Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why we care about morality - apparently

The good thing about holidays is getting time to read books. I' ll look at all the museos, oratorios, cappellas and duomos in Italy provided I can go back to my book when day is done. On this trip one book I read was Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene, a young professor of psychology at Harvard.

One of the hottest areas of psychology these days is moral psychology - the science of moral cognition - which seeks to explain why we have moral sentiments and what use they are to us. It' s pretty coldly scientific and evolutionary, which may be disconcerting to readers of a religious disposition.

According to Greene and his confreres - another leading thinker in the area is Jonathan Haight, author of The Righteous Mind, which I' ve written about before - humans are fairly selfish individuals, but we are also highly social animals who like to be part of groups.

Groups, however, require co-operative behaviour, so we evolved moral attitudes to enable us to get along together in groups.

Biologists (and economists) have long stressed the importance of competition between us - survival of the fittest and all that - but it s not hard to see that humans' domination of the planet arises from our unmatched ability to co-operate with each other to overcome problems.

So humans are about competition and co-operation. Economists have schooled us to think of markets as all about competition - between sellers, between buyers and between buyers and sellers - but psychologists see markets as a prime example of human co-operation.

Co-operation through markets allows us to use specialisation - I produce what I' m good at, you do the same and we use the medium of money to exchange the things we ve produced - to increase our combined efficiency in production, leaving us all better off.

Studies have shown that people' s performance in well-known psychology games giving them a choice between selfish or altruistic responses can differ markedly between cultures. Turns out that people from cultures with more developed market systems tend to be less selfish and more co-operative.

So to these scientists, morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of co-operation within groups.

But why do we want to co-operate within groups? So our group can compete more effectively against other groups.

" Our moral machinery evolved to strike a biologically advantageous balance between selfishness (Me) and within-group co-operation (Us), without concern for people who are more likely to be competitors than allies (Them), " Greene says. This moral machinery includes our capacities for empathy, vengefulness, honour, guilt, embarrassment and righteous indignation, he adds.

The fact is that each of us belongs to a whole host of groups: our family, neighbourhood, workplace, occupation, nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sporting interest, political party and more.

The groups we belong to are the tribes we belong to. We feel a great loyalty to our groups, and greatly favour their interests over those of rival groups. This group selfishness and tendency to see the world as Us versus Them is tribalism.

So, much of the conflict we see around us - both within our country and, as we' ve become more conscious of in recent days, between countries and the groups within them - arises from tribalism.

Much of the conflict between tribes is simple self-interest - I favour my interests ahead of yours, and see them much more clearly than I see yours - but there are also genuine differences in values and disagreements about the proper terms of co-operation. One major source of disagreement in political life is between individual and collective responsibility.

Some disagreement arises from tribes' differing allegiances to what Greene calls " proper nouns" - gods, leaders, holy scriptures and holy places.

Obviously, tribally based morality gets us only so far. What Greene seeks is a "meta-morality" , which can help reduce conflict between tribes rather than just within them. To this end he reaches back to an old idea now out of favour with philosophers: utilitarianism.

(This is of relevance to economists because, though they 've spent the past 80 years trying to play it down, utilitarianism forms part of the bedrock on which the conventional economic model is built.)

According to Greene, utilitarianism answers two basic questions: what really matters and who really matters. What matters most is the quality of our experience. Economists call this " utility" and the rest of us call it "happiness" .

Who matters most is all of us, equally - otherwise known as the Golden Rule.

Thus Greene summarises utilitarianism as " happiness is what matters and everyone' s happiness counts the same. This doesn 't mean that everyone gets to be equally happy, but it does means than no one' s happiness is inherently more valuable than anyone else' s ."

He claims this meta-morality involves a moral system that can acknowledge moral trade-offs and adjudicate among them, and can do so in a way that makes sense to members of all tribes.

It s a nice thought. Somehow I think it will be a while before we measure up to that ideal. But it s always good to have a vision of what we should be aiming for and how we can move towards it.