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Parallel tracks for moral rules? It’s amazing the amount of pseudo-science Darwinism has spawned.


In “Why we have moral rules but don’t follow them” (New Scientist, 16 February 2012), Michael Marshall reports,

When an animal experiences harm to help a relative, evolutionary biologists view this as increasing the chances that copies of the animal’s genes will survive. Many psychologists think that human moral rules are an extension of this “kin selection”.

Sure and then someone decided to test it in one of those thought experiments where you push someone off a bridge to stop a speeding train/trolley:

Kurzban’s team gave volunteers variations of the bridge scenario. Volunteers were asked what they would do and whether their actions were morally right. Eighty-five per cent of them said it would be morally wrong to push one person off to save five, whether these people are brothers or strangers, confirming the idea that there is a rule against killing.

However, despite thinking it wrong, 28 per cent said they would still push a stranger off to save five, while 47 per cent said they would push a brother off to save five brothers.

From which, it is concluded,

The experiment shows we have at least two parallel systems for deciding right and wrong: one that says some actions, like killing, are bad, and another that tells us to protect kin.

Agnostic philosopher David Stove demolished all this in Darwinian Fairytales by asking a simple question: How do we know who our kin are?

Is there a mystical Darwinmagic, a subtle influence of our selfish genes, that tells us so? Of course not! We grow up hearing that Suzy is our elder sister and Baby Joe is our brother. If we learn to help anyone, we learn to help the people we live with during our formative years. And if you grew up with a brother or sister, chances are you’ve already known them for many years before you even became a legal adult. So it’s no surprise if the tie binds fifty years later. Would it make much difference if you discovered then that Bossy Suzy had been adopted?

In some cultures, helping others stops at family. But in more advanced societies, vast helping networks develop that outstrip neat attempts to characterize who will help whom with what. In fact, decreases in volunteerism and philanthropy are usually associated with social decline (loss of trust).

In general these “moral choice” experiments are far too unrealistic to tell us much. In real life, many people will not realize that an emergency is even in progress until it’s over. Most people who do realize – lacking any training in responding to emergencies – will freeze. A few will act. One may throw himself under the train, leaving behind a ballad and a memorial parkette.

By the way, how many people have five brothers, or have any idea what it would be like to have five brothers?* And if not, who can take their opinions seriously?

It’s amazing the amount of pseudo-science Darwinism has spawned.

* Some of us know people who do have five or more brothers. Usually spread out over an age range of 20-25 years. Most people who hear the “five brothers” schtick picture five guys about the same age. Not likely.

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