The Bobbu

Building Morality

Got ethics? How do we build morality

I recently read this article on moral naturalists the New York Times website, which I was directed to via the Twitter feed of Philosophy Bites, one of my favourite podcasts.  For those who don’t want to read it, I’ll sum the key points I want to tackle.

Moral naturalists don’t believe morality is derived from religious revelation or metaphysics, but from natural evolution of behaviour.  Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that the moral sense is like our sense of taste or smell – a set of basic, evolved sensory perceptions that develops in different cultures into different preferences.  Paul Bloom of Yale claims the moral sense can be observed early in life, because he showed children under a year old two videos of someone climbing a hill, one with someone hindering the climber, and one with someone helping: the children preferred the person helping, apparently.  They also preferred a video showing the hinderer being punished to one of the hinderer being rewarded.

There are a more points in the article, but you lazy gits who didn’t bother reading it yourselves will have to flounder on with that sparse bit of info.

Now, the argument that morality is a naturally evolved trait is something that I support entirely.  As social beings, we require an imperative to behave in a way that fosters social harmony as much as possible, and a sense of ethics is just such a motivator.  Without a tendency towards similar judgements of right or wrong that is somewhat pre-determined by our genetic heritage, we would not be capable of uniting as a group under common principles in order to survive.

But the argument that a moral sense is already present in a child under a year old is ludicrous.  Bloom actually believes that his study shows a “rudimentary sense of justice,” as the article puts it.  Now, I hope that the article is a misrepresentation of Bloom’s conclusions, but knowing the propensity academics to lose sight of their own bias in studies, I will not make that assumption.  So, treating the article as an accurate presentation of the conclusions drawn from the study, does anyone else see something wrong with calling the child’s preference of a helpful person over a hindering one as a sense of justice?

To me, stating that this behaviour is evidence of a ‘sense of justice’ is premature.  To employ such a loaded term as ‘justice’ to such observations implies that the children of humanity have some kind of inherent understanding of morality as we structure it – a structure that is not even universal to all cultures.  What the children are more accurately displaying is a sense of empathy: they see someone being hurt and they understand how this would feel, so do not like the person doing the hurting.  They then see the person who behaved negatively towards the person being punished, and are pleased because they would want someone who was mean to them to be punished accordingly.

The child is not displaying some kind of understanding that a bad act should be punished and a good act rewarded, but simply a preference over how they feel they should be treated if they were in the same situation.  This is an evolutionary advancement with clear benefits for a social animal that needs to co-operate with other individuals rather than struggle for primacy as a lone creature.

But the article then goes on to point out that children are clearly not inherently good – that children up to the ages of 5-7 will not share sweets willingly is the example given.  This only goes further to illustrate the selfish nature of their behaviour in the previous study!  We are not displaying a comprehension of justice because we prefer a helpful person to a hinderer, we are simply exercising our empathy; though certainly empathy is the key to what we refer to as the moral sense, I believe the semantics here are significant.  Empathy is a real phenomenon – justice is a construct that we can believe in or not.  Implying that a child has a sense of justice is very different from pointing out that they have a sense of empathy from an early age.

It is no doubt that empathy is the primary emotion in play when people come up with moral concepts that they wish to apply as universal laws.  It is a simple logic to follow; ‘I wish to be treated well, so if I forbid everyone to treat anyone badly then I will have to be treated well.’  That the translation of these empathy-driven impulses to prefer the co-operative over the selfish into a system of rules that govern a society of whatever size is an evolutionary mechanism to aid in social cohesion seems evident to me: when a group all operates by the same rules, they will work better as a team, and therefore are more likely to survive and pass on their abilities.

What I am essentially bringing up the dear NY Times reporter on, is the idea that a sense of morality is something that is indeed like taste; that is, something that we experience directly.  Taste is something that varies from person to person, certainly, but sweet is always sweet, if to different extents, and to different levels of preference.  With our moral tastes, good is not always good, because of variations in the sense that is as material as taste – our empathy.

Ok, maybe I’m being a pedant who picked up on a bit of semantics in an article that was otherwise a very positive read, but I think it’s important to realise that we do not need to believe our moral sense is some kind of material, real thing based firmly in genetics in order to make it real.  It does not have to be something that has rhyme or reason to it; be that reason biblical revelation, metaphysical or biological imperative.  We can be ethical beings simply because we wish to be a society that works well together to combine security and freedom in the best way we can.

Terry Pratchett puts it that we need to learn to believe the little lies, like the tooth fairy & father Christmas, in order to believe the big lies like mercy, justice and truth.  Only then can we make them real.  I would like to see a world in which at least some people do not feel it necessary to believe in the lies in order to make what they stand for into a reality.

Published July 27, 2010 at 8:39 pm