Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lenny Moss - Moral Molecules, Modern Selves, and Our “Inner Tribe”

This article from Professor Lenny Moss is in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review. This interesting article looks at how we "hard-wired" to be social creatures, dependent on others for our survival - but we are also fairly "tribal" (ethnocentric) and we often group ourselves into "us vs. them" perspectives.

It's a long and serious piece - this is only the first few paragraphs.

Moral Molecules, Modern Selves, and Our “Inner Tribe”

Lenny Moss

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.1 (Spring 2013). 

An Ethos of Ambiguity

We are almost certainly on the threshold of a new understanding of our nature as social beings, which is being provoked and informed by developments in psychology, biology, and the social sciences. Just how we interpret and assimilate these new findings has become a topic of considerable controversy. Inasmuch as morality, however one defines it, has to do with how we treat each other, the stakes of this controversy are raised by its ostensibly moral and thereby also political implications. Less obvious, especially to the public, is the extent to which academic disciplinary statures and commitments are also hanging in the balance.

Our nature as social beings is ostensibly paradoxical. On the one hand, we are unquestionably social in nature. We are born dependent upon the care of others; we crave companionship and often go to great lengths to avoid loneliness. Short of death or physical torture, enforced solitary confinement is considered the most severe and hateful punishment that can be inflicted upon a human being. On the other hand, perceptions of individuality govern our life choices—we are seldom far from consulting our private interests when it comes to making decisions of any consequence. We find ourselves, as individuals, in an ongoing, pervasive, and often strenuous competition with the multitudes for status, recognition, and every good we seek and desire up to and including walking space on a busy urban sidewalk. We thus experience most of our fellow humans, most of the time, as potential impediments to outmaneuver and outdo in order to achieve our ends. The Enlightenment’s late-eighteenth-century “Sage of Königsburg,” Immanuel Kant, pithily referred to this seemingly contradictory state of affairs as our “unsocial sociability.”

How we understand our unsocial sociability, even if just implicitly, is of no small consequence. Those for whom social life is nothing but some minimally constrained expression of Hobbes’s “war of all against all” are prone to act accordingly. For Kant the very possibility of having rational hope for the future of humanity required a story to tell about the place of our unsocial sociability, and all of the historical sufferings and depredations wrought by it, within a framework of possible human “development.” More simply stated, we need a way of understanding “human nature” that allows us to make sense of the evils in human history without foreclosing the possibility of seeing ourselves as moving toward improvement in general, and more specifically toward something like global peace and general human wellbeing. Kant helped himself to a providential outlook but in the form of a theoretical teleology. Kant analogized the human species with an organism that, in effect, undergoes “growing pains” on its developmental path toward maturity. Just as the parts of an organism are always responding to the forces and factors of their immediate environment, and yet all told are contributing to the developmental ends of the organism, individual people live for the most part in their local world pursuing individual ends constitutive of a developmental trend in human history. Kant’s idea was that our unsocial sociability, our individualistic will to get ahead of each other, played out at the macro-level as an impetus for the further cultivation of the species, technologically, culturally, etc. The down side of course was that our unsocial sociability also resulted in massive amounts of human cruelty and immiseration. For Kant, these events, while morally uncondonable, were, as learning experiences, unavoidable parts of human self-development. Only by force of painful experience would humanity learn the value of peaceful co-existence. Sadly, the two-plus centuries since have not easily lent themselves to confidence in a steady, progressive, human learning curve.

Two of the key elements of Kant’s story—the idea that our social behavior is driven by inherent species proclivities and his providential/teleological assumption that we are invested with these proclivities for a reason—may not, on closer examination, look as foreign as one may initially have imagined. In place of talk about inherent proclivities, we now have talk about genes and chemical messengers. In place of a providential account of why (and to what end) we have the proclivities we do, we now have evolutionary arguments about why (and to what end) we have the genes and chemical messengers that we do. How to best interpret the significance of evolution, genetics, and neurochemistry for our understanding of human sociality, morality, and the implications for human conduct, however, is where present controversies first begin.
Read the whole article.
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