Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Essence of Human Morality?

From the NY Times:

"Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are," Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured.” Biologists ignored this possibility for many years, believing that because natural selection was cruel and pitiless it could only produce people with the same qualities. But this is a fallacy, in Dr. de Waal’s view. Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in "Primates and Philosophers," with "a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality."


I like the general sentiment, but taking the interests of the entire community into account is not even essential to human morality, much less the essence, which is why it's not always wrong to give only a secondary priority to the interests of the entire community when, for instance, that community is making unreasonable demands on you. People fighting for civil rights may have to take into account the interests of the entire community in order to find the best way, or the most generally acceptable way, to win their battles; but whether their fight is moral is independent of whether it's in the interests of the entire community. As Hume and Butler could point out to anyone who took the trouble to inquire, self-love of a particular sort has a key moral role, one that does not depend on benevolence toward the community as a whole. Further, there are values that are, in Charles Taylor's phrase, 'hypergoods' that are such that, if the interests of the community went contrary to them, we would conclude that the interests of the community are themselves immoral; in which case the community needs to be changed. This is why we have notions like 'social progress', in which the very interests of the community are supposed to improve over time.

There is no question that altruism and empathy have their place in morality, in the same way that any components of human personality have their place; and because they are so important to social life, there is no question that a good moral account has to include them. But there is also curious tendency to overemphasize the role of both. As Hume could point out to them, this argument only works if you are arbitrarily limiting the notions of altruism and empathy considered to those that are moral, or very like moral altruism and empathy. But altruism for and empathy with the wrong people can be not merely immoral, but diabolically perverse.

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