The Blog of Brian Stanton

The Ape Within: When to Mistrust our Moral Intuitions

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Imagine for a moment that life never graced the otherwise cold realm we call the Universe. There would still be matter. There would still be energy. The moon would still orbit the Earth, even if there were no one around to see it.


But not everything would be the same. In fact, there are truths that depend on the existence of sentient beings. The most important of these considerations, of course, is the way we treat one another. In a sterile Universe, questions of right and wrong become irrelevant. Morality is an emergent property of life.


We care about morality, at bottom, because our lives are entangled with other beings. The role of society is simply to create a truce between unfamiliar primates. Our instinctive behaviors, however, often lean more toward Trump rally than harmony.


“Much of our intuitive morality may be wrong with respect to the goal of maximizing human flourishing,” reflects neuroscientist Sam Harris. “The only sphere of legitimate moral concern, really, when you get down to the details, is the wellbeing of conscious creatures.”


The concept of wellbeing is a bit vague, but there are obvious ways to not be well – or ways to suffer. And suffer we do. Peace and altruism are not strong features of our apish nature.


The Milgram Experiment offers a pointed example of our moral circuitry misfiring. In the early 60s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a devious study to answer the question: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” In each trial, a scientist – the authority figure – would order an unlucky subject to deliver increasingly powerful shocks to a human actor. In truth, there were no shocks, but the actor played along convincingly. They would scream at the lower shocks and then, for the last few blasts, become totally unresponsive.


The results were then, and still now disturbing. At the prodding of the scientist, most participants zapped the actors to the maximum 450 volts. Most participants administered this brutal shock even after the actor fell silent. “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority,” wrote Milgram, “constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”


So what’s the explanation? If, as the study shows, most people will deliver a fatal shock, it seems that evil can be engineered, given the right (or wrong) conditions. It also suggests that many Germans fell into a similar trap during the second World War. An inborn bias – blind obedience to authority – can provoke hideous deeds in otherwise good people. We will return to this later.


Along the same vein, consider the famous pond scenario from the moral philosopher Peter Singer. The average passerby – barring an obvious psychopath - will wade into a shallow pond (ruining their shoes) to save a drowning girl. That same person, however, rarely spends the cost of Gucci loafers to save a starving child (or five) across the world.


“Instead of spending money on these things,” writes Singer, “we could give the money to an organization that would use it to reduce poverty, and quite possibly to save a child’s life.” Yet this behavior is not typical of even the most generous person you met yesterday. As a rule, if we aren’t close to the source of suffering, we simply don’t care about it.


This isn’t to say that our monkey minds are always out of sync with moral truth. “With the help of well-designed experiments,” writes Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, “you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.” In one experiment, Bloom showed that babies prefer a helpful (nice) character to a hindering (mean) character. These results begin to explain why it feels so good to help others.


But these primitive reactions don’t get us to modern ethics. Without moral and societal progress, humans would be living like warring chimps in Uganda. In truth, we’ve only just begun to triumph over the lesser angels of our nature. A glance at a history book reveals millennia of moral confusion soaked in religiosity and tribalism. The United States is no exception.


Let’s take a little trip back to Salem, circa 1692. Upon arrival, a distant cousin invites you to a town meeting. You follow him to a courthouse and sit beside him on an open bench. On the stage, a white-wigged minister is excoriating a confused elderly woman. You squirm in your seat. You soon realize, to your horror, that you’re an eyewitness to an actual witch trial. An innocent woman is about to receive the death sentence at the hands of religious lunatics.


In a way, the Salem witch trials were 17th century versions of the Milgram Experiment. The authority figure, in this case, was Reverend Cotton Mather. This Puritan maniac preached that Satan was manifesting through the townsfolk to spread sickness and death. And God – the ultimate authority - was invoked to justify their murders. Given our cognitive flaws, it’s no surprise that religion can trigger truly despicable behavior. From the Dark Ages of Catholicism to radical Islam of today, examples abound.


As we’ve seen, our innate morality often leads us astray. Our simian brains simply haven’t evolved for peaceable coexistence. But it’s up to us to try, however imperfectly, to create a world in which we all can flourish. To move the needle on this endeavor, we need to raise the flag of reason – not of intuition, superstition, or religion. We need to outwit our inner ape.

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