WHENCE morality? That is a question which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented. Two and a half millennia of debate have, however, failed to produce a satisfactory answer. So now it is time for someone else to have a go. And at a panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, a group of biologists did just that.
Mark Hauser, of Harvard University, opened the batting by asking whether morality is more than just the refined application of the emotions. He thinks that it is. Human brains, he believes, have a separate morality module.
The researchers looked Protestant students: Pentecostals, which tend to be conservatives, and Episcopalians, which tend to be liberals
(In Princeton, the Church of the Latter Day Globally Warmed Liberal Saints I used to go to is an Episcopal church; I have yet to meet any Pentecostals, but I digress).
I found this particular paragraph interesting:
Dr Wilson and Dr Storm found several unexpected differences between the groups. Liberal teenagers always felt more stress than conservatives, but were particularly stressed if they could not decide for themselves whom they spent time with. Such choice, or the lack of it, did not change conservative stress levels. Liberals were also loners, spending a quarter of their time on their own. Conservatives were alone for a sixth of the time. That may have been related to the fact that liberals were equally bored by their own company and that of others. Conservatives were far less bored when with other people. They also preferred the company of relatives to non-relatives. Liberals were indifferent. Perhaps most intriguingly, the more religious a liberal teenager claimed to be, the more he was willing to confront his parents with dissenting beliefs. The opposite was true for conservatives.
Wilson then jumps to conclusions,
Dr Wilson suspects that the liberal package of individualism and confrontation is the appropriate response to survival in a stable environment in which there is leisure for learning and reflection, and the consequences for a group’s stability of such dissent are low. The conservative package of collectivism and conformity, by contrast, works in an unstable environment where joint action, and thus obedience to their group, are at a premium. It is an interesting suggestion, and it is one that plays into the question of how morality actually evolved.
My experience in this very liberal town, where even from the pulpit we were preached the virtues of voting for John Kerry and accepting unthinkingly the Global Warming faith, is that it takes a real individualist to stand away from the collectivist conformity of the obedience to the liberal group.
In another study by Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, Dr. Bowles thinks that the virtues of human collaboration are so great that groups composed of genuine, self-sacrificing altruists would outcompete others.