):

[W]hereas a polygynous society is often depicted as something men would love and women would hate, there is really no natural consensus on the matter within either sex. Obviously, women who are married to a poor man and would rather have half of a rich one aren’t well served by the institution of monogamy. And, obviously, the poor husband they would gladly desert wouldn’t be well served by polygyny. (p. 96, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Wright adds that the males who are advantaged by monogamy are not only those at the bottom of the income scale.

Consider a crude and offensive but analytically useful model of the marital marketplace. One thousand men and one thousand women are ranked in terms of their desirability as mates. Okay, okay: there isn’t, in real life, full agreement on such things. But there are clear patterns. Few women would prefer an unemployed and rudderless man to an ambitious and successful one, all other things being even roughly equal; and few men would choose an obese, unattractive, and dull woman over a shapely, beautiful, sharp one. For the sake of intellectual progress, let’s simplemindedly collapse these and other aspects of attraction into a single dimension.

Suppose these 2,000 people live in a monogamous society and each woman is engaged to marry the man who shares her ranking. She’d like to marry a higher-ranking man, but they’re all taken by competitors who outrank her. The men too would like to marry up, but for the same reason can’t.

Now, before any of these engaged couples gets married, let’s legalize polygyny and magically banish its stigma. read more »


2015-09-26

Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

by Neil Godfrey
su_nrg2126-f1_1_2

From http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/plasmodium-falciparum-life-cycle-14465535

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have in a recent Youtube discussion and publication both explained how they studied religion, read lots of theology, before undertaking their anti-theistic critiques. Harris begins by informing us that in his twenties he read a wide range of religious traditions; Coyne tells readers he read much theology as he “dug deeper” into the questions that troubled him and as he did so he “realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion” that accommodationists “glossed over”. Heather Hastie has taken exception to a recent post of mine and pointed out that in her own research into terrorism she has downloaded a dozen issues of an online terrorist recruiting journal for study.

It is one thing to read what religious beliefs and claims are made by converts. It is quite another to study why they have embraced those beliefs, why those beliefs have the hold over believers that they do, and the relationship between those beliefs and claims and the extremist behaviours of adherents.

Gullible and weak minded?

There is a widespread perception among people who have never had much or anything to do with religious cults that people who join them are somehow the more gullible or weak-willed than average. Such popular perceptions are problematic. Some cult members demonstrate superior intelligence and knowledge in other studies in their life; and many of them are exceptionally strong-willed to the point of undergoing extreme sacrifices and hardship, even giving up their own lives and even the lives of loved ones when tested on their faith. That certain cults can generate a public presence beyond their actual numbers often shows they must have some extraordinary skills and determination to maximise the impact of their meagre human resources. The nineteen men who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks were far from having lesser intelligence and from being weak-willed.

Recently I have been sharing snippets from anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and in follow up comments have added a few more quotations addressing common views that people embrace religion because we they are seeking explanations to big or ultimate questions, or because they are gullible. In the past I have posted some explanations of how religious thinking differs from other types of thinking. (Understanding extremist religion; Religious credence part 1 and part 2; Science and religion; Fantasy and religion)

If we want to find a way to counter potentially dangerous extremist acts in the name of religion or simply wind back daily oppressive practices of some religions (e.g. choosing death over medical care, child abuse, denial of women’s rights) we will need to do more than simply present rational arguments. The converts do not shield themselves from opposing arguments; they are prepared for them and know how to counter them. Religious thinking does not work in the same way – we need to understand that.

I must thank Dan Jones for revitalising my interest in this question and providing me with new readings to follow up. I have already studied a few works on “how religion works” but need to do much more.

In the meantime, here is an alternative approach to what is required to understand how people acquire the religious mind. (Alternative, that is, to simply reading the theologies and ramblings of the religious texts themselves and thinking, “how bizarre!”, “how frightening!”).

The author, an anthropologist, would compare the methods of Harris, Coyne and Hastie to studying in depth the malaria pathogen — such a study alone will never explain how malaria spreads among some people and not others or the symptoms it produces. read more »


2015-09-25

Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover

Here is an answer to that question that I found interesting. It is from Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, pp. 3-4:

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”?

I—and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why.

Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. 

The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people. (Formatting mine)

 


2015-08-30

Understanding Extremist Religion

by Neil Godfrey

An inevitable question arising out of my preceding two posts that attempt to set out the fundamentals of Neil Van Leeuwen’s analysis of the nature of “religious belief/credence” is where extremist views fit in. This is a topic I’ve broached several times before from different perspectives and hope to again as I get through more readings from various fields (e.g. anthropology, philosophy). In this post I add Van Leeuwen’s comment.

First, to recap:

Characteristics of Factual Belief

1. Factual belief is independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse. 

2. Factual beliefs have cognitive governance

The reverse is not true: we may imagine people really do turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. 

3. Factual beliefs are vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

Characteristics of Religious Credence

1. Religious credence is dependent on its ritual and religious places and moments; it is not independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse.

2. Religious credence does not govern factual beliefs

We may believe people turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. Creationists rely upon clusters of other religious credences to maintain their opposition to the facts of geology.

3. Religious credence is not vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

4. Perceived Normative Orientation

Credences structure behaviour towards “the good” and away from “the bad”.

5. Free Elaboration

Credences can be elaborated and imaginatively extended (e.g. God is more angry with people in your city today than with those in Hell); one cannot elaborate factual beliefs.

6. Vulnerability to Special Authority

Devotees can accept empirical failings in a guru but not moral hypocrisy.

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Van Leeuwen sees extremist credence as another cognitive attitude that needs defining.

So what are the characteristics of extremist credence?  Note that 1 and 2 overlap with properties of factual beliefs: read more »


2015-08-29

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

From http://www.armageddonbooks.com/map.html

From http://www.armageddonbooks.com/map.html

In the previous post we saw the three core features of factual beliefs as understood by Neil Van Leeuwen; we also saw that religious “beliefs” or credence do not share any of these characteristics of factual beliefs.

Van Leeuwen distinguishes factual belief from what he terms secondary cognitive attitudes — that is, factual belief has different characteristics from fictional imagining, hypothesis, assuming for sake of an argument, and so forth. Among these secondary cognitive attitudes he places religious credence. But religious credence is different again from these other secondary attitudes because of three characteristics. In this post we identify those three distinguishing properties.

But before continuing, however, I’ll jump to Van Leeuwen’s conclusion where he explains how religious credence and factual belief relate to one another in the mind of the religious person:

An agent’s religious credences comprise a map she uses for short- and long-term orientation in life. The map is colored with features that are taken to have normative force in virtue of their being part of the map at all; the colors represent sacred, sinful, eternal, righteous, holy, and the like. The map, in more or less detail, is determined by the dictates of individuals who are taken as special authorities in the community of the agent. But the agent herself also freely elaborates on the credence map in ways she finds useful for normative orientation. The map colors the authorities as holy. Other individuals in the community are painted as faithful. This map doesn’t just represent normative properties, however; it also represents objects, people, places, events, and supernatural beings that make the normative properties memorable or salient.

But the agent is always using another map: factual belief. This map comes to be in a different way from the religious credence map. It is generated chiefly by perception and rational expansion thereon. It helps us avoid falling in ditches and eating poisonous berries. The religious credence map lies on top of the factual map like a colored transparency, so that the objects, events, people, and places in the factual map can also appear religiously colored. Thus, only by careful scrutiny do we see the two maps are distinct. (My bolding)

So that’s how Van Leeuwen sees the two types of cognitive attitudes co-existing. Now to those points that make religious credence a stand-alone. read more »


Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

by Neil Godfrey
Neil Van Leeuwen

Neil Van Leeuwen

I’m looking here at a thesis on the nature of religious belief, <em>Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief</em>, by Neil Van Leeuwen that was published in the journal Cognition last year. The author has also made his article publicly available on academia.edu. A commenter brought the article to my attention in the context of disagreements over the relationship between religious beliefs and Islamic terrorist attacks. One reason I am attracted to Van Leeuwen’s ideas is that they appear to be consistent with anthropologist Scott Atran’s views of the nature of religious belief that I have discussed previously.

First point to notice (and it is critical to the entire argument) is that Van Leeuwen chooses to speak of “religious credence” as opposed to “religious belief”.

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. . . . But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. 

We tend to focus on differences in the content of “beliefs” (evolution, creationism; death is final, immortal soul) but in doing so we may be talking about distinctly different attitudes that fall under this one word. He draws the analogy of jade. In popular usage there may be only one kind of jade, but to chemists there are two distinct entities:

jade (2)

The general “taken for granted” assumption is that the only difference between a scientific and a religious belief is the content and that it is the different contents that guide behaviour.

Here is an adaptation of a diagram Van Leeuwen uses to portray the general understanding that there is only one kind of “belief” that is set against other cognitive attitudes. Belief (of any kind) by its very nature stands opposed to other forms of cognitive attitudes:

model1

Van Leeuwen argues against this understanding of belief and believes that on closer inspection that religious “belief” has characteristics in common with other attitudes like imagining, hypothesising, acceptance in a context and conditional assumptions. Factual beliefs, he says, do not share these characteristics. To keep the distinction clear he uses “credence” when speaking of the cognitive attitude associated with religion:

model2

So what are the characteristics that set religious credence apart from factual belief in Van Leeuwen’s view? And what is the relationship between factual beliefs and religious credence? Do they really have more than their content to distinguish them? read more »


2015-08-16

Towards Understanding Morality — a renewed start?

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?

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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. read more »


2015-08-11

Towards Understanding Morality – another step?

by Neil Godfrey

The previous post brought us to the point of explaining different moral perspectives in terms of different relational models (and broad themes of ethics and foundations). For example, marriages have been (and in places still are) understood within the framework of Authority relations. The wife remained under the authority of her father or more generally of the males of her family, or else under the authority of her husband.

How moral views are determined by relational models

Western marriages have seen an evolution from this model to an Equality matching framework where the wife is understood to have equal rights with her husband and the husband has an obligation to share responsibilities (e.g. child minding, housework) with her equally. In other cultures Equality matching has seen the bartering and selling of wives for goods (e.g. thirty pigs) considered to be of equivalent value.

Where the Authority Ranking model has been replaced by a Communal Sharing one some wives complain that their work is not appreciated. The “not keeping tabs” of who owes what is thought to have resulted in their efforts being taken for granted. We also see the Rational-Legal model at work where contracts are signed at the outset of a marriage to clarify processes with respect to children and property in the event of the marriage not lasting.

In each of these relational models the different treatments of the wife are understood to be perfectly moral. What is right and wrong depends on the relational framework through which one views the “resources” in question. Morality rules. One cannot say that either trading a wife for thirty pigs or or obliging the married woman to continue living with her family is “immoral” in the minds of those who follow these customs. read more »


2015-08-10

Towards Understanding How Morality Works

by Neil Godfrey

We are not the only social animals with rules of behaviour we must follow or risk some form of punishment but our moral systems are surely the most complex. How does it all work? I’d like to think that we can figure it out enough to help us understand what’s going on when two sides are at loggerheads, each convinced of its own moral stance while accusing the other of amorality or immorality. How is it that we are so divided over what’s right and wrong on questions of race, religion, the poor, criminal punishment, war and history and what is it that brings about such irreconcilable convictions?

The Golden Rule
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. (Confucius)
Do to others what you want them to do to you. (Jesus)
The Categorical Imperative
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. (Immanuel Kant)

We’ve heard that some form of the Golden Rule is known in many cultures but as Steven Pinker points out in Better Angels,

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative.

Life is more complex to allow this to be the sole guide. In Brown’s list of human universals we find proscriptions against murder, rape, incest between mother and son and stinginess. After that we veer into increasingly rough and tumble terrain. In one community a woman can be purchased to become a man’s wife for a number of pigs. That custom is as moral, as legitimate, as a land purchase. In fact, selling land according to some communities can be a capital crime.

The Golden Rule and Categorical Imperative can have radically different applications in different cultures.

So what is morality all about? To complete Pinker’s quote:

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations):

  • betraying, exploiting or subverting a coalition;
  • contaminating oneself or a community;
  • defying or insulting a legitimate authority;
  • harming someone without provocation;
  • taking a benefit without paying the cost;
  • peculating funds or abusing prerogatives.

(Pinker 2011, p. 628. My formatting in all quotations)

What interests me are those “relational models (or ethics or foundations)” said to be at the core of our moral sense. My source is for most part Steven Pinker’s introduction to them (2011).

Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder has concluded that across every society humanity’s moral norms revolve around one of three common themes: the ethics of divinity, of community and of autonomy.

Divinity Community Autonomy
The world is composed of a divine essence, portions of which are housed in bodies that are part of god. The world is a collection of tribes, clans, families, institutions, guilds and other coalitions. The social world is composed of individuals.
Purpose of morality is to protect this spirit from degradation and contamination. People do not have right to do what they want with their soul-container bodies. Obligation to avoid polluting body with impure sex, food, other physical pleasures. (Underlies moralization of disgust and valorization of purity and asceticism. Morality is equated with duty, respect, loyalty, interdependence. Purpose of morality is to allow them to exercise their choices and protect them from harm.

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read more »


2015-08-07

Better Angels of Our Nature

by Neil Godfrey

angelsReflections on having completed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. . . .

By the time I had completed the seventh chapter of Better Angels I began to feel my existence was somehow in a surreal place. Compared with most lives throughout human history mine has been fantastically lucky and overwhelmingly privileged. The pain that follows reminders and expanded awareness of just how cruel so much of human existence has been inevitably leaves some sense of guilt and a need to to do more to justify or repay the privilege of my life to date.

Pinker helps readers appreciate just how fortunate we are to be living in the ongoing momentum of the Enlightenment where the seeds of our humanistic and scientific values were planted. (Those who argue that the Enlightenment gave birth to Hitler and the Holocaust and other modern degradations are flat ignorant — Pinker describes the charges as “ludicrous, if not obscene” — since such movements were in fact a reaction against Enlightenment values.) Our moral and rights revolutions, the growth of “liberal” values, humanistic concerns and reactions against cruelty to slaves, children, other races and classes, democratic movements, human rights of liberty and equality, workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, care for the environment — it’s been an incredible moment of history.

All of this has been accompanied by scientific and technological understanding, burgeoning education and even advances in our collective ability to reason and understand — all without the would-be diversions and false-leads of dogma and religion.

Pinker does not mention it, but what we witnessed early this century when millions of people came out into the streets all around the world to protest against the threat of an imminent invasion of Iraq was surely a most significant milestone in human history. Today there is even international outrage over the single killing of a lion for sport. We do live in the most amazing times.  read more »