Monday, August 02, 2010

On the New Science of Morality

I'm taking a day off today and reading. So much to read, so little time to read all I would like to!

I'm on reading the symposium on "The New Science of Morality." The title is significant, since there are many who claim "science" tells us nothing about morality. And by "morality" I here mean denoting actions with words like "right," "wrong," "good," "bad," and "evil." For example, neuroscientist Sam Harris is concerned that "the failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values has become the primary justification for religious faith." I would say that science's fundamental inability to ascribe value leaves us with the two main historical value-ascribing options; viz., religion and philosophy. Harris writes: "In doubting our ability to address questions of meaning and morality through rational argument and scientific inquiry, we offer a mandate to religious dogmatism, superstition, and sectarian conflict. The greater the doubt, the greater the impetus to nurture divisive delusions." OK - here we go! I'll argue that "rational argument" is not equivalent to "scientific inquiry." One must be careful not to conflate the two.

I'm going to read what U. of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has to say. In skimming his comments I find that he cites an essay that "should be posted in psychology departments all over the country, in just the way that, when you go to restaurants, they've got, you know, How to Help a Choking Victim. And by law, that's got to be in restaurants in some states." So off I go on the rabbit trail, and find the article, by Joseph Heinrich et. al., here. I begin to read... here's the Abstract and paper, which you will soon find posted in your local Bob Evans.

Abstract: Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD
subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to
structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

Wow. I feel certain this is correct and helpful. And my mind is moving towards biblical-hermeneutical thoughts. Fundamentalist hermeneutical theories, with their heavy, narrow Eurocentrism, necessarily misappropriate the biblical texts. How WEIRD? I'm going to give the essay a closer look.