Friday, May 23, 2008

Errol Morris & Marc Hauser in Conversation

From Seed.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has made a career of trafficking in moral ambiguity and complexity. Evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser has pioneered research into the idea of a universal morality grounded in biology. Hauser believes humans possess a moral grammar; Morris isn't so sure. The two met when Morris asked Hauser to be part of his short film for the 2007 Oscars. They kept in touch, exchanged ideas, and Hauser attended an early screening of Standard Operating Procedure, Morris's film about the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. Recently in Boston they debated game theory, Stanley Milgram, and whether science can make us better people.

Click on the image to watch highlights from the Salon.

Errol Morris: I'm not sure that I have any real grasp on morality at all, much less some universal idea of morality. I've thought a lot about what happened at Abu Ghraib, and maybe this shows just a fundamental deficiency on my part, but I've come away even more confused than when I started and more convinced that social science really hasn't grappled with these issues in a way that I find satisfactory.

It's fascinating that whenever we come up against something that is really complex, there is this very deep human need to find a simple explanation that can account for it. If it's something that's really bad, really wrong, people feel uneasy and want to figure out how to distance themselves from it; to tell themselves, "This doesn't concern me. This isn't about me. This is about somebody else, or some other group I don't belong to."

Marc Hauser: Okay, but you left out a huge question: How do you know it's wrong?

EM: Yeah.

MH: How do you even know? How does the human mind know that something is wrong? And once it does, what does it do with that information? Those are deep questions. I mean they've occupied people for centuries.

EM: Right. One of the stories that I tell in S.O.P. is about a suspected insurgent who's brought in by Navy SEALs, interrogated by the CIA, enters Abu Ghraib under his own power, leaves as a corpse on a gurney. So, who is responsible? Who should be blamed? And if they haven't been blamed and are responsible, why haven't they been blamed?

MH: Right.

EM: All of that really interests me.

MH: Well, so, what science is doing is trying to distinguish two aspects of the question of how we think about the world. Because even this kind of violence, depending on whose side you're on, will be evaluated differently, right?

EM: Yes.

MH: So, when the Nazis got together to exterminate the Jews, from their perspective, wanton killing of Jews was not wrong. It was perfectly right because Jews were "the other." You map a distinction by recruiting the most powerful and violent emotions you can—disgust, hate. You call the other parasitic vermin to recruit the most incredible imagery. Once you do that, the emotions wreak havoc and you feel perfectly justified exterminating the other.

So this is where I think some the universality comes in. Say I tell a story about a violent episode but I don't say who's involved. I think you'll get everybody to agree what, or who, is wrong. If you create a moral dilemma and give no identifying information—you strip away any in-group, out-group distinction—you'll get lots of consensus on what's right or wrong. This is what we're finding. But, once you plug in the partiality of my group and your group, the entire dynamic changes. And that shows a powerful aspect of the mind.

Read the rest of this cool conversation.

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