Everyone knows, or thinks he knows, that human beings are social animals. As Aristotle famously noted, there is no such thing as a human being living outside of all social groupings.
Yet, enlightened Westerners believe that they are independent and autonomous beings. They believe, naively, that they can make decisions and conduct their lives regardless of what is required by the groups they belong to.
It’s obviously an illusion, but illusions can be powerful when people allow them to influence their decisions.
Now, neuroscience has emphasized the importance of taking human beings to be social animals. Recently Julian Baggini reviewed some books on the subject in the Financial Times. Among them, Matthew Lieberman’s Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect and Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them.
Baggini explains Lieberman’s view that Western cultures no longer take sufficient account of social being:
The contemporary western world just doesn’t take enough account of our fundamentally social nature. “We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes,” he says. Part of the blame for this lands on the enlightenment idea of the autonomous rational agent. This individualism is so ingrained in the west that what eastern cultures and Lieberman call “harmonising” is more often thought of as “conforming”, with all the negative connotations that entails.
People are lured into believing that they can all be creative free spirits. It’s almost as though moral philosophers had been trying to produce more anomie. They have slandered the notion of social harmony by convincing people that acting in order to get along bespeaks an urge to conform.
People err, Lieberman says, in failing to recognize the emotional impact of losing one’s place in a group. Baggini summarizes his point:
For example, Lieberman says that brains “experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain”, and that some brain scans of social and physical pain are indistinguishable. Most surprisingly, taking paracetamol appears to lessen both. The visceral nature of emotional hurt might well explain why one survey found that more people feared public speaking than death, or why languages around the world use metaphors such as a broken heart, a punch in the gut or a slap in the face.
When people react strongly to an offense or an insult, they are defending their place in a social group. One ought not to imagine that a threat to one’s group membership is trivial or that it should be pain free.
Getting along with other people, developing and sustaining relationships, contributing to social harmony… all these require adherence to ethical principles. Ethics, and its handmaiden etiquette, facilitate social interaction and allow people to affirm their place in a group through their behavior.
Of course, some people are more important than others. Human ethics was not designed to show people how to get along with everyone. It distinguishes friend and foe, but it also defines some people as co-operating strangers. It makes very little sense to derive an identity from membership in a group unless there are people who do not belong to the group.
Yet, Joshua Greene seems to believe that the moral instinct toward cooperation contradicts the instinct to see other groups as foreign and/or inimical.
Baggini summarizes Greene’s point of view:
On our crowded planet today, however, our biggest problem is that of “Us versus Them”, and tribalism just makes it worse. “Our moral brains evolved for co-operation within groups”, he says, but they “did not evolve for co-operation between groups”. This is what Greene calls “The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality”: what our intuition tells us is morally right is often very wrong, if we want to live peacefully with those who hold different values.
For Greene the answer is a version of utilitarianism:
This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.
At the very least, these speculations provoke questions. The liberal ideal of universal harmony does not seem consonant with humans being social animals. Surely, it is contradicted by competition.
Would you say that every team in the NFL should end the season with exactly the same number of wins and losses? Would that maximize happiness or would it minimize it?
Surely, Greene does not mean that all humans should adopt the same customs and mores, rituals and ceremonies. And yet, how can humans have the same values without all practicing the same social rites.
Second, if human beings did not, as Greene believes, evolve toward intra-group cooperation, what is marriage about? Doesn’t marriage involve a transaction between two different and unrelated families.
Third, if Greene means that different groups can only cooperate by following the same rules, say the rules of international trade and commerce, he is on firmer ground. Groups cannot cooperate, that is, do business together unless they are playing by the same rules. Yet, however unnatural it is, this has been occurring for quite some time now.
Fourth, guaranteeing the same level of happiness for the greatest number of people depends largely on what you consider to be happiness. What makes you happy might not make me happy, and vice versa.
Gauzy ideals are nice, but is Greene going to suggest a massive income redistribution scheme, taking more from those who have more and giving more to those who have less. And does he recognize that such redistribution schemes tend to undermine everyone’s incentive to work hard and to create wealth. Thus, that they tend to immiserate everyone.
Fifth, Greene himself notes that it is unnatural for people to care more for strangers than they do for their own friends and family. Thus, he feels obliged to explain to people that he will happily favor repealing human nature.
He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory.
Isn’t there something narcissistic about this? Greene is suggesting that his idealistic and grossly unrealistic aspirations are not flaws in the theory. If the theory cannot be translated into practice, if experimental evidence disproves it, then the fault must lie in human nature itself.
If you put his theory into practice you would have as much responsibility to care for someone on the other side of the planet as you do to care for those near and dear for you. It’s fine and good when you have limitless resources, but when your resources are limited, you should normally fulfill your responsibility toward your children before you would start worrying about strangers.
Does this strike you as abnormal or immoral?
On what grounds are we responsible for everyone on the planet? Is this theory based on the notion that if we are all created equal then when Peter possesses much more than Paul, he must have acquired it unjustly. Thus, you have no right to the fruits of your labor because, by the fact that you have more than someone else, you have cheated him.
It sounds like a wonderfully idealistic notion, but it boils down to a guilt trip.