Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Would YOU shove a fat man off a trestle to save five people?

In this 2006 New York Times article, Nicholas Wade profiles this "evolutionary theory of right and wrong":
Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind.

People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.

Here is a dilemma that is claimed to illustrate the "hardwiring" of morality:
Suppose you are standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from which no escape is possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a train approaching. Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train to a sidetrack. One person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull the lever and save the five people, though one will die?

Most people say it is.

Assume now you are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on the track are at risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into the path of the approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form of a fat man. Is it O.K. to push him to save the five?

Most people say no, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the first problem.

Dr. Hauser hypothesizes that some hardwired evolutionary mechanism explains why we find a foreseen harm (first situation) more acceptable than an intended harm (second situation) "despite the fact that the consequences are the same in either case."

Like all evolutionary psychologists, he starts with the assumption that no one uses their minds today in real time to think out ethical problems. Rather, the mind is an illusion generated by the hardwiring of neurons by genes. (Otherwise, evolutionary psychology, as practiced today, would be a pointless exercise.)

Now, if we set that basic assumption aside, what do we see? Obviously, most human beings will perceive a very great difference between throwing to his death someone who was not even at risk but for one's own sudden decision to put him there, versus choosing that one person should die rather than five, when all are actually on the tracks.

Obvious point: If someone other than the people on the track was going to die, why not me instead of the fat man? If I am going to play God, I better start with myself, right?

The fact that almost all moral traditions would underline such a distinction and make such a point does not require genes, hardwiring, or evolution to explain. Normal human experience in real time suffices. (But in saying so, I assume that the mind really exists and is really thinking.)

Two exceptions might be if the person standing beside the switch operator was (1) considered to be of low social status or (2) was a willing volunteer. Again, I would not advise looking for a gene that explains how these social calculations are made. The role of the gene is to help create the brain that is capable of calculation, for good or ill, not to program it to arrive at one calculation rather than another.

Overall, what makes me uncomfortable about evolutionary psychology is its practioners' constant need to come up with odd situations that unidentified hardwiring and genes are supposed to "explain". That suggests that it is not really a discipline. As I have noted earlier, there certainly are features of general human psychology and behaviour that can be attributed to evolution:
For example, the disproportionate tendency of humans to be right-handed rather than left-handed probably explains why so many languages associate the right side with things that are right or dexterous and the left side with things that are sinister or gauche or - if you like - left behind.

But the problem for the evolutionary psychologist is that these features are not particularly cool or transgressive, nor do they confer any special importance on the evolutionary psychologist and his discipline - they are just the outcomes of having evolved in a certain way, having noticed that fact, and acting on it.

Who doubts that if most humans were left-handed, "sinister" and "gauche" (= left-handed) would be terms of praise rather than blame, and social rules about the right hand and the left hand would all be reversed?

Note: Blogging may be spotty for a few days because I will be teaching at Write! Canada and I have just been apprised that I have 19 students, as of last count, in Freelance Survival 101, or whatever we are calling it this year. So I must prepare, prepare, prepare. I will likely blog, but probably only one entry at a time rather than five at once. Meanwhile, slainte and l'chaim and salaam and all that to all readers!


Events: New debate on God, atheism, and science on very spot where Samuel Wilberforce debated Thomas Huxley

Christian mathematician John Lennox and atheist public understanding of science prof Richard Dawkins will continue in October 2008 their 2007 discussion on the very spot where Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce duked it out a century and a half ago:
At 6:00 p.m. on the 20th of October, Fixed Point Foundation will host a public DVD screening of last year's God Delusion Debate between Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr. John Lennox, both of the University of Oxford. The screening will take place in the Main Hall of the Oxford Town Hall and is free and open to the public. For more information about the debate, click here.

The following night, Fixed Point will sponsor a discussion between Dawkins and Lennox on the main floor of the Oxford Museum of Natural History at 7:00 p.m. Both scientists will discuss atheism, the Christian faith, and the claims of their respective books: The God Delusion and God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? The building marks the historical site of the famed evolution debate of 1860 between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.
General admission tickets for the October 21st discussion with Dawkins and Lennox are available through Tickets Oxford and can be purchased online at or by contacting the box office at (Tel) 01865 305305 (Fax) 01865 305335. Only 500 tickets are available. They are £15 each and £10 for students.

Richard Dawkins and John Lennox met for the first time in Birmingham, Alabama this past October for another event sponsored by Fixed Point, The God Delusion Debate. The debate, moderated by United States Federal Judge William H. Pryor, examined six theses from Dawkins' book The God Delusion. Garnering the attention of Fox News, Wall Street Journal, London Times, and BBC Radio, the event took place in front of a sold out crowd of almost 1,400. Fixed Point is seeking to generate further public interest on this topic by taking the two men back to their hometown for another event.
Got to hand it to Fixed Point for knowing how to frame a discussion!

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The Mark Steyn show trial in Vancouver

Here's Canadian journalist David Warren at his best on the "human rights" show trial of Canadian commentator Mark Steyn for "hate crimes" in Vancouver:
This is a disaster also for Canada’s Muslims, for the views of fanatical Islamists are being presented as representative of them all. No single person has done so much to advance contempt for Islam in this country as Mohamed Elmasry, president of the “Canadian Islamic Congress,” the complainant in this case -- whose public assertions have included e.g. the view that every Israeli citizen is a valid target for Palestinian hitmen.

The bland acceptance of this jackass, by mainstream Canadian media, as the definitive spokesman for Muslim interests in Canada, cannot be blamed on the Muslim community. Innumerable Muslims have disavowed him, and yet are entirely ignored. Indeed: Mark Steyn has been among the few journalists distinguishing between camps. He would be: for he has plenty of Muslim supporters.
Yes, I have seen all that happen myself. And the point I most want to get across to fellow Canadians (said better and more pungently by David) is that Canadian Muslims, by and large, are not doing this. Leftwing activists are doing it, using the few Muslims who actively cooperate with their system as a crowbar to pry Canada loose from the historic civil rights that have always been our pride and their bane. Non-Canadians can best help us by monitoring the situation, spreading the word, and making sure it does not happen where you are.

Anyway, Warren begins,
Show trial

The writings of Canada’s most talented journalist, Mark Steyn, went on trial in Vancouver on Monday, in a case designed to challenge freedom of the press. It is a show trial, under the arbitrary powers given to Canada’s obscene “human rights” commissions, by Section 13 of our Human Rights Act.

I wrote “obscene” advisedly. Before Canada’s “human rights” tribunals, a respondent has none of the defences formerly guaranteed in common law. The truth is no defence, reasonable intention is no defence, nor material harmlessness, there are no rules of evidence, no precedents, nor case law of any kind. The commissars running the tribunals need have no legal training, exhibit none, and owe their appointments to networking among leftwing activists.

I wrote “show trial” advisedly, for there has been a 100 percent conviction rate in cases brought to “human rights” tribunals under Section 13.

For the rest go here.

By the way, three other things:

1. I am adding Free Mark Steyn - Free the press in Canada! as the top link in my blogroll to the right.

2. This "human rights" situation is the reason I disabled the comboxes at my blogs recently. The galloping rate at which "human rights" commissions will hear cases of people claiming to have been offended by something they read leaves me with little choice. As a writer, I must subject myself to that risk, but cannot ethically subject others - not until or unless these commissions are relieved of most of their current responsibilities - including all responsibility for policing Internet content.

3. Rely on the blogosphere, especially the links through Free Mark Steyn for information. Legacy media have been surprisingly slow to catch on, given how much they are at risk. My friend Parliamentary journalist Deborah Gyapong wrote on Monday,
For those who are not ignorant of what's going on, I wonder whether there is a weird Stockholm syndrome at work. Rather than see they are being held hostage by their fear of radical Islam, (and tiptoeing so as not to offend or blaspheme so foreign correspondents won't get kidnapped or worse) they have displaced their fear and loathing onto the people who write about it. They are like the bank robbery hostages or hijacked plane passengers who get pissed off at police for shooting their captors. They have identified with their captors, even formed a bond with them, for their own psychological survival. If the captors see that I like them, they will like me and I will come out of this okay they tell themselves.

Most of it, though, is massive ignorance I'm afraid. I don't think most journalists can even conceive that we have such a shadowy, parallel "justice system" that can hand out severe penalties without any of the normal protections in a criminal or even civil law court.
I replied,
Deborah, two things:

1. It IS the Stockholm syndrome (SS). Not a weird form but the real thing. SS always looks weird up close. Think of the police officer who dodges bullets to rescue a hostage, only to have her denounce him as a fascist and promptly shack up with the sociopath hostage taker on his trailer weekends, hanging on to every bit of bullshirt that comes out of his mouth like it was the gospel reading (which, for her, it is). Think of that when we hear legacy media types making oblique excuses for FGM, honour killings, forced marriage, and the like.

Not everyone gets SS, and it is significant that the syndrome was first identified in Sweden.

The people who are especially susceptible to SS start out with fixed and very convenient ideas about who the villains are and who the victims are.

They “know” things, where the rest of us would withhold judgement before doing some research. As the threat advances, they erect ever more barriers to discovering a reality they are entirely powerless to face. Capitulation feels so good because it preserves their worldview (at the expense of their sanity and well-being).

2. Not every journalist needs or wants freedom of the press. That is the single most dangerous misconception out there. Many of our colleagues would be very happy indeed with a situation that prevented them from feeling badly about not taking REAL risks with their coverage because the government doesn’t allow it - “to protect minorities” and all that. No one will be more unctuous in advancing such explanations than the person for whom they are a cover for sloth and cowardice.

Those interested in David Warren's entertaining views on religious matters (he is a devout Catholic but a serial offender against the Received Dogma of modernism, and his skepticism is matched only by his good sense and good humour), go here. (Note: This is a search string on The Mindful Hack, so the first story you see will necessarily be this one. Scroll down to the next one for the "David Warren vs. received witlessdom" stories.)

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