The Moral Animal – Wright

The Moral Animal by Dawkins is a great all round read. However, not as in-depth on evolution as “the selfish gene” but probably enough for the general reader.

Because it touches on so many ideas, it kind of jumps around a lot towards the end.

Tries to tie everything together and make the case against cultural relativism and also the naturalistic fallacy.

Notes

  • While most of us think that if men could choose they would live in a polygamous society, genetically it is actually not so, and hence how we arrived at where we are.
    • A monogamous society means that every man gets one wife. Where as a polygamous society, above average men would get more than one wife, leaving lower ranking males withyout a wife.
    • Polygamy would mean that more women can marry up the genetic scale
    • Hence polygamy is better for above average men+women, and worse for below average.
    • However n the whole, monogamy is best for society as a society of sexually deprived lower class males would be unstable.
  • Gene selection (the actuality behind kin selection) answers questions that natural selection when viewed from the individual’s perspective doesn’t. Two major cases are sterile insects and apparently “selfless” behaviour of animals such as alarm calls when spotting a predator.
  • Gene selection also explains the false theory of group selection. While there may be observed effects of group selection, it is because a gene is more populace in that group, and is driving the behaviour.
  • THe high cattle population is a modern direct example of natural selection. In that a cows “usefulness” in the current environment is that of being farmed, which means that humans have enabled the propagation of natural selection, making their genes more prominent in the total animal gene pool. Dog breeding for cuteness is another obvious examples.
  • Low-status families are more likely to favour daughters as they have a higher probability of marrying up and creating more offspring (genetic fitness), where as upper-class families are more biased towards sons as they are more likely to have more children and produce more offspring.
  • Why are animals hierarchical (dominant/submissive)? Because it creates the most stable societies. Constant internal conflict over resources leads to the death of all genes involved. Genes for submission (when you’re not the bottom of the bottom) would generally reproduce more.
    • However if you are at the bottom of the social scale, non-submission is generally in your best interest as it would result in the same liklihood for reproduction as submission.
  • The problem with cultural “submissiveness” (the tendency to avoid self-inflating egotism) is that it’s not evolutionarily stable. An alternate culture that is more dominant is likely to take over because of it’s sheer dominance.
  • The Moral Animal put forth a clear explanation about how people who build relationships (through power dynamics and non-zero sum exchanges) generally climb the social ladder.
    • This is something I struggle with personally as I always rebel against the norm for just the sake of rebelling.
    • I’d rather be a solo unheard of person, than an assisted heard of person. I realise how this is an unhelpful belief.
    • I for some reason look down on networking and relationship building as a way of promoting oneself.
    • Again this is a unuseful belief.
  • Morality is choosing to optimise for happiness rather than genetic proliferation.
  • Important in utalitarianism is non-zero summnes. A world where everyone performs acts of little effort that produce greater results to others, is a world where everyone gains.

Quotes

  • "“[M]ultiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”"
  • "So, while there are various reasons why it could make Darwinian sense for a woman to mate with more than one man (maybe the first man was infertile, for example), there comes a time when having more sex just isn’t worth the trouble. Better to get some rest or grab a bite to eat. For a man, unless he’s really on the brink of collapse or starvation, that time never comes. Each new partner offers a very real chance to get more genes into the next generation—a much more valuable prospect, in the Darwinian calculus, than a nap or a meal."
  • "for males “there is always the possibility of doing better.”"
  • "Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that—in many realms, not just sex—we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer. The full scope of the logic will take some time to explain, but I don’t think I’m spoiling the end of the movie by noting here that the puppeteer seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets."
  • "Whereas almost all females had about the same number of offspring, regardless of whether they mated with one, two, or three males, male legacies differed according to a simple rule: the more females you mate with, the more offspring you have. Bateman saw the import: natural selection encourages “an undiscriminating eagerness in the males and a discriminating passivity in the females.”"
  • "With little to lose and much to gain, males can profit, in the currency of natural selection, by harboring “an aggressive and immediate willingness to mate with as many females as may be available.”"
  • "Symons believes that the life-style of the modern philandering bachelor—seducing and abandoning available women year after year after year, without making any of them targets for ongoing investment—is not a distinct, evolved sexual strategy. It is just what happens when you take the male mind, with its preference for varied sex partners, and put it in a big city replete with contraceptive technology."
  • "high male parental investment makes sexual selection work in two directions at once. Not only have males evolved to compete for scarce female eggs; females have evolved to compete for scarce male investment."
  • "David Buss placed electrodes on men and women and had them envision their mates doing various disturbing things. When men imagined sexual infidelity, their heart rates took leaps of a magnitude typically induced by three successive cups of coffee. They sweated. Their brows wrinkled. When they imagined instead a budding emotional attachment, they calmed down, though not quite to their normal level. For women, things were reversed: envisioning emotional infidelity—redirected love, not supplementary sex—brought the deeper physiological distress."
  • "The logic behind male jealousy isn’t what it used to be. These days some adulterous women use contraception and thus don’t, in fact, dupe their husbands into spending two decades shepherding another man’s genes. But the weakening of the logic doesn’t seem to have weakened the jealousy. For the average husband, the fact that his wife inserted a diaphragm before copulating with her tennis instructor will not be a major source of consolation."
  • "You might think that the number of sperm cells in a husband’s ejaculate would depend only on how long it’s been since he last had sex. Wrong. According to work by Baker and Bellis, the quantity of sperm depends heavily on the amount of time a man’s mate has been out of his sight lately.37 The more chances a woman has had to collect sperm from other males, the more profusely her mate sends in his own troops."
  • "The general principle is that economic equality among men—especially, but not only, it near the subsistence level—tends to short-circuit polygyny."
  • "The basic point stands: many, many women, even many women who will choose not to share a husband, have their options expanded when all women are free to share a husband.7 By the same token, many, many men can suffer at the hands of polygyny."
  • "All told, then, institutionalized monogamy, though often viewed as a big victory for egalitarianism and for women, is emphatically not egalitarian in its effects on women. Polygyny would much more evenly distribute the assets of males among them. It is easy—and wise—for beautiful, vivacious wives of charming, athletic corporate titans to dismiss polygyny as a violation of the basic rights of women. But married women living in poverty—or women without a husband or child, and desirous of both—could be excused for wondering just which women’s rights are protected by monogamy."
  • "The only underprivileged citizens who should favor monogamy are men. It is what gives them access to a supply of women that would otherwise drift up the social scale."
  • "This is not to say, of course, that men ever sat down and hammered out the one-woman-per-man compromise. The idea, rather, is that polygyny has tended to disappear in response to egalitarian values—not values of equality between the sexes, but of equality among men."
  • "Darwinism does not, of course, explain history as evolution; natural selection doesn’t work nearly fast enough to drive ongoing change at the level of culture and politics. But natural selection did shape the minds that do drive cultural and political change."
  • "It may be no accident that Christianity, which served as a vehicle for monogamy politically as well as intellectually, has often pitched its message to poor and powerless men."
  • "There are several conceivable reasons to vote for equality among men (that is, monogamy). One is to dodge the wrath of the various feminists who will not be convinced that polygyny liberates downtrodden women. Another is that monogamy is the only system that, theoretically at least, can provide a mate for just about everyone. But the most powerful reason is that leaving lots of men without wives and children is not just inegalitarian; it’s dangerous."
  • "The ultimate source of the danger is sexual selection among males. Men have long competed for access to the scarcer sexual resource, women. And the costs of losing the contest are so high (genetic oblivion) that natural selection has inclined them to compete with special ferocity."
  • "This is perhaps the best argument for monogamous marriage, with its egalitarian effects on men: inequality among males is more socially destructive—in ways that harm women and men—than inequality among women. A polygynous nation, in which large numbers of low-income men remain mateless, is not the kind of country many of us would want to live in."
  • "The document has two columns, one labeled Marry, one labeled Not Marry, and above them, circled, are the words “This is the Question.” On the pro-marriage side of the equation were “Children—(if it Please God)—Constant companion, (&friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,—object to be beloved & played with.” After reflection of unknown length, he modified the foregoing sentence with “better than a dog anyhow.” He continued: “Home, & someone to take care of house—Charms of music & female chitchat—These things good for one’s health.—but terrible loss of time.” Without warning, Darwin had, from the pro-marriage column, swerved uncontrollably into a major anti-marriage factor, so major that he underlined it. This issue—the infringement of marriage on his time, especially his work time—was addressed at greater length in the appropriate, Not Marry column. Not marrying, he wrote, would preserve “Freedom to go where one like—choice of Society & little of it.—Conversation of clever men at clubs—not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle—to have the expense & anxiety of children—Perhaps quarreling—Loss of time.—cannot read in the Evening—fatness & idleness—Anxiety & responsibility—less money for books &c—if many children forced to gain one’s bread.”"
  • "“Never mind my boy—Cheer up—One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle.—Never mind, trust to chance—keep a sharp look out—There is many a happy slave—”"
  • "So in the ancestral environment, a self-esteem that began to harden shortly after adolescence may have been a reliable guide to one’s enduring value on the marriage market; maybe it has become a faulty indicator only in a more modern environment."
  • "“All the advice, which I need not give you, is, to remember that as you take your wife for better for worse, be careful to value the better & care nothing for the worse.” He added: “It is the neglect of this little particular which makes the marriage state of so many men worse than their single blessedness.”54 In other words, just remember one simple rule: don’t stop loving your wife, as men seem inclined to do."
  • "Not surprisingly, male fantasies, and male sexual arousal, are also more easily activated by sheerly visual cues, by the mere sight of anonymous flesh.5 So visual isolation is an especially good way to keep a man from thinking the thoughts that could lead to marital discontent, infidelity, or both."
  • "We can now roughly sketch a Charles Darwin plan for marital bliss: have a chaste courtship, marry an angel, move to the country not long after the wedding, have tons of kids, and sink into a deeply debilitating illness. A heartfelt commitment to your work probably helps too, especially when the work doesn’t entail business trips."
  • "John Stuart Mill made this point in a larger context. Even Mill, who, as the foremost publicist of utilitarianism, insisted that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends,” didn’t mean that the way it sounds. He believed that the pleasure and pain of all people affected by your actions (emphatically including any people your marriage created) belong in your moral calculus. Further, Mill stressed not just quantity of pleasure but quality, attaching special value to pleasures involving the “higher faculties.” He wrote: “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures.… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”"
  • "If this chapter has stressed the male mind’s incongruence with monogamous marriage (and it has), it’s not because I think the female mind is a perpetual font of adulation and fidelity. It’s because I think the male mind is the largest single obstacle to lifelong monogamy—and certainly the largest such obstacle that emerges distinctly from the new Darwinian paradigm."
  • "As George Williams and Robert Trivers discovered, much of human sexual psychology flows from the scarceness of eggs relative to sperm."
  • "Namely: those genes that are conducive to the survival and reproduction of copies of themselves are the genes that win. They may do this straightforwardly, by prompting their vehicle to survive, beget offspring, and equip the offspring for survival and reproduction. Or they may do this circuitously—by, say, prompting their vehicle to labor tirelessly, sterilely, and “selflessly,” so that a queen ant can have lots of offspring containing them."
  • "This is another reminder that natural selection tends to work underground, by shaping human feelings, not by making humans conscious of its logic."
  • "In his 1964 paper, Hamilton noted abstractly that, “the behaviour of a post-reproductive animal may be expected to be entirely altruistic.”34 After all, once the vehicle that genes inhabit can’t transmit them to the next generation, they are well advised to direct all energies toward vehicles that can. Since only women spend much of their lives in post-reproductive mode, the implication is that older women, much more than older men, will shower attention on kin. And they do. The single aunt who devotes her life to relatives is a much more common sight than the single uncle who does the same. Darwin’s sister Susan and his brother Erasmus were both middle-aged and unmarried when their sister Marianne died, but it was Susan who adopted her children.35"
  • "The problem with Darwin’s theory is a common problem with group-selectionist theories: it is hard to imagine group selection spreading some trait that individual selection on its own wouldn’t favor; it is hard to imagine natural selection resolving a direct conflict between group welfare and individual welfare in favor of the group."
  • "If you were in the shoes of either prisoner, and weighed your options one-by-one, you would almost certainly decide to confess—to “cheat” on your partner. Suppose, first of all, that your partner cheats on you. Then you’re better off cheating: you get three years in prison, as opposed to the ten you’d get if you stayed mum while he confessed. Now, suppose he doesn’t cheat on you. You’re still better off cheating: by confessing while he stays mum, you go free, whereas you’d get one year if you too kept your silence. Thus, the logic seems irresistible: betray your partner. Yet if both partners follow this nearly irresistible logic, and cheat on each other, they end up with three years in jail, whereas both could have gotten off with one year had they stayed mutually faithful and kept their mouths shut. If only they were allowed to communicate and reach an agreement—then cooperation could emerge, and both would be better off. But they aren’t, so how can cooperation emerge?"
  • "“Morality is the device of an animal of exceptional cognitive complexity, pursuing its interests in an exceptionally complex social universe.”"
  • "Axelrod’s computer world was a lot like Shrewsbury: the same fairly small group of characters, day after day, all of whom remember how you behaved on the last encounter. That, of course, is a central reason why reciprocal altruism paid off inside the computer. If you make the computer world even more like a small town, by allowing its creatures to gossip about how scrupulous so-and-so is or isn’t, cooperative strategies flourish even faster. For then cheaters get away with fewer swindles before people start shunning them."
  • "You can see this in Axelrod’s computer. If you change the rules, and allow frequent migration into and out of the group, so that there are fewer chances to reap what you’ve sown, the power of TIT FOR TAT wanes visibly and the success of meaner strategies grows."
  • "Among the things Charles Darwin found troubling about the Fuegian Indians was their apparent lack of social inequality. “At present,” he wrote in 1839, “even a piece of cloth is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another.” Such “perfect equality,” he feared, would “for a long time retard their civilization.” Darwin noted, by way of example, that “the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders—who although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense.” The upshot: “In tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, such as the domesticated animals or other valuable presents, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.” Then Darwin added, “On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest and still increase his authority.”"
  • "“The dominance-subordination hierarchy shown by wolves and a wide variety of vertebrates and arthropods is not a functional organization. It is the statistical consequence of a compromise made by each individual in its competition for food, mates, and other resources. Each compromise is adaptive, but not the statistical summation.”9"
  • "Nonhuman primates send some of the same status signals as people. Dominant male chimps—and dominant primates generally—strut proudly and expansively. And after two chimpanzees fight over status, the loser crouches abjectly. This sort of bowing is thereafter repeated to peacefully express submission."
  • "“Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness,” he wrote in The Descent of Man. “Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright.”"
  • "At present the chiefs of nearly every tribe throughout the world succeed in obtaining more than one wife.”34 Indeed, studies of the Ache, the Aka, the Aztecs, the Inca, the ancient Egyptians, and many other cultures suggest that, until the common use of contraception, male power translated into lots of offspring. And even now that contraception has broken this link, a link remains between status and the amount of sex a man has."
  • "Margaret Mead once made an observation about primitive societies that probably applies in some measure to all societies: “[T]he small girl learns that she is a female and that if she simply waits, she will some day be a mother. The small boy learns that he is a male and that if he is successful in manly deeds some day he will be a man, and will be able to show how manly he is.”"
  • "there is no reason to derive our values from natural selection’s “values,” no reason to deem “good” what natural selection has “deemed” expedient."
  • "Human beings are designed to assess their social environment, and, having figured out what impresses people, do it; or, having found what people disfavor, avoid it."
  • "In other words, what we call cultural “values” are expedients to social success.55 People adopt them because other people admire them. By controlling a child’s social environment, by selectively dishing out respect and scorn, we can program his values as if he were a robot."
  • "In some modern urban neighborhoods, values have lately grown closer to those of the Yanomamo. Young men who kill get respect—at least within the circle of young men whose opinions they care about. This is evidence that the worst parts of human nature are always near the surface, ready to rise when cultural restraint weakens. We are not blank slates, as some behaviorists once imagined. We are organisms whose more egregious tendencies can be greatly, if arduously, subdued. And a primary reason for this tenuous optimism is the abject flexibility with which status is sought. We will do almost anything for respect, including not act like animals."
  • "In short: organisms may present themselves as whatever it is in their genetic interest to seem like."
  • "Samuel Butler, himself a Victorian evolutionist (and the man who noted that a hen is just an egg’s way of making another egg)"
  • "“the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.”"
  • "Jerome Barkow has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker).”"
  • "The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right—and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue."
  • "Status is simply another kind of asset that people bring to the bargaining table. Or, more precisely: it is an asset that leverages other assets; it means that at little cost a person can do big favors."
  • "Whether these things are true doesn’t especially matter. They’re just the things friends are supposed to say. Friends engage in mutual inflation. Being a person’s true friend means endorsing the untruths he holds dearest."
  • "Anyway, however conscious or unconscious the lies, one effect of friendship is to take individual nodes of self-serving dishonesty and link them up into webs of collective dishonesty. Self love becomes a mutual-admiration society."
  • "When people are our enemies, or when they support our enemies, or fail to support us after we’ve supported them, the standard response is to convincingly say bad things about them. And, again, the best way to convincingly say such things is to believe them—believe that the person is incompetent or stupid or, best of all, bad, morally deficient, a menace to society."
  • "When grudges are expanded into networks, as friends form coalitions to support each other’s status, the result is vast webs of self-deception and, potentially, of violence. Here is a sentence from the New York Times: “In a week’s time, both sides have constructed deeply emotional stories explaining their roles, one-sided accounts that are offered with impassioned conviction, although in many respects they do not stand up, in either case, under careful scrutiny.”49 The sentence refers to an incident in which Israeli soldiers shot Palestinian civilians, and each side clearly saw that the other had started the trouble. But the sentence could be applied with equal accuracy to all kinds of clashes, big and little, through the centuries. By itself this sentence tells a large part of human history."
  • "Still, even if the psychology of war has indeed been shaped by out-and-out wars, they may well have been of secondary importance.51 Feelings of enmity, of grievance, of righteous indignation—of collective enmity and grievance and righteous indignation—probably have their deepest roots in ancient conflicts within bands of humans and pre-humans. In particular: in conflicts among coalitions of males for status."
  • "Toward the end of the Beagle’s voyage, Darwin got his strongest early taste of professional esteem. He was (aptly enough) on Ascension Island when he got a letter from Susan relaying the interest aroused by his scientific observations, which had been read before the Geological Society of London. Most notably, Adam Sedgwick, the eminent Cambridge geologist, had said that some day Darwin would “have a great name among the Naturalists of Europe.” It’s not yet clear exactly which neurotransmitters are unleashed by status-raising news such as this (serotonin, we’ve seen, is one candidate), but Darwin described their effect clearly: “After reading this letter I clambered over the mountains of Ascension with a bounding step and made the volcanic rocks resound under my geological hammer!” In reply Darwin affirmed to Susan that he would now live by the creed “that a man who dares to waste one hour of time, has not discovered the value of life.”"
  • "This shifting balance of affection is a regular feature of friendships amid sharp changes in status, as the reciprocal-altruism contract is silently renegotiated. Such renegotiations may have been less common in the ancestral environment, where, to judge by hunter-gatherer societies, status hierarchies were less fluid after early adulthood than they are now."
  • "Another fifties-era experiment showed that a person’s recollections vary according to the audience he is to share them with: show him a list of the pros and cons of raising teachers’ salaries, and which ones make a lasting impression depends on whether he expects to address a teachers’ or a taxpayers’ group. The authors of this experiment wrote, “It is likely that a good deal of a person’s mental activity consists, in whole or part, of imagined communication to audiences imagined or real, and that this may have a considerable effect on what he remembers and believes at any one point in time.…”"
  • "This jibes with a Darwinian angle on the human mind. Language evolved as a way of manipulating people to your advantage your advantage in this case being popularity with an audience that holds firm opinions); cognition, the wellspring of language, is warped accordingly."
  • "Brent may be right. Several years after the Origin was published, Darwin advised a young botanist, “let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing in publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations.”"
  • "“I sent Mr. Darwin an essay on a subject on which he is now writing a great work. He showed it to Dr. Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they immediately read it before the Linnean Society. This assures me the acquaintance and assistance of these eminent men on my return home.”"
  • "that the whole idea of a friend is someone who at least partly shares your self-serving biases."
  • "Our generosity and affection have a narrow underlying purpose. They’re aimed either at kin, who share our genes, at nonkin of the opposite sex who can help package our genes for shipment to the next generation, or at nonkin of either sex who seem likely to return the favor. What’s more, the favor often entails dishonesty or malice; we do our friends the favor of overlooking their flaws, and seeing (if not magnifying) the flaws of their enemies. Affection is a tool of hostility. We form bonds to deepen fissures.2 In our friendships, as in other things, we’re deeply inegalitarian. We value especially the affection of high-status people, and are willing to pay more for it—to expect less of them, to judge them leniently. Fondness for a friend may wane if his or her status slips, or if it simply fails to rise as much as our own. We may, to facilitate the cooling of relations, justify it. “He and I don’t have as much in common as we used to.” Like high status, for example."
  • "From this insight flows Freud’s most basic idea about the mind: it is a place of conflict between animal impulses and social reality."
  • "The theories of kin selection, parent-offspring conflict, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and status hierarchy tell us what kinds of self-deception are and aren’t likely to be favored by evolution."
  • "“I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”"
  • "Both believed that, in a universe which for all we know is godless, one reasonable place to find moral guidance is utilitarianism. Mill, of course, did more than subscribe to utilitarianism. He was its premier publicist. In 1861, two years after On Liberty and the Origin appeared, he published a series of articles in Fraser’s magazine that are now known by the single title Utilitarianism and have become the doctrine’s classic defense."
  • "Perhaps the best answer to this question is a sheerly practical one: thanks to our old friend non-zero-sumness, everyone’s happiness can, in principle, go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely. You refrain from cheating or mistreating me, I refrain from cheating or mistreating you; we’re both better off than we would be in a world without morality. For in such a world the mutual mistreatment would roughly cancel itself out anyway (assuming neither of us is a vastly more proficient villain than the other). And, meanwhile, we would each incur the added cost of fear and vigilance."
  • "To put the point another way: life is full of cases where a slight expenditure on one person’s part can yield a larger saving on another person’s part. For example: holding open a door for the person walking behind you. A society in which everyone holds the door open for people behind them is a society in which everyone is better off"
  • "If you can create this sort of system of mutual consideration—a moral system—it’s worth the trouble from everyone’s point of view. In this light, the argument for a utilitarian morality can be put concisely: widely practiced utilitarianism promises to make everyone better off; and so far as we can tell, that’s what everyone wants."
  • "This is the second, less conspicuous foundational assumption of Mill’s argument. From the beginning he is asserting not only that happiness is good, but that no one person’s happiness is special."
  • "But in the end, Darwin was simply a man who empathized boundlessly; and in the end, boundless empathy is what utilitarianism is."
  • "At the root of this feeling is the retributive impulse, one of the basic governors of reciprocal altruism. It evolved not for the good of the species, or the good of the nation, or even for the good of the tribe, but for the good of the individual. And, really, even this is misleading; the impulse’s ultimate function is to get the individual’s genetic information copied."
  • "Love, after all, makes us want to further the happiness of others; it makes us give up a little so that others (the loved ones) may have a lot. More than that: love actually makes this sacrifice feel good, thus magnifying total happiness all the more."
  • "Rather, the paradigm is useful because it helps us see that the aura of rightness surrounding so many of our actions may be delusional; even when they feel right, they may do harm. And surely hatred, more often than love, does harm while feeling right. That is why I contend that the new paradigm will tend to lead the thinking person toward love and away from hate. It helps us judge each feeling on its merits; and on grounds of merit, love usually wins."
  • "The point, rather, is to show that a Darwinian world needn’t be an amoral world. If you accept even the simple assertion that happiness is better than unhappiness (all other things being equal), you can go on to construct a full-fledged morality, with absolute laws and rights and all the rest."
  • "“A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them,” he wrote. “We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity.”"
  • "“This view will not do harm, because no one can be really fully convinced of its truth, except man who has thought very much, & he will know his happiness lays in doing good & being perfect, & therefore will not be tempted, from knowing every thing he does is independent of himself to do harm.”14 In other words: So long as this knowledge is confined to a few English gentlemen, and doesn’t infect the masses, everything will be all right."
  • "This is very much in the spirit of the time-honored utilitarian prescription. We should punish people only so long as that will raise overall happiness. There is nothing good, in itself, about retribution; the suffering inflicted on wrongdoers is just as sad as the suffering of everyone else, and counts equally in the grand utilitarian calculus. It is warranted only when outweighed by the growth it brings in the welfare of others, through the prevention of future crime."
  • "Thus, when a woman who has been beaten or raped by her husband kills or mutilates him, the question wouldn’t be whether she has a “disease” called battered-woman syndrome. And when a man kills his wife’s lover, the question wouldn’t be whether jealousy is “temporary insanity.” The question, in both cases, would be whether punishment would prevent these people, and similarly situated people, from committing crimes in the future. This question is impossible to answer precisely, but it’s less messy than the question of volition, and it has the added virtue of not being rooted in an outmoded worldview."
  • "Of course, the two questions have a certain amount in common. The courts tend to recognize “free will,” and hence justifiable “blame,” in the kinds of acts that can be deterred by the anticipation of punishment."
  • "As Daly and Wilson write, “The enormous volume of mystico-religious bafflegab about atonement and penance and divine justice and the like is the attribution to higher, detached authority of what is actually a mundane, pragmatic matter: discouraging self-interested competitive acts by reducing their profitability to nil.”"
  • "artificially restore free will to robustness by redefining it (proclaim, for example, that the existence of a biochemical correlate has no bearing on whether a behavior is volitional); or (b) dispense with volition altogether and adopt explicitly utilitarian criteria of punishment. Both of these options amount to roughly the same thing: as the biological (that is, environmental-genetic) underpinnings of behavior come into view, we must get used to the idea of holding robots responsible for their malfunctions—so long, at least, as this accountability will do some good."
  • "Morality, after all, is the only way to harvest various fruits of non-zero-sumness—notably those fruits that aren’t harvested by kin-selected altruism or reciprocal altruism. Morality makes us mindful of the welfare of people other than family and friends, raising society’s overall welfare. You don’t have to be a utilitarian to think that’s a good thing."
  • "Actually, morality isn’t the only way to harvest these particular fruits. But it’s the cheapest way, and the least creepy. If no one drinks before driving, society is better off. And most of us would rather see compliance enforced by an internalized moral code than by a ubiquitous police force. This is the rigorous answer to people who ask why terms like morality and values should be taken seriously. Not because tradition is a good thing in itself. But because of what a strong moral code is uniquely able to offer: the more elusive benefits of non-zero-sumness, without lots of police."
  • "The concept of “evil,” though less metaphysically primitive than, say, “demons,” doesn’t fit easily into a modern scientific worldview. Still, people seem to find it useful, and the reason is that it is metaphorically apt. There is indeed a force devoted to enticing us into various pleasures that are (or once were) in our genetic interests but do not bring long-term happiness to us and may bring great suffering to others. You could call that force the ghost of natural selection."
  • "In all these assaults on the senses there is a great wisdom—not only about the addictiveness of pleasures but about their ephemerality. The essence of addiction, after all, is that pleasure tends to dissipate and leave the mind agitated, hungry for more. The idea that just one more dollar, one more dalliance, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature—a misunderstanding, moreover, that is built into human nature; we are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there. Natural selection has a malicious sense of humor; it leads us along with a series of promises and then keeps saying “Just kidding.” As the Bible puts it, “All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.”14 Remarkably, we go our whole lives without ever really catching on."
  • "The advice of the sages—that we refuse to play this game—is nothing less than an incitement to mutiny, to rebel against our creator. Sensual pleasures are the whip natural selection uses to control us, to keep us in the thrall of its warped values system. To cultivate some indifference to them is one plausible route to liberation. While few of us can claim to have traveled far on this route, the proliferation of this scriptural advice suggests it has been followed some distance with some success."
  • "Maybe so. But it remains true that pleasure is ephemeral; that its constant pursuit is not a reliable source of happiness (as not only Samuel Smiles but also John Stuart Mill noted); that we are built not to easily grasp this fact; and that the reasons for all this are clearer in light of the new Darwinian paradigm."
  • "The idea goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, who said a saint is someone who understands that everything he does is egotistical."
  • "No doctrine heightens one’s consciousness of hidden selfishness more acutely than the new Darwinian paradigm. If you understand the doctrine, buy the doctrine, and apply the doctrine, you will spend your life in deep suspicion of your motives."
  • "Congratulations! That is the first step toward correcting the moral biases built into us by natural selection. The second step is to keep this newly learned cynicism from poisoning your view of everyone else: to pair harshness toward self with leniency toward others; to somewhat relax the ruthless judgment that often renders us conveniently indifferent to, if not hostile to, their welfare; to apply liberally the sympathy that evolution has meted out so stingily. If this operation is inordinately successful, it might result in a person who takes the welfare of others markedly, but at least not massively, less seriously than his own."

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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