Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about thatâ€”was it O.K. for them to make love? (The Moral Instinct—via The Situationist)
Why? Leaving aside appeals to authority and tradition, explain you answer (in a comment if you like). I’ll wait.
Did you have a hard time justifying your answer? Some psychologists suggest that this is because our moral judgments aren’t based on reason and logic alone. In this example, we are born with a strong, visceral aversion to incest that defies rationalization. We would like to think that we are rational beings who make conscious decisions, but the truth seems to be that we are largely driven by instincts, the endowment of our evolutionary past.
Jonathan Haidt suggests that human beings have five innate moral senses:
- aversion to harming innocents
- community or group loyalty
- respect for authority
These affect us at an unconscious level. Each person and culture mixes these traits differently. Taking myself as an example, my loyalty to the group seems pretty low. This allowed me to leave the Mormon community. This shouldn’t be too surprising because I’ve grown up in a culture that strongly values individuality. My culture stresses fairness to the individual and its rights over respect for community or authority. Aversion to the incestuous scenario above probably triggers our desire for purity for another example.
The instinctual nature of our morality is part of the reason that I have little time for formal ethics. Morality seems to boil down to what humans want, not some abstract set of laws that we can discover given enough time and brainpower. Moral laws look nothing like mathematical or physical laws in this respect.
[By the way, catchy title, eh? ]