Good and Evil

“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” So begins Sam Harris’s second chapter in Moral LandscapeEthics is all about devising the rules, habits, and practices that will optimize cooperation built on

kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression…

But does that mean science can really determine our values? It’s going to be important to clarify not only what he means by science, but what he means by “determine” too. Probably nothing so rigid as his critics will suppose. He’s just looking for guidelines and broad parameters at the terrain’s edge. He seems committed to pluralism.

Our genes may be “selfish” but our societies need to be collaborative  and our instincts need to be trained for altruism and fellow-feeling. David Hume knew that, sharing a strange finger fetish with his pal Adam Smith. Hume, I never tire of telling my Intro students, said it “would not be against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [my] little finger.”

Smith echoed the thought, imagining a “man of humanity” in Europe who’d lose sleep over his finger but not over the poor victims of an earthquake in China. But sleep aside, he presumably wouldn’t choose to sacrifice them for his own comfort. “But what makes this difference?” Empathy, sentiment, mutual care and concern, the suppression of selfishness. And reason? Yes, but not “pure” or narrow reason. The sentiments can be educated, emotions can be intelligent and self-correcting.

Is Sam speaking ironically when he invokes “an angel of beneficence” to account for the desire most of us feel for justice, fairness, and progress? No, he’s just being literary and Lincolnesque.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 1st inaugural, March 1861

He’s also declaring his moral realism and consequentialism. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience- happiness, suffering, joy, despair- all talk of value is empty.” Our “oughts” reflect of the facts of life, and the “maximizing of well-being in this world.” But the facts aren’t all in, and they’re not all self-evident.  The conversation must continue.

Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about.

Jonathan Haidt, whose recent and compelling TED Talk does not quite persuade that liberals and conservatives are correspondingly blind to one another’s legitimate commitments, thinks we make moral decisions on the basis of relatively un-reasoned emotion which we rationalize after the fact. [His 2008 TED Talk on “moral roots” advanced the same thesis.]

Our differences in politics and religion, Haidt argues, tend to reflect temperamental biases and habitual preferences more than any deep truths about the world. It’s not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that liberals fixated on fairness and justice are incapable of acknowledging conservatives’ loyalty and respect for authority (and vice versa). Each side possesses its own slice of rectitude, but neither can see the other.

But Sam finds this all too relativistic. “Many people are simply wrong about morality,” social conservatives are often hypocritical (“louche”), and many probably suffer damaged medial prefrontal cortexes that prevent their knowing how “to behave appropriately toward others.”

They probably don’t know how to resolve the trolley problem either. [YouTPhilosophyExperiments]

And then there are the psychopaths. I had to shower after reading about them on p. 96. Sam apparently has immersed himself in this literature and assures us it’s a lot worse. I’m taking his word for it.

The chapter concludes with a chunk on free will, which Sam considers (as a good neuroscientist should, apparently) an illusion. “Science has a problem with free will,” Richard Dawkins’ Oxford successor explains.

So we’re all just damned lucky not to have drawn the psychopath cards (genes, memes).  (But I think Sam made a free choice to spin this section out into a more lucrative ebook.)

It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void… you are not more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Some of us may find this view comforting, terrifying, or even irrelevant. I’d just like Sam to address the two uneasily-yoked Jamesian views: one, that our bodies often (always?) do in fact get out in front of our conscious wills and precede them into action; and two, that we nonetheless retain a capacity for directed attention that secures the frame of mind we’re free to think of as our free wills. Sam speaks of attention at chapter’s end, but not quite in James’s sense.

Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.

James on percpetion, emotion, and consciousness:

My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble … Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

James on attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state. [WJ’s 1870 diary entry on Renouvier, attention, & free will]

But these questions, fascinating though they are to those of us who are fascinated by them, are peripheral to the central claim of chapter two: we humans are capable of doing just about everything on the spectrum between good and evil. We’re also capable of learning more about the conditions (including brain-states) under which these behaviors are most likely to be expressed, and of acting to improve the net ratio of well-being. We may be determined, but so long as we can act intelligently we’re not fated or doomed. As Dan Dennett says: freedom evolves. [Dennett at CalTech]

We can understand how our freedom is greater than that of other creatures, and see how this heightened capacity carries moral implications: noblesse oblige. We are in the best position to decide what to do next, because we have the broadest knowledge and hence the best perspective on the future. What that future holds in store for our planet is up to all of us, reasoning together.

And really, is Sam finally wanting to say anything different? The conversation continues.


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