February 2009 archive

Honesty and the Moral Foundations

Further to yesterday’s post is a fascinating story that’s all over the news here in Australia – a story that illustrates my point that honesty is one of the pillars of morality, and is discrete from other Moral Foundations.

In January 2006, former Australian Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld was speeding in his car. Normally, the penalty for such an offence, minor as it is, is $77. However, Enfield currently faces the prospect of going to jail for a considerable length of time – some have even called for life imprisonment.

Why? Not because of the trivial speeding offence. But because he deliberately mislead the court concerning his involvement in the incident, i.e. perjury.

So we’re faced with a situation where a prominent member of society (who is likely being punished more harshly because of his prominence as well as for hypocrisy) is facing an incredibly steep punishment over a trivial offence – all because he lied.

In this case, we can see that – legally, at least – dishonesty is treated to be a major transgression, while the original offence of speeding is negligible in comparison. Honesty, in and of itself, is morally significant – significant enough that I think it could comfortably qualify as a Moral Foundation distinct from the other five.

A Sixth Moral Foundation?

Here’s one way to make a buck in during the global economic downturn:

If anyone can demonstrate the existence of an additional [moral] foundation, or show that any of the current 5 foundations should be merged or eliminated, Jon Haidt will pay that person $1,000.

todd_oathThis comes from MoralFoundations.org, the home of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. This posits that there are “five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics.’ Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”


Vatican Takes a Stand on Intelligent Design

At last. In fact, the Vatican’s latest stance on ID is surprisingly enlightened:

“The committee agreed to consider ID as a phenomenon of an ideological and cultural nature, thus worthy of a historic examination, but certainly not to be discussed on scientific, philosophical or theological grounds,” said Saverio Forestiero, a conference organizer and professor of zoology at the University of Rome.

This is precisely the only way ID should be taught in school. Not as an alternative to evolution. Not as science. But as a “cultural phenomenon”.

What also interests me is the PR angle of all this. Here’s the Vatican, holding a conference on evolution on the anniversary of On The Origin Of Species, and its unambiguously renouncing ID (compared to previous somewhat ambiguous efforts). The Catholic church has actually long endorsed not only evolution, but the notion that religion and reason can coexist without contradiction (although that only extends so far).

It smacks of the Vatican acknowledging that it’s losing its grip on the faithful in the developed world and trying to modernise. Although not all of Pope Benedict’s new ventures have been winners.

Ultimately, it’s a valiant effort, but sadly all in vain. Religion and science will only ever be compatible when religion dismisses the supernatural. Then, and only then, will they be compatible. For science is more than just a body of content – it’s a method. And as a method, it cannot allow arbitrary barriers to investigation, such as those erected by the supernatural.

Certainly, a completed science might still leave room for religion in the regions where empirical investigation can’t penetrate, although I doubt it. But science can certainly leave room for acknowledging the human yearning for spiritual fulfillment, and it can do so without resorting to the metaphysical.

On an entirely unrelated note, I’ll be away for a spell, so there’ll be a lull in posts. I have a crazy couple of weeks ahead with two conferences and a trip to India squeezed in between. But when I’m back, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to comment on.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Bullying

Bullying is tragic. And evidently it’s not uncommon (although, surprisingly, the Internet doesn’t seem to know whether incidence of bullying in the schoolyard is on the up or down over the past several years – can anyone enlighten me?).

But are our anti-bullying programmes working to combat bullying? Apparently some are, but even the most effective programmes only marginally reduce bullying; none seem able to drive it out of the schoolyard altogether. Why?

Well, here’s one theory: some children are biologically predisposed to bullying because such behaviour lent their ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past. (more…)