Science discovers values

It is an astonishing fact that the great mainstream of Greek and Western moral philosophy, a veritable Amazon of genius, has been on the wrong track for 2,500 years.  From Socrates to John Rawls, the assumption has been that reason can discover right conduct, while passion or emotion merely cloud one’s rational judgment and cause misbehavior.  There is not a shred of evidence in support of that proposition.  One has only to read a single Socratic dialogue, or a book by Kant, to realize that it isn’t just false — it’s absurd.

As a handful of deviant philosophers have understood — David Hume comes to mind, with Protagoras before and William James after him — morality springs from our DNA, no less than our selfishness, and its driver is passion rather than cold reason.  We don’t feel a child abuser is in error, the way I might be in error if I believed two plus two equals five:  we are revolted and enraged by the abuser.

When we reflect on the suffering of courageous and noble persons — the firefighters of 9/11, say — we don’t react with annoyance over such a contradiction:  we admire and empathize and weep for the loss, even though it isn’t ours.  We weep at false tragedies, splayed out on screens.

Rationality describes and assesses the environment.  Morality, powered by passion — Hume’s term — determines right action.

This is a testable hypothesis.  Over the last decade, a number of experiments have done just that.  Many, like this one described by Times Online, have been of the “game theory” type.  The results have invariably favored passion over reason.

In this particular instance, the “rational actor” account of human nature, which assumes we always act to maximize our material interest, was shown to be inadequate in explaining certain kinds of irrational behavior.  For example, we refuse offers that are perceived to be profitable but unfair.  In other words:  humans submit to moral impulses, which sometimes trump self-interest.  The science writer of the Times seems troubled by the revelation:

What is starting to emerge is a more accurate — and recognisable — picture of human nature than classical economic theory provided. In many ways, it is a positive one, helping to explain the human capacity for kindness and co-operation, and the centrality of fairness to social norms. We are not acquisitive automatons conditioned always to follow narrow self-interest.

But it also has a dark side. The depth with which we feel injustice, and the way we respond to it emotionally, rather than rationally, may also underlie extreme reactions to perceived wrongs. The gang leader who has a rival murdered over a slight to his honour and the fundamentalist who takes out his grievance against the West by becoming a suicide bomber are both particularly high-stakes players of the ultimatum game.

We will never grow up to be Mr. Spock.  This may come as a shock to science writers of Times Online, but it’s a trivial truth to the rest of us, who wrestle, with some degree of awareness, with passions that lead to good and evil.

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