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The New Science of Morality
July 26, 2010 7:22 AM   Subscribe

The New Science of Morality: An Edge seminar featuring talks (with full video, audio and text transcripts) by Paul Bloom, Roy Baumeister, Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc Hauser, Josua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro.
posted by AceRock (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm going to read it, I promise.

So, ok, as per the included NYT article - "Scientific research is showing that we are born with an innate moral sense." That's in accord with my own unformed thoughts on the subject.

I fear that modern business has learned how to suppress that instinct in themselves, while using it to trip up the rest of us. eg - personal morality keeps most of us paying our mortgage, while businesses will default or walk away from obligations as soon as a spreadsheet tells them to.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:41 AM on July 26, 2010


I fear that modern business has learned how to suppress that instinct in themselves

You're assuming that this posited 'innate' morality corresponds to universalistic moral norms. The 'ethics we're born with' may well say something like 'screw people who aren't part of your circle of blood relations/friendship groups' or something. I would be very, very surprised if 'evolved' moral codes just happened to dovetail with what you or I as liberal Westerners believe to be right.

From not all that deep into the article:

our biggest social problemswar, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc. — arising from our unwitting tendency to apply paleolithic moral thinking (also known as "common sense") to the complex problems of modern life. Our brains trick us into thinking that we have Moral Truth on our side when in fact we don't, and blind us to important truths that our brains were not designed to appreciate.

Perhaps modern business ethics - or the lack of such - could be added to that list. Maybe we're the ones who have learned to suppress our instincts.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Enlightenment ideas were the product of white male Christians living in the 18th century.

Heh. Take a look at yourselves, you über-moralizers.
posted by No Robots at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2010


You're assuming that this posited 'innate' morality corresponds to universalistic moral norms.

Only at the most basic of levels - the instinct that, on my first encounter with a new person or social encounter, and absent any other considerations, tells me whether to be extend a little trust, or to be immediately hostile. Of course learned behaviours are piled on top of this.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:58 AM on July 26, 2010


Interesting subject, bit I wish they'd lose the "new science" angle and focus on the mechanics. Their website reads like a new age seminar ad and that always sends up red flags for me. I don't want my science sold to me on any basis but the ideas involved, trying to wrap it up in a sexy marketing pitch just looks hypocritical and dishonest. The inclusion of Lanier and Eno in the "moral nine" does nothing to dispel that.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:13 AM on July 26, 2010


Actually, Lanier and Eno are not included in the "moral nine", they just have question for the researchers who presented at the seminar.
posted by AceRock at 10:18 AM on July 26, 2010


Devil's Advocate?
posted by IndigoJones at 10:37 AM on July 26, 2010


This is simply fantastic, AceRock! I'm unable to look at all this now, but these are real leaders in the study of moral psychology. I can't think of a field of inquiry in the social sciences that is more interesting and productive at this moment. There's so much material here that it doesn't lend itself to instant commenting and discussion, but you should know how much I appreciate you posting this.
posted by ferdydurke at 11:53 AM on July 26, 2010


Sound and fury, signifying nothing. Hume foreclosed for all time the notion of an empirically-grounded morality.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:15 PM on July 26, 2010


This is a lot of content! But I'm looking forward to listening to all these. Thanks for posting.
posted by lholladay at 12:44 PM on July 26, 2010


Edge went from being a brilliant showcase of ideas to cranky anti-religion site. I don't need some guy with an IQ of 160 to lecture me on the shocking truth about religion. I can get a 14-year-old kid to do that. I want to hear things that only guys with IQs of 160 can figure out. And that excludes morality, which belongs as much to the man with an IQ of 80 as it does to these great-brained geniuses like Brian Eno.
posted by Faze at 1:26 PM on July 26, 2010


Guys with IQs of 160 aren't necessarily deep thinkers. If they lack humility, they'll believe (and try to convince you) that their own snap judgments and unexamined prejudices are brilliant insights. Don't fall for it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:02 PM on July 26, 2010


Faze and Appleton -- what are you guys even talking about?
posted by AceRock at 2:37 PM on July 26, 2010


And that excludes morality, which belongs as much to the man with an IQ of 80 as it does to these great-brained geniuses like Brian Eno.

I don't quite get this. Yes, the "man with an IQ of 80" has moral impulses and, perhaps, an ethical framework he uses in order to make decisions. But does he have interesting theories (and experimental data) about where in the brain these impulses come from, whether or not they're pan-cultural, and whether or not we see glimmers of them in other primates?

I mean, maybe you just happen to be uninterested in those questions, but if moral impulses come from a natural process (e.g. the brain), then surely they are open to scientific inquiry. And, if that's true, then scientists can (at least in theory) tell us things about morality that lay-people can't.
posted by grumblebee at 3:15 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Yes, I know Brian Eno isn't a scientist.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:16 PM on July 26, 2010


Talkin' 'bout my generation.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:36 PM on July 26, 2010


Putting the 'full' in 'full video' in italics like that makes me think porn.

It's not porn, is it?

our biggest social problems — war, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc. — arising from our unwitting tendency to apply paleolithic moral thinking (also known as "common sense") to the complex problems of modern life

This is so wildly wrong as to be laughable, though, so I'm not sure it's worth it for my blood pressure to actually RTFA. Our biggest social problems arise from self-referential instrumental rationality, and the lack of qualities like ethics, memory and common sense, dumbass.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:17 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


stavros: Can you explain what you mean? I take that quote to mean the following: Our conventional morality, developed and evolved during a vastly different time, is inadequate for dealing with the complex problems that face modern humans, who have become aware of the existence of everyone else on the globe.

Can you define "self-referential instrumental rationality"? Because I'm not sure what you're getting at.

Not trying to be a dick.
posted by lholladay at 10:11 PM on July 26, 2010


but if moral impulses come from a natural process (e.g. the brain), then surely they are open to scientific inquiry. And, if that's true, then scientists can (at least in theory) tell us things about morality that lay-people can't.

I don't trust the Edge crowd to be making a sincere or disinterested investigation of the biological roots of morality. I think they just want to find a new angle to beat on religion 1.) to enjoy the pleasures of self-righteousness, 2) because it's so freakin' easy (compared to say, refuting some aspect of string theory), 4.) because girls "get it," unlike a lot of other things these genius guys talk about, 4.) because they're desperate to prove that the universe is a moral vacuum and that they will never be called to answer for the black crimes they carry on their souls.
posted by Faze at 5:12 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


4.) because they're desperate to prove that the universe is a moral vacuum and that they will never be called to answer for the black crimes they carry on their souls.

I share a lot of your skepticism about the motives of some of these people, but I hope that last point was a joke. Several of those guys (e.g. Harris, for all his faults) are moralists.

I am a strong atheist/skeptic. I am not sure what you mean by "moral vacuum," but if you mean that that there's no such thing as a cosmic morality (there are no moral laws the way there are laws of physics and that morality is a human "invention" (possibly shared, in a primitive form, with some other animals), then, yes, that's what I believe. And yet I'm a moralist.

Lack of belief in a cosmic morality != lack of morals.

Lack of belief in a cosmic morality != a dodge to avoid one's sins.
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 AM on July 27, 2010


One may feel guilty for the black crimes one carries on one's soul even in the absence of belief in the existence of a soul, creator, or moral order in the universe. All these terms evolved to describe something. We humans are strange.
posted by Faze at 8:39 AM on July 27, 2010


I don't feel guilty for the "black crimes I carry on my soul," because I don't believe I have a soul. But I feel very guilty about stuff that I (the corporeal me) have done that has harmed others. Shit, I'm in my 40s and I still feel guilty about stuff I did when I was five. (Yeah, I should probably get therapy at some point.)

I don't think there's anything strange about it. I don't take Evolutionary Psychology seriously as a proof-generating mechanism, but it's pretty good at generating reasonable hypotheses that can be tested. (And some that can't be tested, which should, of course, be immediately thrown in the trash.)

I (and others) hypothesize that, as social creatures, it makes sense that we'd evolved to have negative feelings about hurting other people. Otherwise we couldn't be social creatures.

I also don't understand why you paint a picture of those Edge guys as people who are positing a universe without souls/ethics in order to avoid moral responsibility. I'm not saying you're wrong (though I'd be surprised if you're right). I'm asking what you base that on. I am skeptical of your claim, because (a) many of those guys are avowed moralists and (b) most of the hundreds of atheists I've met are STAUNCH moralists.

Don't get me wrong. I am NOT a fan of the so-called "brights" and "new atheists." I am not even a fan of my own atheism. I think it's much better to be a theist than an atheist, and if I could wave a magic wand and make myself believe in God, I would.

I think most of those guys are ignorant of how real religion works for most real people. I think they have a child grasp of history. I think they constantly attack strawmen. I think they generally refuse to take a good, hard look at how much of their own beliefs are axiomatic instead of provable.

But I see no evidence that they are trying to avoid moral responsibility. And I see a lot of evidence to the contrary.
posted by grumblebee at 8:57 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can you define "self-referential instrumental rationality"? Because I'm not sure what you're getting at.

Sorry, I missed this earlier. It would take me far too many words to lay out the whole argument, and I have far too little time, so, the lazy man's explanation: a wiki link. Instrumental rationality.

A lot of what I think about this stuff, the stuff underlying my exasperated comment above, is informed by ideas John Ralston Saul wrote about in On Equilibrium and Voltaire's Bastards and some of his other books, which I've recommended here and elsewhere before.

You can probably get a pretty good idea of the thrust of the argument by skimming the reviews at the end of those links, but the books themselves are well worth your time.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:29 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]




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