Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Morality of the Mind (From an Historical Perspective)

A follow-up to my previous post on "morality and the mind..."

In 2007, Arnold Kling wrote a fine article for TCS Daily called Appreciating our Moral and Mental Development. I've posted a few snippets below...

Recently, intellectual impresario John Brockman asked various scientists and pundits to answer the question: what are you optimistic about? Psychology professor Steven Pinker was among several who cited improvements in the cognitive abilities or moral performance of human beings. Pinker goes on to write,

"As far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags)."

As we get wealthier, we also become enhanced physically, cognitively, and morally, leading to a virtuous cycle of improvements to the standard of living. As the economy improves, human cognitive ability and moral reasoning improves, which helps markets to work better and makes the process of innovation more productive, leading to greater wealth, more mental and moral development, and so on.

Our intuition tells us that the human race is static. We think of ourselves as being like our ancestors.

In reality, the human race is changing.

I would argue that the increases in human longevity, size, and health have been paralleled by increases in cognitive and moral reasoning. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the cognitive improvement is the Flynn Effect, which demonstrates that average IQ has been rising steadily in many countries for most of this century. Average IQ's in Britain may be more than two standard deviations higher than they were a hundred years ago, which says that the average citizen today would have been in the top 5 percent of intelligence early in the 20th century.

Further support for the hypothesis that cognitive skills are improving is the increase in the average number of school years completed.

The hypothesis that we have seen improvements in moral reasoning is more speculative. On the one hand, as Pinker points out, statisticians have documented a decline in the rate of violent death, in spite of the horrific wars of the last century. I would argue that we also see improved moral reasoning in the increased ability of people to trade with strangers, improvements in conditions of women, and--in some countries--more rights accorded to members of minority ethnic groups.

I would conjecture that on average we see a higher proportion of interactions that follow the Golden Rule today than we did 20 years ago, which in turn is higher than the proportion 50 years ago, and so on.
In the future, we are likely to see much more rapid change in human cognition and moral reasoning. We seem to be on the verge of operating directly on the human brain to a far greater extent than was true in the past. A number of technologies will be employed.

Brain-imaging technology is leading to advances in neuroscience. In a recent talk, neurotechnology expert Zack Lynch argued that we have learned more in the past five years about how the brain works than we learned in the previous fifty years.

Genetic selection and genetic engineering also are on the horizon. Scientists are likely to discover ways to prevent or cure crippling mental or emotional diseases that would otherwise affect children. Once solutions are found, they are certain to be embraced and employed by parents.

My guess is that the line between cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement will be blurry. As we treat mental disorders, we will be altering people's emotions and behavior patterns as well as their thought processes. It seems possible, indeed likely, that we will increase the ability of humans to interact with one another peacefully and constructively.

In the study of history, the importance of mankind's mental and moral development has often been overlooked. My guess is that the rate of mental and moral development will accelerate sharply over the next few decades, and the phenomenon will be more widely noticed and its significance better appreciated.

I also recently learned that Steven Pinker is writing a book about the "historical decline of violence." Should be very interesting!

**UPDATE, JUL. 2, 2009**

Three weeks after Kling's article, Steven Pinker took to the pages of The New Republic to expand on his "decline of violence" theme. In his article, he writes...

"Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light."

"Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."

"The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century."

"On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade."

"Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent."

"The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a "civilizing process" marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today's cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex. But this only raises the question of why humans have increasingly exercised that part of their brains."

Pinker doesn’t settle on a firm answer, but he’s sympathetic to Peter Singer, who believes that...

"Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals.

The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, a la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs.

The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable--the feeling that 'there but for fortune go I.'"

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