Friday, October 24, 2014

The Natural Origin of Moral Cultures

In ancient Greek philosophy the most important dichotomy involved phusis and nomos, nature and convention.  Phusis, which is the root of our word for physics, means growth.  A phuton, or “a growth” was the Greek word for a flower or tree or something else that grew out of the soil.  It is interesting that our word “plant” names such an organism by reference to the act of putting it in the ground whereas the Greek word points to the process that defines the organism.  I will leave it to the students of Martin Heidegger to run with that one.  It is enough to say that phusis is the inner nature of anything, what makes it present itself and behave as it does, prior to any human interpretation. 
Nomos originally meant an enclosed pasture, within which animals were allowed to roam free.  The Greeks used the word metaphorically to indicate the written and unwritten laws that govern human social intercourse.  Human beings corral themselves by drawing their wagons into a circle.  The corral is merely a set of agreements or conventions made by particular communities.  We bury our dead.  They burn theirs.  We drink alcohol.  They eat pork.  Just as the pasture is enclosed by an artificial barrier, so the nomoi are human-made.  The nomoi exist by agreement or convention. 
Phusis is the same everywhere and always.  Fire always reaches toward the sky, whether in ancient Athens or today in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  Nomoi vary both between communities and within the same community over time.  For the Greek philosophers, phusis was existentially superior to nomos.  Philosophy was the attempt to replace opinions about the whole of things with knowledge.  If you properly understand something that never changes, you will never be wrong about it.  This kind of understanding is possible (at least in principle) regarding the natural things.  It is not possible even in principle to know something that is valid only by convention.  What is true by convention is worth knowing for practical reasons but uninteresting for theoretical reasons. 
Two corrections regarding the classical view are necessary in light of the modern science of phusis, which today we call biology.  First, natural things are more subject to change than the ancients had supposed.  Both modern biology and even modern physics are evolutionary sciences.  Second, it is no longer possible to view nomos and phusis as mutually exclusive explanations for human behavior.  The creation of norms and other conventions is something that human beings do by nature.  Thus nomoi are as much an expression of human nature and as revealing as the fact that we huddle around a fire when it gets cold. 
One of the things that led me to rethink this is the marvelous article by Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish: “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality.”  (Annual Review of Psychology, 2013, 64: 231-255).  Tomasello and his large collection of partners work both with apes and young children in order to understand human nature and how it is both very similar and very different from our near Darwinian relatives.  This bit (p. 246-247) jumped out at me:
Further evidence for young children’s understanding of the basic workings of social norms is provided by their selective enforcement of different types of social norms depending on group membership. Thus, children not only distinguish moral from conventional norms on multiple levels (see, e.g., Turiel 2006), but they also enforce the two distinctly.
In particular, when 3-year-old children see a moral norm being broken by an in-group member and an out-group member (as determined by their accents), they protest equivalently. But when they see a conventional norm being broken by these same agents, they protest more against an in-group member than an out-group member (Schmidt et al. 2011).
In this way as well, then, 3-year-olds have a sense of the conventional nature of conventional norms, that is, that these norms have been decided on by, and thus apply only to, one’s own group but that members of other groups may not be aware of or need not follow the same conventions. The same is not true of moral norms involving harm, toward which they take a more universalist approach.
According to this research, 3-year-old children are capable of distinguishing between conventional right (rules of conduct that are valid only because our group has agreed to them) and natural right (rules of conduct that are valid across all human associations).  Assuming that the children in the study are not students of political theory and have not been carefully coached by grad student parents, they seem to have an instinct grasp of the difference between nomoi and phusis.  They instinctively understand the difference between rules that are valid because we agreed on them and thus valid only for those who are part of the agreement and rules that bind everyone. 
If this holds up, it is dynamite for political philosophy.  It means that culture and nature are not in opposition, as social and political theory have supposed since the early moderns.  Culture, or social construction, is not something that takes place in some realm isolated or at least insulated from nature.  Instead, culture is a subcategory of nature.  Fish swim, dogs pee on fire hydrants, and human beings make table manners.  This gives full weight to the conventional nature of conventional norms and at the same time allows us to recognize universal standards by which those norms may be judged.  It makes it possible to respect and tolerate culture differences but also satisfies an apparently natural human yearning to know that some things are simply right and others wrong. 

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