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What If?

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A while ago I wrote a post called Truth vs. Morality where I pointed out a question I sometimes asked Christians: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should people still believe in god? Receptions to that question (the few times I’ve asked) had been somewhat predictable; some say yes, most say no.

I’m thinking that the “yes” answers are maybe not answering the question I’m asking, but subconsciously substituting it with an easier question and then answering that. Who knows.

I thought of a way to take it further. Instead of asking a truth vs. morality question, I might start asking a morality vs. morality question; that is, a consequentialist vs. deontological question. This would be something like What if being a Christian leads to a net unhappiness in the world? Should one still be a Christian? Not sure what the answers to that question might be, but I predict that they would say “yes” in the majority of cases. Probably because in this instance, they might substitute the implicit consequential point of the question with, not only the deontological question (i.e., what one’s duty is), but with the “is Christianity true” question. I.e., Christianity could only be a net negative in the world if Christianity is false; Christianity is true, therefore it is not a net negative in the world.

Of course, maybe if Christianity is true we should believe it. Even if belief in Christianity ultimately makes humanity unhappy.

But then again, this question could be equally applied to beliefs I hold dear. Just like I applied the same truth vs. morality question to beliefs I hold dear in the original post. What if secularism or atheism ultimately makes the world unhappy? What if sexism is a net benefit for the world, and feminism makes people unhappy? What if slavery is good for the world over at the expense of black people?

In these cases, I’m pretty sure I would answer exactly how a Christian might answer, and my thought process might mirror theirs (hopefully that isn’t too much of a typical mind fallacy). My first response is selfishness; I like my personal freedom/secularism/feminism/etc. thank you very much, and the rest of the world can fuck off. Why should I be a slave if that benefits the world? It seems pretty jacked up to think about it. Or, just like the hypothetical theist, I wouldn’t even countenance the question asked. Meaning that I would rebuke the question with “well that can’t be because racism/sexism/theocracy are obviously false and demonstrably make people unhappy so the question is a non-starter”.

This is one of the huge drawbacks for any sort of upcoming technological singularity. Whose morals do we program into the AI before it goes FOOM? People are all too eager to defer to a supernatural god whose whims are just, if not more so, as arbitrary as a future AI. What if this AI has the same conclusion about sex/gender roles or slavery that patriarchal religions have had? That divisions of labor among sexes and/or slavery makes people happier because they have less choices? There are probably an uncountable number of personal creeds, beliefs, and morals that make you as an individual happy, but if studied by anyone/thing with enough processing power can be demonstrated to be harmful if practiced on a wide scale. And any budding rationalist should always be aware of alternatives to their pet hypothesis.

So it seems like I wouldn’t be able to answer the very question that I would pose to a hypothetical Christian. I would think their answer “wrong” while hypocritically accepting my own answer to my sacred values as “right”.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in apologetics, morality, rationality

 

Morality Is Both Cultural And Genetic

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Another post on morality!

From the BPS Research Digest:

Up until about the age of seven, children across the world show similar levels of sharing behaviour as revealed by their choices in a simple economic game. The finding comes courtesy of Bailey House and his colleagues who tested 326 children aged three to fourteen from six different cultural groups: urban Americans from Los Angeles; horticultural Shuar from Ecuador; horticultural and marine foraging Fijians from Yasawa Island; hunter-gathering Akas from the Central African Republic; pastoral, horticultural Himbas from Namibia; and hunter-gatherer Martus from Australia.

[…]

The older children’s choices tended to mirror the behaviour of the adults from their culture on similar games, suggesting they were gradually acquiring the social norms around altruism and reciprocity for their specific society.

The emergence of cultural differences in the older children’s choices only appeared for this costly version of the game, in which giving to another person meant sacrificing their own gain. In a different version, in which they could be generous at no cost to themselves, no such differences emerged across cultures.

This makes sense, to me, of how pro-social behavior (which includes religiosity) is partially genetic and partially cultural. This also seems to imply that the crucial time to either inculcate or inject religious belief to maximum effect would be around three years old up until teenage years. Of course, religious groups already know that.

This also feeds into a tangentially related finding. Strong religious beliefs may drive self-perception of being addicted to online pornography:

“This is one of the first studies to examine the link between perceptions of addiction to online pornography and religious beliefs,” said Joshua Grubbs, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study.

The research, “Transgression as Addiction: Religiosity and Moral Disapproval as Predictors of Perceived Addiction to Pornography,” will be published today in the journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“We were surprised that the amount of viewing did not impact the perception of addiction, but strong moral beliefs did,” Grubbs said. He defined Internet pornography as viewing online sexually explicit pictures and videos.

[…]

Grubbs also discovered that half of the more than 1,200 books about pornography addiction on Amazon.com were listed in the religious and spirituality sections. And many of the books were personal testimonials [my link] about the struggles with this addiction, he said.

[…]

The information may help therapists understand that the perception of addiction is more about religious beliefs than actual viewing, researchers concluded.

“We can help the individual understand what is driving this perception,” Grubbs said, “and help individuals better enjoy their faith.”

In other words, extreme religiosity has a tendency to pathologize normal human behavior.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2014 in cognitive science, morality

 

How Disgusted Are You?

women at bath and bodyworks

cleanliness is next to godliness… but where are the men?

Continuing, I guess, my posts on the link between morality and religion, I came across another study that linked two concepts that I should have seen the connection to but didn’t. Now that I’ve read it, it makes total sense.

I’ve read Jonathan Haidt years ago about the five moral dimensions that underlie morality. Here’s one that he wrote back in 2007 concerning his findings:

In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual rights.

I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil, India, and the United States), except for groups of politically liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.

[…]

Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures, Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls “coalitional psychology”);authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.

My UVA colleagues Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I have collected data from about 7,000 people so far on a survey designed to measure people’s endorsement of these five foundations. In every sample we’ve looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries, we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the moral domain encompasses more for conservatives—it’s not just about Gilligan’s care and Kohlberg’s justice. It’s also about Durkheim’s issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority, and sacredness.

I hope you’ll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You can still reject the three binding foundations normatively—that is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism, racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.

But just go with me for a moment that there is this difference, descriptively, between the moral worlds of secular liberals on the one hand and religious conservatives on the other. There are, of course, many other groups, such as the religious left and the libertarian right, but I think it’s fair to say that the major players in the new religion wars are secular liberals criticizing religious conservatives. Because the conflict is a moral conflict, we should be able to apply the four principles of the new synthesis in moral psychology.

So the five moral principles are harm/care, fairness/justice, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. As Haidt wrote above, conservative and thus religious morality focuses on more than just fairness or harm/care; religiosity also includes a concentration on things like respect for authority, sanctity, and loyalty. Indeed, when people do something immoral, washing themselves makes them feel better about it. Note that the Greek “etymology” of the odd word Nazoraios (i.e. “Nazarene”, as in Jesus the Nazarene; Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος) is caught up with the concept of sanctity.

Like I said, I should have predicted this; if women are more religious than men, and if Haidt’s observations are correct, then women should show more concern for more or all five axes of morality than men. And that seems to be the case:

The feeling of disgust likely evolved as a mechanism to detect and avoid pathogens in the environment, but it also may explain why some people are more socially conservative than others, according to newly published research.

[…]

Across four separate studies, the researcher found that those who were more easily disgusted and more afraid of contamination were more likely to be both female and socially conservative. The four studies were comprised of 980 undergraduate students in total.

The link between disgust and conservativism is bolstered by previous studies.

Research published 2012 in Social Psychological and Personality Science found disgust sensitivity was positively associated with political conservatism and the intention to vote for Republican president John McCain. Another study published 2011 in PLoS One found conservatives had stronger physiological reactions than liberals when shown gross pictures. Research published in the journal Emotion showed that disgust sensitivity was associated with unfavorable moral judgments about same-sex relationships.

[…]

Disgust, in turn, encourages “the preference of ingroup members over outgroup members, because outgroup members pose a greater disease threat,” the researchers wrote. This preference towards members of one’s own group manifests itself as socially conservative attitudes, like religious fundamentalism.

“In other words, disgust sensitivity prepares individuals to have a negative perception of others who may be a source of contamination and to avoid them.”

It also seems like people can smell certain diseases, and women generally have a better sense of smell than men; psychopaths generally have a worse sense of smell than the normal population.

Creepy*.

And here’s another conclusion that should follow necessarily from the fact that women are more religious than men, but is at first glance counterintuitive. If women are more religious than men, and the values that make people tend towards religion — like sanctity and ingroup/outgroup thinking — also make people tend towards conservative views like racism, then it must follow that religious people are more racist than non-religious people. This is true; racism and religiosity have a positive correlation. If that’s the case, then it must also follow that women are more racist than men. That also seems to be true:

My Race-Based Valentine. Why online dating is the last refute of overt racial preferences.

This Valentine’s Day … relatively few women on mainstream dating sites will bother to respond to overtures from men of Asian descent. Likewise, black women will be disproportionately snubbed by men of all races. … Chemistry.com requires users to identify their ethnicity; like eHarmony, it considers members’ racial preferences when suggesting matches. Match.com lets users filter their searches by race. The site’s profiles include space to indicate interest (or lack thereof) in various racial and ethnic groups. …

Among the women, 73% stated a [racial] preference. Of these, 64% selected whites only, while fewer than 10% included East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians or blacks. … 59% of [men] stated a racial preference. Of these, nearly half selected Asians, but fewer than 7% did for black women. … In October, [OkCupid.com], 80% of whose members choose to input their race, studied the messaging patterns of more than a million users and concluded on its official blog that “racism is alive and well.”

[…and]

Although a considerable body of research explores alterations in women’s mating-relevant preferences across the menstrual cycle, investigators have yet to examine the potential for the menstrual cycle to influence intergroup attitudes. We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high. Our findings highlight the potential for hypotheses informed by an evolutionary perspective to generate new knowledge about current social problems an[d] avenue[s] that may lead to new predictions in the study of intergroup relations.

Which seems counterintuitive since both research and personal anecdote suggest that women show more concern for race issues than men:

Studies of gender differences in orientation toward others have found that women are more strongly concerned than men with affective processes and are more likely to be other-focused, while men tend to be more instrumental and more self-oriented. Recent research has extended this finding to include gender differences in racial attitudes, and reports that women also are more favorable than men in their racial outlooks.

Though I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if the norms of the group that someone belongs to include racial tolerance. Meaning that collectivist tendencies in a group that values racial concern might lead to signaling racial tolerance but not actually practicing it.

————————–
* (a word reserved for banishing someone to the status of the outgroup, and seems to have overwhelming popularity among women. Not so much among men)

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2014 in cognitive science, morality

 

Genetic Religion

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In my previous post on the gender differences in morality (and thus religiosity), I hypothesized prematurely that religiosity was probably minimally genetic and mainly sociological at a 9:1 ratio of sociological:biological. As fate would have it, I stumbled across some twin studies that conclude that religiosity, as well as other pro-social phenomena, are closer to 50% inherited.

The more generalized twin study focused on overall sociological behaviors being genetic:

Abstract:

Findings from twin studies yield heritability estimates of 0.50 for prosocial behaviours like empathy, cooperativeness and altruism. First molecular genetic studies underline the influence of polymorphisms located on genes coding for the receptors of the neuropeptides, oxytocin and vasopressin. However, the proportion of variance explained by these gene loci is rather low indicating that additional genetic variants must be involved. Pharmacological studies show that the dopaminergic system interacts with oxytocin and vasopressin… The present experimental study tests a dopaminergic candidate polymorphism for altruistic behaviour, […] Altruism was assessed by the amount of money donated to a poor child in a developing country, after having earned money by participating in two straining computer experiments. Construct validity of the experimental data was given: the highest correlation between the amount of donations and personality was observed for cooperativeness… Carriers of at least one Val allele donated about twice as much money as compared with those participants without a Val allele… Cooperativeness and the Val allele of COMT additively explained 14.6% of the variance in donation behaviour. Results indicate that the Val allele representing strong catabolism of dopamine is related to altruism.

As I wrote in that previous post, empathy is highly correlated with religiosity. I also seemed to have guessed correctly that empathy was genetic; I was just wrong about how much it is genetic.

Here is the more specific twin study, itself referring to previous twin studies, focused on religiosity:

For decades, religiosity (defined as beliefs or behaviors towards superempirical agents) has been explored like other traits such as musicality, intelligence or skin color by Twin Studies – which conclusively found it to be partially inherited by genes and partially dependend on environmental (cultural) clues. In fact, religion turns out to be fully comparable to other biocultural traits such as speech or music.

Now, Kenneth S. Kendler, Hermine H. Maes and Todd Vance from the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, presented another Twin Study with rather large sample of 1106 monozygotic twins and 1501 dizygotic twins on "Genetic and Environmental Influences on Multiple Dimensions of Religiosity" (J Nerv Ment Dis 2010; 198: 755-761), DOI: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181f4ao7c.

Building on lots of earlier Twin Studies, they selected 78 religion-related items for their questionnaire, which were organized (by way of a statistical VARIMAX rotation) into 7 factors: General Religiosity, Social Religiosity, Involved God, Forgiveness, God as Judge, Unvengefulness and Thankfulness.

And as those (many) earlier studies (e.g. Bouchard and Koenigs), they found the correlations among monozygotic twins to be far stronger than among dizygotic twins, strongly supporting the notion of genetic heritability of the trait.

So it might actually be that religiosity is closer to 50% biological and 50% social. Meaning that women being more religious than men might itself be more genetic and less social conditioning; with the sociological factors (like groupthink, etc.) themselves being a genetic predisposition affecting women more than men. Indeed, almost everyone knows that men show off when in the presence of women; romantic or sexual priming increases men’s proclivity for risk taking. But one study I read showed that when women are given a romantic prime, they volunteer more. There goes that groupthink again…

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in cognitive science, morality

 

Intuition/Morality Changes By Gender

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Luke writes in Intuitions Aren’t Shared That Way:

Stranger: A train, its brakes failed, is rushing toward five people. The only way to save the five people is to throw the switch sitting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a stranger standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to thrown the switch, the five people will be saved, but the person on the side track will be killed.

Child: A train, its brakes failed, is rushing toward five people. The only way to save the five people is to throw the switch sitting next to you, which will turn the train onto a side track, thereby preventing it from killing the five people. However, there is a 12-year-old boy standing on the side track with his back turned, and if you proceed to throw the switch, the five people will be saved, but the boy on the side track will be killed.

[…]

For one thing, philosophical intuitions show gender diversity. Consider again the Stranger and Child versions of the Trolley problem. It turns out that men are less likely than women to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch in the Stranger case, while women are less likely than men to think it is morally acceptable to throw the switch in the Child case (Zamzow & Nichols 2009).

Or, consider a thought experiment meant to illuminate the much-discussed concept of knowledge:

Peter is in his locked apartment and is reading. He decides to have a shower. He puts his book down on the coffee table. Then he takes off his watch, and also puts it on the coffee table. Then he goes into the bathroom. As Peter’s shower begins, a burglar silently breaks into Peter’s apartment. The burglar takes Peter’s watch, puts a cheap plastic watch in its place, and then leaves. Peter has only been in the shower for two minutes, and he did not hear anything.

When presented with this vignette, only 41% of men say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table, while 71% of women say that Peter “knows” there is a watch on the table (Starman & Friedman 2012). According to Buckwalter & Stich (2010), Starmans & Friedman ran another study using a slightly different vignette with a female protagonist, and that time only 36% of men said the protagonist “knows,” while 75% of women said she “knows.”

The story remains the same for intuitions about free will. In another study reported in Buckwalter & Stich (2010), Geoffrey Holtman presented subjects with this vignette:

Suppose scientists figure out the exact state of the universe during the Big Bang, and figure out all the laws of physics as well. They put this information into a computer, and the computer perfectly predicts everything that has ever happened. In other words, they prove that everything that happens has to happen exactly that way because of the laws of physics and everything that’s come before. In this case, is a person free to choose whether or not to murder someone?

In this study, only 35% of men, but 63% of women, said a person in this world could be free to choose whether or not to murder someone

Because most moral judgements are intuitive judgements, and people who defer to intuitive judgements more frequently are more likely to be religious, this might be another reason why women are more religious than men.

Now that I think about it, at lot of the reasons why people are religious seem to affect women more than men. The general tendency for groupthink seems to affect women more than men. Empathetic reasoning is correlated with religious belief, and it seems to be higher among women than men; professions that are stereotypically “male” are also professions where one needs less empathy (thus a higher number of psychopaths; testosterone also seems to have a link with psychopathy). Women see themselves as under more existential threat than men, including being paid less. Existential threat and income inequality are also leading indicators of religious belief. And as I linked above, feeling lonely is also correlated with increased religious belief, and women report feeling lonely more than men (even though men have less friends than women).

Since people aren’t naturally religious, and it’s overwhelmingly sociological factors that make people religious, it probably stands to reason that women are more religious than men for sociological reasons and not biological ones. Though I’m not entirely sure that someone can learn empathy, so it’s probably 90-10 sociological-biological influences; I can’t comment on the causes of gender differences in moral intuitions, though biases (and thus moral condemnation) like the fundamental attribution error seem to be less common in more collectivist societies. So it might follow that the FAE would be more common among the more individualistic gender; I sometimes jokingly call the FAE the “cat call bias” for this reason since men seem to take a woman’s negative reaction to their cat calls as reflection of some fundamental personality trait of the woman.

Gender differences in moral reasoning also have some other implications. Since these moral judgements differ by gender, it probably means there needs to be more equal representation of both genders’ views when designing moral systems to arrive at a true compromise. That is, until we iron out some system of objective morality.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2013 in cognitive science, morality

 

The Baggage Behind Immorality

What are we saying when we call something “immoral”? If we attempt to play Taboo with immorality what do we get?

“Immorality” is a conflict word between Christians and non-Christians, and is one of the reasons why non-Christians think that Christians are intolerant.

When we say something is immoral, we are not just saying that we disagree with it. We are saying that it is the thing that should not be. If it were practical, everything that we would consider immoral would be punishable in some fashion; and this actually does happen to an extent. Lying is considered immoral. Normally, we don’t have statutes against lying, but in some contexts it is actually a crime to lie such as during a court trial.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things that we disagree with that no sane person would consider enacting legislation against. I disagree that Lost was a good show. However, I’m having a hard time thinking of some context where watching Lost should be a punishable offense. As a matter of fact, anyone who suggested that watching Lost should be a punishable offense would either be accused of hyperbole/joking… or being insane.

And that’s the rub. If you can’t think of any context where what you disagree with should be a punishable offense without descending into absurdity then you can’t claim that it is immoral. On the other hand, things that are immoral are things that a person hates that one would think it could be justifiable in some context to make illegal.

So back to playing taboo with “immoral”. Is there anything that we deem as immoral that we don’t also hate? Murder? Theft? Lying? Pedophilia? Rape? These are all things that most normal people hate and we consider it perfectly rational to have laws against doing them in some context.

Think about the Penn State scandal. Joe Paterno did everything required of him by law. Yet, he is being posthumously crucified by the media for a moral failing. People don’t get character assassinated due to simple disagreement. Something can only be considered immoral if there is disagreement with a large helping of hatred in the mix; I would go even further and say that when you consider something immoral you have to hate it and have a moral obligation to oppose it.

And this is the problem with Christians who consider homosexuality “immoral” yet claim it is only a “disagreement”. They are flip-flopping between to distinct words with distinct definitions to try to rebuff the charge of being intolerant. The problem is that if immorality and disagreement were interchangeable, we wouldn’t get strange looks if someone said that they thought eating at Applebees for dinner instead of Friday’s was immoral.

The fact of the matter is that if you call something immoral, you are implicitly hating it. If you call someone immoral, you are implicitly hating them.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in morality

 

Do Animals Have Morality?

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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in morality

 
 
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