Wright on Tribalism, Empathy, and Mindfulness

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The second of three discussions with Robert Wright on his lecture series at Union Theological Seminary. This time we address questions regarding tribalism, empathy, and mindfulness.

The dialogue originally aired on June 24, on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network.








26 responses to “Wright on Tribalism, Empathy, and Mindfulness”

  1. labnut

    Fascinating discussion. I found myself siding with Wright on the subject of cognitive empathy. On the subject of mindfulness I sided with you. To be plain about it, I think that mindfulness is mostly self-indulgent humbug. Wright seems unaware of the contradiction between his stance on cognitive empathy and mindfulness. To exercise cognitive empathy one must actively engage with, examine and consider the other person’s point of view. Mindfulness, is by contrast, an inner, introspective and self indulgent process where one’s own thoughts and feelings are the main consideration. With cognitive empathy, by contrast, the other person’s thoughts, motivations and feelings are the main consideration.

    You made, I think, a very powerful point, when you said we make more progress by engaging in an active process of moral discussion, negotiation and disputation.

  2. Very interesting talk.

    It is so heartening to see discussion of differing views done while actually addressing the arguments and maintaining respect for the other person if not necessarily the arguments being put forth.

    On cognitive empathy Dan aknowleged a misunderstand and recognized the prudential benefit of trying our best to understand even those we find repellent. It did feel that Bob wanted to make the jump to moral gains as well. I’m with Bob that doing what is prudent often results in better consequences so although I am not a utilitarian I do think that it’s difficult to separate prudential & moral concerns. I think prudential concerns that take a big picture tend not to be morally neutral. Taking these types of concerns into effect in no way justifies the behavior that initially repels us and both Dan & Bob agreed to that.

    I don’t think tribalism can be avoided. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves. I don’t see however why the worst aspects that accompany this inevitability cannot be avoided. Within group competition and within group cooperation can together lead to personal and cooperative achievements far exceeding what we can do in isolation. We just need to be able to see the difference between destructive and creative group types. Groups that allow that individuals to actualize their own autonomy in support of the larger group, and recognize the humanity of other groups would fit the latter category. The recognition of how competition can support within group achievement can also serve the group in it’s dealings with other groups. It is possible I think to grow together. Marathon culture was mentioned in the video. I am a part of this culture and belong to a running group. We compete with other groups, and it makes us all better runners, yet the groups also support each other. Their is in effect a larger marathon community, just as their is a (much) larger human community. I don’t see why this basic idea cannot be extended.

    I have practiced and taught tai chi which can be considered a form of mindfulness training for well over 20 years. So obviously I think there is some value there. Just as one can put a caricature on poor philosophy, or bad science, it easy to do the same with the mindfulness concept/phenomenon. Mindfulness as I understand it and try to practice it is as far as you can get from the type of narcissistic introspection Labnut describes. Instead it should involve awareness of our integrated response to physical and social stimulus and is compatible with exercises in the cognitive empathy that Bob describes. I understand the ridicule. I feel the positive psychology movement has been a corrupting force making earnest practice difficult to promote as those promoting fuzzy feelings and easy answers that place blame on ‘negative’ people rule the day.

  3. labnut

    I have practiced and taught tai chi which can be considered a form of mindfulness training

    My first morning in Shanghai, after arriving to start my three year stint as a ‘foreign expert’, I saw a Chinese couple practising tai chi on the front lawn of my house. My first reaction was ‘how dare they intrude on my space'(territorialism and tribalism redux). Soon I realized that, wherever there was a bit of moth-eared, pollution blighted greenery, you would see Chinese practising early morning tai chi. It was a national obsession that was deeply necessary in a highly stressed and crowded populace. My view of it is this. It is a form of regulating, ordering and settling the emotions. Our emotions and our bodies are closely coupled. The slow, rhythmic and controlled movement of tai chi enables us to master and settle our emotions. By mastering and settling our emotions we free up our cognition to perform its important tasks. This is necessary because emotion is a powerful motivating force and the wrong emotions can motivate the wrong action, overwhelming our cognition.

    This is where I part company with MP and Stoicism. It seems to me that Stoicism is a pale, bloodless philosophy that attempts to ban all emotion from our mental lives. The result is a pale bloodless life. I think we should embrace great passion, great love, great joy, great awe and great determination. Such positive emotions motivate the best in us. To liberate these positive emotions we must neutralize our negative emotions. Exercises such as tai chi are valuable for this purpose. But notice what I have described is much more focussed than the bland phrase ‘mindfulness’.

    Marathon culture was mentioned in the video. I am a part of this culture and belong to a running group. We compete with other groups, and it makes us all better runners, yet the groups also support each other.

    Yes, endurance runners have a marvellous culture that is without equal, anywhere. It is supportive, caring, concerned, sincere and always helpful. It is mostly free of posturing, pretence and humbug. It is easy to see why this should be so. We evolved as persistence runner/hunters over a period of more than a million years. This makes it probably the most important single group activity that we have evolved. When we run as groups we tap into one of our most vital and most ancient communal activities. What is so sad is that modern man has mostly lost touch with this ancient drive.

  4. I also wanted to chime in on the importance of questioning the source of our intuitions.

    I tend to agree with Dan that Ev Psych stories aren’t going to be useful in building ethical frameworks. If an intuition is evolutionarily hardwired then this implies we are stuck stuck with it. What I am interested in is the interplay between reason, emotions & intuition, and the potential plasticity of the latter. Dan often speaks to the years of study & hard work that resulted in his current mature philosophical framework. Surely this process has been informed by his intuitions along the way, but have not the intuitions also evolved in turn? Becoming better tuned to the way reason, emotions and intuitions process as we live our lives is a big part of how I would define mindfulness.

  5. Seth: Yes, absolutely. Intuitions are, in fact, the primary thing that changes as one gets older, and as a result, everything else comes along for the ride.

  6. labnut

    Becoming better tuned to the way reason, emotions and intuitions process as we live our lives is a big part of how I would define mindfulness.

    Can you clarify this? Just how does mindfulness make us better tuned to our reason, emotions and intuitions?
    Beginning with reason, my cognitive processes are under the active control of my mind. How will mindfulness tune this? What will that achieve?
    Turning now to emotions. My emotions strongly present themselves to my mind. How then will mindfulness tune this process and what will that achieve?
    And finally intuitions. These are highly context specific with the right set of intuitions presenting themselves in the appropriate context. How does mindfulness tune this process and exactly what does that achieve?

    I’m trying to nail this down to something clear and specific. I get endlessly frustrated by vague generalities when people talk about mindfulness.

  7. Hi Labnut, nice to see you back. Hope things are going better for you!


    Hi Dan, this one was nice but perhaps not as productive as the last.

    I keep getting thrown by his use of evpsych, and don’t know why he finds it compelling or useful. He was right that you were throwing two different arguments against it. While you emphasized its irrelevance and so your lack of interest, I guess I wish you had pressed the hand-waving aspect more. This way I think he came away feeling evpsych was still useful, just not necessary for you. It may be too much to call evpsych complete bullshit, but there certainly are a lot of bullshitters that are happy to use it in away that creates a lot of poor ideas for public consumption.

    In this case I don’t think Robert is one of the BS’ers. However he reaches for it rather lightly… too quickly and easily. It cuts off potential lines of dialogue/introspection about aspects of human thought or behavior by casting them down as merely atavistic.

    Your arguments in favor of tribalism were interesting and something I agree with. When I was young I was for globalization and thinking of myself (and potentially everyone) as “citizens of earth”! Then I got out in the world and found out that was a total fiction, and perhaps people really need to break up into smaller communities to pursue specified (and different) interests. There is nothing wrong with different groups of people with different value systems. This is what creates diversity.

    What I think is important is that (regardless of negative feelings between groups) there is a commitment to reduce violence as a method of meting out differences between communities. Antagonism is one thing, violence another. I view truly cosmopolitan cities not as completely homogenized melting pots where there is zero friction, but areas where essential truces have been worked out between vastly different communities (usually based on trade and common needs).

    Mindfulness still seems a bit unrevealing about reality, even if it is a nice way to clean your headspace and observe yourself for a while.

  8. dmf

    couldn’t get all the way thru this one, Bob seems incapable of grasping when he is making category errors and I run into this a lot along these lines, seems to be something akin to aspect-blindness that folks simply can’t grasp these things and not only is the point at which the spades of conversation are turned by bedrock but also serves as a limit of empathy/compassion/etc.

  9. Hi Labnut,

    Good questions – I will try to really briefly address them if I can. First off I use therm mindfulness because back in the late 1980’s this was the term used to describe the way we should orient ourselves when meditating or practicing tai chi. I took more to the tai chi more than the sitting or standing meditations as I am a physically active person, but I had suffered a long illness age (23-27) got connected to a teacher who surfaced in my area just as I was recovering enough to begin a movement practice. However vague the term it does describe a certain approach that can be applied actively in a particular practice or reflectively when we have acted in ways we feel we could have responded better.

    I need to describe a little about the tai chi practice to try and answer the questions. The form I practice and teach has 108 movements or postures. Behind each movement are basic principles that apply to body alignment, movement dynamics through and between postures, and the manner in which we integrate our awareness – as they say bringing mind, body, and world together – during practice. Each of the postures has a philosophical meaning associated with it most of which are drawn from the tao te ching, and groups of postures take on collective meanings. As a whole the meanings trace a metaphorical path of cultivation through various expressive changes with the meanings mimicking the postures – some lower, some higher, some require less physicality others are more expansive – but the basic principles are to be upheld throughout with a few rare deviations where the meaning is to let go of structure. With practice the embodiment of a range of balanced feelings/emotions can be explored. There is quite a lot involved in the practice and I can’t do it justice here, but good practice requires a combination of alertness and relaxation. The awarenesses that can be monitored & regulated become more subtle less gross and physical with experience, but they generally involve a rolling engaged process. With experience the is less and less drifting off into daydreaming ( not that daydreaming is a bad thing ), and more continuous engagement with a whole body/mind expressing a balanced interaction with the world.

    “Beginning with reason, my cognitive processes are under the active control of my mind. How will mindfulness tune this? What will that achieve?”

    I’m not so sure this is true for me. Often I think our reasons are post-hoc rationalizations. That is probably what I am engaging in right now. Sometimes I get a nagging sense of discomfort with the reasons I have provided others or myself. I feel like my tai chi practice has helped me to better notice these cues when I am drifting into rationalizations and this i think has improved my reasoning process. I have a long way to go here as I discover more philosophy, and realize how much there is that I am ignorant of.

    “Turning now to emotions. My emotions strongly present themselves to my mind. How then will mindfulness tune this process and what will that achieve?”

    Well I am much better at noticing and correcting aversive feelings then I used to be. Lets take as an example of aversive feelings related to procrastination over a task I have been putting off. Usually the emotional state that accompanies procrastination is worse than actually doing the task. Here I also feel I am much better at noticing this pattern and have become more productive and spent less time with those aversive feelings.

    “And finally intuitions. These are highly context specific with the right set of intuitions presenting themselves in the appropriate context. How does mindfulness tune this process and exactly what does that achieve?”

    I feel like my intuitions are generally better aligned with context and with my reasons then in the past. Yes, I know this is vague. I feel they are the result of the totality of my life-style. I don’t think there is any simple formula to describe way the intuitions, emotions, and reasons integrate. Perhaps there is but I won’t pretend to know it.

    I can’t say for sure any of these results are due my tai chi practice. I have always been a pretty happy well adjusted person although the period of my illness was difficult. I enjoy the practice, and a better sense of ongoing well-being now than at any time in my past. I have added the running practice and also am trying to widen my intellectual engagement as well. I would say I try to bring a sense of earnest mindfulness to all of these engagements and if that makes me sound like an airy millenial then maybe I need a better term 🙂

  10. labnut

    Thanks, it’s good to be back.

    thanks for your reply. I wonder if many of the benefits you describe can be attributed instead to your endurance running?

    I think the discussion of mindfulness is vague because of the imprecision of the term. So I am going to give a more precise description of how I understand it. But this is a very personal view and in all likelihood you see things differently.

    Mindfulness has four states, emotional, cognitive, restful and a sacred state.

    1. The emotional state.
    Emotional mindfulness is a close attention to one’s emotional state, adopting a third party perspective. It identifies the current, dominant emotions, understands their source, examines their reasonableness and utility, with the goal of attaining a balanced emotional state that allows effective functioning.

    2 The cognitive state.
    Cognitive mindfulness is a form of heightened awareness that allows great focus and clarity of thinking. It is an active state where the mind pursues, orders and formulates ideas with vigor. It is focussed in the sense that the thinking is persistent, determined and immune to distractions or procrastination. Like the emotional state, it seeks out a third party perspective.

    3. The restful state.
    This is a period where the mind is relaxed and distractions are eliminated. Ideas are allowed to float, unbidden but gently through the mind. Just as the body needs healing and rest, so too does the mind. Music does this for me, or a quiet meditative walk with my dogs along the beach.

    4. The sacred state.
    Sunday night, as I worshipped before the altar, I experienced the sacred. It was a time of awe and wonder where I felt myself as a part of something far greater. This sacred moment of awe and wonder, of belonging to something much greater, can be secular or religious. I experience it at Mass, I experience it climbing in the mountains and I experience when listening to certain music.

    A common thread that links the four states of mindfulness is a striving to be ego free. In the emotional and cognitive components this is realized by striving for a third party perspective. In the restful state all thoughts about the self are consciously relinquished. In the sacred state one becomes immersed in consideration of a far greater reality that dwarves all private or individual considerations.

    Learning to adopt an ego-free, third party perspective, that can consider all aspects of an issue, is perhaps the most important practical benefit of mindfulness. That is because undue focus on egotistical considerations is the virus that poisons the social body. I would go so far as to call this the defining property of mindfulness. This ties in nicely with the discussion of tribalism because it is a countervailing force that prevents tribalism from becoming malignant.

    OK, I know this is far from the traditional description of mindfulness. I will egotistically claim mine is better 🙂

  11. Hey folks. Thanks for being mindful of readers such as myself who enjoy reading others perspectives regarding elements of cognition and states of being. As I have gotten older, I have enjoyed listening more and speaking less. This has become, enlightening. Keep up the good work.

  12. Thanks for your additional input Labnut,

    I don’t have any major disagreements with your latest comments. I agree that it can be beneficial to expose ourselves to a range of experiential conditions or ‘states’ as you refer to them. I think you tend to be more drawn to categorizing things and creating taxonomies while I’m more drawn to adopting a unifying underlying approach or attitude that can be applied to the various experiences. Perhaps this is why I end up being more vague when I try to explain myself. 🙂

    Here is a little blog post I wrote a few years back on mindfulness & introspection. I was writing these mostly for myself as I don’t think many people ever read them. I cringe a little as I see myself quoting Wittgenstein, knowing what a philosophical neophyte I still am 🙂

  13. Apparently I forgot to copy the post I referred to – Sorry for the multiple posts.


  14. labnut

    thanks for the link, very interesting.

    then the virtue of mindfulness is pausing to observe this convoluted process in a non-evaluative way.

    Good thought but I suggest that what really happens is that we consciously move to consider the matter from a third party perspective where we deliberately relinquish our own point of view, and with it all our natural biases.

    What Wright calls ‘cognitive empathy‘ is what I call ‘third party perspective’. I think ‘cognitive empathy‘ is a misleading term because it implies some sympathy for the other point of view, which is not what Wright intended. As is apparent from the discussion, DanK also found the term misleading.

    Adopting a third party perspective can be a most valuable corrective to one’s thinking. For example, in reply to an older post about repugnant thoughts, I proposed that their desirability was easily tested by adopting a third party perspective. Consider for a moment that you were fantasising about sodomising the young son of your boss(I am being deliberately repugnant and offensive). Now ask yourself what would happen if you shared your fantasies with your boss(a third party perspective). I suggest that after he has blackened both your eyes, broken your jaw, kicked you off the premises and called the police, you will understand how deeply undesirable such repugnant thoughts are.

    Turning to another example. How should we judge Putin’s seizure of Crimea, while trying to discard American cognitive biases(as an un-American I find that straightforward). It turns out that his behaviour was soundly motivated(work it out for yourself). Or, for that matter, what should we think of his invasion of Eastern Ukraine? Once again, once you discard American biases and look carefully into the Russian/Crimean situation, their behaviour makes good sense. One might not like his behaviour but that should not be a barrier to understanding that he has a sound and defensible motivation.

    It is like being a chess player(my favourite game). One may detest one’s opponent but one better think very carefully about his plans and motivation, from his perspective, understanding them, otherwise your detestable opponent will rub your face in the board with great glee.

    Here is the interesting thing. Once you really grasp your opponent’s perspective you will likely find he is not so detestable after all, which is not so good if you like hanging onto your biases. Americans see no need to relinquish their biases because they think power absolves them of the need to consider other people’s perspective.

  15. Very good points by Labnut, although I don’t think power makes the US any worse at managing our biases than other people; it only makes us more responsible for what happens in the world, and we’d damn well better understand that we are about as bad at it as everyone else.

    The analysis of Ukraine/Crimea/Putin should not lead us to conclude that Putin isn’t aggressive, ambitious, and rather dangerous, but it should inform out thoughts about where to draw the line, and, as with our long stand-off with the USSR, it makes all the difference in the world whether you draw the line in a wise or foolish place. George Kennan delivered the message, in advance of others, that the USSR would be a danger to world peace for a long time to come. Later he from time to time tried to remind Cold Warriors that “wait a minute, they’re still human, not some implacable mechanical embodiment of an evil ideal”, and was told “No thanks, we don’t need to hear from you again”.

  16. A problem with cognitive empathy, as with consequentialism, is you just might overestimate your own cleverness, and wind up wishing you’d followed a simple rule. E.g. Chamberlain seemed to think he understood Hitler as a resentful ethnic group, which had, to be honest, taken a fair amount of abuse in recent decades. Unfortunately, while such sentiments led too many Germans to put Hitler in power, Hitler was nothing like a normal resentful ethnic type. The response was too late (definitely not too little). The desire to punish the Germans as if they were collectively responsible for WWI had gone too far. The deliberate weakening of German armed forces had, ironically, put Germany in the hands of the vastly larger of poorly organized SA.

    John Foster Dulles went around with Stalin’s Problems of Leninism under his pillow, obviously trying to understand the enemy, but Stalin (quite unlike Hitler) did not express his true motives in his writing; the writing, like everything Stalin did, was purely strategic, meant to build up his image as brilliant Marxist and worthy successor to Lenin, and to pick off his internal enemies one by one.

  17. So, it seems that Wright’s ‘Ev-Ethics’ arguments is that the intuition for retributive justice being the result of evolution (arising from some sort of now-outdated pragmatic adaptation in our unrecorded history), we can now apply reason and recognize it as fallacious and no longer applicable according to – well, apparently some higher principle?

    I’m not sure if I understand Wright correctly on this; but there are arguments like it aplenty floating around; and there are so many things wrong with it, one hardly knows where to begin.

    First, note that in order to buy an argument like this, you also have to buy the implication that anyone raising a rational argument for retributive justice not only must have something wrong with their argument, but also that their motivation is in some way primitive, they are enacting an earlier stage of evolution no longer applicable. I’m in many ways opposed to retributive justice theories, but I can’t see myself engaging in debate with them making assumptions like that.

    Secondly, the fact that we have intelligent people raising reasonable and cogent arguments for retributive justice despite reasonable and cogent arguments against it, itself tells us that at somewhere in the development of human culture evolutionary-genetic wring of human social responses simply ceased to be decisive in human behavior, but was replaced by social and communicative protocols.

    Also, note that embedded in such an argument is the assumption that evolution included a hierarchical, forward-progressive shaping of primate intelligence that drove inevitably toward the development of human consciousness. That’s simply wrong. Do we forget what ‘survival of the fittest’ means? there are thousands of bacterial and insectoid species that are more fit for survival in catastrophic environmental change than we are – they won this race many eons before any mammal first breathed air. Besides, at what point in history did ‘evolution’ acquire agency, such that it could begin this long drive toward human consciousness and the ethics that its reasoning will supposedly dictate?.

    The only other use of evolution in ethics discussions is to argue that, since evolution arrived at the behaviors we have seen before, we should keep enacting those behaviors since they assure survival of the fittest – and such arguments breed monsters.

    Evolution per se can inform a number of philosophic considerations concerning what it means to be human – ethics is not one of these.

  18. labnut

    DanK said that he found the evolutionary origins of our ethical thinking not at all interesting. And when pressed by Wright he stuck to his point of view without really explaining it. Now it is a simple fact that a great number of us find this very interesting. Stories of origins fascinate us and this is why paleontology is a popular field. The real question is not whether it is interesting(obviously it is for many of us) but whether it is useful to understanding our current concepts of ethics. The answer is a resounding no. It is no for several reasons:

    1. Fossils contain almost no trace of our ethical behaviour and artefacts very little. So we are reduced to speculative explanations with no way of resolving competing explanations. It is not science but an aetiological narrative concealed by a sheen of bogus science.

    2. The birth of human cognition marked a radical departure from our normal evolutionary course. Up until about 100,000 years ago our behaviour was, in the main, genetically determined and we were little more than bipedal, running hominids with larger brains. The birth of cognition greatly accelerated the development of our minds precisely because it freed us from evolutionary constraints. Our minds are what they are, for the greater part, not because of their animal origins, but because of an extraordinarily rapid mental development that did not work according to evolutionary rules. Human cognition appeared to enter a virtuous cycle stage, a period of positive feedback where our minds rapidly acquired abilities far beyond the necessities of survival. Evo-psych does not explain this rapid mental development and the course it has taken. Memes are just more bogus science with no explanatory power. Evo-psych merely marks a starting point but we have progressed so far beyond this starting point that it is hardly interesting at all and the way we have progressed beyond this starting point has nothing to do with conventional evolution. How we progressed beyond this starting point is the really interesting question and science, seemingly, has no answer.

    3. Evolution has become a new religious dogma and there is an almost desperate need to beat every problem into a shape that allows an evolutionary explanation. It reflects a paucity of imagination, a failure in thinking and a strong ideological bias. This desperate clinging to outdated explanations brings to mind the old saw that to a plumber every tool is a wrench. Evolution explains some things well but trying to explain new problems with old solutions is an exercise in futility fueled by a failure of imagination and ideological bias.

    This does not mean our animal origins no longer influence us. They do and quite strongly. For example, we still have a strong territorial drive and a dominance drive. Our minds are a battleground between our attenuated instinctual drives that we inherited from our animal past and our newly acquired cognition. The way this struggle plays out explains the tortured course of human history. But somehow we acquired the concepts of the true, the good and the beautiful and they have transformed our culture into something, in its better moments, that is truly noble. Evolution cannot explain this and we must await a new Darwin.

  19. DB: So, it seems that Wright’s ‘Ev-Ethics’ arguments is that the intuition for retributive justice being the result of evolution (arising from some sort of now-outdated pragmatic adaptation in our unrecorded history), we can now apply reason and recognize it as fallacious and no longer applicable according to – well, apparently some higher principle?

    ‘Ev-Ethics’? Is this a new term of abuse? Just what we don’t need IMO.

    “some sort of now-outdated pragmatic adaptation in our unrecorded history”

    I think he’s alluding to very definite arguments, with probably some mathematical backing, that a tendency for anyone — not just the victim — observing whatever is defined as a misdeed to react in some way, if only to treat the person coldly.

    In any event, I think Wright’s reasoning would be something like: “We have this near-reflexive tendency to retribution. Many people (perhaps most people on earth) are prone to see it as some kind of divine urge, but it isn’t, and if we understand the ways in which it is useful for, say, discouraging free-ridership and hence making altruism more viable, maybe we can put it in its place and not go around acting like avenging angels.”

    “Retributive Justice” may lead to associations with the headman’s axe or the electric chair, but more commonly, it’s closer to “You cheated – you get kicked out of the game”.

    A good, mercifully short (8 pages) source for an overview of what one of the deepest thinkers on evolution and cognition is “The ultra-social animal. Invited Horizon article for European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 187-194”.

    Tomasello is sometimes brought up among anti-nativist anthropologists and philosophers as a strong support of their POV. He was one of those who were all over Pinker’s The Language Instinct with a book review (Cognitive Development, 10, 131-156 (1995) ) titled “Language is not an Instinct”.

    But he has also been a very important researcher both in understanding primate characteristics and their relevance to humans, and in infant and early childhood cognitive development. His work is very observation based and closely argued. He is not a spinner of “just so stories”, and I tend to think the more concrete parts of his arguments are in some tension with his older natural tendencies to be put off by “nativism”, “modularity” and all that.

    Ev-Psych is plagued by popularisers pelting us with low hanging (and somewhat putrid) low hanging fruit. Anything connected with sex is apt to have a reasonable sounding evolutionary argument, but that is pretty much guaranteed not to provide any insight into the original phenomenon to be “explained” — hence just so stories arise.

    But I believe some deep insights, worth of philosophers thought, are being developed for our cognitive and social nature, with arguments that are partly evolutionary in nature.

    The deepest such argument to date may be Tomasello’s Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, fairly manageable at 255 pages incl extensive notes and bibliography. Each chapter tends to start off with a quote by Charles S. Pierce, or Wittgenstein. He is also deeply influenced by Grice.

  20. Labnut: I think I said more than that. Or at least, I tried to explain *why* I find it uninteresting, and that has to do with it representing a level of explanation that is simply too far removed from the level at which the explanandum lies. I would give a similar reason as to why I would not be very interested in quantum mechanical explanations, if I was trying to understand human motor movement.

  21. dmf

    Dan K. on this matter of intuitions shifting and ” everything else comes along for the ride” you might be interested in:

  22. Hal Morris,

    Understanding our evolutionary heritage can certainly deepen our understanding of who we are, from a number of philosophical perspectives, perhaps even that of what is known as ‘meta-ethics,’ consideration of how humans get together to develop any ethics at all.

    However, consider: Some 2300 years ago, Aristotle, arguably the first philosopher to engage ethics in an analytic and systematic fashion, begins doing so by assuming that humans are a certain kind of animal that is not only rational, but also social, political, familial. So the attainment of the good life, requiring virtues, will perforce supply satisfaction of needs and desires within all of these spheres. That is a meta-ethical position, but Aristotle is also determined to discover and prescribe what he thinks are the virtuous behaviors most conducive to achievement of the good life. That is ethics. And, as we see, once we admit that we are this rational but also social animal (and there are only a few, marginal thinkers in the Western tradition who reject this) , what more, precisely, do we need to know about this animal’s pre-historic past in order to have a conversation concerning what we think might be appropriate ethical behavior in the present?

    Again, I am personally opposed to retributive justice on principle – I do think it smacks too much of revenge – but, again, there are reasonable and cogent arguments to the contrary – its function as deterrence, for instance, while debatable, has some evidentiary basis – and I’m not going to close off consideration of such arguments by dismissing their motives as evolutionarily primitive.

    Finally, here, let me note that an Ev-Psych based ethics has a problem similar to one we find from many scientismist thinkers – namely a demand that philosophic conversations should at last reach final consensus, final resolution (and the best way to accomplish this is through science).

    The conversation concerning ethics is dynamically contingent on the historic cultures in which they take place. That means that the conversation will change, and many of our ethics, including our intuitions as well as judgments, will change, as the historical context changes. But it should never achieve closure – that could only occur in a dead culture, an ideologically unified culture, a totalitarian culture. It is exactly because we do not have – cannot have – the final answers here, that we keep asking and discussing the questions.

  23. labnut

    Again, I am personally opposed to retributive justice on principle – I do think it smacks too much of revenge – but, again, there are reasonable and cogent arguments to the contrary – its function as deterrence, for instance, while debatable, has some evidentiary basis – and I’m not going to close off consideration of such arguments by dismissing their motives as evolutionarily primitive.

    This is one of those really complex issues and I hesitate to dive down this rabbit hole. But it is so relevant to the discussion of moral intuitions as I will illustrate with my story. On January 11th I was mugged and stoned by five young men(they wanted my cellphone). I fought back ferociously, kept my phone and won the fight, but at considerable personal cost. The police interviewed me in hospital while I was still concussed with head injuries and the consequence was that I gave a vague, contradictory statement. They told me my evidence was not enough to convict anyone. But I ask you, when you are fighting for your life and dodging a hail of large rocks, do you really take note of their clothing and facial features?

    The interesting part was my reaction. I burned with a desire for revenge. I felt that retribution must be exacted and that they should be made to suffer as I had suffered. They should be made to pay. Now I really believe in the prayer “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” but it was overwhelmed by these feelings. I tracked down these young men, stalked them, menaced them and intimidated them(don’t ask). Only then did my powerful feelings of aggrievement dissipate.

    Weird huh! Why did I act this way? Was it my head injuries? I can’t give a clear explanation except to say that I was impelled by powerful feelings that required retribution and making them pay for their violence against me. I’ve thought carefully about these feelings and it is only much later that I understood them. I concluded that an important part of it was my desire not to be a victim. They had made me a victim and the state of victimhood diminished me as a person. If I accepted being a victim I would be permanently diminished and inadequate. I needed the retribution as a way of restoring my sense of wholeness and adequacy.

    I hope my story illustrates what a powerful thing moral intuitions are and that retribution is a necessary element to restoring the wholeness and adequacy of the victim. I had to find out the hard way the importance of considering the victim’s interests.

  24. labnut

    to continue. I learned another important lesson from these events. As I wrote about them I found I was creating a narrative and that the process of creating a narrative was restorative. Narrative psychologists know this well. The relevance is that by adopting the rule of law, we not only regulated the process of retribution, we also created a mechanism for creating a public narrative(the court proceedings) that helped to restore the victim’s wholeness and dignity. Thus every victim needs his day in court(which I was unfortunately denied).

    My own country(South Africa) has a striking example of the importance of public narrative as a restorative process. To cope with the aftermath of Apartheid we created a judicial commission, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC). Victims and perpetrators faced each other in the TRC court. Victims could tell their story and perpetrators were required to fully, frankly and publicly account for their actions. In return for a full confession they earned forgiveness. The victims were awarded compensation by the State. This process was remarkably successful and restorative for the victims(there are exceptions, as one would expect).

    So, from the events in my life, I was exposed to two powerful moral intuitions. Firstly, that retribution was important for restoring the wholeness, adequacy and dignity of the victim. Secondly, that creating a public narrative is an important part of the restorative process. My point, in the context of this essay, is that these are conclusions that cannot be arrived at by purely rational processes. We must first feel these moral intuitions, only then can we rationalise them, accounting for them cognitively(ethical theory). And that, I think, is in essence what DanK is saying.

  25. these are conclusions that cannot be arrived at by purely rational processes. We must first feel these moral intuitions, only then can we rationalise them, accounting for them cognitively(ethical theory). And that, I think, is in essence what DanK is saying.
    Exactly right. And said better — and more pithily — than I did.

  26. That’s some story! Wow!