November 2, 2013

Good And Evil: Hardwired, Learned, Or Both?

by Piercarlo Valdesolo
Scientific American, October 29, 2013

"The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become.  And we may be aggressing towards individuals who are, in fact, 'redeemable.'  Individuals who are not intrinsically and immutably motivated by the desire to intentionally cause harm to others."

What if our strong reductionistic, deterministic scientists some day establish an irrefutable gene, gene complex, and/or a neural basis for evil? Would redemption, atonement, and rehabilitation still be possible? Why bother? What would become of societal values, moral codes and laws, of individual deliberative judgment?  Would we regard them simply as post hoc rationalizations of what our genes and brains direct us to do? Would the social sciences become mere descriptions of artifacts and a cataloguing of individual, societal, and global events that genes and brains have dictated?

This scenario should frighten you far more than that of Orwell's "1984." Happily, many of us are not strong reductionistic determinists and those who are have not made their case. If they ever do, we may or may not adjust to it, individually, as societies, or as a species. That is, we may not be psychologically capable of accepting that thinking what you think is free will is merely an illusion created by, or a trick played on "you" by, your (the) brain so that "you" will acquiesce to its will.  A society of non-responsible persons behaving in response to brains and genes they cannot control ceases to become a society.  If a society is possible how will its brains communicate with each other to agree on the structures and functions of the society, and what is to be done when an embodied brain’s body violates the normative social structures and functions?

I am almost certain that this paradigm will never come about. Reasoning is a brain-produced, dynamic interplay between our personal understanding of the ideas and behaviors other humans provide and our experience. We don't learn these ideas and behaviors in order to rationalize the predispositions and will of our brains and genes, as Jonathon Haidt and others try to convince us. We learn them and rely on them to ameliorate and at times override our biological predilections.

This is perhaps the most important innovation in all of Humankind's history - our ability to manage and direct the workings of our bodies (including the heritable inclinations our brains) using the accumulated beliefs, values, laws, and other moral systems of our various and collective cultural evolutionary legacies. We have learned that it is beneficial to do so in order that we, collectively, have a better opportunity to achieve broader and more complex goals beyond our biological drives and personal needs and desires. The overthrow of this paradigm, the foundational strategy of Humankind's greatest achievements, is most unlikely.

Evolutionary/moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his currently popular book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), tries to convince readers that reasoning is a brain-contrived process for rationalizing our purportedly more powerful biologically based behaviors. In doing so he gives scant attention to an important and widely accepted fact, a fact apparent to most social scientists and the experience of the vast majority of human beings.  That is, reasoning is a brain-produced process at the core of, and the driving force underlying, human cultural adaptation, our evolutionary hallmark.  And that the brain’s physiology and chemistry and our genetic coding are platforms and behavioral potential substrates that are inert without the learning and experience of persons.

Haidt, though in his book makes infrequent and weak concessions to the override capacity of reasoning, goes to great lengths to minimize reasoning's importance.  See my review of his book:  ”Critique – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

I'm a strong supporter of natural scientific reductionism and determinism.  However, I think this method is inappropriately focused on by Haidt and others, to the almost total exclusion of other methods, for finding and explaining the first cause, the fundamental determinant of complex human behavior. See my post on explanatory pluralism.  Haidt, in lock-step with many others at present, is under the now wildly popular tow of biologism.  Regrettably, they try to minimize the power of culture over our biology and choose not to emphasis the strong, necessary, and interdependent relationship between the two.

Understanding a "human" being is a far broader and complex pursuit than a reductionistic search for primal essentials and causes in his/her brain and genes. The brain/body empowers with potential.  It does not think or act in a social, historical, or cultural context. Persons do.  Collective knowledge put into action makes us human. When brain/body, using collective and experiential knowledge, engages the world and universe an emergent domain comes into being where our humanness may be found, and fully and appropriately understood.

Brains and genes are objects, substrates, vehicles. Their contribution to human behavior must be studied and thoroughly understood. Persons, to the contrary, are irreducible human subjects, agents with emergent capabilities.  Understanding them requires more than one method and one level of analysis. [No, please don't trot out I'm into woo or ghosts in boxes.]

On this blog and in my book I strongly advocate for a science of morality –Secular Truth and Morality: Being Virtuous, Happy, and at Peace Without God and ReligionStrong scientism and a disregard for explanatory pluralism hinder and misdirect the establishment of a science-derived morality.

Evil, goodness, and all else moral arose during our mammalian, primate, and human cultural evolution.  Far more of our most human moral inheritance has been retained and passed on culturally, not be genetic reproduction.  Our moral legacies continue in our thoughts, behaviors, oral histories, religions, and libraries, not in the chemistry of our genes and brains.  Brains may only be culpable for human behavior when they are incapable of being an effective platform for reasoning and humaneness.


Judith Moore said...

Good essay. I enjoyed reading it. I am interested in your use of "persons." Would souls or selves describe the same concept? As you often point out, agreeing on definitions is so important to real dialogue.

Jim Lassiter said...

Thanks, Judith. "Soul" is too loaded a term. I prefer self and person which I view as the same. My take on the nature of the self/person, including ownership, is in my conclusion in the following post: Cheers!