Jump to content


Photo

The Moral Instinct


  • Please log in to reply
10 replies to this topic

#1 Phil

Phil

    Kappa

  • Christadelphian
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 1,458 posts

Posted 17 January 2008 - 08:20 PM

Hi all... a little rant i just wrote as a note in facebook. Thought maybe it would be worth sharing here.

----

A couple of days ago I was forwarded a link to this article in the New York Times (you might have to sign in to read the whole thing, but i think the process is free; just one more annoying internet password). From one of my favourite nerd authors, Steven Pinker, it's called "The Moral Instinct", and presents a scientific perspective on the way the human moral sense may have evolved.

Having identified moral behaviour as a "product of brain wiring", the piece grapples with a big question - whether or not right and wrong have real existences, or are just as subjective as our perception of the difference between red and green and whether particular foods taste good or revolting.

This is where Pinker starts to flounder. His handwaves become larger and more urgent, and although much activity is present, all he really seems to generate is noise and foam. He's not really getting anywhere, and it becomes clear he's drowning in his own confusion.

Here's an excerpt:

Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

It's a simple idea: if you and i are both nice to each other, we're both better off. Der. But that's not morality; it's pragmatics. It is testing the results of our activity against a pre-defined axiom, a universal truth which is apparently immune to questioning; specifically, that actions which leave all of us better off are right and those which leave all worse off are wrong.

Problem is, all it does is replace one question with another. "Who made murder 'wrong' and feeding the homeless 'right'? is swapped for "who made collective advancement 'right' and 'stagnation and regression 'wrong'?"

'We hold these truths to be self-evident' might well prove to be the effective answer. 'It's just obvious'. And it may well be obvious to you and i that we're better off cooperating, but it's not so obvious to the average sociopath, or he/she wouldn't be defined as such. And when self-evidence and pragmatism become the only battlegrounds for moral truth, then exactly what right does civilisation have to question anyone who begs to differ? It has already argued against itself.

So rather than face up to the logical conclusion of the argument, they play mental and linguistic tricks: pragmatism is redefined as morality, some ideas are arbitrarily given axiomatic status, and lo and behold right and wrong exist after all. Because those who dismiss God as a source for objective ethics still need a way to feel good when they frown at a smoker in a restaurant, tut at the housewife driving a landcruiser, and wag a righteous finger at a poor person buying an egg laid by a chicken in a cage.

As a constructed philosophy for life it might make some people feel better about futility, have walls and a roof and look like it will provide some sort of mental protection in a tough world. But it has no foundation other than the shifting sands of popular opinion and political expediency.

Here's a better idea: build it on rock instead.

#2 Chris

Chris

    Moderator

  • Moderators
  • 1,986 posts
  • LocationTexas, USA

Posted 17 January 2008 - 10:05 PM

It's a simple idea: if you and i are both nice to each other, we're both better off. Der. But that's not morality; it's pragmatics. It is testing the results of our activity against a pre-defined axiom, a universal truth which is apparently immune to questioning; specifically, that actions which leave all of us better off are right and those which leave all worse off are wrong.


And really boils down to self-preservation.

#3 Paidion_*

Paidion_*

    Zeta

  • Non-Members
  • PipPip
  • 75 posts

Posted 25 June 2008 - 09:09 AM

If there is no "moral instinct", then why does virtually every people group in the world believe in the same set of basic moral principles? Virtually all believe in the principle of reciprocal treatment. Virtually all believe that we ought not to kill others for personal advantage, and that we ought to be honest and forthright unless there is a conflict with a higher moral principle such as saving a life.

Of course, that is not to say that nearly all people practise the principles in which they believe.

When a particular tribe was discovered, whose members admired those who deceived others, it made headlines all over the world. Why should this be so, if morality is only a matter of personal preference?

Edited by Paidion, 25 June 2008 - 09:12 AM.


#4 Evangelion

Evangelion

    Administrator

  • Admin
  • 24,344 posts
  • LocationAdelaide, South Australia

Posted 25 June 2008 - 09:19 AM

If there is no "moral instinct", then why does virtually every people group in the world believe in the same set of basic moral principles? Virtually all believe in the principle of reciprocal treatment. Virtually all believe that we ought not to kill others for personal advantage, and that we ought to be honest and forthright unless there is a conflict with a higher moral principle such as saving a life.


These will arise naturally in any primitive society as the best means of preserving the group. It doesn't mean that we have a built-in moral instinct. If we did, why does morality vary so much from culture to culture? The similarities you have listed are about the only similarities we can find between different groups. If we have a moral instinct, I would expect to see more of them.

How do you explain the existence of tribes practising cannibalism, in contrast to other tribes which prohibit it? How do you account for the Egyptian acceptance of incest, which was perfectly acceptable to them but utterly abhorrent to the neighbouring nations?

Of course, that is not to say that nearly all people practise the principles in which they believe.


Indeed. Which IMHO is a good argument against the existence of a moral instinct. At heart, all human beings are inherently self-motivated. We are not motivated by a moral instinct.

When a particular tribe was discovered, whose members admired those who deceived others, it made headlines all over the world. Why should this be so, if morality is only a matter of personal preference?


Because it's so different to what we have come to accept as the norm.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#5 Paidion_*

Paidion_*

    Zeta

  • Non-Members
  • PipPip
  • 75 posts

Posted 05 July 2008 - 01:21 PM

These will arise naturally in any primitive society as the best means of preserving the group. It doesn't mean that we have a built-in moral instinct. If we did, why does morality vary so much from culture to culture? The similarities you have listed are about the only similarities we can find between different groups. If we have a moral instinct, I would expect to see more of them.


There are not a lot of basic moral principles which virtually all people recognize. Besides these there are moral derivatives which may vary greatly, based upon false beliefs.

For example, there was a certain tribe in which there was a belief that one should kill his father at age 60. From our point of view, we assume that this practice is cruel and barbaric and shows no concern of one's father. But this particular tribe held a belief that at whatever age one dies, that is the age he will be in the next life for the rest of eternity. Thus the act of killing one's father at age 60 was considered to be an act of kindness, doubtless arising from the moral principle of caring for one's parents. It was thought to help the father to be relatively young and active for the rest of eternity instead of possibly shuffling around in great pain forever.

So the various differences you observe in moral beliefs and practices thoughout the world are often the derived principles not the basic principles upon which virtually all people agree. These derived principles vary widely in accordance with the wide variety of beliefs throughout the world.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did they possess immediate knowledge of good and evil? Was that "moral instinct" not passed down to their progeny in every generation thereafter?

#6 Richard

Richard

    Omicron

  • Christadelphian
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 6,197 posts

Posted 05 July 2008 - 01:26 PM

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did they possess immediate knowledge of good and evil?

I doubt it very much because God doesn't work with magic like that. In fact I don't think the fruit had any particular quality beyond being tasty. What Adam and Eve gained by eating the fruit was a defiled conscience. Their eyes were opened, we are told, and they knew that they were naked: it's the same feeling you get when you do something wrong and your conscience starts nagging at you.

#7 Evangelion

Evangelion

    Administrator

  • Admin
  • 24,344 posts
  • LocationAdelaide, South Australia

Posted 05 July 2008 - 03:21 PM

There are not a lot of basic moral principles which virtually all people recognize.


Sure, but can you list the ones that virtually all people recognise?

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did they possess immediate knowledge of good and evil?


Yes; they received experiential knowledge of good and evil by committing evil. Previously, their knowledge was purely theoretical; now it was literal, experiential and practical.

This is not some special quality that materialised in the brains of Adam and Eve. It was the same process that occurs in the mind of any child who commits his first wrongdoing.

They would not have felt guilt if they had not first received the prohibition. There was no "moral instinct" involved.

Was that "moral instinct" not passed down to their progeny in every generation thereafter?


No. How would that work, exactly? Are you arguing for racial memory here? Or do you believe that morality is genetic? Do you think we might find the "morality gene" some day?

:confused:
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#8 Paidion_*

Paidion_*

    Zeta

  • Non-Members
  • PipPip
  • 75 posts

Posted 05 July 2008 - 03:59 PM


There are not a lot of basic moral principles which virtually all people recognize.

Sure, but can you list the ones that virtually all people recognise?


I did list some of them in an earlier post, and you acknowledged them.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did they possess immediate knowledge of good and evil?


Yes; they received experiential knowledge of good and evil by committing evil. Previously, their knowledge was purely theoretical; now it was literal, experiential and practical.

This is not some special quality that materialised in the brains of Adam and Eve. It was the same process that occurs in the mind of any child who commits his first wrongdoing.

They would not have felt guilt if they had not first received the prohibition. There was no "moral instinct" involved.


I think the fruit of the tree did indeed have the power to impart the knowldege of good and evil, just as the tree of life (which for some reason they didn't taste) had the power to impart life. God shut them out of the garden so that they wouldn't eat it fruit and live forever. The fruit had a "special quality" which would enable their bodies to live forever. But perhaps you interpret it all figuratively.

Was that "moral instinct" not passed down to their progeny in every generation thereafter?


No. How would that work, exactly? Are you arguing for racial memory here? Or do you believe that morality is genetic? Do you think we might find the "morality gene" some day?

:confused:


It is well known that we inherit mental qualities as well as physical qualities from our ancestors.
I believe the tendency to wrongdoing (not sin itself) was inherited from the first man and woman by all of their progeny. When Adam and Eve fell, all of creation fell. In the beginning only vegetable matter was eaten, but after the fall of man, the creation itself fell. Some animals began to devour other animals.

The time will come when all of this shall be reversed. "The lion shall lie down with the lamb", etc.
That is why the creation awaits the manifestation of the sons of God:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;
for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for sonship, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:18-23

Edited by Paidion, 05 July 2008 - 04:04 PM.


#9 Richard

Richard

    Omicron

  • Christadelphian
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 6,197 posts

Posted 05 July 2008 - 07:08 PM

I believe the tendency to wrongdoing (not sin itself) was inherited from the first man and woman by all of their progeny.

Yes, we're all flesh. :yep:

Good answer by the way Ev.

#10 Damien

Damien

    Lambda

  • Christadelphian
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 2,576 posts

Posted 08 July 2008 - 05:29 AM

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did they possess immediate knowledge of good and evil?

I doubt it very much because God doesn't work with magic like that. In fact I don't think the fruit had any particular quality beyond being tasty. What Adam and Eve gained by eating the fruit was a defiled conscience. Their eyes were opened, we are told, and they knew that they were naked: it's the same feeling you get when you do something wrong and your conscience starts nagging at you.


Hmmm... I have always considered the term "defiled conscience" to mean that of a person who experiences the wrong
thing to then continously doing it, somewhat of an addiction so to speak, as it becomes natural to them.

For example:

Alcoholics have a defiled conscience because the lust for beer and drunkeness is always on their mind, thus a defiled conscience.

Can a conscience be defiled by one mistake and not commiting that mistake again?

#11 hope_*

hope_*

    Eta

  • Non-Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 139 posts

Posted 08 July 2008 - 01:01 PM

These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.


God manifests Himself in the nature of things. Romans 1:20


It's a simple idea: if you and i are both nice to each other, we're both better off. Der. But that's not morality; it's pragmatics. It is testing the results of our activity against a pre-defined axiom, a universal truth which is apparently immune to questioning; specifically, that actions which leave all of us better off are right and those which leave all worse off are wrong.


Not exactly. The suggestion he's making is that what is right will leave us all better off, and what is wrong will leave us all worse off. It's close but not quite the same as what you say he's saying. He suggests something isn't right because it leaves us better off, but something that is right will leave us better off, and this is part of his evidence for the existence of a moral instinct. To me, it is not that it will leave us better off that makes the action right, although it will, but that the action is in harmony with God's image in us/ plan for us/ whatever you want to call that "thing", the moral instinct. At a very deep level, we respond to that as true because we somehow know it. Strangely it feels very good and right to give of ourselves. We think (confuse) ourselves out of it though. We want to own ourselves and the good things we are capable of producing. The moral action has to be taken in faith. In the end - though perhaps not at the moment the action is taken - we will all be blessed because of it. I think this is very consistent with Biblical principles actually... Not that something being good for many makes it right, though!! But that something right will be good for everyone involved, when it has run it's full course.

I think it's actually a pretty brilliant idea he's talking about - that we can each achieve greater things if we act unselfishly. (Have you watched "A Beautiful Mind?" It's a good movie althought not true to life in an ironic way. :)) The idea is completely logical, but goes against our selfish thinking that we can achieve more if we compete harder.

Problem is, all it does is replace one question with another. "Who made murder 'wrong' and feeding the homeless 'right'? is swapped for "who made collective advancement 'right' and 'stagnation and regression 'wrong'?"


This is a good point. Actually, I think the author of that paper could use it! Sometimes, observing nature, stagnation and regression is the material instinct and way to new life. Unless a seed is planted in the ground, it cannot grow to produce fruit. What we need is faith that what is right will be good, and a view to further horizons. A longer-term view or a wider lens. Once we can "see" it out there, we can experience the sacrifice here, the unselfishness we are called to, as good for us even now. When we can experience what is far off as if it is right here, it will be simpler (maybe not easier) to behave morally.




0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users