Tuesday, 7 July 2009

How can we be Wrong?: Part Four - Moral Paradoxes and Cognitive Illusions.

Here is a infamous thought experiment: a brother and sister decide to sleep together. They agree to do it only once, they practice safe sex; no pregnancy; and crucially, no psychological harm results from the action. They do not do it again, and no one else ever learns what they did. In what sense, then, are they morally at fault? Saying that it is legally wrong and therefore morally wrong is a fallacy. Claiming that because it’s illegal this provides a sufficient reason to oppose it, is also weak; for we can ask, why is it fundamentally wrong? Providing a religious reason, faces many of the similar problems, given the well documented problems that divine authority has faced from moral philosophers: this approach is a dead end. Deontological ethics could provide reasons, reasons, that are not substantial. Utilitarianism then, faces a huge problem: namely that no harm occurred, therefore, it falls outside its abilty to condemn it. How then, can we say this is wrong?

It disgusts us? Though this is a powerful emotion, it does not really provide a convincing reason, namely that this particular action was wrong. Here is, I think, the rub. On a more general level, the reasons why we should not practice incest are strong. However, when we get to particular cases (in this case a fictional incident) we find it hard to specifically justify it being wrong. This gap however, is not one I intend to focus on for present purposes. What I intend to discuss here, is the way our moral intuitions and initial built in “biases” can lead us astray. How - they make us go wrong. How, we just know it feels wrong but cant provide a reason as to why.

Nothing I have said or will say however, should lead you to think that moral intuitions are unimportant. They are important, vital even, but they are just that - intuitions. In the example of the incest thought experiment, there is a very sound biological reason as to why we should not engage in the practice of incest. Furthermore, it makes sense that nature would have selected for organisms who did not engage in the practice. It would also, have weeded out the beings who did engage in it. Though there are lots of examples that I could site of our intuitions going astray;(our ability to easily succumb to authority figures, social pressure, deluded by a person's likeability, our sense indebtedness to favours and so on) I will focus on just one. Namely the tribal trap: in group/out group hostility.

Forty years of scientific research and the long history of human conflict attest to the ease of which humans can be divided against each other. The problem is not just with other groups, but bullying of outsiders, and picking on the lonely individual who is different. Just recently, in my own country, we had the sad example of raciest attacks on Romanians by white supremacists. Just today, as I read the Guardian online, there was reports of ethnic and religious violence in China between two groups. The problem of the tribe and the group will be with us for a long time. What factors however, can help reduce it?

to take a micro approach, I think an enormous importance lies in the upbringing of a child, in curbing tribalism, though it is not an iron cast law: - raciest parents beget raciest children, non raciest parents beget non- raciest children. This is something I will tackle however, in my next post. So what other factors can we discuss? Firstly, as with everything, we should ask ourselves what are the facts? Do we have any reason to be frightened? Do they, the group or set of people have any reason to wish harm to me? If so, what are the options of resolving the problem? Secondly, as a general rule: we should view people as sympathetically and compassionately as possible. Imagine, if we can, circumstances from their standpoint. Thirdly: There may be real problems and disputes, however, we should ask ourselves what is the best time and place for attempting to resolve such things. We should exhaust every other avenue before attempting to resolve things by force.

Though there is many macro or societal level recommendations I could offer, I wish to stick firmly in the micro or personal. Some further recommendations I would offer, would be to become aware and vigilant when tribal or hostile feelings emerge. Bertrand Russell cautioned people, that, when they felt themselves getting angry or upset by reading or encountering something that they disagree with - they should, pay careful attention for it may expose or reveal a flaw in our thinking. Even if this is not so, we should pay careful attention, for if the emotion gets a hold on us, we may be liable to make mistakes in our ability to reason, as a fog of emotions has clouded our eyes. We should closely examine, then, every time we feel threatened and challenged, and ask ourselves - is it reasonable to feel like this?

The final recommendation I would offer: is that we learn and draw from as many sources as possible about the differences and varieties of human life. This is not an endorsement of mindless multiculturalism, far from it, for I think learning about other cultures can actually help us see what is vital and important about our culture. However, what this openness to learning and investigating can do, is leave us with a sense of the universalism of human nature. That many of the same problems and irritations that we face in our own countries are present elsewhere. That, travel and literature and foreign films, can give us a much more realistic picture of our place in the world and In the universe. That we are not special or inherently superior, and in a lot of ways, we are incredibly lucky.



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