Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Morality Guide

I love this Tom the Dancing Bug comic. It's funny; funny in the sense that if I didn't laugh, I'd cry, I suppose.

The graphic isn't really a morality guide, as many of you already fully appreciate. It's a behavior map most of us follow naturally, courtesy of our genes. Which isn't morality; it's our pre-programmed baseline. Moral acts occur when we choose to act differently than our DNA prompts, by expanding a "Who We Are Nice To" category.

The End.

If you're curious about my reasoning, read on. However, just to forewarn you, I fall back on a few SAT words.

For someone to make a moral act, he or she must recognize their own baseline, gene-driven inclination, then choose to broaden a category from Tom's guide. For example, by broadening those we view as part of our Community to encompass a larger fraction of Outsiders, we've made a moral decision. Likewise, by shifting pets and primates, and other mammals and animals up some faction of a category in Tom's guide, we've determined to act morally. (As with anything, if category expansion is taken to extremes, you could go from making a moral decision to making a commitment for a stay at the funny farm.)

All that said, none of us decide how we'll act in a vacuum. The culture in which we are raised is bursting with ideas on ways to behave. However, you can look at them through the filter of ideas that cajole us to broaden these categories, and through a filter that that demand that we keep to category baseline, or even push outsiders into a lower category.

You've heard of the Golden Rule, most likely, which is a major driver of category expansion. Many religions teach some form of this. However, you've probably run up against various "fear the foreigner" meme, which drives category contraction.

Anyway, you've probably incorporated some of these category expansion ideals into your own behavior. Whenever you act according to the Golden Rule in a category outside what your genes demand of you, you're making a moral act. By my lights, it doesn't matter whether you chose to act this way or your culture inculcated you to act differently and more benevolently--that's the benefit of living within an evolving culture! On the other hand, and again by my lights, if you've inculcated less benevolent memes, that's an immoral choice, regardless of what your culture expects. "When in Rome," or "just following orders" doesn't cut it, when you're defining morality.

Otherwise, I agree with Tom the Dancing Bug, broadly speaking, being "nice" is being moral, but only if you've somehow broadened your "Who You're Nice To" category beyond what brute instinct would have you act to preserve your own kin and kind.


Ken Marable said...

Interesting ideas and I might need to snag that chart to use in the ethics classes I teach!

A couple side points - for starters, the first 2 categories are actually formalized in evolutionary psychology as Hamilton's Rule. rB > C where r is the degree of relatedness (parents, siblings and offspring are 50% related, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews are 25% related, etc.), B is the benefit to your kin, and C is the cost to you. So if helping your sibling doubles what it costs you, then it is worth it, but the benefit needs to quadruple for nieces and nephews, and so on.. But Tom does capture the whole progression beyond kin selection quite amusingly.

Also, in ethics there is the notion of "expanding the circle" that your reaction also captures it even more nuanced than it is traditionally explained. Basically, moral progress (as individual or society) is a steady expanding the circle of our moral concern - who matters when we make ethical decisions. Over time, we take more and more groups of things as having interests that we might harm and need to be factored into our decisions.

Bruce Cordell said...

Thanks Ken. I'd heard about various findings in the last few years in primate studies, but had NOT heard about Hamilton's Rule, very interesting!

And also glad to hear that others have had similar thoughts regarding morality. In a way, my argument is more about semantics and definitions, I suppose :-)