Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The end of morality, among other things

In November, Californian voters will cast ballots not only to elect the next president of the United States and members of Congress. They will also vote on a proposition to eliminate the death penalty, and replace it with life in prison without parole. Was this ballot initiative launched out of any humane concerns, including the possibility that impressionable juries are once in a while condemning innocents to death? Maybe, but the argument around the issue turns mostly on money.

California now has around 700 prisoners on death row, many of whom have awaited execution for over a decade. You might think that keeping them alive for a decade or two should be cheaper than life imprisonment, but it isn't. The state has to wage legal battles against multiple appeals handled by clever lawyers who sometimes employ delaying tactics. And this is apparently costing California taxpayers a fortune at a moment when they can least afford it.

Why this obsession with cost/benefit analysis even on such an issue of life and death, literally? Here is another elegant, though unfalsifiable, explanation. I have previously mentioned the theories which postulate that modernization induces a general emotional cooling off or even numbing. Anthropsychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have suggested, though, that instantaneous emotional reactions are essential to moral judgment. So, what would happen if these reactions are enfeebled? Properly moral considerations would be superceded by the crude utilitarianism undelying cost/benefit analysis, and much of life in the early 21st century.

Haidt offers a different explanation for the rise of utilitarian thinking. He points to the fact that the founding father of utilitarian ethics, Jeremy Bentham, was probably autistic. John S. Mill, who embraced a softer version of utilitarianism, offers the following verdict on Bentham’s sensibility: “In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature, he had no sympathy. For many of its graver experiences, he was altogether cut off. And the faculty by which one mind understands a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind was denied him by his deficiency of imagination.”

Haidt's point about Bentham's apparent psychiatric disorder raises an obvious question: but why did his philosophical argument resonate? I guess it anticipated the shifting Zetgeist in modernizing Western societies, particularly in "Anglo-Saxon" countries. And the reason that Zeitgeist shifted is that patterns of brain -wiring and brain-body integration were changing under the influence of increasing social complexity and technological change; which were increasing under the influence of increasingly utilitarian thinking; and so on - a classical feedback loop, or a vicious circle if you are a retrograde traditionalist/fundamentalist. Until we reached the current doldrums. Oops, this is a much broader and more provocative theory which I should probably substantiate one way or another. But this would perhaps be superfluous. 

Much recent research in social/cultural neuroscience indicates that our upport not just for this or that set of moral argument, but for broader social/political ideas is driven by the gut feelings I mentioned earlier. So why bother to offer a logical defense for any social theory or set of beliefs at all? Logically, there is no good reason; but we are still tempted to do it - a temptation I will this time resist.