J Walking

The NYT has a thought-provoking article on whether morality – “do unto others” for instance – is written in our genes. Sexy premise – evolution offers the answers to morality:

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.
At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?

Sexy premise, lame article.
– The article begins with a willfully false premise – that evolution and God are somehow mutually exclusive options. That makes for compelling reading but isn’t intellectually or spiritually sound. Consider, for instance, someone like Francis Collins. Collins, an evangelical, also heads the Human Genome Project, and finds evolution perfectly compatible with God. So too does the Catholic Church and countless millions of other Christians.
– More significantly, however, the article is an example of false advertising. It doesn’t offer answers to questions like why humans practice altruism or engage in self-sacrifice – things that make zero sense in natural selection. Rather it focuses on how this particular researcher has redefined morality into five areas none of which have to do with questions of altruism, self-sacrifice, etc.:

He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant.
Dr. Haidt developed a better sense of the elephant after visiting India at the suggestion of an anthropologist, Richard Shweder. In Bhubaneswar, in the Indian state of Orissa, Dr. Haidt saw that people recognized a much wider moral domain than the issues of harm and justice that are central to Western morality. Indians were concerned with integrating the community through rituals and committed to concepts of religious purity as a way to restrain behavior.On his return from India, Dr. Haidt combed the literature of anthropology and psychology for ideas about morality throughout the world. He identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.
Of the moral systems that protect individuals, one is concerned with preventing harm to the person and the other with reciprocity and fairness. Less familiar are the three systems that promote behaviors developed for strengthening the group. These are loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity.

I think Dr. Haidt’s work is fascinating and important. Who knows what it may yield. But the article is an example of sensationalist journalism that fundamentally misleads the reader.

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