I had heard good things about this book, sort of. It has been cited a lot. Enough that I would be wiling to read it, given that the author has written at least one interesting paper (Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science). Generally, it is written in popsci style, very few statistics making it impossible to easily judge how much certainty to assign to different studies mentioned in the text. Generally, I was not impressed or learned much, tho not all was necessarily bad. Clearly, he wrote this book in an attempt to appeal to many different people. Perhaps he succeeded, but appeals that work well on large parts of the population rarely work well on me.
In any case, there are some parts worth quoting and commenting on:
The results were as clear as could be in support of Shweder. First, all four of my Philadelphia groups confirmed Turiel’s finding that Americans make a big distinction between moral and conventional violations. I used two stories taken directly from Turiel’s research: a girl pushes a boy off a swing (that’s a clear moral violation) and a boy refuses to wear a school uniform (that’s a conventional violation). This validated my methods. It meant that any differences I found on the harmless taboo stories could not be attributed to some quirk about the way I phrased the probe questions or trained my interviewers. The upper-class Brazilians looked just like the Americans on these stories. But the working-class Brazilian kids usually thought that it was wrong, and universally wrong, to break the social convention and not wear the uniform. In Recife in particular, the working-class kids judged the uniform rebel in exactly the same way they judged the swing-pusher. This pattern supported Shweder: the size of the moral-conventional distinction varied across cultural groups.
Emil’s law: Whenever a study reports that socioeconomic status correlates with X, it is mostly due to its relationship to intelligence, and often socioeconomic status is non-causally related to X.
Wilson used ethics to illustrate his point. He was a professor at Harvard, along with Lawrence Kohlberg and the philosopher John Rawls, so he was well acquainted with their brand of rationalist theorizing about rights and justice.15 It seemed clear to Wilson that what the rationalists were really doing was generating clever justifications for moral intuitions that were best explained by evolution. Do people believe in human rights because such rights actually exist, like mathematical truths, sitting on a cosmic shelf next to the Pythagorean theorem just waiting to be discovered by Platonic reasoners? Or do people feel revulsion and sympathy when they read accounts of torture, and then invent a story about universal rights to help justify their feelings?
Wilson sided with Hume. He charged that what moral philosophers were really doing was fabricating justifications after “consulting the emotive centers” of their own brains.16 He predicted that the study of ethics would soon be taken out of the hands of philosophers and “biologicized,” or made to fit with the emerging science of human nature. Such a linkage of philosophy, biology, and evolution would be an example of the “new synthesis” that Wilson dreamed of, and that he later referred to as consilience—the “jumping together” of ideas to create a unified body of knowledge.17
Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power. Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology. He was harassed and excoriated in print and in public.18 He was called a fascist, which justified (for some) the charge that he was a racist, which justified (for some) the attempt to stop him from speaking in public. Protesters who tried to disrupt one of his scientific talks rushed the stage and chanted, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”19
For more on the history of sociobiology, see: www.goodreads.com/book/show/786131.Defenders_of_the_Truth?ac=1
But yes, human rights bug me. There is no such thing as an ethical right ‘out there’. Human rights are completely made up. While some of them are useful as model for civil rights, they are nothing more. Worse, human rights keep getting added which are both inconsistent, vague and redundant. See e.g. www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139598/jacob-mchangama-and-guglielmo-verdirame/the-danger-of-human-rights-proliferation
I say this as someone who strongly believes in having strong civil rights, especially regarding freedom of expression, assembly, due process and the like. However, since pushing for new human rights attracts social justice warriors, this of course means that the new rights not only conflict with previous rights (e.g. freedom of expression), but also obviously concern matters that should be a matter of national policy (e.g. resource redistribution), not super-national courts and their creeping interpretations. See e.g. this document: www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf or even worse, this one: A EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK NATIONAL STATUTE FOR THE PROMOTION OF TOLERANCE. The irony is that tolerance consists exactly in letting others do what they want: Wiktionary: The ability or practice of tolerating; an acceptance or patience with the beliefs, opinions or practices of others; a lack of bigotry.
Psychopaths do have some emotions. When Hare asked one man if he ever felt his heart pound or stomach churn, he responded: “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight.”29 But psychopaths don’t show emotions that indicate that they care about other people. Psychopaths seem to live in a world of objects, some of which happen to walk around on two legs. One psychopath told Hare about a murder he committed while burglarizing an elderly man’s home:
I was rummaging around when this old geezer comes down stairs and … uh … he starts yelling and having a fucking fit … so I pop him one in the, uh, head and he still doesn’t shut up. So I give him a chop to the throat and he … like … staggers back and falls on the floor. He’s gurgling and making sounds like a stuck pig! [laughs] and he’s really getting on my fucking nerves so I … uh … boot him a few times in the head. That shut him up … I’m pretty tired by now so I grab a few beers from the fridge and turn on the TV and fall asleep. The cops woke me up [laughs].30
This is the sort of bad thinking that a good education should correct, right? Well, consider the findings of another eminent reasoning researcher, David Perkins.21 Perkins brought people of various ages and education levels into the lab and asked them to think about social issues, such as whether giving schools more money would improve the quality of teaching and learning. He first asked subjects to write down their initial judgment. Then he asked them to think about the issue and write down all the reasons they could think of—on either side—that were relevant to reaching a final answer. After they were done, Perkins scored each reason subjects wrote as either a “my-side” argument or an “other-side” argument.
Not surprisingly, people came up with many more “my-side” arguments than “other-side” arguments. Also not surprisingly, the more education subjects had, the more reasons they came up with. But when Perkins compared fourth-year students in high school, college, or graduate school to first-year students in those same schools, he found barely any improvement within each school. Rather, the high school students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to college, and the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school. Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.
The findings get more disturbing. Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”22
Cite is: Perkins, D. N., M. Farady, and B. Bushey. 1991. “Everyday Reasoning and the Roots of Intelligence.” In Informal Reasoning and Education, ed. J. F. Voss, D. N. Perkins, and J. W. Segal, 83–105. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.
But if that were the case, then moral philosophers—who reason about ethical principles all day long—should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students.48 And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.
Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.49 In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.
The anthropologists Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd have argued that cultural innovations (such as spears, cooking techniques, and religions) evolve in much the same way that biological innovations evolve, and the two streams of evolution are so intertwined that you can’t study one without studying both.65 For example, one of the best-understood cases of gene-culture coevolution occurred among the first people who domesticated cattle. In humans, as in all other mammals, the ability to digest lactose (the sugar in milk) is lost during childhood. The gene that makes lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose) shuts off after a few years of service, because mammals don’t drink milk after they are weaned. But those first cattle keepers, in northern Europe and in a few parts of Africa, had a vast new supply of fresh milk, which could be given to their children but not to adults. Any individual whose mutated genes delayed the shutdown of lactase production had an advantage. Over time, such people left more milk-drinking descendants than did their lactose-intolerant cousins. (The gene itself has been identified.)66 Genetic changes then drove cultural innovations as well: groups with the new lactase gene then kept even larger herds, and found more ways to use and process milk, such as turning it into cheese. These cultural innovations then drove further genetic changes, and on and on it went.
Why is this anyway? Why don’t we just keep expressing this gene? Is there any reason?
In an interview in 2000, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that “natural selection has almost become irrelevant in human evolution” because cultural change works “orders of magnitude” faster than genetic change. He next asserted that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”77
I wonder, was Gould right about anything? Another thing. Did Gould invent his Punctuated Equilibrium theory because it postulates these change-free periods which can be conveniently claimed for humans the last 100k years or so in order to keep his denial of racial differences consistent with evolution or?
Religion is therefore well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism. To take one example, religion does not seem to be the cause of suicide bombing. According to Robert Pape, who has created a database of every suicide terrorist attack in the last hundred years, suicide bombing is a nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.62 It’s a response to boots and tanks on the ground—never to bombs dropped from the air. It’s a response to contamination of the sacred homeland. (Imagine a fist punched into a beehive, and left in for a long time.)
This sounds interesting. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_Attack_Database
The problem is not just limited to politicians. Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of like-minded individuals. In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties”—counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percent or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.77 Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).78
This sounds more like assortative relocation + greater amount of relocation. Now, if only there were more local democratic power, then people living in these different areas could self-govern and stop arguing about conflicts that would never arise. E.g. healthcare systems: each smaller area could decide on its own system. I like to quote from Uncontrolled:
This leads then to a call for “states as laboratories of democracy” federalism in matters of social policy, or in a more formal sense, a call for subsidiarity—the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, the typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods, and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.