Okay, I’m back. Prison Break seems to be off to a rip-roaring, if extremely implausible, start. Guess I’ll keep watching. I’ve followed it for this long, I suppose I should hang around to find out what happens to these guys. Really, though, I’m just marking time to the season premiere of House next week.
Towards that end, have a look this interesting article from The New York Times. It discusses a new book called The Happiness Hypothesis, by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, that discusses the evolution of morality:
Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.
At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?
In a series of recent articles and a book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.
Sounds like interesting stuff, guess I’ll have to go read the book.
The article discusses a number of issues, many of which will be familiar to people who follow this issue. This caught my eye:
The emotion of disgust probably evolved when people became meat eaters and had to learn which foods might be contaminated with bacteria, a problem not presented by plant foods. Disgust was then extended to many other categories, he argues, to people who were unclean, to unacceptable sexual practices and to a wide class of bodily functions and behaviors that were seen as separating humans from animals.
“Imagine visiting a town,” Dr. Haidt writes, “where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex ‘doggie style’ in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.”
Reminds me of college. Frankly, as long as the naked, filthy, horny, carcass-eaters were content to leave me alone to do the things I enjoy doing, I think I could be persuaded to look the other way.
I recommend browsing through the whole article. The reason I linked to it, however, is for the moral dilemma it presents at the beginning:
Many people will say it is morally acceptable to pull a switch that diverts a train, killing just one person instead of the five on the other track. But if asked to save the same five lives by throwing a person in the train’s path, people will say the action is wrong. This may be evidence for an ancient subconscious morality that deters causing direct physical harm to someone else. An equally strong moral sanction has not yet evolved for harming someone indirectly.
I love moral dilemmas (as long as they are only theoretical exercises, and not real-life situations). In that example, my knee-jerk reaction is precisely what is described above. It seems acceptable to pull the switch, but not to actually throw someone in front of the train. Alas, the only difference I can find is that the latter requires direct physical contact with the person I am killing whereas the switch pulling does not. That doesn’t seem like it should be morally significant.
There are several others I have come across that have struck me as interesting. There’s the old chestnut where you are on a sinking ship and you can either a save a total stranger, or your dog. What do you do? The interesting thing about that one is that everyone “knows” the right answer is to save the stranger, and that is the response most people will give when asked. Secretly, though, I think a lot of people would choose to save the dog. Especially if you could be sure that nobody would ever find out you could have saved the person instead. The reasoning is probably something like, “I know my dog is sweet and loving and has never done anything to anyone. On the other hand, statistically speaking there’s a very good chance that stranger is a total prick. Why take the chance?”
Recently at another blog (I sadly do not remember which one) I saw a challenge to all those who would claim that a frozen embryo is the moral equivalent of a human being. If you were in a fertility clinic that was burning down, and you could either save a human baby or a tray containing a dozen frozen embryos, which would you save? If they are really morally equivalent, then you should obviously save the tray. In reality, however, no one, either in theory or in practice, would let the baby die. For that matter, most people would save a dog over the tray of embryos. That looks like a pretty strong argument to me, though as I recall the pro-lifers at the other blog got very indignant about it in the comments.
Then there was the episode of The Twilight Zone (not the original, occasionally brilliant, Rod Serling version, but one of the several failed attempts to revive the series later on) in which a man shows up at the door of a couple in serious financial distress. He offers them an opaque box with a button on top. They are told that if they press the button two things will happen immediately. First, a man will show up at their door with a million dollars. Second, someone thay don’t know will be killed. The couple is given a week to decide. They agonize over the decision. They really need the money, you see. At one point they disassemble the box and discover it is completely empty inside. The button isn’t hooked up to anything. So they persuade themselves that it is all a joke, and finally decide to press the button. Why not? As soon as they do so the doorbell rings. It’s man with a suitcase carrying a million dollars. The next day the original man returns and asks for his button back. As the couple gives it to him they ask, “What will happen to the button now?” “Don’t worry,” said the man with an evil laugh, “I’ll be giving it to somebody you don’t know!”
Anyway, feel free to contribute your own favorites, or to offer any thoughts on the ones given above.