Morality Is the Problem We Refuse to Face

As I continue to wade through the discussions from the Edge Foundation’s conference on The New Science of Morality, I keep bumping into ideas that set off fireworks in my brain. These, by the way, are delicious, sweet fireworks. Today I’m struck by Harvard Assistant Professor Joshua Greene’s assertion that we have to understand how human beings think/feel/act morally, or face the consequences of a divided, dysfunctional, drowning world. My first reaction to Greene’s argument is that he is right, and it’s rather frightening to realize how much of human society is refusing the face the problem/issue of morality.

I’ve spent most of my working life either as a journalist or in politics. Ideally both of those fields would share the same mission of making the world a better place. However, when I look back at my career, I realize that we seldom talked in such terms.

We didn’t discuss morality or even understand that debates over taxes or which candidate to elect were, at their cores, issues of morality. The differences of the opposing sides were born out of their differing views of morality. The inability of political opponents to talk to each other civilly was often tied to differing moralities.

Greene, who studies psychology, explains on his personal web page:

My interest in understanding how the moral mind/brain works is in part driven by good-old-fashioned curiosity, but I also harbor a moral, and ultimately political, agenda.  As everyone knows, we humans are beset by a number of serious social problems: war, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc.  Most people think that the cure for these ills is a heaping helping of common sense morality:  “If only people everywhere would do what they know, deep down, is right, we’d all get along.”

I believe that the opposite is true, that the aforementioned problems are a product of well-intentioned people abiding by their respective common senses and that the only long-run solution to these problems is for people to develop a healthy distrust of moral common sense.  This is largely because our social instincts were not designed for the modern world.  Nor, for that matter, were they designed to promote peace and happiness in the world for which they were designed, the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

My goal as a scientist, then, is to reveal our moral thinking for what it is:  a complex hodgepodge of emotional responses and rational (re)constructions, shaped by both genetic and cultural influences, that do some things well and other things extremely poorly.  My hope is that by understanding how we think, we can teach ourselves to think better, i.e. in ways that better serve the needs of humanity as a whole.

Wow. Let me repeat that last line: “My hope is that by understanding how we think, we can teach ourselves to think better, i.e. in ways that better serve the needs of humanity as a whole.”

My gut — which Greene might well say has to be wrong — tells me this is THE point. Issues of climate change, taxes, poverty, human rights, education and everything else are all tied up in how we, for want of a better word, make morality. And we darn well better learn to do it better than we do now. I’m not certain that I agree with Greene that common sense is a problem, but I’m willing to listen to what he has to say.

Greene’s Edge Conference talk and the discussion of his ideas are online. Most of his talk does not deal with the why of studying morality, but I still found it compelling.

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8 Responses to Morality Is the Problem We Refuse to Face

  1. Yet another bit of work that I need to find time to pursue (but alas, not today).

    I’m very suspicious of “common sense,” so I find the idea that much of what we consider moral common sense might be tied to our hunter-gatherer past and therefore out of date intriguing. There’s a lot of research showing that our fear reactions are still tied to our basic fear of, say, a charging saber-tooth tiger, making it easy for us to understand and react to immediate danger, but lousy at dealing with long term risks (like climate change or the dangers from smoking). So it make sense to me that common sense might be built on similar skills that were very usual in our hunter-gatherer years, but don’t make much sense in modern urban society.

    I suspect a lot of what gets labeled common sense is a mishmash of prejudices, outdated facts, and the general view of the world that we were raised with, informed by some of the barriers we’ve run into along the way. I can think of any number of ideas that seem counter intuitive based on “common sense” that actually make a great deal of sense if you look at them in depth and apply complex thinking. Aikido and Zen ideas both often defy common sense, but turn out to make complex sense.

  2. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I’m going down the same track as you Diane: Edge conference to Joshua Greene to sparks of excitement. If you haven’t read it yet, Greene’s paper entitled “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul” is a fuller explication of his ideas. It is surprisingly readable for an academic paper.

    I have the same agenda as he: Is there a way to understand how morality plays out in politics that might help bring us from darkness into the light?

    Jane, I think Greene’s ideas about common sense aren’t in conflict with what you have expressed. Greene posits that there are three componenents to an individual’s sense of morality: evolutionary biology, culture, and personal experience. We make moral judgments using either an “automatic mode,” which is fundamentally an emotional response, or a “manual mode,” in which we attempt to apply moral reasoning. “Common sense” more or less equates to “automatic mode.”

    I’m somewhat depressed by the realization that it is politically much easier to help people rationalize their point-and-shoot morality than it is to overcome it with manual mode geek-speak. I hope to find that Greene isn’t unwittingly providing a new science of behaviorism to enemies of enlightenment. I’m still reading…

  3. dianesilver says:

    Nancy Jane – You make valid points. I bow to your greater wisdom on common sense.

    Darrell – I’m so with you, especially on this quote: “Is there a way to understand how morality plays out in politics that might help bring us from darkness into the light?”

    The only place I differ is that I don’t think the only issue is in politics. These days I’m wondering if morality is at the heart of all of our issues/problems. Consider this: Is the BP oil spill a failure of engineering, or a failure of morality where BP executives counted short-term gain and profits (thus, skimping on safety and recovery planning) above their moral responsibilities to the people of the Gulf and the Gulf itself?

  4. dianesilver says:

    Oops. I forgot to add that I’ll be posting on other presentations from the New Science of Morality conference soon.

  5. If we start looking at decisions based on short term gain as a moral issue, we probably have to go deeper and look at why so many people make decisions that way. I’d suggest that our society is skewed in a way that makes it almost impossible to operate a successful business enterprise without making decisions based on short term gain. Which means, perhaps, that the moral failings are not just those of BP executives, but of all of us because we allow this structure to continue in place. (Not to let BP execs off the hook, especially since it could have likely spent more money and taken more care without any major effect on its bottom line, given it’s overall resources.)

  6. Darrell Icenogle says:

    The moral value and economic value of short term gain are, perhaps, inversely related in the case of small vs. large business?

    At any rate, that’s a larger slice of the morality pie than I’m equipped to chow down. Political morality seems large enough. The work of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haigt looks like it is already bearing fruit (tarts?)

  7. dianesilver says:

    Nancy Jane – I sadly agree that the problem of short-term gain is society wide and, perhaps, at the foundation of capitalism itself. I’m not suggesting that we adopt communism or socialism, but that we certainly need to reform capitalism. Our entire system, particularly these days, seems to be based on making money at all costs for the few and damn to the many. What we lack is a serious sense of responsibility to anyone but ourselves and stockholders.

    Darrell – I certainly understand about the need to slice the morality pie in an edible size! Fruit tarts, indeed. Also, I think you mean Jonathan Haidt. Right?

    • Darrell Icenogle says:

      Yes, Jonathan Haidt… sorry. (pronounced like “height”) The misspelling would certainly screw up a google search. I have gotten so stuck on reading Haidt that I haven’t been able to get back to Greene. I’m sincerely bumming about the reality of his 3rd, 4th, and 5th moral foundations (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) and their power in separating progressives from conservatives.

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