Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s stay on detour from our Why People Believe in Gods series of posts for another moment . . . .

Returning to that earlier quotation of James Q. Wilson, here it is in full (the bolded highlighting is my own) . . . .

Contrary to Freud, it is not simply their innate aggressiveness that leads men to engage in battles against their rivals, and contrary to Hobbes, it is not only to control their innate wildness that men create governments.

Are There Moral Universals?

To find what is universal about human nature, we must look behind the rules and the circumstances that shape them to discover what fundamental dispositions, if any, animate them and to decide whether those dispositions are universal. If such universal dispositions exist, we would expect them to be so obvious that travelers would either take them for granted or overlook them in preference to whatever is novel or exotic. Those fundamental dispositions are, indeed, both obvious and other-regarding: they are the affection a parent, especially a mother, bears for its child and the desire to please that the child brings to this encounter. Our moral senses are forged in the crucible of this loving relationship and expanded by the enlarged relationships of families and peers. Out of the universal attachment between child and parent the former begins to develop a sense of empathy and fairness, to learn self-control, and to acquire a conscience that makes him behave dutifully at least with respect to some matters. Those dispositions are extended to other people (and often to other species) to the extent that these others are thought to share in the traits we find in our families. That last step is the most problematic and as a consequence is far from common; as we saw in the preceding chapter, many cultures, especially those organized around clans and lineages rather than independent nuclear families based on consensual marriages and private property, rarely extend the moral sense, except in the most abstract or conditional way, to other peoples. The moral sense for most people remains particularistic; for some, it aspires to be universal.

Because our moral senses are at origin parochial and easily blunted by even trivial differences between what we think of as familiar and what we define as strange, it is not hard to explain why there is so much misery in the world and thus easy to understand why so many people deny the existence of a moral sense at all. How can there be a moral sense if everywhere we find cruelty and combat, sometimes on a monstrous scale? One rather paradoxical answer is that man’s attacks against his fellow man reveal his moral sense because they express his social nature. Contrary to Freud, it is not simply their innate aggressiveness that leads men to engage in battles against their rivals, and contrary to Hobbes, it is not only to control their innate wildness that men create governments. Men are less likely to fight alone against one other person than to fight in groups against other groups. It is the desire to earn or retain the respect and goodwill of their fellows that keeps soldiers fighting even against fearsome odds, leads men to accept even the most distorted or implausible judgments of their peers, induces people to believe that an authority figure has the right to order them to administer shocks to a “student,” and persuades many of us to devalue the beliefs and claims of outsiders.

We all, I believe, understand this when we think of families sticking together against interlopers, friends banding together against strangers, and soldiers standing fast against enemies. But the affiliative drive is so powerful that it embraces people unrelated and even unknown to us. Patriotic nationalism and athletic team loyalties are obvious examples of this, but the most important case — most important because it both precedes nationalism and professional sports and animates so much of history right down to the present — is ethnic identity.

What makes Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Ghegs, Tosks, Armenians, Kurds, Bantus, Masai, Kikuyus, Ibos, Germans, and countless — literally countless — other peoples argue, fight, and die for “ethnic self-determination”? Why do they seek to be ruled by “one’s own kind” when what constitutes “one’s own kind” is so uncertain and changeable, being variously defined as people whom you think are like you in language, customs, place of origin, and perhaps other, inexpressible, things as well? Donald Horowitz, who has puzzled over this phenomenon as persistently as anyone I know, has observed that we lack any good explanation and that the inclusiveness of the ethnic group with which someone feels associated often changes over time. For some reason, the need for affiliation is so powerful that it reaches as far as one can find a historically plausible and emotionally satisfying principle of similarity.

We may bemoan what we sometimes think of as the “senseless” violence attendant on ethnic conflict. But imagine a world in which people attached no significance to any larger social entity than themselves and their immediate families. Can we suppose that in such a world there would be any enlarged sense of duty, any willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others, or even much willingness to cooperate on risky or uncertain tasks for material gain?

Edward C. Banfield has portrayed a world something like this in his account of the peasants living in the southern Italian village of Montegrano (a pseudonym), where the unwillingness of people to cooperate in any joint endeavor kept them in a condition of the most extreme poverty and backwardness. Their reluctance to cooperate was not the product of ignorance (many of the peasants were quite well informed about local affairs), a lack of resources (other peoples just as poorly endowed have created bustling economies), or political oppression (the Montegranese were free to organize, vote, and complain, but few did). The lack of cooperative effort, Banfield argued, was chiefly the result of a culture that made people almost entirely preoccupied with their families’ shortrun material interests and led them to assume that everybody else would do likewise. Under these circumstances, there was no prospect of collective effort on behalf of distant or intangible goals. Whatever its source, this ethos of “amoral familism” prevented people from identifying and affiliating with any group larger than the nuclear family.

If the Montegranese had acquired larger patterns of identifications and affiliations such that common endeavors without immediate material benefit became possible, they would also, I suspect, have acquired a set of relationships binding them together against people who were dissimilar on a larger scale than the family: people in other villages, northern Italians, non-Catholics, or whatever. Affiliation requires boundaries; a “we” must be defined on some basis if there are to be any obligations to the “we”; and once there is a we, there will be a “they.” Truly parochial people may not engage in “senseless violence,” but then they may not engage in “senseless cooperation” either.

But note that even in Montegrano, adults cared for their children. They were not “amoral individualists,” even though child care was costly and burdensome; indeed, being poor, it was especially burdensome. Despite the burdens, the birth of a child was a joyous event and its illnesses a cause for great concern. As the children grew up, they were greatly indulged and inconsistently disciplined, so much so, indeed, that the somewhat selfish and irresponsible behavior of adults was taught to the children.

I have said that our moral senses are natural. I mean that in two related senses of the word: they are to some important degree innate, and they appear spontaneously amid the routine intimacies of family life. Since these senses, though having a common origin in our natural sociability, are several, gender and culture will profoundly influence which of them — sympathy or duty, fairness or self-control — are most valued. And since these senses are to a degree indeterminate, culture will affect how they are converted into maxims, customs, and rules. In some places and at some times men cherish honor above all else; at other times and in other places, they value equity. Often they restrict these sentiments to kith and kin; sometimes they extend them to humankind as a whole. Some cultures emphasize the virtues of duty and self-control, others those of sympathy and fairness.

The existence of so much immoral behavior is not evidence of the weakness of the moral senses. The problem of wrong action arises from the conflict among the several moral senses, the struggle between morality and self-interest, and the corrosive effect of those forces that blunt the moral senses. We must often choose between duty and sympathy or between fairness and fidelity. Should I fight for a cause that my friends do not endorse, or stand foursquare with my buddy whatever the cause? Does my duty require me to obey an authoritative command or should my sympathy for persons hurt by that command make me pause? Does fairness require me to report a fellow student who is cheating on an exam, or does the duty of friendship require me to protect my friend? The way we make those choices will, for most of us, be powerfully shaped by particular circumstances and our rough guess as to the consequences of a given act. Sociability has two faces. Our desire to love and be loved, to please others and to be pleased by them, is a powerful source of sympathy, fairness, and conscience, and, at the same time, a principle by which we exclude others and seek to make ourselves attractive in the eyes of friends and family by justifying our actions by specious arguments.

I write these lines not long after terrible riots wracked the city that I love, Los Angeles. What struck me most forcibly about the behavior of those who looted and burned was not that they did it—looting and burning go on in many places whenever social controls are sufficiently weakened—but that invariably the participants felt obliged to justify it even when they faced no chance of punishment and thus had no reason to evade it. If there is any truly universal moral standard, it is that every society, without exception, feels obliged to have—and thus to appeal to—moral standards. Though we act out of narrow self-interest much of the time, something in us makes it all but impossible to justify our acts as mere self-interest whenever those acts are seen by others as violating a moral principle. This need to justify suggests to me that Adam Smith was not conjuring up some literary ghost when he wrote of the impartial spectator, “the man within the breast.” We want our actions to be seen by others—and by ourselves—as arising out of appropriate motives. And we judge the actions of others even when those actions have no effect on us.

Let’s get the facts straight . . . 

And here is another quote, one ultimately attempting to make sense of arguments among those with moral consciences, but in this context exploring why moral sentiments are attached to gods, from Pascal Boyer . . . .

Most family rows are extensive and generally futile attempts to get the other party to “see the facts as they really are” — that is, how you see them — and by virtue of that to share your moral judgements. This rarely works in practice, but we do have this expectation. So we intuitively assume that if an agent has full access to all the relevant information about the situation, that agent will immediately have access to the rightness or wrongness of the behavior. 

I expect the next post to pick up again on Justin Barrett’s discussion of why people believe in gods. Once when a conscientious member of a fundamentalist type of religious cult, I would have believed the written precept that I must keep my word no matter what and I would have delivered on that statement that my next post would by another distillation of Justin Barrett’s chapter. But now I am more prepared to allow self-interest to influence me otherwise and to justify my change of mind with appeals to other moral interests. Whether I am now on the road to hell or merely acting rationally and sensibly I will leave to others — and the gods — to decide.

Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  New York: Basic Books.

Wilson, James Q. 1997. The Moral Sense. New York, NY: Free Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes”

  1. Looks like J.Q. Wilson has never read “On Aggression” by Konrad Lorenz. Makes the case for innate agression THROUGHOUT the animal kingdom, Freud notwithstanding. It’s well-established!…

    1. I don’t see why Wilson would have any reason to doubt that there is aggression “throughout the animal kingdom” and that this is all the product of evolutionary pressure — that is, “innate” in some sense. Have you read the references to the research on which the understanding of how our minds work is based? Cognitive researchers have been making interesting contributions to our understanding of religious concepts and beliefs in recent decades.

  2. Morality is always subjective, there is no such thing as objective morality. This usually “feels” bad to people, but it’s still true. The Aztecs certainly thought that ripping the still beating hearts from hundreds of their conquered enemies and sacrificing them to their gods was the right thing to do, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it, they wouldn’t have believed that their god sanctioned it. It is appalling to us, but things that are normative to us would likely be appalling to them.

    1. That may be so but to make your case you would do better to take up the contrary view of the cognitive explanation for morality and show its flaws. Is the Aztec sacrifice very different in principle from the sacrifice Yahweh commanded Saul make of his captured enemies, the Amalekites? How might one explain the apparent ubiquity of the idea of sacrifice to deities (including the Christian god), ranging from bloody to bloodless, throughout history and cultures? (Meaning, of course, that this idea of sacrifice to deities is considered a moral obligation. Is there not some sort of universality there?)

        1. Yes. I don’t think any of the massacres in the bible (from God wiping out humanity in the Flood to the Egyptians in the Red Sea to Joshua to Saul to Herod and the infants….) are historical — but even as fiction, they nonetheless represent reality and moral norms. There really have been horrific massacres throughout history and all, no doubt, justified by perpetrators, and many, no doubt, performed in the service of some god or gods. And in our thinking we have taken on the idea of blood sacrifice of mortals to a deity as essentially a good and perfect religious idea. After all, such a sacrifice is at the very core of Christian belief. Without it, the belief is that God would slaughter us all in hell forever and be just in doing so.

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