Sunday, June 10, 2007

Feel first, think later..

A recent report in the journal Science corroborates something most of us have suspected for some time. We are basically moral weasels.
In a review to be published in the May 18 issue of the journal Science, Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, discusses a new consensus scientists are reaching on the origins and mechanisms of morality. Haidt shows how evolutionary, neurological and social-psychological insights are being synthesized in support of three principles:

1) Intuitive primacy, which says that human emotions and gut feelings generally drive our moral judgments;

2) Moral thinking if for social doing, which says that we engage in moral reasoning not to figure out the truth, but to persuade other people of our virtue or to influence them to support us; and

3) Morality binds and builds, which says that morality and gossip were crucial for the evolution of human ultrasociality, which allows humans - but no other primates - to live in large and highly cooperative groups.

"Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves," says Haidt, whose own research demonstrates that people generally follow their gut feelings and make up moral reasons afterwards. "Since the time of the Enlightenment," Haidt says, "many philosophers have celebrated the power and virtue of cool, dispassionate reasoning. Unfortunately, few people other than philosophers can engage in such cool, honest reasoning when moral issues are at stake. The rest of us behave more like lawyers, using any arguments we can find to make our case, rather than like judges or scientists searching for the truth. This doesn't mean we are doomed to be immoral; it just means that we should look for the roots of our considerable virtue elsewhere - in the emotions and intuitions that make us so generally decent and cooperative, yet also sometimes willing to hurt or kill in defense of a principle, a person or a place." [More]
The line about the lawyers was painful, but I suspect Haidt may be right. More intriguing is the possibility that science may make this problem even more divisive in our culture.
When offspring genetic engineering becomes possible I expect parental choices to produce bigger differences in how people morally reason. Conservative-leaning people will make their children morally reason even more strongly in the conservative style. The liberals will do likewise. So the size of the center will shrink. This will lead to deeper political divisions and perhaps civil war in some countries and wars between countries.

I also expect offspring genetic engineering to produce more other styles of moral reasoning including ones that are rare today and others that do not exist at all today. Who knows, maybe genetic engineering will move libertarianism up in the ranks of moral reasoning styles. [More]
The most alarming prospect of genetic engineering of humans for me is, while we are busy deciding which traits and predispositions we want in our children, other cultures are out-reproducing us. We're overplanning - they are taking potluck, and getting on with business.

Which system sounds like a winner to you?

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