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Agony

What Makes Us Moral?

Empathy and goodness are writ as deeply in our genes as murder and savagery.
We did not choose to have two parts to our nature, but we can choose which to embrace
By Jeffrey Kluger – TIME Your Brain: A User’s Guide

IF THE ENTIRE HUMAN SPECIES WERE A SINGLE individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. The insanity would not lie in the anger and darkness of the human mind— though it can be a black and raging place. And it certainly wouldn’t lie in the transcendent goodness of that mind—one so sublime, we fold it into a larger “soul.” The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.

TIME Your Brain: A User’s Guide Article on What Makes Us Moral ? – Illustration by Daniel Bejar

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves—in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Okla­homa City -all of the crimes committed by the highest, w isest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame-and our paradox.

The deeper that science drills into the substrata of behavior, the harder it becomes to preserve the vanity that we are unique among Earth’s creatures. We’re the only species with language, we told ourselves-until gorillas and chimps mastered sign language. We’re the only one that uses tools, then—but that’s if you don’t count otters smashing mollusks with rocks or apes stripping leaves from twigs and using them to fish for termites.

What does, or ought to, separate us, then, is our high­ly developed sense of morality, a primal understanding of good and bad, of right and wrong. Morality may be a hard concept to grasp, but we acquire it fast. A preschool­er will learn that it’s not all right to eat in the classroom because the teacher says it’s not. If the rule is lifted and eating is approved, the child will happily comply. But
if the same teacher says it’s also O.K. to push another student off a chair, the child hesitates. “He’ll respond, ‘No, the teacher shouldn’t say that,'” says psychologist Michael Schulman, co-arthur of Bringing Up a Moral Child. In both cases, somebody taught the child a rule, but the rule against pushing has a stickiness about it, one that resists coming unstuck even if someone in authority countenances it. That’s the difference between a matter of morality and one of mere social convention. The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you – and we’re not the only species that understands that idea.

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