The essence of moral reasoning, part 1: why "evil" fails

In my previous post about morality, I argued that all moral reasoning requires a subjective value judgment – that is, rather than adhering to some objective standard which tells us whether an action is unequivocally right or wrong, we examine each situation contextually and, based on the available information, decide whether an act is right, wrong, or somewhere in between. I also argued that our reasons for behaving morally are rational and non-arbitrary. Over the next three posts, I'll talk about how we make those moral decisions and how we reason about them.

The evidence from biology is unambiguous: certain behavioral tendencies are hard-wired through our evolution. We are, more often than not, cooperative, empathetic and reciprocally altruistic. Save for sociopaths, we tend to feel empathy and sympathy for others who are suffering. Of course, people also behave badly. We can be selfish, ambivalent, or cruel. We can be conditioned to erode our natural empathetic connection to others, to the point of barbarism.

The conventional answer to this dilemma is more or less the following: people behave that way because they're evil. Perhaps we're simply inclined to do evil because, well, that's what we are. But as an explanation, this is a non-starter. It fails to account for the fact that most of the time, we are empathetic, altruistic and cooperative. While stories of people behaving cruelly make for captivating news, they do so precisely because such behavior is not the norm. There is something unusual, something perversely remarkable about those whose sense of empathy has been eroded – and that is precisely why we react with shock and horror at the abject cruelty of things like Nazi medical experiments, US military officers torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or Islamic fundamentalists throwing acid on the faces of women. Were "evil" simply the norm of human behavior, we'd be much more surprised to see an act of goodwill.

But what I'll dub the argument from evil fails in a more important way: it doesn't accurately account for how we actually make moral decisions. Broadly speaking, there have been two competing theories in the behavioral sciences to explain morality. The first is veneer theory. This suggests that evolution has left us as cruel, selfish, and inclined to mistreat one another. It is only through our higher capacity of moral reasoning – perhaps our ability to understand a religious or legal "moral code" – that we have been able to overcome our innate destructive tendencies.

Veneer theory leaves many important questions unanswered. If it is only through moral reasoning that we have been able to overcome this innate evil, how did our species – and our evolutionary ancestors – survive long enough to develop such a moral code? Certain social norms, such as prohibitions against assault, theft, murder and perjury, are integral to the fundamental cohesion of any human society. Had those in primitive human (or proto-human) societies simply given in to every cruel or selfish whim, they never would have been able to coexist. Reciprocal altruism has always been required for us to find food, to protect ourselves from predators and the elements, and to raise children.

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans De Waal expounds:
Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. [p.6]
Veneer theory further fails to account for the fact that even young children have been shown to display empathy. In a study of children ages 7 to 12, researchers at the University of Chicago found that the empathetic response was present even though the children had limited understanding of moral reasoning:
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.
The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing.[2]
Finally, veneer theory fails to account for a very important fact – one which I will expand on in part 2: many of our moral decisions are made involuntarily. If we spot a small child wandering in the middle of a busy street, we impulsively rush to protect her. We do not pause to contemplate the cost/benefit to ourselves or society as a whole – it is only after the event that we conjure up rationalizations for our behavior (this phenomenon is illustrated in the Trolley Problem, which I've discussed here). Were cruelty our first inclination, as veneer theory suggests, we would not act with compulsive compassion.  

The facts are unambiguous: we must acknowledge that empathy and altruism are hard-wired and integral to the very survival of our species. We can think of this as the second theory of moral behavior: what I'll dub the grounded theory of morality, to reflect its bottom-up development. But clearly, hard-wired feelings of empathy or an inclination toward reciprocal altruism cannot fully explain our moral behavior. Somehow, these inclinations can be eroded to the point that we are capable of great acts of cruelty. We can, as a society, make rules that reflect a desire for equality and peace, or we can impose militaristic rule and enact barbaric punishments for petty crimes. In the next post, I'll discuss how evolutionary hard-wiring interplays with our environment, and how we reason about moral values.


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