Culture of Honour

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I’ll get to the above graph in a moment, but first I want to tell a little story.

A man sits in a bar with a bunch of his friends one evening. The group is having a pleasant night out until a stranger walks up to the table and speaks insultingly to the man. He sneeringly claims to have been having sex with the man’s fiancée on an ongoing basis, and states that he and the man’s fiancée have had many jokes about the man’s diminished sexual attributes and abilities. Hey lays it on pretty thick for another minute and then says, “I’m heading out to the parking lot now, and if you’re any man at all — which we all know you’re not already — you’ll follow me out and prove it.” What should the man do? When asked about cases like this, men and women from the southern US were much more likely to think that the man should go and punch it out, however bad the fight may be. While northerners, on reflection, tended to think that the moral course of action would be to ignore the provocation and laugh off the stranger’s insults, southerners tended to think that one wouldn’t be ‘much of a man’ if he didn’t respond with violence.

This and many similar cases are discussed by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. To further explore the different ways northerners and southerners think of fighting to defend one’s honour, they sent off job applications to businesses in Michigan and Tennessee with bogus resumes and cover letters. These letters were all the same except for one crucial difference. Half the letters sent to employers in each state ended by admitting that the writer had served time for a felony — beating another man to death outside of a bar in a fight that got out of hand after the other man had insulted the first man’s wife. The other half also confessed to a felony, but this time it was stealing expensive cars from a car lot when the writer had no other way to support his family. The results were curious. The applications that confessed to stealing the cars were rejected by all employers, and the northern employers similarly wanted nothing to do with the man who had beaten someone to death outside the bar. But the southern employers tended to feel quite differently about the man who stood up for his wife’s honour. One wrote to applaud him for his honesty in admitting his criminal history up front, and said that it sounded like one of those understandable but unfortunate things “that could happen to anyone”. Another southern employer expressed regret that he didn’t have a job opening at present. And so on. Continue reading

Slavery: The world throughout human existence. (Also: cannibalism)

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First, my apologies to you Episyllogists for this submission being a day behind schedule. Life’s been busy. I hope it creates enough of a buzz to compensate for its lateness.

In this series of posts so far, I’ve explored a number of ways in which our moral beliefs appear, very surprisingly, to be caused or at least strongly influenced by morally irrelevant factors. My point in posting all these things is not to point out how some other people get things wrong (we all seem prone to these influences) or to present an interesting quirk of human nature to smile at for a few minutes. Rather, I’ve been presenting these things because they seem to point quite clearly to a very serious problem with our moral thinking: not the moral thinking of other cultures, or of mindless people in our culture whom we can look down on, but my moral thinking and yours, personally.

Before I add another item to the pile of evidence today, I’d like to present the main concern in the form of a brief argument:

1. There is ample empirical evidence for the view that our moral beliefs are determined (or, at least, strongly influenced) by morally irrelevant factors.

2. If our moral beliefs are determined or strongly influenced by morally irrelevant factors, then they are untrustworthy.

C. Therefore, our moral beliefs are untrustworthy.

I really don’t want to accept the conclusion of that argument, and I suspect you don’t, either. But how can we rationally avoid the conclusion? This is what I’ve been hoping to discover by making these posts.

Now for today’s discussion. According to a moral view I think we all feel is correct, we humans have learned something about morality over our millennia on this planet. True, our learning has been slow and unsteady; but the general trend has been from an objectively worse understanding of morality to an objectively better one. Two examples of this are commonly cited:

1. Slavery. Throughout much of history, it has been common in more or less all cultures for some people to ‘own’ other people after buying them, defeating them in battle, etc. But we’ve come to see that this is objectively morally repugnant, and this discovery has gradually led to an elimination of slavery (or at least to the fairly universal view that we ought not have slaves).

2. Cannibalism. Many early peoples seem to have killed and eaten other humans, particularly in the context of warfare. A member of the opposing tribe would be captured in some skirmish, taken back to the camp, cooked, and eaten. There is no reason to think that this was considered shameful behavior, and even the Aztecs performed human sacrifices quite openly and avidly. But cannibalism is objectively morally repugnant, and we have gradually come to understand this almost universally. Aside from the possibility of a few isolated holdouts of traditional tribes on the Solomon Islands and in Papua New Guinea, no culture today endorses or practices cannibalism.

Our shifting views on both cannibalism and slavery seem to be examples of objective moral progress. On the other hand, I explained last week that changes in attitudes toward slavery might have to do with our perception of the climate and the demands of industrialization rather than our moral perception. That should have been deeply disturbing news to any believers in reliable moral knowledge, as it was to me! And now, we have cannibalism to consider as well as slavery. Surely, the only plausible reason we would change our minds about the morality of cannibalism would have to be the unavoidable moral wrongness of it. Or would it?

As one begins to contemplate that question, it’s difficult not to be struck by how badly enemy combatants are treated in wars around the world today. The most horrible atrocities are performed on them regularly, and in the end they are generally killed. Is this really a moral improvement on cannibalism? Or is something else at work here?

According to Marvin Harris, our shifting attitudes toward cannibalism and slavery can easily be explained without invoking our knowledge of objective moral facts: one simply has to look at opportunities of caloric intake. It seems that the dietary choices of animals in a given environment can reliably be determined by a mathematical formula whose inputs are: the caloric yield of the available food sources, the calories expended in securing each food source (I.e. in hunting or browsing), and the time between spotting the food source and eating the food. When this same formula is applied to humans, it turns out to be just as predictively successful. Some humans eat swarming insects; others do not. The ones that do have no other food source that yields as many calories after the same amount of time with equal or less energy expended. The fact to note here is that environmental matters of caloric yield determine whether a society condones the eating of insects, and societies that don’t condone it find it disgusting; but when asked, such societies get things backward and believe that the disgust judgment explains the practice and not vice-versa.

OK — so our disgust judgments follow our social eating practices rather than drive them. But so what? What does this have to do with our moral judgments about slavery and cannibalism, say? Surely those judgments are not merely driven by something as morally irrelevant as caloric yield… are they?

Well, Harris applies his same empirically successful ‘caloric yield’ analysis to these two moral topics. First, cannibalism. The tribes who practiced cannibalism were typically on the brink of starvation, and sometimes a little beyond that brink. They lived as hunter-gatherers in environments in which there were few large animals to hunt. Meat would have been a precious commodity to them: a matter of life and death to at least the hungriest members of their tribes. Why kill your enemy on the battlefield and leave his corpse to rot away, when you could march him back to your camp to be eaten? Sure enough, it’s the societies whose caloric situations matched that description who in fact practiced cannibalism. The one large society we know of that condoned cannibalism was the Aztecs. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the Aztecs were also remarkable in that they managed to increase their numbers despite having… no large domesticable animals in the vicinity!

As societies shift from hunting/gathering to farming/animal husbandry, it at last becomes a calorically reasonable proposition to keep captured humans around. Captured humans can help with the farming and other chores. More precisely, in a society in which there is too much work for everyone to do comfortably but the overall available calories would be greater by having more people do the work, it becomes, the ‘caloric yield’ model that works for animals would also predict that those societies would keep captured warriors as slaves rather than eat them.

As societies rise to greater power, it becomes possible to colonize other areas and rely on their regular payment of taxes. And in an industrial society, as I explained last week, it becomes more expedient to replace slave labour with wage labour. All of this can be seen as an extension of the caloric yield model.

So: did our moral repulsion at cannibalism and slavery lead to their decline? Or was it their decline for reasons that had nothing to do with morality that led us to see them as morally abnormal? Sad to say, the evidence seems to support the second option.

Which Comes First?

haidtI would like to think that I and others around me have the ability to distinguish moral right from wrong in at least some very straightforward cases. But am I justified in thinking that? After all, there seems to be considerable disagreement on key moral issues between the various cultures of the world today, between our society today and those in the past, and between different members of the same societies. If we know that certain things are objectively right or wrong, and it feels as though we do, why do so many people disagree with us?

We don’t see this much disagreement when it comes to simple arithmetic, simple matters of whether there is or isn’t a body of water between Nanaimo and the mainland, whether there is literally a full-sized, live elephant in the room, and so on. If our moral thinking is so reliable, how can the extensive moral disagreements be explained? There seem to be three main options: a hopelessly bigoted and conceited explanation, a pessimistic explanation, and an optimistic explanation. Let’s consider these in order. Continue reading

Coming to Doubt One’s Views: A Prelude to Some Research

In my Jan. 7th post ‘A Disturbing Beginning…’, I presented a challenge: if, as we nearly always believe about ourselves, we can clearly see the moral truth on several matters, then what sense should we make of other cultures (or other people in our culture) having equally strong convictions that go in the opposite direction, and who think that we’re mistaken? Shouldn’t that cause us to doubt our moral views? Several commenters gave the answer that I felt confident about a couple of years ago: in such disagreements, we share a common moral sense with the other side but differ on the non-moral facts of the matter (on what leads to the healthiest physical and psychological development of children, or on whether animals can feel pain, etc.) So if (and only if!) we have good reason to believe that the other side is factually mistaken on these non-moral matters, we are justified in maintaining our moral convictions in the face of disagreement.

On Jan. 12th, under the heading ‘New Schedule…’, I distilled the essence of what all the commenters had said in that previous post in order to confirm that this was indeed what everyone agreed on. Absolutely nobody contested  my statement of their view, which I called the ‘straightforward view’.

Having made all those careful preparations, I presented my ‘Hopi Animals…’ post to show that that straightforward view faces serious difficulties! Unless we can show that the other side is mistaken on some non-moral factual matter in the Hopi, Roman and Chinese cases, we either have to accept their radically different moral views or else we have to abandon the straightforward view of moral disagreement. This is huge! When I first came upon this challenge to the straightforward view I firmly believed in, I thought and thought but couldn’t think of any plausible non-moral facts that the Hopi, Romans and Chinese were getting wrong and that would explain my disagreement with them. I saw, therefore, that my view was in trouble and that it would be wrong of me to keep confidently maintaining it (thanks to sob1989 who pointed out that this is clearer than saying that I became ‘convinced otherwise’). And so far, nobody on this blog (or anywhere else that I know of) has thought of any false non-moral fact that the Hopi, Roman or Chinese culture accepted that would explain this moral disagreement.

I must admit to feeling proud to change my mind (or come to doubt my older views) in the face of the evidence and arguments when I do. In general, I think a decent measure of one’s intellectual honesty is how frequently one actually admits that one can’t respond to counter-arguments against one’s firmly-held views and begins to feel less confident about those views (or even abandons them). Consider for a moment: when was the last time you recognized you were wrong on some matter you felt strongly about? Yesterday? A week ago? A month? A year? Ten years? Can you even think of the last time? Right now, see whether you can make a list of ten times you’ve changed your mind (or abandoned your old view) on a matter you previously thought you were obviously right about. How easy do you find that? The long stretches when you haven’t abandoned any of your major views are times when you were intellectually stagnant. We get such a short time in this life to learn about the world, and that requires constant belief revision. And we who have the luxury to contribute to this blog, in our age and lands of relative intellectual freedom, seem to have no excuse for throwing away our gift of learning — of facing the challenges against our views and adjusting or abandoning them in the face of good evidence! Not only is intellectual stubbornness a waste of our gifts, but it makes society worse. A functioning democracy, in particular, requires all of us to subject our most firmly held views to close intellectual scrutiny and to ruthlessly abandon or modify them when they become untenable.

Unfortunately, though, we tend to be spectacular failures at coming to doubt our views. Even on the most trivial issues, we tend to respond mindlessly and overconfidently to criticism. As long as we have something to say in response, we’re happy with ourselves and feel no need to take the criticism or opposing view seriously. We tend not to care that much whether our response is true or even consistent with everything else we believe! This reminds me of a joke I came across years ago in a book of Jewish humour. Lisa approaches her neighbour, Rachel, and says, “This dish you returned to my daughter yesterday is cracked!”. “Listen, Lisa,” Rachel fires back. “First, the dish was fine when I returned it to her. Second, that crack was already there when you lent it to me last week. And third, I never borrowed your goddamn dish!” We all have an easy time seeing when others do this: the difficulty is seeing it in ourselves.

Because we tend to be much less interested in pursuing the truth than in dismissing the other view and maintaining our own come what may, disagreements on moral and other matters tend to worsen rather than improve social relations. Richard Garner discusses this in the opening chapter of his book Beyond Morality. Take any moral issue: gun rights, or the Quebec charter, or physician-assisted suicide, or whatever. You hold a belief on that issue, and many of your closest friends share that belief. You can’t imagine how any right-minded person could feel otherwise. You and your friends are happy to have that in common, and it’s pleasant for you to invent and repeat slogans and arguments that show how out to lunch the other side is. You can get bumper stickers that present your view, and that brings you into contact with others who think like you do (though now and again you run into a hostile meathead from the other side of the issue who has a problem with the sticker). 

Then you come across someone in your circle who disagrees with you on this matter. You think to yourself: “Aha, here’s someone who hasn’t thought the matter through or heard the right reasons!” and you start reciting the facts and arguments that are commonplace among those of your convictions. But they don’t faze this other person, who presents facts and arguments that her own side likes to throw around.

This irritates both of you. If you’re not a very intellectually rigorous person, you’ll just dismiss the person as a fool and not be bothered by anything she said. And even if you are somewhat intellectually rigorous, you’ll go do some research: not research that will help you discover whether you’re right or wrong, but research that will prove that you must already be right. After all, neither of you really have the intellectual honesty to take seriously the possibility that you could be mistaken on as clear an issue as this: you know you’re in the right, and you just need a little help in proving it.

So you do your research, think through your masterful arguments, and memorize your facts. But the next time you meet, you find the other person has done the same thing on her side and you get nowhere! For the next round, if you’re really committed to ‘working out’ the issue (i.e. finding ways to support the foregone conclusion), you go out and buy a book entitled Why ______ is True and _ _ _ _ _ is False, or whatever. But even this gets you nowhere, since those on the other side have read a book that argues for the opposite view, complete with statistical appendixes and pages of references to the scholarly literature, etc. When even this fails to show the other person that you are right, you finally fall back upon the last three possibilities: 1) that other person is too stupid to understand the correct arguments; 2) that other person is insane or brainwashed; or 3) that other person understands the non-moral facts, but is totally devoid of moral fiber and has the the wrong view for immoral reasons. And of course, she’s thinking the same thing about you: neither of you has taken seriously for a moment the possibility that you’re the stupid, insane, or immoral one.

Admittedly, this is a pretty bleak view! Perhaps we aren’t really that bad. Let’s look at a more optimistic view side by side with the pessimistic one:

The Optimistic View: By and large, we have the power to tell right from wrong through reasoning, empathy, and just a good moral sense. Moral disagreements arise when our reasoning, empathy or moral sense is compromised somehow — owing to lack of discipline, confusion or ignorance of key facts, brainwashing by religious or other propaganda, or other psychological pressures. But when intelligent, morally in-tune, psychologically healthy and informed people like you are presented with a moral challenge, you consider the matter impartially and reasonably, arriving in the end at a fair and correct decision. The moral reasons you present for your views are the very reasons that led you to accept those views; and if you were to realize that all your reasons for maintaining your view had been refuted and that you had no particular reason to maintain your view, you would admit that and abandon your view.

The Pessimistic View: Nearly all the moral decisions that come naturally to us (yes, including you and me!) are made not on the basis of reasoning and good evidence, but on the basis of social, environmental, and genetic pressures that really have nothing to do with moral rightness or wrongness. It tends to be only when we’re challenged that reasoning and evidence come into the picture; and when they do, they present a mere façade: they do nothing more than allow us to rationalize what we’ve already decided on non-rational grounds.

On the optimistic view, our reason is the driver of our moral beliefs. Those other people tend to be brainwashed, stupid, immoral, insane rationalizers; but we choose to be led to the moral truth by reasoning on the best available evidence.

On the pessimistic view, our reason is the servant of our moral beliefs. We tend to arrive at our moral beliefs non-reasonably, and then we employ our reason as a lawyer to argue for us — not to question the verdict we’ve reached on largely emotional grounds.

Which view is correct — the optimistic one, or the pessimistic one? On Monday, I’ll present the results of some research on that topic.

Hopi Animals, Roman Gladiators, and Chinese Feet: Problematic Moral Disagreements

Hopi BirdGladiators<a

In the 1950s, Richard Brandt became interested in the Hopi (a tribe from present-day Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado). At that point, the traditional Hopi culture had continued without much social contamination, and anthropologists were keenly interested in their ways and worldview. Brandt became interested in the Hopi for his own ethnographical reasons: he wanted to investigate an ethical theory.

Mainstream academic philosophy in the early 1950s had, following the work of the great R. M. Hare, arrived at exactly the conclusion that Bob, ucsbalum, and sob1989 presented last week: a particular moral statement (like 'It's wrong to harm animals just for fun') has two bases: 1) a general moral principle (like 'it's wrong to cause pain just for fun') and 2) a factual belief (like 'harming animals causes pain'). Moral disagreements arise from conflicts between two different factual beliefs, rather than between two different general principles. For instance: Those who think it's morally permissible to harm animals may believe, say, that animals don't feel pain, while those who think it's impermissible disagree with this; but both sides agree that causing pain is, in itself, immoral.

Continue reading

New Schedule for the ‘Morality and Human Nature’ Posts

Thanks again to everyone (particularly the new followers!) who responded to my post last week. Bob and I are both delighted with the discussions so far, but feel that a whole week might be a bit too long to leave things between these posts. So we’ve decided that I’ll post something to continue the discussion every Monday and Thursday.

Tomorrow will be the first Monday post. Its contents should be a little unsettling: they certainly were to me! And that’s good, because it should lead to a great discussion. To be sure that the difficulties raised aren’t lost, though, I’d like to summarize the main picture that emerged in the discussion from Wednesday. It seemed that the various commenters have more or less agreed for now that the following picture — which for convenience I’ll call the ‘straightforward view’ — is the correct model of persistent moral disagreement:

The Straightforward View

There are some objective moral facts — facts that are true regardless of what people or cultures happen to think about them — facts like ‘It’s highly immoral to beat up random senior citizens for a joke or for gangs of bullies to beat up young, helpless people who have done nothing wrong’ or ‘It’s morally praiseworthy to risk your own safety to step in and help innocent people from such beatings.’ Moreover, we can sometimes know these moral facts (for example, we know the facts just mentioned).

While different cultures, or different people in the same culture, sometimes disagree even after long and careful reflection on the moral status of particular acts or institutions that seem to be paradigm cases of rightness or wrongness, that disagreement should not cause us to doubt objective morality or our ability to know it. The reason is that every particular moral judgment consists of two lesser judgments: a purely moral judgment, and an nonmoral judgment about the way the world is.

For instance, as uscbalum says, some Africans believe that FGM (female genital mutilation) is morally required, while more or less all Canadians believe that it is morally impermissible. However, all these people agree on the purely moral view that children should be helped in living happy and fulfilling lives. The disagreement lies in the nonmoral beliefs of both groups: the Africans in uscbalum’s story believe that girls who don’t undergo FGM will develop penises, which will make their lives less happy; the Canadians do not believe this. And once these empirical facts are settled, it’s possible for the disagreement to be resolved. Similarly, many Christians are against abortion even a day or less after conception because they believe that zygotes already contain souls and are therefore already persons (and have various other relevant metaphysical views), while materialists have different beliefs about the way the world is; but everyone agrees that it is wrong to harm or kill an innocent person needlessly. And so on.

To put it more succinctly: Disagreements on non-moral matters conceal the fact that we all share a common set of purely moral beliefs. If we could resolve all the non-moral disagreements, we would thereby resolve all the moral disagreements, since the disagreements always lie in the non-moral side of particular moral judgments.

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All that is the statement of a rather persuasive metaethical view. Up to a couple of years ago, I held it as well. Tomorrow, I’ll start to present the evidence that convinced me otherwise.

A Disturbing Beginning: Moral Judgment and Moral Error

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?

 

Take the Radical Empiricist Challenge!

Since it seems from recent comments here that this issue over innate tendencies won’t die, and that those on one side of the issue (ahem) aren’t keen on reading any of the scientific literature on the matter, I’ve decided to summarize a small sample of the evidence for that side to respond to.

First, a clarification of what the debate is about. My view (which is mainstream nowadays in the sciences) is merely that some of our beliefs, attitudes and dispositions are influenced to some extent by innate factors (though like all evolutionary adaptations, these need not be present in all individuals). Also, just to make sure this is absolutely clear: it does not follow from this view that these innate tendencies are good, or impossible to resist or overcome, and so on. As you can see, this is a moderate view that covers a very wide range of positions.

The opposing position (radical empiricism) that some have taken on here is an extremist view. It holds that absolutely no human beliefs, behaviors, dispositions, etc. have any innate basis whatsoever, that our evolutionary history plays absolutely no role in determining what we believe or desire or how we act, and that absolutely every common tendency can be explained in terms of social and environmental rather than biological pressures: that is to say, in terms of the things we experience rather than how we are born.

Of course, it is possible to take a more moderate empiricist view and to say that experience (including social and environmental pressures) tells some of the story and that some of the story is told by innate dispositions. There is excellent empirical support for that view, and it is the one I accept! The view opposed to mine, let it be remembered, is not this but the radical, extremist one that innate tendencies play absolutely no role whatsoever.

With that out of the way, here’s the challenge for radical empiricists. I’ll outline below a range of observed human behaviors and psychological tendencies. They’ve all been the subject of many scientific studies and I would be glad to point any doubters in the direction of precise statistics on any of these points, if need be. In each case, the data are clearly explained by evolutionary psychology (the scientific theory behind the mainstream, moderate innatist view I’ve been espousing), but seem utterly baffling on a radical empiricist view. The challenge to radical empiricists is to explain these general tendencies in terms of cultural or environmental factors.

Here we go! Continue reading