Tag Archives: Psychology

Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being –  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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Morality and the “worship” of reason

I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further – “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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Christmas gift ideas: Why we deny climate change

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

Another one on climate change – but this time discussing the science, politics and psychology of science denialism.


Book Review: Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change by Clive Hamilton

Price: USD$16.47; AUD $24.99; NZD$29.99

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Earthscan Publications Ltd. (May 2010); Allen & Unwin (March 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1849710813
# ISBN-13: 978-1849710817

I think this book has three messages, but two of them resonated strongly with me. Effectively these are the title and subtitle.

The problems presented by global warming are so large we may never solve them (hence Requiem for a Species – us). The more I discover about the science of climate change the more I become aware that if we don’t take protection measures soon the results for our species will be dramatic.

Socially and psychologically we want to deny the problem (Hence Why we Resist the Truth About Climate change). Psychological and sociologically, as individuals and collectively, we are in denial. This inhibits our capacity to take the actions needed to protect us from the results of human induced climate change.

Those messages come through strongly. The third message, ideas and suggestions for getting us out of these problems is far weaker, probably because it is less specific.

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Evolutionary cooperation

Kropotkin wrote about evolutionary cooperation*

Here’s a lecture on evolutionary cooperation by PZ Myers. Ok, it’s pretty long, but it’s worth downloading and watching (or even listening as the video doesn’t catch most of the slides).

Click on World Humanist Congress 2011 08/13/11 07:32AM.

Cooperation as an important component of evolution is often ignored while competition is stressed. Creationists will purposely ignore cooperation. Yet cooperation and conflict are really two sides of the same coin.

Myers illustrates his talk with examples of cooperation from nature and stresses the important evolutionary leaps made possible by cooperation. But he goes on to show that cooperation is also natural for humans.

PZ presented this talk at the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway last August. Human cooperation, world peace and conflict prevention were important themes at the congress. The programme looks interesting, including sessions on:

  • The role of supra-national organizations
  • Lifestance and peace
  • Our emotional life and the role of ceremonies
  • Bit by bit and Peace by Piece

While Myers doesn’t deal in any detail with strategies for cooperation in modern human society and internationally it looks like some of the other presenters did. I will have to download more videos.


*See, for example:
Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution
Evolution and Environment (Collected Works of Peter Kropotkin)
Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread’ and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)

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The scientific study of religion

Book Review: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion by Pascal Boyer, Editors Thomas M. Schmidt and Mi­chael G. Parker

Price: 39.90 EUR [D]; US$58.00; NZ$109.00.
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (July 21, 2010)
ISBN-10: 3525569408
ISBN-13: 978-3525569405

I recently saw this quote: In the old days, religion was needed to make sense of the world. These days, the world can’t make sense of religion I don’t know who it’s from but I liked it. Religion is widespread. It can motivate people for good and for bad. So, like it or not, modern societies find it necessary to interact with religion and this is sometimes problematic. This book is helpful for this as it provides an overview of findings from the scientific study of religion

It’s a version of lectures given by Pascal Boyer at the Universities of Frankfurt and Gießen, in May 2008 (as part of the Templeton Research Lectures on science and religion). Boyer explains that “being lectures, these were delivered in the form of sermons – that is, in this case, with greater emphasis on argument than evidence.” Descriptions of experimental studies are minimal but each chapter is well-referenced and there is a 7-page bibliography.

This has the advantage of providing an authoritative overview and access to the literature in a short book (112 pages in total, including a 5-page afterword or critique of the lectures by theologians Elisabeth Gräb-Schmidt and Wolfgang Achtner).

As well as describing conclusions from the scientific study of religious thought Boyer also explores the implications for several questions: “Can there be a free civil society with religions? Does it make sense to talk about religious experience?” And “Do religions make people better? “

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Trust the experts – if they say what we want

Scientific American has a short podcast on confirmation bias.  (Download the podcast) It especially relates to trusting experts in areas like climate change.

Christie Nicholson points out (see We Only Trust Experts If They Agree With Us):

We think we trust experts. But a new study finds that what really influences our opinions, more than listening to any expert, is our own beliefs.

Researchers told study subjects about a scientific expert who accepted climate change as real. Subjects who thought that commerce can be environmentally damaging were ready to accept the scientist as an expert. But those who came into the study believing that economic activity could not hurt the environment were 70 percent less likely to accept that the scientist really was an expert.

Then the researchers flipped the situation. They told different subjects that the same hypothetical scientist, with the same accreditation, was skeptical of climate change. Now those who thought that economic activity cannot harm the environment accepted the expert, and the other group was 50 percent less likely to believe in his expertise. The study was published in the Journal of Risk Research.

The investigators found similar results for various other issues, from nuclear waste disposal to gun control. Said one of the authors, “People tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

So true. And I believe perfectly natural. Confirmation bias is a human trait that has to be overcome in science. Fortunately the requirement for validating ideas against reality and the social nature of scientific research helps this.

Why the beliefs?

The questions is – why do we have these beliefs? Perhaps we can understand their origins in areas like politics, religion and support for sport teams – often these beliefs are hereditary. But climate change is a different issue.

I think that a lot of the resistance to scientific knowledge on climate change come out of the nature of the problems and our psychological response to such situations. The problems seem so immense and long term it is tempting to adopt avoidance techniques.  Out psychological reactions to the problems caused by human influences on climate change seem to parallel our psychological handling of grief. We have reactions of anger, denial, selection of evidence, etc. Hopefully humanity as a who can reach the stages of acceptance and action before it is too late.

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A scientific consensus on human morality

There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.


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Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind

Book Review: The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind by John S. Allen


Price: US$32.04; NZ$79.97
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher:
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (October 30, 2009)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0674035348
ISBN-13:
978-0674035348

Dr Jaak Panksepp in Episode 65 of the Brain science Podcast commented “In order to understand the mind—especially the emotional mind, there’s no alternative but to take an evolutionary perspective. The only organ we have in the body that is clearly evolutionarily layered is the brain.” I guess we could also say that an evolutionary perspective makes it easier to understand the brain itself. And this is the perspective taken by John S. Allen in this book. As he says: “a thorough understanding of human brain biology requires an appreciation of it evolutionary history.”

However, Allen doesn’t present this evolutionary history as a simple account. Instead he explores evolution of the human brain using recent research in palaeoanthropology,  brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and other related fields. This provides a rewarding resource for the reader. Chapters include, Brain size, The plastic Brain, Molecular evolution of the Brain, Evolution of Feeding Behaviour, The Ageing Brain, Language and Brain evolution, and Optimism and evolution of the Brain.

The result is an extensive and balanced coverage. This provides a picture of the current status of understanding. There is no tidy story; rather he presents competing hypotheses with some evaluation of their standings. Original papers are referenced and there are 45 pages of references included.

This more direct linking to current research and some of the terminology used may provide difficulties for the lay person. However, most readers will find chapters which are closer to their interests. I found some chapters easier to follow than others – purely because of different levels of familiarity with the different fields.

For the student and the professional

The book begins with an outline – The Human Brain in Brief – which is ideal for the newcomer to this field. It’s basically anatomical but provides a foundation for later chapters covering the separate aspects.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone with only a passing interest in the subject. But even the layperson will find this useful if they wish to extend their knowledge in the overall subject or one of the specific fields covered.

I was intrigued to read how evidence for the evolutionary history of our brain is gained from diverse fields. Not just the fossil records, with all the problems it presents for soft tissues, but also molecular biology, feeding behaviour, aging and language. And the evidence is related. Allen says: “The expansion of neuroscience over the last twenty years really has seen the beginnings of the development of a truly holistic, synthetic approach to mental phenomena.” And this approach extends into related fields.

Summarising the subject, Allen says: “The cause for optimism in the study of the evolution of the human brain is not due to the fact that we have obtained a hardened, certain view of the past, but that there are so many fronts on which progress is being made.”

Sounds like an exciting time to be doing this sort of research.

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Fallout from Hauser affair spreads

For background to the scientific misconduct charges circulating around Marc D Hauser have a look at A paper by Marc Hauser retracted – Harvard Magazine, A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the “scientific misconduct” issue, Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement, Marc Hauser replies – acknowledges mistakes and The myth of the noble scientist.

While Hauser’s acknowledgment confirms the eight misconduct charges mentioned by Harvard University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Sciences there is concern that the misconduct will taint the rest of Hauser’s work and publications.

It’s probably understandable that full clarity must await the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies but inevitably there will be speculation. Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, posted a statement on his blog saying that his own review of information provided to him by Harvard has convinced him that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 Cognition paper. This is the paper that is being retracted. (Two other published papers are being corrected and the other five incidents did not result in publications or were corrected before publication).

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Is and ought

I have been watching some of the videos from the Edge seminar THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY. There will eventually be about 10 hours of talks and discussions posted on the Edge site. From the few presentations I have seen so far this looks to have been a fascinating seminar.

Partly because the science is relatively new – but also because there has been a lot of progress made. However, there are of course areas which promote intense discussion. I get the impression, for example, that several of the participants wish to challenge to dogma that one can’t determine an ought from an is. It’s going to be interesting to see that debate played out.

WEIRD culture and reasoning

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathon Haidt was the first speaker and made some interesting points about the relevance of a science centred largely around specialists from advanced western countries. He is using the acronym WIERD for the orientation around cultures in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. This analysis comes from a recent paper The weirdest people in the world ? by J Henrich, SJ Heine and A Norenzayan. Those authors say “we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

Haidt also discusses some fallacies about human reasoning. “The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” Again he refers to a recent paper by Mercier and Sperber – Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an argumentative theory. This is an interesting paper discussing human problems like confirmation bias, the human problem of search for evidence to support an preconceived conclusion.

Obviously both these problems are very relevant to a seminar like this. Go to the Edge site for a video of Jonothan’s presentation or download and audio file (MP3 Audio Download — Jonathan Haidt Talk).

Sam Harris and a role for science

As Sam Harris was one of the participants the seminar will surely have also discussed his ideas on the role of science in determining right and wrong. He presented these ideas in two recent lectures and they resulted in a lot of discussion, and controversy, on a number of scientific blogs (see Can science answer moral questions? and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0).

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