That Humanist

Morality – From Altruism through Religion to Neurobiology and Beyond
January 22, 2008, 2:53 pm
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Panda’s Thumb has an interesting post on Evolution of altruistic cooperation and communication in robot societies. Here we have dumb robots exhibiting behaviour many would think is exclusively in the domain of humanity. This goes some way to “increases our understanding of how cooperation, cheating and altruism arose.” Obviously this in turn sheds some light on morality.

There appears to be a tremendous amount of science uncovering aspects of our moral intuitions. Here’s some of the stuff I’m reading about right now:

  • The theory of reciprocal altruism (introduce by Robert Trivers) shows how we can evolve mechanisms of guilt, altruism, cheating, trust, reputation and cheat detection.
  • Kin selection explains how “some organisms tend to exhibit strategies that favor the reproductive success of their relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.” In other words, why I would give my life for that of my sister.
  • Inclusive fitness is a generalisation of kin selection, looking at how social behaviours rather than simply kin. For example, how the monkey will scream to warn its troop of an approaching leopard, but at the same time give away its own location.
  • Moral Psychology/Evolutionary Psychology/Neurobiology and more are uncovering fascinating details about how we think and make moral judgements. This includes the role of emotion in making a moral decision, and a set of moral foundations common to all of man, and a weighted universal moral grammar. Here I’m looking at some of the works by Jonathon Haidt, Marc Hauser and others.
  • Anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer theorise about how some of these innate human instincts guide our predilections towards religious belief, as does some of the work by moral psychologists. For example, how our feeling of disgust (in food) is captured by moral notions of disgust (“How could you perform that immoral act? It’s disgusting!”) and how religions (and other social systems) play on this .

Here we have a rich vein of science, spanning everything from philosophy, anthropology and psychology to social sciences, neurobiology and evolution. Yes, we even have robots displaying altruistic cooperation. How much more rewarding than the flat deistic notion of morality—”it is written!” Now we have real insights into how we rationally decide what is right or wrong, and how we evolved to have some innate notion of what is right and wrong, how these sometimes conflict, making us the humans that we are.