Monday, November 23, 2009

Ethics: Evolved or Given?

Every now and then we take a look at ethics in general: what ethics is, how to think about it, and, although you don't have to figure this one out to do engineering ethics, where ethics comes from. Where you say ethics comes from depends on your philosophical presuppositions. People who think the physical universe is all there is will generally say something different about the origins of ethics than those who believe there is something beyond nature, that is, supernaturalists such as myself. But the surprising thing is, even researchers who take no account of supernatural explanations end up with a conclusion about the nature of ethics worldwide, that is surprisingly close to what believers in the supernatural claim.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has developed what he calls Moral Foundations Theory. It is based on data gathered from over 100,000 surveys of people all around the world, so you would have a hard time accusing Haidt of ethnocentrism. What he and his colleagues have found, is that our sense of right and wrong can be traced to one or more foundational principles or ideas that essentially all cultures he studied share in common. These principles are: (1) "Harm/care"—the ability to understand pain and other results of harm in others, and to empathize and care for them; (2) "Fairness/reciprocity"—the kind of thing that makes even three-year-olds scream, "That's not fair!!" in every language; (3) "Ingroup/loyalty"—the ability to identify with and sacrifice for a group one belongs to; (4) "Authority/respect"—the sense that legitimate authority and traditions should be obeyed; and (5) "Purity/sanctity"—the notion of sacred spaces and the purity of the human body. On his website (which contains basically all I know about his theory), Haidt traces each of these traits to an evolutionary root. The trait of purity/sanctity, for instance, which Catholic author Flannery O'Connor called "the most mysterious of the virtues," derives from the evolutionary psychology of "disgust and contamination."

The details of each foundational principle (or should I say foundational/principle?) are not as important as the fact that according to Haidt, they are shared universally among all cultures he has studied. This gives the lie to people who say that ethics is always relative to the specific culture, and what is right in one culture could just as easily, and logically, be wrong in another one. Details differ, of course. What passes for modest apparel in Tahiti would not pass muster in Times Square (not now, anyway), but the remarkable thing is that there really are universally shared moral mechanisms or tendencies at all. One would think that evolution would have come up with a splendid and contradictory variety of ethical notions, just as we see a tremendous variety of colors and shapes among birds or reptiles in different parts of the world.

For supernaturalists, this is no surprise. There is an old, somewhat battered, but nonetheless still vigorous concept called "natural law" which says, in a nutshell, the laws of morality are written on the heart of every person, and the Author is God. According to natural law, there are certain innate principles of morality that people know by nature, even if they later convince themselves otherwise for various, often self-serving, reasons. Just as Haidt has found, natural law says these basic principles are universal, though details can vary according to customs and cultures of different peoples. For example, the Christian tradition says a man can have only one wife at a time. Islam and some other religions allow four or more wives at once. But there is no culture anywhere (Margaret Mead notwithstanding) which says you may simply have any woman you like anytime. This is not to say that some people don't act that way; but if they do, they are going against the morality of their culture.

What difference does this make to engineering ethics? In one sense, very little, and in another sense, everything.

In the sense that engineering ethics deals with practical applications of generally accepted ethical principles to specific problems, the field is not that concerned with where the ethics come from—whether evolution or God. This is why engineering societies composed of people from many religions, or no religion, can nevertheless agree on certain basic codes of ethics to follow worldwide. Although bribery is a widespread practice, nearly everybody agrees that to live in a world without bribery would be better than to live with it. People who take and receive bribes make the excuse that they simply couldn't get things done otherwise. While that may be true in a particular case, it doesn't change the fact that a country or system without bribery is a better thing morally than one where you have to bribe people to get even legitimate things done.

On the other hand, if you ask yourself "Why be moral at all?" the origins of moral principles make all the difference in the world. Engineers often pride themselves on their ability to reason logically. If we are really just products of a blind evolutionary process that came from nowhere and leads nowhere—I don't know about you, but if I believed that, I would have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning, let alone devoting years of study to a profession that will produce only a transient gleam in the eternal void. A common alternative, according to mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, is to distract oneself from the awful reality of death, and engineering is as good a distraction as any, for a while, anyway. But in this view, it's only a distraction.

Next time we'll examine some specific technical matter with an ethical angle to it, and life will go on. But every now and then, it's good to ask why right and wrong is there at all, and where it comes from.

Sources: I discovered the Moral Foundations Theory website from reading a piece by skeptic Michael Shermer in the December 2009 issue of Scientific American. The website is at

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