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« Why is this news? | Main | Killing Chinese People »

September 03, 2010

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Great post! This is exactly the kind of thing I thought when I read Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". There is a basic category mistake being made in that book, I think. The claims there are that genes act in these ways we would perceive as self-serving, amoral, etc. But using moral terminology to describe things outside the realm of ethics is wrongheaded at best, and harmful at worst. It seemed to me to lend itself to a "see, selfishness is not so bad, that's how we evolved the way we did and why we are here and survive," which then excuses selfishness in the domain of ethics. But this is just a bad inference. Moral terms like "selfish" simply do not apply to genes, non-humans, etc. So we cannot take activity in these domains as saying *anything* useful about morality. It's just like any other category-mistake, like taking seriously that two falling objects are "racing" or two colliding asteroids are "fighting" and thus attributing them agency.

Reading Clay Shirky's _Cognitive Surplus_, I came across an interesting experiment undertaken in 10 childcare centers in Haifa, Israel. 6 were chosen to impose a fine for late pick-up of children and the other 4 maintained the same system of no fines. The childcare centers with a fine saw an increase in late pick-ups. Even when the fine was removed and those 6 childcare centers went back to their previous arrangements, the incidence of late pick-ups of children remained higher than before.

The culture was broken by the fine and remained broken even after the fine was removed. Morality is a social and cultural construct. It is not confined to a family, to a genetic strain, even in a Confucian setting.

If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Frans De Waal's book Primates and Philosophers. He even talks about Mencius in there!

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