As some readers are aware, Bob asked me a few days ago to contribute a little something each Wednesday about the stuff I and my friends out east are working on — especially the cross-overs between cognitive science and philosophy. Tomorrow morning is Wednesday, and I won’t have a chance to post anything before starting my day. Then again, it seems that many of you look at the blog in the morning or early afternoon anyway. So most of you will see this on Wednesday; and if you’ve read up to this point tonight (Tuesday), you can just save the rest for tomorrow! It’ll be like Christmas.
Before getting into some of the surprising discoveries that I’m keen to discuss with you, I’d like to set the stage this week by making clear why what I’m going to discuss in future weeks matters — and why it’s disturbing. The reason is that, however you make sense of the research I’m going to present in the coming weeks (well, some of the research, anyway), it seems that we have to radically rethink morality as we know it. I’ve been grappling with these issues for two years now (ever since I started working with Steve Stich on one of his courses) and I still don’t know what to make of it all. But I’ve certainly come to distrust my moral sense in ways I wouldn’t previously have thought possible.
Now, this might sound like no big deal, or perhaps even good news, to many readers. Wouldn’t it be liberating to have an opportunity to be freed from the constraints of silly old morality? I’ve had several students in my introductory courses over the years tell me this. These students, they say, really think that morality is a bunch of nonsense. They can’t understand why I care at all about it!
Well, after having many conversations with such students and lay people, I can tell you (with some relief, actually) that they realized soon enough that they didn’t really mean to reject all morality. What they meant was that they rejected bourgeois morality, or religious morality, or morality about the sexual and romantic choices of consenting adults, or something like that.
If you doubt whether you care at all about morality, please consider your reaction upon hearing of innocent elderly people being badly beaten by youths as a joke as part of a ‘knockout’ game. Or how you felt when you read about Wen Jones, the former marine (oops, marine no longer in active service — sorry, Bob!) from Florida who defended an innocent young stranger from a terrible beating by three lowlife bullies despite realizing that the bullies would turn on him next (and they did — he was beaten unconscious, and the cowardly maggots continued beating him in the face even when he had blacked out from a blow to the back of the head). Personally, I think the bullies and the ‘knockout’ players are doing something very, very bad, and that Wen Jones did something extremely good. Pretty well everyone feels as I do about these cases. But if you don’t care about morality, you won’t share these convictions and won’t really care about the rightness or wrongness of such actions, nor would you if they happened on the street in front of you. Unless by some slim chance you’re a sociopath, you would care!
Now that I’ve convinced you (I hope) that morality does matter to you just as it does to me, I’ll offer you a disturbing fact I’ve come across. An anthropologist who specializes in initiation rituals recently told me about the Etoro and Keraki tribes of Papua New Guinea. From about the age of seven, Etoro boys begin a lengthy ritual meant to transform them into men. As part of the ritual, they regularly fellate and then ingest the semen of adults (this is meant to be a sort of ‘passing on of the seed’ to the next generation). The Keraki have a somewhat similar ritual, except that Keraki boys are sodomized by adults and have the seed injected into them that way.
It’s difficult to write those words, and think of what they mean, without experiencing a visceral reaction of muted outrage. In our culture, even the cowardly bullies, thieves, murderers, rapists and ‘knockout’ players tend to think of adults who have sex with prepubescent children as the lowest of the low. The feeling that such acts are wrong — and would be even if intended as a coming of age ritual — carries with it for me the same level of conviction as does the sense I have that I’m typing this on a computer. I, for one, feel no room for error at all in my moral condemnation of such practices. But then, why do the Etoro and Keraki not share our feelings about this?
Since there seems to be no real question that these sexual encounters with children are very, very wrong, one clear (but non-PC) answer suggests itself. The Etoro and Keraki societies have simply not progressed to the point of moral refinement where they would notice the wrongness of their rituals. But as my anthropologist friend explained, this answer does not fit well with the evidence. For as it turns out, the Etoro are as struck by the wrongness of the Keraki practices, and the Keraki are as struck by the wrongness of the Etoro practices, as we are by the wrongness of either! And needless to say, both tribes think that our cultural practices are deficient in this way.
We all think our moral insights give us clear insight into the nature of moral reality, in just the way that our eyesight gives us clear insight to what large solid objects are in our path. But is that view of our moral intuitions sustainable?
To put it more clearly: do we perceive that things are right or wrong and develop pro or con feelings toward them on that basis? Or is it possible that we develop pro or con feelings toward things on the basis of our environment, our genes, the personal details of our lives, and so on and then make up ‘just so’ stories to justify our moral judgments after the fact?