Saturday, March 1, 2008

To be good, or not to be that may be an instinct, or a question.

I was reading an interesting , though surprisingly badly written article, in The Economist about the nature of morality...turns out it is not an emotion based thing at all. Scientists did brain-scans on people facing moral dilemmas, there was no action in the emotional centers..that is not where morality sits.

Which is also an interesting finding for me, though I am not sure if it is a valid one. Ones response to an actual moral situation will of course be more highly charged than a hypothetical moral puzzle one is faced with while wearing brain scan electrodes...

Problem one with the rather confused article.

Scientists then supposed that there is an instinct of sorts in humans towards moral behaviour, and that this moral instinct manifests itself differently depending circumstances.

I can work with this...

Scientists in New York did a study of middle class white teenagers from two religious backgrounds one liberal and the other conservative. (Why is it that middle-class white kids should be the benchmark for all people everywhere? This drastically weakens the findings) Duplication is desperately needed, with other groups, socially, economically, culturally, globally and racially.

If you want to look at instincts you need to look for something that is manifest in a pan-species manner. Looking at suburban church-going white kids is not a robust model.

Why did The Economist pick this up?

The findings were that conservative teenagers were more social, more relaxed, less concerned about who they spent their time with, less bored by everything and anything, and they preferred the company of relatives. Religious conservative teenagers were also deeply unwilling to confront their parents with dissenting beliefs. Read the inverse for the liberals.

The scientists suspect that the liberals are existing an a social and cultural space that is stable and provides a lot of leisure time for dissent is not a problem; therefore, morally, there is nothing wrong with being a pain in the *ss; while the conservatives are more collective and collaborative feeling more at risk and less stable, so there is a strong moral requirement that each individual tow the line.

I am not sure how they came to assess the liberals as living in a more stable environment as the two groups, when looked at globally, seem remarkably homogeneous...yes I know, the scientists are trying to reduce the number of variables in the findings, but if you are going to then apparently unfounded make sweeping generalisations....

Thus, because of their less stable place in society, the group of conservatives teens are displaying tighter moral laws in order to out compete another, more stable, group. This leads the scientist to believe this is an instinctual response to move to a more successful evolutionary gambit they label this as altruistic.

This of course displays a bias that the liberal teenagers are not just a group of spoiled whiners with little global perspective, but indeed are correct in their assumption that spending time with family is onerous and boring, that everything is indeed somewhat boring, and being uptight and anti-social is an appropriate response to life while the conservatives are repressing these feelings on an instinctive level as they do not have the evolutionary luxury of expressing them.


What the heck was all that?

The reporting was weak, we have no way of knowing the numbers in the test, the teenagers also self-reported...may I add my humble opinion that the vast majority of teenagers are quite content to lie on these sorts of self-reporting forms, simply for the anarchistic joy of it...

weak weak weak science and bad writing.

Why am I posting about this?

Two reasons, it was a particularly crappy bit of science writing, and possibly has misrepresented the findings of the scientists, or muddled them so badly that we, the general reader, are left at sea. The Economist is not my favourite magazine on the planet, it's leanings are a wee bit right for me *cough* but it is the 'economist', they do normally write better than this though...

Also I guess because I thought it was potentially interesting bit of scientific work into what is a potentially fascinating question...though the way it was conducted is weak. Altruistic acts that evolve and occur primarily within the framework of family are highly coloured, especially when some of the individuals involved are minors.

It would be much more interesting to look for altruistic acts outside of the deeply instinct driven and highly complex realm of the family and the growth of youth within that circle, and look more broadly at groups from different ages, stations, views and places in life.

Now that would be very neat.

SO...Morality is it logic? Instinct? Emotion?

What do you think?


Beth said...

Not liking the results of that study. When my kids were (white middle-class) teen-agers, they did not fit that (what I consider) negative mold.
If morality were based on logic (i.e. you’re more likely to compete, get ahead, be successful) wouldn’t the world be a better place?
This altruism/morality question has dumbfounded me for years. Why is one of my kids more altruistic and “involved” than the other two? Same family although different “place” in that family.
Nature vs. nurture?
Is it instinctual?
Can’t answer your question, but it’s got me thinking…

oreneta said...

Beth, it was a potentially fascinating article and really got me thinking as well, it was a shame that the writing was so flawed.

It is always a wonder what makes one child so different than another, I honestly believe it is a mix of both nature and nurture in everyone....

dawn said...

I guess my question is "What is morality?". If being altruistic or doing altruistic acts is the only measure, does that make someone who has been forced (by family tragedy) in to such acts, a more moral person than someone who is removed from such situations? I do agree with you about some children in the same family being more altruistic than others in the same family, so it is likely nurture and nature. We must believe as parents in the nurture portion of the process, or we would not spend our time teaching the little ones to be nice, don't hit, treat your friends how you want to be treated and don't do drugs. On the other hand, you can teach each of your children the same things and they have different experiences and they are different people with different perceptions and ultimately make their own choices and some will still blame the parent for sending them over the edge. It is way more complicated than whether children were raised middle class, white, liberal or conservative.

elPadawan said...

a good idea, poorly developed by the journalists?

I personnaly think morality, just like the notion of right or wrong, is something people get through education and social background. Is it instinct? Not sure. But doesn't have to be emotions. Incest is considered morally wrong todays. Such thing was not so uncommon during the middle ages, among nobles, so as not to "dilute" the noble blood. And it was not considered immoral.

Variations in the perception of morality from one individual to another will depend on their own personal experiences, that may differ even between siblings.