Monday, April 1, 2013

The Roots of Morality: Primordial “Intuition” or Human Nature?

Are people, by nature, kind or rotten? Kind, according to a new field of study called “the neuroscience of moral judgment.” This field of study purports to find the root of proper moral judgement in the study of “other [non-human] primates” which “display the basics of altruism, reciprocity, empathy and a sense of justice.” Humans inherited those moral qualities, and the evidence can be observed in what Stanford University neuroscience professor Robert M. Sapolsky calls our “gut intuitions.” In his article Human -- For Better or Worse, the professor writes:

Light is shed on this in a recent study by David Rand and colleagues at Harvard, published in the prestigious journal Science, and the research is tragically relevant. The authors recruited volunteers to play one of those economic games in which individuals in a group are each given some hypothetical money; each person must decide whether to be cooperative and benefit the entire group, or to act selfishly and receive greater individual gain. A key part of the experiment was that the scientists altered how much time subjects had to decide whether to cooperate. And that made a difference. When people had to make a rapid decision based on their gut, levels of cooperation rose; give them time to reflect on the wisdom of their actions, and the opposite occurred.

The conclusion: when acting impulsively, our actions tend to be “noble,” for the betterment of the “common good”; i.e., altruistic. When we stop to think about it, our actions amount to “calculated greed”; selfishness. Reason, therefor, overpowers man's proper moral instincts, which were passed on to us from our primordial evolutionary past.

Reason, it seems, is the enemy of moral action--or at best, irrelevant.

But what do our “gut intuitions”--i.e., our emotions--really tell us? As philosopher Ayn Rand observed:

Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious...

Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.
Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses [Emphasis added].

Since our emotions are formed by our deepest convictions--whether consciously chosen or uncritically absorbed--they are a window, not into innate, primordial moral instincts biologically inherited from our pre-human ancestors, but into our subconscious value judgments. Since our subconscious value judgments can conflict with our conscious thoughts, it stands to reason that the odds favor doing one thing when acting on our “gut,” and another once we took the time to consciously think about it. Why tend to act “unselfishly” on our gut, but selfishly upon reflection? Because we live in a culture saturated with the idea that morality consists of selfless service to others (altruism), which conflicts with the practical requirement that in order to live and flourish, one must self-interestedly serve one’s own needs.

Unfortunately, most of us accept altruism uncritically--Sapolsky included--and that explains the dichotomy between our emotions and what our minds tell us we should do. The studies Sapolsky cites are a reflection of cultural norms, rather than evidence of inherited instincts.

Which brings us back to Sapolsky’s original question: Are people, by nature, kind or rotten? The answer is, neither. Sapolsky implies that observations of humans’ “gut intuitions” (emotions) prove the validity of altruism. But, the gut intuitions themselves are derived from previously acquired moral teachings, which then generate the gut intuitions. His whole hypothesis is nothing more than circular logic.

Sapolsky and the researchers’ moral bias is obvious. Take a look at the fallacies embedded in Sapolsky’s moral assumptions. For one, Sapolsky equates morality with altruism, as if it is a settled matter that their are no other possible moral theories worthy of consideration. For another, he equates altruism with caring for and cooperating with others, empathy, justice, and so on, and selfishness with "looking out for No. 1" to the exclusion of any concern with the well-being of others. But, in fact, the opposite is true.

Selfishness properly understood can and does lead to voluntary, mutually beneficial cooperation with others, and it’s evident all around us. Businesses, sports, charities, clubs, schools, political or intellectual advocacy groups, and any number of other examples, including the very studies cited here, prove that cooperating toward a common goal is perfectly consistent with self-interest.

Altruism demands self-sacrificially placing the needs of others above self; the corollary of which means expecting others to self-sacrificially put our own needs above theirs. The two-sided subconscious emotional premise created in our minds by such a setup is: Anyone and everyone with a need is a threat to my own well-being, since it is my duty to satisfy others’ needs by sacrificing my own values. On the other hand, since my needs are others’ responsibility, any unmet needs or desires I may have are the fault of others holding out on me. The automatized emotional result? Mutual suspicion, hostility, and greed. A sense of entitlement. A sense that morality is my enemy, because it forbids me, under penalty of unearned guilt, to take care of myself, because that would deprive others of their rightful claim to my efforts. Sapolsky observes that “cynicism and distrust” are “commonplace” in the adult world. What else would one expect in a culture of altruism?

The opposite morality, egoism--which holds that your life is your responsibility and it is thus proper to act for your own betterment rather that self-sacrifice for others--leads logically to benevolent feelings toward others. Mutual respect and admiration for each others’ rights and achievements are the hallmarks of egoism, because we know, as egoists, that acting for one’s own betterment is right. Since our basic moral assumptions about ourselves tend to get projected outward, an egoist regards others as having a moral right to their own lives as an end in themselves, and rejects as immoral either side granting or demanding sacrifices to or from the other.

Returning to Sapolsky’s article:

Scientists such as Jonathan Haidt of New York University have shown that we frequently feel rather than think our way to moral judgments; in general, the more effective parts of our brains generate quick, intuitive, moral decisions ("I can't tell you why, but that is wrong, wrong, wrong"), while the more cognitive parts play catch-up milliseconds to years later to come up with logical rationales for our gut intuitions.

Since Sapolsky assumes altruism is good, what is he doing, if not generating “logical rationales” for his “gut intuition”--i.e., pre-conceived notion--that altruism is good? Since altruism can never be justified rationally, Sapolsky has two choices; check his own premises, or look for justification outside of the scope of the study of the facts of reality regarding human nature.

He chooses non-human nature, which makes his thesis demonstrably false.

Whatever “moral intuitions” our primate ancestors possessed, those intuitions do not constitute morality. Morality is an attribute associated with free will. Pre-humans are governed by instinct, and to the extent that they act “altruistically,” they are acting in accordance with their nature as instinctual beings; in accordance with the automatic impulses programmed into them by nature. Since the moral is the chosen, any alleged moral “instinct” observed among “other primates” is not morality at all, but a pre-programmed act of self-preservation.

Human beings are not pre-human primates. They are beings of a specific nature--the distinguishing factor being their rational, conceptual mind. One can not identify the moral code of a rational creature by studying non-rational creatures, and it is silly to try. Man is not ape. Apes are governed by instinct. Man is not. Apes are instinctually programmed to act for their own survival. Man is not. Man is a moral being; meaning, he must choose the values that further his life. Apes are not moral beings, because they do not have to choose their values. Nature provides them that knowledge automatically. Man’s values must be chosen, and he can choose either the right values or the wrong values. But he has no automatic knowledge of which is which; which is why he needs a moral code.

But man’s moral code--the philosophical frame of reference guiding his choices--is not provided by instinct, intuition, or evolution. Man's moral code, too, must be discovered. How does one discover man’s moral code? By studying pre-human primates? Of course not. It is discovered by studying man. And his moral code, like his other values, must be adopted by choice. Here, too, he can choose either the right moral code, or the wrong moral code. The code he chooses will, for better or for worse, determine the course and happiness (or lack of) of his life.

An ethics proper to man can only be found in the observable facts relating to the requirements of man’s survival and of his nature as a being whose means of survival is his rational faculty. Since this fact-based observation logically disqualifies altruism and validates egoism, perhaps the purpose of the field of “neuroscience of moral judgment” is to “validate”--i.e., rationalize--altruism by studying the survival requirements of non-humans. Hey, at least these scientists can claim to base their conclusions on observation and logic.

The problem is, they're not observing the right facts.

Here we have alleged scientists declaring that human reason is irrelevant to the field of study these scientists are engaged in. We are to believe that morality has nothing to do with thinking, the very attribute that distinguishes humans from all other known primates and life forms; and worse, that the very process of thinking erases moral behavior from the realm of human action. If you use your capacity for reason, you are not and can not act morally, because acting morally means--by definition--acting without thinking.

Ayn Rand, of course, proved otherwise. Her moral theory, rational egoism, is derived from the study of man. It is the moral code that people must choose if they want to guiltlessly flourish, because it is a moral code proper to man.

Related Reading:

Loving Life, by Craig Biddle

The Is-Altruism Dichotomy, by Craig Biddle

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