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5/28/13

Morality, Wall Street, & Capuchin Monkeys

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In Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic, Charleston Heston descends from Mount Sinai to deliver morality from God to His people. The Ten Commandments  indicates that it comes from the top down, from the deity to us. We are told what to do and that is that. But does moral behavior depend on rules from on high?

One account in the Bible has the place as Mount Sinai and another as Mount Horeb, the difference providing a metaphor of the rather confusing ontology of Biblical right and wrong. In a different instance, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar to test the man's faith and, faith proven, relents to let a ram be bled instead. In this, morality is overshadowed by unquestioning obedience, a fitting example for fascists.

The leap from Darwin is often to amorality or to a morality revised into survival of the fittest, as Herbert Spencer would have it in the 19th Century.  Spencer popularized Social Darwinism, a view neglecting observation of nature. He was not alone. Morality has become problematic for many largely because--no fault of his own--Charles Darwin left some people with a singular misunderstanding of evolution.

Many regard natural selection as wholly amoral or if there is a lesson it is dog-eat-dog. Spencerian survival of the fittest suggests that nature selects the strongest individuals and they produce offspring into future generations. In fact, Darwin observed that natural selection had nothing to do with strength or brute force. For him the weaker could survive if a single trait were better adapted to the environment or if the species evolved a mechanism of cooperation among one another.

Cooperation was seen by Darwin as growing from the bottom up, out of natural selection into species and in it we find a way to understand our own morality. We do not get morals originally through religion but through our own biology. Those who study the behavior of primates or mammals in general find that morality had to evolve from precedents, which is to say from the bottom.The philosophical implication is that it is not handed down from on high, by religion, God, or that its support can be deduced only from intellectual reason such as in the theories of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant.  Not God, not rational theory.  Rather, we are born with it and all mammals have a degree of it because to a different extent each species is cooperative and in humans cooperation forms the basis of concepts for right and wrong. As for top-down, some people use this type of theory to argue for a rational free market.

Not that Darwin had anything to do with economics and the school of rational self-interest, but that many of those who misunderstood him adopted a rather Ayn Randian view of market forces.  Rand and others were helped along in the mistake by Herbert Spencer with his Social Darwinism. Throw a misunderstanding of Nietzsche's superman into the mix and you get Hitler's pure-blooded Aryans as well as Ayn Rand, in which certain individuals should not be constrained by a morality they view as that of the herd. Apart from Rand, rational economics also imposes its Procustean theory on human nature.

Some might argue that in economic theory rationalists have it backwards because they claim a top-down explanation of human economic behavior. The rationality is that an individual acts as if  balancing costs against benefits to arrive at an action that maximizes personal advantage. I have watched the stock market long enough to know that free market forces are not rational, despite the school of rational economics.

Better, that future theorists take a bottom-up look at real primate and mammalian behavior. As an example, the experiments and observations of Frans de Waal, primatologist and ethologist at Emory University, Atlanta, tell us that, bottom-up, we are not very different from other animals. In short, morality comes with our DNA. In the following experiment with Capuchin monkeys we can see a basic sense of fairness at work. It reflects a sense of pay inequity.  In the video the monkey on the left is reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in 2011 in New York City's Zucotti Park.

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