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.