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The Genesis of Justice

Before all learning, an infant’s mind has a sense of
right and wrong
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On the platform of a subway station, a woman and two men are talking a few feet away from the open track pit. Without warning, one of the men shoves the woman. She staggers backward toward the edge. The other man reaches out to catch her, but he is too late, and down she goes onto the tracks. In an instant, he reacts. He turns on his heels and coldcocks the culprit. It is a magnificent roundhouse to the face that snaps the wrongdoer’s head back. Satisfied with this act of revenge, he turns, hesitates and dashes over to pull the woman to safety. He reassures her, then takes off after the malefactor, who has beat a hasty retreat. The entire incident takes 20 seconds, and you can see it yourself on YouTube (at the 1:47 mark).

In that moment—too brief for rational calculation—a conflict of pure emotionality unfolds between rescue and revenge, helping and hurting. In a flash, two neural networks in the rescuer’s brain are engaged to act: help a fellow human in trouble or punish the perpetrator. What is a moral primate to do? In this case, because no train was coming, he could afford that problematic first choice. Rescue is sweet but so is revenge. (continue reading…)

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Confessions of a Speciesist

Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?
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The case for exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment often relies on our superior intelligence, language and self-awareness: the rights of the superior being trump those of the inferior. A poignant counterargument is Mark Devries’s Speciesism: The Movie, which I saw at the premiere in September 2013. The animal advocates who filled the Los Angeles theater cheered wildly for Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. In the film, Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals’ interests are less important than human interests could be merely a prejudice— similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather. And I laughed out loud at the joke about the farmer who castrates his horses with two bricks: “Does it hurt?” “Not if you keep your thumbs out of the way.” I am also troubled by an analogy made by rights activists that animals are undergoing a “holocaust.” Historian Charles Patterson draws the analogy in his 2002 book Eternal Treblinka, and Devries makes visual reference to it by comparing the layout of factory-farm buildings to that of prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. The flaw in the analogy is in the motivation of the perpetrators. As someone who has written a book on the Holocaust (Denying History, University of California Press, revised edition, 2009), I see a vast moral gulf between farmers and Nazis. Even factory-farm corporate suits motivated by profits are still far down the moral ladder from Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. There are no signs at factory farms reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.” (continue reading…)

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Towards a Science of Morality: A Reply to Massimo Pigliucci

In this year’s annual Edge.org question “What should we be worried about?” I answered that we should be worried about “ The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” I wrote: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing”. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci penned a thoughtful response, which I appreciate given his dual training in science and philosophy, including and especially evolutionary theory, a perspective that I share. But he felt that my scientific approach added nothing new to the philosophy of morality, so let me see if I can restate my argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.

First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good:

Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).

You can, of course, act in a way that has no effect on anyone else, and in this case morality isn’t involved. But given the choice between acting in a way that increases someone else’s moral good or not, it is more moral to do so than not. I added the parenthetical note “through force or fraud” to clarify intent instead of, say, neglect or acting out of ignorance. Morality involves conscious choice, and the choice to act in a manner that increases someone else’s moral good, then, is a moral act, and its opposite is an immoral act.

Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? We have to ground the foundations of morality on something, and we secularists (skeptics, humanists, atheists, et al.) are in agreement that “divine command theory” is untenable not only because there probably is no God, but even if there is a God divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” in which he asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”, showing how it must be the former—moral principles must stand on their own with or without God. Rape, for example, is wrong whether or not God says it is wrong (in the Bible, in fact, God offers no prohibition against rape, and in fact seems to encourage it in many instances as a perquisite of war for victors). Adultery, which is prohibited in the Bible, would still be wrong even if it were not listed in the Decalogue.

How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior.

Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle:

To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask…before you act. (This principle applies to rational sane adults and not to children or mentally ill adults. Asking a 12-year old girl raised in a polygamous family belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints if she feels it is moral to marry a man in his 60s who is already married to many other women is not a rational test because she does not have the capacity for moral reasoning.)

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most affected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way nature is (the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way it ought to be (given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals). Here are three examples:

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data: “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

Halving Extreme Poverty (graph from Bill Gates' Annual Letter

One notable sign of progress is seen in this graph from Gates’ Annual Letter (right).

If the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation of values and morals, then this graph tracks moral progress because we can say objectively and absolutely that reducing extreme poverty by half since 1990 is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living on less than $1.25 a day. They will tell you that living on more than $1.25 a day is absolutely better than living on less than $1.25 a day. Why is it better? Because individuals are more likely to survive and flourish when they have the basics of life.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program that is supported by 189 nations, in which the year 2015 was set as a deadline for making specific percentage improvements across a range of areas including health, education, and basic income. Gates reports, for example, that the number of polio cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988 to 222 in 2012. Is that a moral good? Ask the 350,000 polio victims. They’ll tell you. Or ask the 5.1 million children under the age of 5 who didn’t die in 2011, who in 1990 would have died (Unicef reports that the number of children under 5 years old who died worldwide was 12 million in 1990 and 6.9 million in 2011).

Bill Gates delivering report

Caption from Gates’ Annual Letter: Getting a closer look at charts documenting rural health progress at the Germana Gale Health Post in Ethiopia. Over the past year I’ve been impressed with progress in using data and measurement to improve the human condition (Dalocha, Ethiopia, 2012).

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic sale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries. The economists found a positive correlation between income and happiness within individual countries, in which richer people are happier than poorer people; and they also found a between-country difference in which people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. As well, they found that an increase in economic growth was associated with an increase in subjective well being: “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards.” How much difference? “A 20 percent increase in income has the same impact on well-being, regardless of the initial level of income: going from $500 to $600 of income per year yields the same impact on well-being as going from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.” Contrary to previous studies, the economists found no upper limit in which more money does not correlate with more happiness. As well, on a 0–10 scale measuring “life satisfaction,” people in poor countries averaged a 3, people in middle-income countries averaged a 5–6, and people in rich countries averaged a 7–8 (Americans rate their life satisfaction as a 7.4). The economists’ conclusion confirms my moral science theory that the survival and flourishing of individuals is what counts:

The fact that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being rise with income has significant implications for development economists. First, and most importantly, these findings cast doubt on the Easterlin Paradox and various theories suggesting that there is no long-term relationship between well-being and income growth. Absolute income appears to play a central role in determining subjective well-being. This conclusion suggests that economists’ traditional interest in economic growth has not been misplaced. Second, our results suggest that differences in subjective well-being over time or across places likely reflect meaningful differences in actual well-being.

Here is the figure for the relationship between happiness and GDP from this study:

Happiness and GDP chart from World Values Survey

World Values Survey, 1999–2004, and author’s regressions. Sources for GDP per capita are described in the text. The happiness question asks, “Taking all things together, would you say you are: ‘very happy,’ ‘quite happy,’ ‘not very happy,’ [or] ‘not at all happy’?” Data are aggregated into country averages by first standardizing individual level data to have mean zero and standard deviation one, and then taking the within-country average of individual happiness. The dashed line plots fitted values from the reported OLS regression (including TZA and NGA); the dotted line gives fitted values from a lowess regressions. The regression coefficients are on the standardized scale. Both regressions are based on nationally representative samples. Observations represented by hollow squares are drawn from countries in which the World Values Survey sample is not nationally representative; see Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), appendix B, for further details. Sample includes sixty-nine developed and developing countries.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

There are many more examples like these in which we can employ science to derive all sorts of findings that show how various social, political, and economic conditions lead to an increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of individuals. This is why in my Edge.org essay I discussed data from political scientists and economists showing that democracies are better than dictatorships and that countries with more open economic borders and free trade are better off than countries with more closed economic borders and restricted trade (think North Korea, whose citizens are on average several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts because of their crappy diets). These are measurable differences that allow us to draw scientific conclusions about moral progress or regress, based on the increase or decrease of the survival and flourishing of the individuals living in those countries. The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish it means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal. They are not equal, and we have the scientific data and historical examples to demonstrate which ones increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individuals.

woman burned alive in papua new guinea

In this Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea.
(Credit: AP)

One final example on the regress side of the moral ledger: On Wednesday, February 6, 2013, a 20-year old woman and mother of one named Kepari Leniata was burned alive in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who died on February 5. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound and doused in gasoline and ignited while surrounded by gawking crowds that prevented police and authorities from rescuing her. Tragically, a 2010 Oxfam study reported that beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in the highlands of New Guinea, as well as in many parts of Melanesia in which many people still “do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death,” and instead place the blame for their problems on supernatural sorcery and black magic.

By now it seems risibly superfluous to explain why this is immoral and what the solution is, but in case there is any doubt: We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering whose so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals—just ask first the woman about to be torched. The immediate solution is the enforcement of laws prohibiting such acts. The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Note to my readers: What I am outlining here is the basis for my next book, The Moral Arc of Science, which I am researching and writing now, so I ask you to post your critiques here or email me your constructive criticisms. My role model is Charles Darwin, who solicited criticisms of his theory of evolution and included them in a chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory” in On the Origin of Species. Of course, if you agree with me, and/or think of additional examples in support of my theory, then I would appreciate hearing those as well!

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What Should We Be Worried About?

The following article was first published on Edge.org on January 13, 2012 in response to this year’s Annual Question: “What Should We Be Worried About?” Read Michael Shermer’s response below, and read all responses at edge.org.

The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality

Ever since the philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore identified the “Is-Ought problem” between descriptive statements (the way something “is”) and prescriptive statements (the way something “ought to be”), most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.

We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem (sometimes rendered as the “naturalistic fallacy”) is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.

We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. Consider the following example of how science can determine human values.

Question: What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer: a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence: liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried. Data: In their book Triangulating Peace, the political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal employed a multiple logistic regression model on data from the Correlates of War Project that recorded 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001. Assigning each country a democracy score between 1 and 10 (based on the Polity Project that measures how competitive its political process is, how openly leaders are chosen, how many constraints on a leader’s power are in place, etc.), Russett and Oneal found that when two countries are fully democratic disputes between them decrease by 50 percent, but when the less democratic member of a county pair was a full autocracy, it doubled the chance of a quarrel between them.

When you add a market economy into the equation it decreases violence and increases peace significantly. Russett and Oneal found that for every pair of at-risk nations they entered the amount of trade (as a proportion of GDP) and found that countries that depended more on trade in a given year were less likely to have a militarized dispute in the subsequent year, controlling for democracy, power ratio, great power status, and economic growth. So they found that democratic peace happens only when both members of a pair are democratic, but that trade works when either member of the pair has a market economy.

Finally, the 3rd vertex of Russett and Oneal’s triangle of peace is membership in the international community, a proxy for transparency. The social scientists counted the number of IGOs that every pair of nations jointly belonged to and ran a regression analysis with democracy and trade scores, discovering that democracy favors peace, trade favors peace, and membership in IGOs favors peace, and that a pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 83% less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized dispute in a given year.

The point of this exercise is that in addition to philosophical arguments, we can make a scientific case for liberal democracy and market economies as a means of increasing human survival and flourishing. We can measure the effects quantitatively, and from that derive science-based values that demonstrate conclusively that this form of governance is really better than, say, autocracies or theocracies. Scholars may dispute the data or debate the evidence, but my point is that in addition to philosophers, scientists should have a voice in determining human values and morals.

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The Alpinists of Evil

Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
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IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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