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8/12/09

Evolutionary Morality: Point & Counterpoint

Some people find offensive the idea that our moral behavior is grounded in the way our brains evolved. That is, evolutionary psychology explains morality as a response to the way our emotions developed over eons. Some of those who take exception believe that human beings should behave ethically, as in the way an adult exercises moral discipline to follow his or her proper upbringing. I express the matter that simply because I have met people who believe it to be that simple--that "resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," to borrow from Hamlet. In other words, act and you will act properly. Just don't think too much.

The classic trolley problem presents the peculiarity of human morality. One version of it goes like this: A runaway trolley is headed downhill toward a large group of people standing at the bottom. To save their lives consider a thought experiment. You have two choices. The first choice: Push a very large man in front of the trolley, thereby derailing it and saving the lives of the people at the bottom. The second choice: Pull a lever that diverts the trolley onto another track where it will crash into a house below, killing the occupant. In either case, one person will die, but many will be saved. Which would you choose? Typically, the choice is for number two as the idea of physically pushing another person is even more repugnant than pulling the lever. For a cartoon offering a different, humorous, version, click here.

Evolutionary psychologists would call this preference a case of evolutionary morality. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging would reveal that of the two thoughts, killing a person with a lever does not arouse in the brain feelings as strong as actually pushing a man in front of a trolley.

With regard to morality, I came across an article which offers the standard view. It cites Stanley Milgram's experiments supposedly revealing the torturer in everybody. Then I found a counterpoint to that perspective.

The standard view. First, this excerpt from the article:

"What makes some of us saints and some of us sinners? The evolutionary roots of morality. It isn't surprising that the best-known experiments in psychology (apart from Pavlov's salivating dogs) are those Stanley Milgram ran beginning in the 1960s. Over and over, with men and women, with the old and the young, he found that when ordinary people are told to administer increasingly stronger electric shocks to an unseen person as part of a 'learning experiment,' the vast majority—sometimes 93 percent—complied, even when the learner (actually one of the scientists) screamed in anguish and pleaded, 'Get me out of here!' Nor is it surprising that Milgram's results have been invoked to explain atrocities from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib and others in which ordinary people followed orders to commit heinous acts. What is surprising is how little attention science has paid to the dissenters in Milgram's experiments. Some participants did balk at following the command to torture their partner. As one of them, World War II veteran Joseph Dimow*, recalled decades later, "I refused to go any further." More

The counterpoint. At another link, I found this comment on the above article:

The standard view article's author "accepts a current popular view of ethics: it is rooted in evolution and grounded in emotions. She briefly runs through the stock argument for the claim that morality is an evolved behavior. Roughly put, the argument is that our primate relatives show what we would consider altruistic behavior (like helping each other or enduring hardship to avoid harming others of their kind). Naturally, the primates are more altruistic with their relatives. It is assumed that our primate ancestors had this same sort of behavior and it helped them survive, thus leading to us and our ethical behavior.

Perhaps this 'just so' story is true. Let us allow that it is." More
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*"I'm not certain about it, but I would attribute it to my upbringing, background, education -- things of that sort," says Dimow as quoted in a review by Michael Smith at WebMD. "And I think something [is] happening in one's life that makes them, not an outsider, but skeptical of going along with the crowd. And it's probably helpful to have some determination to think in an unorthodox manner and to question assumptions."

Dimow says his parents told him at an early age that while he should listen to his teachers, he should know that teachers aren't always right. He taught this lesson to his own children. Science just gives us descriptions of what is. What we should do is a matter of ethics.

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