Bring Back the Moral Wrestler
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Each branch of social science bears within it an implicit characterization of human nature. To an economist, humans are self-interest maximizers; to a behavioral economist, they are hopelessly irrational; to an anthropologist, they are products of a cultural time and place; to a sociologist, they are units in broad social webs and power structures; and so on. Each discipline makes a contribution to the aggregated conception of what constitutes human nature, but none can convincingly account for humans as “moral wrestlers,” as creatures that are concerned about themselves as well as questions of right versus wrong. Historically, the world’s major religions have carried the torch for man’s moral nature. Since the Enlightenment project has not sent religion off into obsolescence as promised, the practitioners of human-based sciences can still today learn from the religious conception of humans as moral wrestlers. This chapter calls on social scientists to break with their disciplines’ consensuses and refocus their image of human nature.
The three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share a basic conception of human nature. Human beings are morally flawed. People are able to tell right from wrong, but they keep straying. They are assumed—by their very nature—to engage in a life-long wrestle between the better angels of their nature and their debased self. The three religions differ on the weight they accord—and the ways they depict—the forces that make us stray. For Catholicism the original sin plays a greater role than the yetzer hara (bad instinct) in Judaism; and neither embrace the Protestant notion of predestination. Islam emphasizes humans’ inherent goodness (fitrah), which must be upheld against base desires and sinful outside influences. However, all see life as a struggle between doing good and being tempted to violate our sense of what is right. And all believe that we can do better, that is in one form or another of redemption.
In the modern era, social sciences sought to explain human behavior in empirical, secular terms. Each social science has its own conception of human nature; indeed, each has several and changing views of what leads people to make the choices they render. In the process, we gained both a richer conception of human nature but also a less clearly etched one. This chapter suggests that social sciences need to pay more mind to what makes for winning moral wrestling, and to bring the moral wrestler back into focus.
I should note that the traditional view of human nature did not die. First of all, because religion did not fade away—contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment—but continues to have a major influence on our lives, especially when we deliberate about what is right versus wrong. Second, because our civil secular culture adopted the key religious concepts about human nature. For instance, we examine the moral implications of the stewardship of the environment—for example, when activists point to their calling. However, these conceptions compete, both in personal lives and in making of public policy, with secular understanding of human nature promulgated by social sciences.
Before I proceed to outline the various issues raised by the ways social science explores human nature and its implication for moral wrestling, I cannot stress enough that there is no one agreed conception concerning the subject at hand in any of the social sciences, even in neoclassical economics, which seems to be the social science with the highest level of consensus. Hence all statements that follow merely suggest that some members of a given social science guild have contributed to a particular take on moral wrestling—without implying that all or even most members of the discipline subscribe to the given viewpoint.
2.1 Homo Economicus: Not a Wrestler
Economics is considered by academics as the queen of the social sciences, the most prestigious of the lot. It carries more weight in the public and private spheres than all the other social sciences combined. It is not an accident that the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, but all suggestions to create a Council of Social Advisers have been rebuffed. Of the 19 public policy schools in the US, at least 18 are dominated by economists. In the private sector, MBAs—whose training is more based on economics than on other disciplines—outrank other social scientists.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (p. 14)
The hedonistic version of utilitarianism forms the foundation for much of modern economic theory (Stigler 1987, p. 52). Economists often associated utility with conceptions of material goods and, hence, with income. For example, Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen define utility as the “satisfaction” that “people derive from the goods and services they consume and the activities they pursue” (Mankiw 2011, p. 285).
Economists have gone to great lengths to defend their view of what makes people choose. Gift-giving, for example, seems to contradict hedonism because it involves a voluntary reduction of one’s own utility, in order to benefit that of others. Economists have responded by arguing that gift-giving is often driven by “cooperative egoism,” with those who give gifts expecting reciprocal gifts, reputation, status, approval, or some future benefit (Hammond 1975). And to the extent that gift-giving occurs in the absence of such expected rewards, for example in the case of anonymous gift-giving, economists argue that the giver enjoys a “warm glow” from the act of gift-giving itself (Andreoni 1990).
Likewise, given the fact that participation in religious activities cannot be explained merely by an “expected stream of ‘benefits’” over an individual’s lifetime, Corry Azzi and Ronald Ehrenberg (1975) introduced the ideas of a “salvation motive” to secure “afterlife consumption.” Put simply, they claim, individuals spend on religion in this life with the expectation that they will be rewarded handsomely after death. Needless to say, there is very little evidence to support this proposition.
To avoid exploring the role of moral values in decision making, several economists have gone to great lengths to explain “surprising” behavior. One example is the prevalence of tipping at restaurants. Tipping does not make sense to these economists, particularly as data reveals that people tip about the same amount regardless of whether they intend to return to the restaurant in the future (Kahneman et al. 1986), i.e. those who tip cannot expect to gain anything in return. Tipping is hence regarded as “mysterious or seemingly irrational behavior” (Lynn 2006). Similarly, some economists have postulated that there is a “bequest motive” to explain “excessive” saving (Jurges 2001), as well as a “taste for altruism” on the part of employees of not for profit enterprises, who are said to “derive well-being from participating in the enterprise, and are thus willing to accept a lower wage” (McGinnis 2011).
Often, when gains in income or assets or material goods cannot explain behavior—for instance, somebody giving up a high salary and comfortable life in a suburb to volunteer to treat Ebola patients in Africa, as a Doctor without Borders—such behavior is explained as reflecting one form or another of psychological income (esteem, prestige, or self-rewarding). That is, behavior which seems to be driven by moral values or concern for others or the common good, is held to be self-serving. More about this below.
Quite a few economists have moved away from this definition of utility. Some replaced this with the notion that utility is whatever the person prefers; it does not require a particular content. Thus, Gary Becker’s approach rebutted earlier economists’ “assumptions of self-interest”; he replaced them with the idea that “individuals maximize [their own] welfare, as they conceive it, whether they be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or masochistic” (Wolfers 2014). There still is little room for moral wrestling, as wellbeing of the self (sometimes extended to include that of one’s immediate family) governs. However, as long as moral behavior is treated as one’s “taste,” it disappears in the wash because it is dumped in with all the other preferences. There is no difference, even according to this updated conception of human nature, between volunteering and watching TV, making a donation and removing cash from the passing plate, fighting for one’s nation, and avoiding the draft.
Economists rarely explore the conception of a good society. Instead they refer to the social welfare of people. Economies are considered to provide more welfare the more wealth the economy produces is distributed in ways that satisfy more of the preferences of more people (i.e. the greatest happiness of the greatest number). The trouble with this conception—which avoids moral judgment, most importantly of whether any given distribution of economic assets is just—is that it takes for granted that the preferences of people reflect their true will and self. However, once one notes that preferences are affected by advertising and other forms of persuasions, one realizes that any given distribution of wealth needs to be morally assessed.
These concepts, aside from not providing a sound basis for studying moral wrestling, have side effects: Data show that those who embrace them act less morally than others. This was demonstrated when two social scientists organized a game that allowed people to free ride; that is, benefit from the group’s efforts without doing their share of the work. Twelve groups participated in the game. In eleven, most participants did rather little free riding; in the twelfth group most everyone did. Turns out, it was full of graduate students in economics (Marwell and Ames 1981).
2.2 Homo Sapiens as Clueless
Over the last decades, a major branch of psychology, referred to as behavioral economics, set out to prove economists wrong and proffer a rather different conception of human nature. Several of these psychologists use the term Econs for homo economicus, and Humans for homo sapiens. Their findings and their implications have been summarized in a best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2011).
The main finding of behavioral economics, supported by robust evidence from both experiments and field studies, is that people have hardwired, innate, cognitive biases. These lead them to systematically misperceive facts and draw wrong conclusions from them. Because they fear loss more than losing a gain, they see a $1000 salary cut as a much bigger deal than not getting a $1000 raise. They view spending $100 as a major outlay if they just spend $20 on something else, but not if their last purchase cost $300. They do not get around to putting money into a retirement account, even when often reminded, and even if there are strong economic advantages to doing so. And they still are fooled by marketers who charge $3.99 for an item, which people see as costing $3 rather than $4. And so on and so on. Moreover, even people with high IQs, after being trained in statistics, do not function significantly better. That is, their intellectual defects are so strong, education and training cannot do much to remedy these innate, hardwired intellectual flaws (Kahneman 2011).
Richard Thaler is another towering behavioral economist. He served as the President of the American Economic Association and is on the short list of those expected to receive a Nobel Prize in economics in the near future. He wrote a book entitled Misbehaving (2015). One may think that he is a behavioral economist who makes deviating from what is considered moral behavior his topic. Actually, for Thaler, “misbehaving” is an ironic term. It happens when people behave—as he finds people very often do—in ways that conflict with the ways economics assume people will behave. We “misbehave” when we act on the basis of poorly collected, poorly analyzed, misunderstood information, from which we draw the wrong conclusions—far from the rational way many economists assume people will act. We stumble through life like drunken sailors.
Behavioral economics as a school has not applied its findings to improve our understanding of moral wrestling. It has focused on trying to convince mainstream economics of the need to adapt its models to the fact that people are, to put it succinctly, not rational creatures. In short, behavioral economics finds that people are clueless but has precious little to say about the ebbs and flows of moral wrestling, above all about what makes us better than we would be otherwise.
2.3 Be Happy
A group of social scientists, drawn from a variety of disciplines, studies what makes people happy. We have seen that a very elementary measurement widely used to study happiness is to simply ask people whether they are happy. For example, an annual study of Europeans asks: “Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days—would you say you’re very happy, fairly happy, or not too happy these days?” (Di Tella et al. 2003, p. 810–811). A similar study asks: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” (Frey and Stutzer 2002, p. 405). Indeed, much of the literature on happiness relies on such self-reporting of happiness (Xefteris 2012, p. 291), as do reports by the prestigious Pew Research Center on parenthood and happiness (Parker 2014).
Questions about happiness (e.g. “Did you smile today?”) have been criticized on the grounds that they are like snapshots that capture a person’s feelings at a single point in time. Hence, several social scientists turned to ask people questions about “life satisfaction.” For example, an often-cited study of life satisfaction is the OECD Better Life Index, which asks people to “evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings.” Such wording of the questions respondents are asked may indeed be superior to “did you smile today,” but does not get one any closer to studying moral wrestling and what makes for better wrestling.
Most recently, happiness studies sought to broaden their scope by focusing on the question of whether people feel that their life has “meaning.” Having a meaningful life is considered more meaningful, than just being happy. However, this concern is also morally neutral. Gang members and Jihadists feel that their lives are as meaningful or more than those who work in most factories and offices.
2.4 It Is All in Our Genes
James Q. Wilson (1993), a renowned political scientist, believed that people have an innate sense of fairness. Studies show that very young toddlers have a sense of empathy. Evolutionary biologists hold that people are sympathetic to others because this moral predisposition was an advantage in the early days when people had to share the spoils of what they hunted and were safer as a group. Those who were not sympathetic got less food and security, and hence they—and their genes—were less likely to survive. A review of the sociobiological argument that people have an altruistic gene will serve to examine other such claims.
This argument can be advanced basically in one of two forms. In one, the gene determines the moral positions of the actor, i.e. moral people are born, not fashioned. However, one cannot help but wonder, given the rapid changes in the extent to which people are altruistic, how these changes could be accounted for by genes, which are set for one’s lifetime. For instance, initially, when the German chancellor welcomed a million refugees into Germany, her policy was very widely supported by the German people. However, following a few incidents—sexual assaults during an Oktoberfest, a machete attack—the German people turned out to be much less sympathetic to the same refugees. Such changes, which are very common, are incompatible with the notion that people have genes that make them moral in one way or another. If, on the other hand, one considers genes merely as predispositions—then all the key questions about moral wrestling remain unanswered. What are the factors that make people heed their genetic predisposition versus disregard it? Nurture it or fight it? In short, it does not seem that we will find in the genes a scientific basis for or an understanding of what makes some people better moral wrestlers than others, or changes their achievements over time.
The softer social sciences—anthropology, sociology, and psychology—did better in providing secular and empirical understanding of moral wresting. In the process, though, we shall see, they opened a Pandora’s Box.
2.5 Anthropology Liberates: But Engenders Cultural Relativism
Ruth Benedict had and has a major effect on the conception of human nature. Benedict (1934) in Patterns of Culture described the values of the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, the Pueblo of New Mexico, and the Dobu culture of New Guinea, and in a later work that of the Japanese. She stressed that although to Western eyes the moral values of these different societies (or tribes) may seem strange, if not objectionable, each made sense once they were understood within the context of the moral culture of the various societies.
Viewed in the context in which her works and those of other leading anthropologists (especially Franz Boas and Margaret Mead) were published at the time—in the mid-twentieth century—they served as a major antidote to cultural imperialism, to the arrogant but widely-held notion among colonizing nations that they were called upon to bring light to the primitives. At the same time, by arguing that the values of the different cultures were merely different rather than some being morally superior to others, she and her colleagues in effect promoted moral relativism.
True, some social scientists tried to save the day by maintaining that these anthropological positions amounted merely to ‘methodological relativism,’ the need for unbiased studying of cultures different than those of the social scientist who did the study. However, their findings were often cited and commonly used to support philosophical relativism, the suspension of moral judgment, which takes the oomph out of moral wrestling. Once one takes the position that x believe in monogamy but y believe in polygamy, and that x has no basis on which to tell y that x’s choice is more moral than that of y—one pulls the rug out from under all cross-cultural moral claims. And because the same is true for subcultures within each society, these intra-societal judgments are also left without a firm foundation.
Seeking an exit, various social scientists have argued that some values are held by all cultures, and hence could serve as a solid foundation for moral judgments. However, it turns out that even the most elementary moral value, thou shalt not kill, is not universally shared. Of course many cultures approve killing outsiders—whether they are Nazis, Communists, or infidels. However, many cultures also strongly lionize killing some of their own, for instance in so-called honor killings, in which fathers and brothers kill their daughters or sisters if they bring shame on the family. No exit here.
2.6 Sociology: Collectivizing the Wrestle
A major sociological insight is that what makes people more or less moral human beings, how well they wrestle, is The System: the power structure, the economy, and the culture. People abuse drugs, commit crimes, and walk out on their children mainly not because of their “bad character” but because they have been economically deprived, socially disadvantaged, politically disempowered, or otherwise alienated. The main moral wrestling does not take place within the person but with society. For instance, social movements—such as the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements—made American society a less immoral place. Banks, deregulated, which then sold subprime mortgages to millions of people and evicted them when they could not pay, and resisted reforms that were supposed to protect future millions from a similar fate, are not so much the work of “bad” people, but of a flawed system. The moral wrestler does not need better character education but political reforms, driven by societal changes in the distribution of power and assets, and parallel changes in the values fostered by the collective culture.
Sociologists (and social psychologists) added, on the personal level, the study of “socialization,” the process through which newborn children are turned from animals into social creatures. This is achieved as the newborns bond with their caregivers (often their parents), who in turn draw on these bonds to implant moral values in those in their care. When these children grow older, they are exposed to other sources of values—in school, on TV, and in social media, through peer pressure, and in places of worship. In the process, these growing children slowly develop their own value profile. These are then reinforced by what sociologists call “informal social controls,” the approval and disapproval of others with whom people have meaningful social bonds, mainly their extended families, friends, and other community members.
One may wonder what all this has to do with moral wrestling. Sociologists find that children are just as likely to be “socialized” into a Nazi culture as into a liberal one, into the values of a KKK community as into a progressive one. Nowhere is the basic moral neutrality of this core sociological conception of human nature more in evidence than in the way sociologists treat the concept of being a deviant. In traditional cultures, people whose conduct differed from the one prescribed by the prevailing social values were labeled deviants. Lumped together in this category were gay people, political dissidents, mental patients, women who smoked or worked outside the home, and criminals. They were all stigmatized and subjected to various correctional efforts and punishments.
Sociologists argue that these people were merely committed to a different set of values. Albert Cohen (2008) writes: “It is commonplace that normative rules vary enormously from one social system to another. It follows that no behavior is deviant in itself but only insofar as it violates the norms of some social system.” Here sociology has made a major contribution to the liberal moral culture, to tolerance; it informs people that one who is considered deviant is actually just different. And—that one who was considered deviant yesterday will not be viewed so today or tomorrow. In other words, sociology does embrace moral relativism not only on the societal but also on the personal level. It follows that some people may be more conformist than others but it does not make them better people, morally speaking. Accordingly, one can make people conform more but this does not make them better moral wrestlers, more able to figure out what is right, and more able to live up to their moral obligations.
2.7 Clinical Psychology: From Freud to Morally Neutral
Like all great texts, the work of Sigmund Freud can be read in different ways. However, for the purposes at hand, one basic and often shared interpretation will suffice. Freud, in effect, incorporated in a secular conception the age old, religious conception of a moral wrestler. Accordingly, by Freud, people are struggling between the pulls of their debased self (the id) and the commands of the moral voice (the super ego). Sometimes, and under some conditions, one side prevails, and sometimes the other. Moreover, people construct out of this give and take their own personality (ego). And although the urges of the id can be channeled into pro-social behavior (through sublimation), such conversion is never fully successful. The id gnaws; moral wrestling is never ending (Moreover, the sublimation exacts its own psychological costs, captured in Civilization and its Discontents [Freud 1930]).
Clinical psychology has a number of different schools and gurus. By and large, though, they tend to help the person liberate him or herself from the moralistic demands of their society and follow his or her own star. Thus, Philip Cushman (1990) finds that clinical therapeutics see the ideal individual as one who has gained a “masterful self”, who can “function in a highly autonomous, isolated way,” and is “self-sufficient” (p. 604). That is, free from the restraints morality demands society puts on people’s desires. Therapy liberates people from the demons of their past and leaves them free to follow whatever they deem good.
Jerome Frank (1978) sees psychotherapies as sharing a value system that accords “primacy to individual self-fulfillment,” such as, “maximum self-awareness, unlimited access to one’s own feelings, increased autonomy and creativity” (p. 6–7). Although Frank recognizes the benefit of self-realization, he warns against modern psychotherapy’s focus on promoting personal happiness as its main focus. Frank points out that the literature of psychotherapy accords little attention to virtues and values such as “the redemptive power of suffering, acceptance of one’s lot in life, adherence to tradition, self-restraint and moderation” (Frank 1978, p. 7). There is much to be said for freeing people from their inner demons, reflecting the defective ways in which they were brought up. However, psychotherapy tends to exorcise at the same time the moral dictates promoted by society. Those do deserve critical examination and reform, but people should not be left in a moral vacuum, especially if one seeks to understand under what conditions we become better moral wrestlers.
2.8 Social Psychology: Powerful Narratives
Psychology is fragmented into fields that are as different from one another as poetry is from a car manual. Some psychologies are concerned with other matters than human nature, let alone moral wrestling. For example, comparative psychology focuses on animal behavior, in the expectation that studies on rats, dogs, or monkeys, for example, will yield valuable insights about human behavior. Biological psychology and cognitive psychology are also otherwise occupied. Even abnormal psychology studies “mental, emotional and behavioral aberrations” but not moral ones. In a typical textbook, Introduction to Psychology by James W. Kalat, which runs 616 pages and provides an overview of the various schools of psychology—two pages deal with moral variables. And these deal with moral reasoning and not moral motivation and commitments.
Quite a few psychologists have adopted self-centered, self-satisfying, hedonistic perspectives. Some have even argued that suicide represents a utility-maximizing behavior for an individual whose “total discounted lifetime utility [...] reaches zero” (Hamermesh and Soss 1974).
All the preceding statements refer to various sub-disciplines of psychology, their dominant texts and concepts, and many followers. However, each of these psychologies has individual scholars who made contributions to the study of moral wrestling, like Jonathan Haidt. Also, there is an important but small group of psychologists who study moral emotions, including Joshua Knobe, Stephen Darwall, and June Tangney. However, their work is not widely known and surely has not affected most of psychology as a review of even the most recent textbooks reveals.
A major contribution psychology had and is making to our understanding of moral wrestling are several very powerful narratives that grew out of experiments psychologists have conducted. Although these are works of scientific research rather than ethical deliberations, they resulted in major narratives that are helping people in their moral wrestling. For example, during the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram (1963) conducted an experiment on people’s obedience to authority figures after he learned about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s defense in the Nuremberg trials that he was “just following orders.” In the study, people were instructed to pull switches that they believed delivered painful shocks to other participants. Sixty-five percent of participants delivered the maximum shock, a powerful indication of people’s susceptibility to unethical leadership.
Philip Zimbardo carried out a prison experiment at Stanford that investigated the extent to which people’s bad behavior can be attributed to their assigned social roles (Haney et al. 1973). In this study, participants were randomly assigned roles as guards or as inmates in a simulated prison. The “guards” quickly became aggressive and abusive, and the “inmates” began to develop emotional disorders so severe that the 2-week study had to be ended after only 6 days. The findings created a powerful cautionary tale about people’s tendency to conform to social expectations, whatever their moral content. Since then, the findings of these and other such psychological studies have been cited in numerous essays and classrooms about ethics; in sermons by ministers, priests, and rabbis; and made into a movie. They are often used to warn people about the dangers of rising demagogues—and the need to be prepared to disobey orders that violate basic moral principles. Such narratives are a powerful tool of moral education. They make people into better moral wrestlers.
2.9 In Conclusion
Religion provides a conception of human nature and human fate in which the struggle between good (moral) intentions and the forces that work to prevent them from being followed—plays a key role. The Enlightenment led to a quest for a secular, evidence-based conception of human nature. Economists advanced a conception that has little room for moral wrestling. Behavioral economists backed the view of the person as intellectually limited, but the moral implications of these shortcomings remain to be spelled out. Social biology fashioned genetic explanations that treat moral behavior as either pre-determined or as needing explanation from other branches of social sciences. Anthropology made a major contribution when it liberated the moral wrestler from the association with white supremacy, but left him without a firm moral grounding. Sociology collectivized the moral wrestling, a major contribution. Many psychologists avoid the subject, but some psychological studies do provide powerful insights into the moral nature of people and the struggle between their debased self and their nobler parts.
In short, some social sciences are blind to a critical element of human nature and of the good society. They add little to the understanding of the forces that make individuals more versus less moral. Indeed, some seem to unwittingly undermine the lifelong moral wrestling that is a defining characteristic of human nature. Other social sciences do improve our understanding of moral wrestling—however, in the process they have undermined the very foundations of moral judgments. It seems that the place to look for new grounds on which to understand the forces that can make people better may be in the works of those individual social scientists who do not conform to the norms of their disciplines.
Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1789), accessed June 9 2015 at http://caae.phil.cmu.edu (“By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing); or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.”).
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