Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Sunday, October 26, 2008

To overcome instinct is human

It is said that one should do the things that scare you in order to make you a better person. Implicit, of course, is that these character-building things should be scary but not actually harmful. Russian roulette is scary and harmful, whereas skydiving and talking to the pretty girl in the bar are potentially scary but not harmful. We should be more adventurous, but not harm ourselves, is the advice.

It seems to me that one good thing about overcoming fear is that it is exercising the uniquely human ability to consciously override what our subconscious instincts are telling us. Our ancient reptilian brain has various ill-thought-out ideas that are no longer useful. Among them: jumping from great heights is always a bad idea; and if you hit on the girl she might get her caveman friends to kick you out of the tribe. We should replace the unconscious judgement of harm - which is fear - with our conscious judgement that there is negligible harm.

It's not just fear. Our million-year-old programming would lead us to maximize our caloric input and minimize the brussels sprouts, so it requires conscious thought to have a good diet. Clearly, our conscious minds have a lot of work to do to override the bad ideas we're born with.

Another old emotion is disgust. A New York Times article, about the research of sociologist Jonathan Haidt, says:
'The emotion of disgust probably evolved when people became meat eaters and had to learn which foods might be contaminated with bacteria, a problem not presented by plant foods. Disgust was then extended to many other categories, he argues, to people who were unclean, to unacceptable sexual practices and to a wide class of bodily functions and behaviors that were seen as separating humans from animals.'

Haidt found seven categories of disgust: food, animals, body products, sex, body envelope violations, death, and hygiene. He also noted a "domain of magical thinking" that cut across all seven categories - this is, for example, where we wouldn't want food that has been stirred by a very thoroughly cleaned fly swat.

Haidt found that all human societies share five domains of morality with different weightings and details. The five pillars are harm, fairness, respect for authority/hierarchy, in-group loyalty, and purity. The last, purity, is one motivated by disgust, and it leads to things like homosexuality and incest being considered immoral.

Again from NYT:
"Imagine visiting a town," Dr. Haidt writes, "where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex 'doggie style' in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass."

He sees the disgust evoked by such a scene as allied to notions of physical and religious purity. Purity is, in his view, a moral system that promotes the goals of controlling selfish desires and acting in a religiously approved way.

Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. "Educated liberals are the only group to say, 'I find that disgusting but that doesn't make it wrong,' " Dr. Haidt said.'

Since repugnance is an evolutionary adaption designed by random chance mutations to prevent food poisoning, to apply it to morality seems ill-considered. Surely the political liberals are correct to ignore disgust as moral guidance.

Furthermore, it is downright indecent (yes, ironic) to let this stupid instinct of disgust override our conscious minds, not just for our morality, but for our actions. It is beneath us. Magical thinking is a poor substitute for real thinking.

To take a trivial example, consider mushrooms. I've long disliked mushrooms, not because of the taste, but because fungi are weird and unfamiliar. How dumb is that? It was disgust motivated by culinary xenophobia. But one day I looked up mushrooms on, and found that they're a very, very healthy food. I was hurting myself by not eating them. I decided that this is unbecoming of a rational, intelligent being. That was a while ago, and now I eat mushrooms regularly, and they taste fine. Desensitization to disgust, like fear, happens pretty quickly.

Obviously, some things are disgusting *and harmful*, such as rotten meat. Don't eat rotten meat. We should replace our unthinking feeling of disgust with our conscious judgement of harm.

So, what I'm concluding from all this is: we should reject repugnance and purity, not just as guides to morality, but as guides to our own behavior when it runs counter to our interests. To let pointless, misguided instinct control our lives is beneath us.

This has policy implications for things such as gay marriage and polygamy and organ trading, and also has implications regarding social acceptance of polyamory and promiscuity.

If you're interested in Haidt's ideas, you might like his talk at TED about the personality differences between liberals and conservatives.


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