Friday, April 17, 2009

Courageous Heart

In 2007 we wrote about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who risked her life to save Jewish children from the Nazis and who was nominated that year for the Nobel Peace Prize. In an unforgiveable spasm of political correctness she was denied the award because the judges thought it should go to Al Gore for his global warming slide show.

Now the rest of the country will soon be marvelling at the sheer boneheadedness of the Nobel committee's decision. CBS is showing a made-for-television movie that tells the story of Sendler's heroism during WWII. The movie will air this Sunday the 19th.

This post at First Things blog explains why this woman was such a great human being - not as great as Al Gore, apparently, but great nonetheless. The movie is titled The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. Don't miss it.


The End of Philosophy

David Brooks assays the field of ethics in a New York Times column titled The End of Philosophy and quickly finds himself raising questions he doesn't realize he's raising:

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, "Human," is that "it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found."

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

This is interesting. I haven't read Gazzaniga's book, but I suspect that the reason no link has been found between reason and morality is that the kind of behaviors most people think of as moral have no basis in human reason. Reason leads us to the conclusion that we should look out for #1. The only reason we should care about the welfare of others is if we'll somehow benefit from doing so. If we won't benefit or if we don't care about the benefit, then there's no reason to have any consideration for the interests of others at all.

This seems unacceptable to many people because even though our society is becoming increasingly secular we're still living off the moral capital of an earlier, more religious age. Our grandparents believed we should care about others because that was what God desires of us. Several generations of Americans have since been raised without God, but they've still been taught the precept. They no longer can explain why it's right to care about others, they just know intuitively that it is. Of course, as time goes on, more people are going to recognize that their intuitions are hanging in mid-air, like the cartoon character who has run off a cliff but hasn't yet started to fall, and they're going to abandon them as groundless and yield instead to their egoistic impulses.

Brooks continues:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's disgusting. You just know. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can't explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

Indeed. Brooks here is as much as acknowledging that right and wrong are completely subjective, like our taste in food or art. What's right in a world without God is whatever one feels is right.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, "The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest."

Or, put differently, reason is simply a tool we use to try to justify our feelings to our intellect. As such its role in ethics is pretty much secondary.

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there's an increasing appreciation that evolution isn't just about competition. It's also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don't just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

But if our moral sense is simply an artifact of evolution, what obligates me to pay any attention to it? The answer, of course, is nothing. If human morality is just the result of a process that shaped us for survival in the stone age what need do we have for it today? It's no more necessary or important than is the hair on our arms.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures - at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

Brooks is here begging the question. He assumes that altruism and the rest are moral desiderata and then enthuses about the fortuitous path evolution has taken to produce these very traits. But what makes altruism better or more "moral" than egoism? If Brooks just assumes that it is then he's assuming what he really should be trying to demonstrate.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They're good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people's moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

But what is goodness? Is it caring for others? Why not think it consists in dominating others? Brooks and the people he's talking about seem to have a whole host of assumptions about what is good, but if the only reason these things are good is because we've evolved the desire for them then we have to say that selfishness, greed, lust, power, violence, etc. are also good because we've certainly evolved the desire for them as well. Why elevate some of the results of evolution to the staus of virtues and not others?

For more on Brooks' essay you can go here and here.


Civil Discourse Among the Lefties

This video of last night's Countdown with Keith Olbermann has to be seen to be believed (and savored). Tens of thousands (at least) of ordinary Americans turn out to protest the reckless spending that is almost sure to bury our children under a mountain of debt and Janeane Garofalo and Keith Olbermann slander them with almost every libel they can think of and then wind up concluding that these concerned citizens are all opposed to Obama's policies because he's black.

For Garofalo and Olbermann anyone who opposes spending our country into oblivion is a stupid, racist, latent mass murderer who's easily manipulated by the evil Fox News. Maybe Ms Garofalo is angling for a job in Janet Napolitano's Department of Homeland Security, or, more likely, this video is simply a glimpse into the fevered fantasy world in which the left lives and moves and has its being. I don't recall either of these luminaries saying anything at all bad about the G-20 protestors, or the anti-war protestors back in Bush's first term - people who have actually destroyed property and harmed, or threatened to harm, other human beings during their protests - but let ordinary folks gather peaceably to display their frustration and displeasure with their political leadership and that's prima facie proof to such as Garofalo and Olbermann that the protestors are a bunch of bigoted Neanderthals a single incendiary word away from reenacting the Holocaust.

Garofalo avers that opponents of the President's policies are suffering from a neurological disorder - perhaps she has a degree in psychiatry, I don't know - but what name should we assign the delusions under which she and Mr. Olbermann labor? These demonstrations weren't funded by the GOP nor were they organized by Fox News. Perhaps when one is consumed with hate and a sense of one's own intellectual superiority, paranoia comes naturally and any who dare dissent from their own point of view is little more than a contemptible "redneck."

Anyway, the good stuff starts about three minutes in:

Don't you wish you were as smart as Ms Garofalo? She knows so much it must be sheer joy to be her. On the other hand, we might pity the woman who, gifted with such a towering intellect - a virtue exceeded in its vastness only by her vanity - finds that nevertheless the only people who care to listen to her are a few members of Keith Olbermann's tiny audience, people who perchance are as hate-filled as is Ms Garofalo.