1. Why do you say that emotion – not reason – is the foundation of ethical life?
Without emotional intelligence, the most rational people in world cannot make sound ethical choices. We need to feel in order to care, and we need to care if we hope to make ethical choices. Empathy is, after all, the prime inhibitor of human cruelty, as Daniel Goleman explained during our interview for this book. Our deepest moral reflexes occur at the gut level; in fact, all of human morality arises from the moral emotion of disgust (this is what steered us toward goodness in the first place). We feel that things are right and wrong even before we think they are, but the rational mind tells us otherwise. It’s fascinating to learn how this process works. Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, calls this “moral dumbfounding.” First, you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, or disgusting, then your mind creates a rational story to justify your visceral response. This is happening all the time but we are unaware of it. Instead, we believe our stories (it’s wrong to burn the flag, wrong to sleep with your sister, wrong to eat a pet) without realizing that they are just …. stories … and utterly immune to logic. When we look inside our minds for reasons to justify our moral responses, we find only feelings posing as facts.
2. Do men and women differ in how they make ethical choices?
When it comes to moral life, females gravitate toward care and connection and males insist on rules and fairness. For a woman, it is generally less important to be right than it is to maintain harmony in the group. For a man, rules are rules and fair is fair, and he’s frequently happy to go down fighting. Both orientations are necessary – Mars and Venus can learn from one another. Men can become too mental and rigid, women too heartful and squishy, in how they make their ethical choices. When a fight breaks out among a group of boys playing a game, the player who’s left in tears is expected to suck it up and get out of the way so the game can continue. When the same thing happens among a group of girls, the game stops and all the players gather around to comfort the injured party. Neither side is right or wrong, they’re just different orientations to what it means to be a good person. And when it comes to issues of sex and love, intimacy, fidelity, and so on, our moral propensities are even more antithetical! Though we strive for gender equality in our politically correct, post feminist world, our ethical lives are not immune to mammalian biology.
3. You talk about there being a “moral organ” hard-wired into the brain by evolution. How does it work?
Our brains have evolved to be sensitive to five basic areas of moral concern. First, we care about harm and care, and the protection of innocents. We are wired to care, wired for empathy, and wired not to do harm if we can help it. Second, we are concerned with justice and fairness. In order for live together harmoniously, groups operate on systems of reward and punishment for behavior that’s helpful or harmful to the majority. This is how we maintain the illusion of living in a balanced world where people receive their just deserts. The dark side of this justice-fairness coin is, of course, the need for revenge. Humans require revenge in order to keep the peace (if that sounds contradictory, that is because it is). When society does not at least approximate revenge on wrongdoers through laws and punishment, individuals take it in their own hands to exact lex talionis – the ancient call of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – in the form of personal vendettas. On the positive side, we are programmed for reciprocity. The brain has a built-in exchange function that keeps tracks of assets and debts, favors received and favors owed, in our dealings with others. The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you – is a direct result of our need for justice and fairness.
Next, we care about in-group loyalty. Tribal psychology is deeply pleasurable to our brains. On the plus side, this leads to kin loyalty, taking care of our own, and important feelings of belonging and group identity. On the negative side, having an “Us” always creates a “Them.” Us versus Them is our greatest ethical albatross; without this tribal mentality, we would not rape, go to war, or commit genocide against one another. As Eckart Tolle explained to me in our interview, Us versus Them enables us to turn other people into concepts. It is much easier to murder a concept (Commie –Faggot – N-gger) than to harm an actual human being.
After this, we care about authority and respect. Humans live in hierarchies where leaders dictate the trend of the group. When leadership is positive, we rise en masse to reflect the benevolence of those in power. When the powerful are corrupt, however, we become oppressed and morally shrunken. Remember what St. Bonaventure said. “The higher a monkey climbs, the more you can see of its behind.” Our authority-respect reflex cuts both ways – big time.
Finally, we care about purity and sacredness. Humans need the ideal of sacredness to help us survive in world that is sometimes brutal and confusing; our need for the sacred (which expresses itself for many in faith) is, in fact, part of our survival mechanism as a species. It helps us band together for the highest good, to turn off the Me switch and turn on the We. This has been the province of religions, of course (without which our species could never have created civilizations). But you don’t need God to be good.
4. Is it true that gossip is essential to ethical life?
As a writer, I found this part of our ethical story especially fascinating. Apparently, human language evolved as a replacement for physical grooming. And the very first function of language is what we call gossip – or minding each other’s business. The move from picking each others’ lice to talking behind each others’ backs came naturally to our nosey species. The ability to talk about one another helped groups maintain the peace. Gossip was the first line of defense against physical aggression. Before you attacked someone, or burned down his house, you could always ruin his reputation! Because reputation management (caring what others think) is so important to us – and critical to ethical conduct – NOT wanting to be talked about becomes a critical concern for people concerned with status. The fear of gossip keeps us in line. There are many dangers to how gossip is used – hypocrisy, first and foremost – but its importance as tool for moral life cannot be denied.
5. How can you possibly suggest that human nature is essentially good when there is so much evil in the world?
There are always aberrations to every rule. To say that people are essentially good is not to suggest that we are perfect. The most virtuous person has his or her moral blind spots, just as the most evil individual has – if you look closely enough – areas of sometimes surprising virtue. Still, it remains true that the ratio of good to evil deeds in the world holds at close to zero across the globe at any given moment. It is much easier to destroy than it is to create. How could we have survived to this point as a species, living at close range in such multitudes, if our prevailing nature were not positive? Nature made us expert cooperators, reciprocators, helpers, nurturers, and returners of stolen wallets, in the vast majority. This does not mean that we’re anywhere near perfect (remember what Annie Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor”). But we are born to strive, and to reach, toward goodness. We are magnetized by goodness, beauty, and truth. I have been practicing Buddhism for 25 years and find in that philosophy a far more accurate interpretation of human nature that we find in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of which contain some version of Original Sin. Buddhists talk about “Buddha nature” existing in every human being – a fundamental radiance of mind, awakeness, consciousness, the potential for love – and evil being a deviation; a result of ignorance, not a bad human nature, except in extreme cases of psychopathy. We inherited a fairly horrendous view of human nature from our Western religious traditions, and saw this negativity ratified by the work of Sigmund Freud, who, almost single handedly, came to define what we believed about the human psyche. Freud’s pronouncements on human nature, which I include in the book, are enough to put anybody on Prozac. Of course, the positive psychology movement, in tandem with what we now understand about the brain’s built-in “moral organ,” are turning that negative picture around.
6. Apparently, this five-part “moral organ” can even explain how and why Democrats differ from Republicans? How does that work?
Jonathan Haidt has developed a genius theory about this that makes a lot of sense to me. The first two categories of moral concern – harm/care and justice/fairness – are focused primarily on individuals, while the last three – in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and sacredness/purity – are focused on community. Liberals tend to care most about the first two moral areas because liberals are individualists, first and foremost. If what I’m doing isn’t hurting you, a liberal says, it’s none of your business. Conservatives, on the other hand, give equal weight to all five of these ethical spheres. Because conservatives are more pessimistic than liberals about human nature, they believe that individuals need to be reined in for their own good, taught to respect authority, and chastened by regulations concerned with sacredness and purity. In other words, when Lou Dobbs is fulminating against illegal aliens, he is – in his own mind – defending something that he holds sacred (the Homeland). Learning to recognize these five primary areas of ethical concern can help us to appreciate, if not agree with, the beliefs of the other side. As Haidt points out, most of the world is conservative, not liberal. It’s an elite thing to be a liberal; most of humanity believes in putting tradition, group loyalty, and fidelity to leaders before individual satisfaction.
Once again – as in the differences between men and women – both sides can learn from each other. Conservatives can lighten up, give individuals more credit, and try to understand that it’s their disgust reflex talking (not reason) when they harangue against same-sex marriage, for instance. And liberals can dial back their contempt for conservative values, including traditional notions of sacredness, long enough to get a handle on what the other side is trying to defend. Our polarized, hyper-partisan world would only benefit from attempting to understand the other side, regardless of our cherished position.