What’s Your Choice?

Some people might get mad at me for saying this, but I’m against kicking puppies.

I’m also against being mean to children and old people.

I like democracy but I agree with Winston Churchill that “it’s the worst form of government except for all the others.”

I believe that good deeds should be rewarded and evil deeds should be punished.

I believe that everyone deserves a fair chance in life.

I believe that robots are stealing my luggage.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove those beliefs to anyone who disagrees with me. Nor can I prove my definitions of words like “good,” “evil,” and “fair.”

And that’s the main problem, not just of personal conduct, but of social and political life.

The fundamental question of morality is not “what’s right or wrong?”

The fundamental question is: “What kind of people do we choose to be?”

These thoughts are inspired by Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I recommend.

The book shows that violence has declined in Western societies, and it tries to explain how that happened — not only over recent decades, but over the centuries.

His strongest logical argument uses statistics about murder rates and other forms of violence. But his most striking argument describes forms of torture and punishment that until recently were considered normal. They were even inflicted publicly as popular entertainment. Some torments were so horrifying that I had to skip book pages because I couldn’t stand even to read about them any more.

And then Pinker comes to the key point for our current discussion. He speculates about what he would do if he could punish Adolf Hitler for his crimes:

“It would not occur to me to inflict a torture like that on him. I could not avoid wincing in sympathy, would not want to become the kind of person who could indulge in such cruelty …”

In other words, Pinker would not want to become the same kind of person as he was punishing. He looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back, and he didn’t like it.

Many factors influence the kinds of people we choose to be. Culture, history, childhood experiences, and family life are all important. Those affect our moral intuitions about the things that are good, bad, just, and unjust.

Scientific evidence is accumulating that our genes also play a role (see, for example, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis’s book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society). Our genes influence not only how we look, but how we feel about life and other people. In turn, that feeling influences how we think we should treat people and what kind of society we think is just. That’s one reason why genetically distinct human groups often have different moral and political beliefs.

But in spite of their influence, neither our backgrounds nor our genes can control us completely.

Ultimately, the choice is still ours: What kind of people do we choose to be?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to What’s Your Choice?

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

  2. Pingback: Recommended reading : Down the Road

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