To read some of the research, you'd think humans should have gone extinct long ago. To read cynics, or the news, you'd think we're likely to go extinct within a generation of two. Certainly we've done and continue to do some horrific things, as ongoing wars, genocides, and even single events like the murder of Dr. George Tiller illustrate. Is there any hope for us to progress as a species?
I suppose that depends on how you define progress. If you mean resolving our differences and living truly beneficent lives, probably not. But if you mean struggling with our problems and not letting them swamp our potential, our biology and history suggest there's cause for hope.
More below the fold....
Moral Equations, Game Theory, and Human Struggle
Morning Feature began this week by suggesting the murderer of Dr. George Tiller failed in his jihad, his moral struggle. That failure happened long before he walked into Dr. Tiller's church and pulled the trigger. The failure of jihad happened when he stopped struggling with the difficult moral questions posed by abortion and decided he'd found a Right Answer for which he was willing to kill an unarmed human being.
The killer rationalized that murder as acceptable, in part, because he didn't see himself and Dr. Tiller as members of the same group. For the rest of the week, we explored psychologist Jonathan Haidt's research on moral reasoning, which offers five basic principles we use in moral reasoning: (1) avoid harm and care for others; (2) fairness and reciprocity; (3) group identity and loyalty; (4) obedience to authority; and, (5) personal purity, meaning both avoiding what disgusts us and self-denial to serve the greater needs of society.
Wednesday we looked at how progressives and conservatives use different moral equations in examining moral questions. Haidt's research suggests that progressive weigh more heavily the first two principles - avoid harm and care for others, and fairness and reciprocity - while conservatives weigh all five principles about equally. In particular, conservatives' greater weighing of group identity and loyalty may suggest they're more likely to conclude "It's OK if You're in My Group." Thursday we explored group identity and loyalty through the lens of progressives' response to President Obama, and whether we're more or less likely to give someone "the benefit of the doubt" if we identify that person as a member of our own group. And yesterday we looked at how we both define group identity and encourage group loyalty by the cognitive process called Othering.
I've focused on group identity and loyalty rather than Haidt's other principles for two reasons. First, both progressives and conservatives generally agree on the importance of the first two principles, and the last two principles - obedience to authority and personal purity - at least to some extent rely on group identity and loyalty. Authority is a group-based concept, as the source and legitimacy of authority varies according to the group. And while there seem to be some near universal disgust responses - almost no humans eat their own feces - most of what we identity as personal purity is layered on by culture.
Second, as Haidt notes both at the beginning and again at the conclusion of that video, group identity and loyalty tend to inhibit our seeking of truth. He notes that these five moral principles really aren't about a quest for "truth" or "virtue." They are cognitive tools that enable us to cooperate and survive as a social species: a species that lives in and relies on large groups in order to survive. If we esteem group loyalty too highly, it can yield a mob mentality that subsumes all of the other moral principles.
"So you're saying humans are stupid?"
On the other hand, we are a group-dependent species, and refusing to acknowledge that can cause its own problems. In a college math class we were studying game theory, which is one of my favorite fields of applied mathematics. We'd just compared predictions of The Prisoner's Dilemma - a classic game theory problem - with data on how often suspects betray their partners in interrogations. Even if you use actual conviction rate and sentencing data for the game theory equations, suspects betray their partners less often than the equations predict.
Our professor had noted a similar split between theory and real world behavior in a variation of the Fair Division problem. In that variation, Able is given a sum of money and told he can divide it between himself and Baker as he wishes. Game theory says Able should keep all of it, as this satisfies the Pareto Optimal; Baker's situation is unchanged because he never had any of the money to begin with. But when real people play the game, Able usually offers Baker a roughly 30% split.
"So you're saying humans are stupid?" one of my classmates asked.
"Maybe," our professor replied. "Or maybe game theorists are stupidly assuming we're all selfish."
The professor went on to explain that almost every mathematical analysis in game theory is premised on each individual trying to maximize his/her individual benefit or minimize his/her individual risk. But that's not how we humans really think. We're a social species, and we do consider others when we make decisions. The professor offered the example of our having house pets, whose costs can be objectively quantified in time and money, but whose benefits are entirely subjective.
She suggested one of those benefits was altruism. Having a pet gives us someone to care for and to be responsible to and for, and we seem to like that. Game theory takes no measure of altruism, or at least not directly. Our professor proposed that the difference between the "optimal" behaviors predicted by game theory and the way we humans actually behave is the measure of altruism. Haidt's research would support that, as altruism - avoiding harm and caring for others - seems to be a cardinal moral principle. Haidt suggests that impulse is coded into our DNA to better enable us to cooperate and survive as a social species.
Our human struggle:
Yet I don't need to list examples to prove that human beings can also be selfish, and sometimes horribly so. Indeed the nightly news often seems almost a catalog of human selfishness. As we were taught in journalism school, "If it bleeds, it leads." If we were to watch the news and have no other information on our species, we'd conclude the cynics are right and we should have been extinct long ago, or will be extinct within a few generations. So which are we, selfish or altruistic?
The answer, for me, is that we're both, and the struggle between those two impulses is an inescapable element of the human condition. We're selfish because we're individual organisms, or at the very least we experience ourselves that way most of the time. But we're altruistic because we're a social species, and our sociality is as much a part of our biology as our individuality.
If Haidt's thesis is true and those five moral principles are indeed coded in our biology as evolution's "first draft" of moral reasoning, they would be biological evidence of our struggle to accommodate our individuality and our sociality. There is ample historical evidence to corroborate that perpetual struggle, from the many religions and other ethical philosophies we've created to our variations on government and the institution law. We keep trying to find a best balance between our individual desires, our societal needs, our resources, our estimates of virtue, and our inevitable mistakes, misunderstandings, misjudgments, and misdeeds.
When we are at our best, we struggle with the Right Questions in seeking that best balance, at least for a given dispute and for a given moment. And when we are at our worst, we abandon that struggle, either concluding we've found the Right Answers Once And For All, or giving up and giving in to our own worst instincts and desires. When we abandon that struggle, we choose pride or cynicism over the frustrating, excruciating questions for which we can find no easy or permanent answers. We think we understand too much, or we give up on understanding altogether.
Perhaps it's not our duty to understand. Perhaps our duty is to struggle toward understanding, and to encourage and help each other in that struggle. Perhaps it's the struggle - not the understanding - that defines our morality. And if so, I think there's cause for hope.