The more atheists I engage in conversation with, the more inclined I become to believe in the doctrine of predestination. I wonder why that is.
Gaining Girth, Wasting Wealth and Doing Time.
Ok, now I’m taking you into serious supposition territory into the intersection of lifestyle, polititics, biology and this psychology of morality. Does the average American adult have more or less blood sugar in his system than someone of, say, his grandfather’s generation? More, at least in terms of the availability of simple sugars. Do we face more choices? Yes. Do we have to self-regulate more than people did two generations ago? Oh my, yes.
So. We live in a post-industrial world where we make many choices and do a lot of thinking. Good thing, yes? But to keep doing this all day and into the night, we need to boost our blood sugar and so grab what’s on hand. A bag of Skittles from the snack machine or some caramel in your macchiato? Short term fix, but it works.
Trouble is that over time we develop, with all those insulin spikes that accompany those sugar hits, insulin resistance. Got plenty of blood glucose, but can’t get it into the cells to use it including the brain cells. We gain weight and need more sugar to keep self-regulating and eventually are doing so just to get through the day. Long term time preference suffers because you’re being so careful about what you may or may not wear or say at work, for example.
I predict from this that people with long time preferences will also have lower BMI scores (bodybuilders, excepted of course) and thinner waists.
I predict from this that the highest crime and other social pathology (high impulsivity and low self-control) will correlate with populations that are gaining girth.
I predict that our wealthy (people who exhibit long time preference in spending and saving, NOT just high-income people) will be thinner than our poor, except among those poor who not working in a post-industrial “thinking” job or who are not raising families.
I’ll see if I can look up stats on these predictions, but from what sociological research I’ve done, these are slam dunks.
What political implications do you foresee from this? We need more laws when culture fails. Without cultural constraints, most people don’t self-regulate very well. People who can govern their own behavior need little government and those who cannot rule themselves will always find someone willing to do it for them. And we have both voting in the same American polity.
And, yes, the most conservative states are also some of the poorest and fattest. Why do you suppose that is?
Dr. Haidt, of the post below, was recently involved in a conference on the psychology of morality, hosted by edge.org. All the article are well worth reading, even if you find yourself disagreeing.
One researcher, Dr. Roy Baumeister, presented this gem:
And so that said, in terms of trying to understand human nature, well, and morality too, nature and culture certainly combine in some ways to do this, and I’d put these together in a slightly different way, it’s not nature’s over here and culture’s over there and they’re both pulling us in different directions. Rather, nature made us for culture. I’m convinced that the distinctively human aspects of psychology, the human aspects of evolution were adaptations to enable us to have this new and better kind of social life, namely culture.
Culture is our biological strategy. It’s a new and better way of relating to each other, based on shared information and division of labor, interlocking roles and things like that. And it’s worked. It’s how we solve the problems of survival and reproduction, and it’s worked pretty well for us in that regard. And so the distinctively human traits are ones often there to make this new kind of social life work.
Now, where does this leave us with morality? Well, it’s not so much the purpose to facilitate individual salvation or perfection, or whatever, as I quoted McIntyre in our discussions earlier today, but rather morality is the set of rules to enable people to live together. It serves the purpose of making the culture work, as culture depends on cooperating with each other, there’s trust, shared assumptions, things like that.
Of course, some of my faithful readers will confuse innate morality with what the Bible, their Church or religion in general teaches. These are different things. The Bible is quite clear that people have consciences separate from the Law or from various teachings of Scripture. It also points out how men can and do harden their hearts to both. Let’s not get into that in the comments.
Back to Baumeister, it gets better:
As society got larger and more complex and moved to more stranger interactions, laws have had to step in to take their place, because you can cheat a stranger whom you’ll never see again, and get away with it. Anyway, you’re seeing here the neglected interpersonal dimension in understanding morality. Morality depends on relationships. And it’s there, again, to regulate interpersonal behavior so that people cooperate, so that the system can work.
See also Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Since the middle of the 20th Century we’ve had a massive decrease in social capital (trust between individual members of society built on social interaction). But we’ve also had a massive increase in the number of laws we’ve passed and try to enforce. More on this in another post.
Back to edge.org and Baumeister:
(editor’s note: there’s really quite a bit of good stuff here and I’m already pushing the limits on fair use. This is the last excerpt, you should read the whole thing over here.)
Now, consider some of the traits that evolved to enable people to overcome these selfish impulses so as to do what’s best for the group and the system and so on. Among those, self-regulation is central. I think in part I got invited here, is I have a history of doing research on self-regulation and self-control. The essence of self-regulation is to override one response so that you can do something else —usually something that’s more desirable, better either in the long run, or better for the group.
That is why we’ve called self-control the moral muscle. I’m going to unpack that and comment on both parts. It’s moral: self-control is moral in the sense that it enables you to do these morally good things, sometimes detrimental to self-interest. So if you get lists of morals, whether it’s the Seven Deadly Sins or the Ten Commandments or a list of virtues and so on, they’re mostly about self-control. And you can really see self-control as central to them, so there are the Seven Deadly Sins of gluttony, wrath, and greed and the rest. They’re mostly self-control failures. Likewise, the virtues are exemplary patterns of self-control. So that’s the moral part of the ‘moral muscle’, it’s a capacity to enable us to do these moral actions, which are good for the group, even though overcoming this short-term self-interest.
He goes on to describe his reseach on the limits of self-regulation. And there is a limit, just as there are limits to what our physical muscles can hold or lift or move. What is the limiting factor in self-regulation?
Sugar. Blood sugar, to be specific. People with depleted willpower cheat on tests and have other observable moral failure. Their self-regulation seems to be restored, however, as soon as they replenish their blood sugar. This same effect is observable in all choice-making, not just in the moral sphere. You make better choices when you have sufficient glucose in your system.
What could this mean? Why do I think this is a big deal? Next Post.
This considered in the context of the previous post – worldwide we have a genetic trait and epigenetic (environmental impact upon gene expression) for liberalism vs. conservatism which result in political and moral conflict.
There’s more, but we’ll save for another post. Here’s a hint, though….”sugar”.
By matching genetic information with maps of the subjects’ social networks, the researchers were able to show that people with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to be liberal as adults, but only if they had an active social life in adolescence.
I wonder what happened with those who didn’t. Libertarians, one suspects.
Michael at Innocent Bystanders has a great post up on what happens when politicians from doing their jobs to doing “good” and he focuses in on the harm done in the name of civil rights/racial equality. It called to mind this old quote:
“The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.” – G.K. Chesterton
I recently re-read “Inside the Aquarium”, a memoir of sorts of a Soviet defector from the 1980s. It’s a fascinating look at Soviet bureaucracy and the Cold War from the other side, especially when he starts talking about philosophy. Today’s quote:
“The [Spetsnatz] troops were convinced that human nature was basically vicious and incorrigible. They had good reason. Every day they risked their lives and every day they had an opportunity to observe people on the brink of death. So they divided everybody into the good and the bad. A good person in their eyes was one who did not conceal the animal seated within him. But a person who tried to appear good was dangerous. The most dangerous were those who not only paraded their good qualities but who also believed within themselves they were indeed good people. The most loathsome, disgusting criminal might kill a man, ten men or even a hundred. But a criminal will never kill peoople by the millions. Millions are killed only by those who consider themselves good. People like Robespierre do not grow out of criminals but out of the most worthy and most humane types. The guillotine was invented not by criminals but by humanists. The most monstrous crimes in the history of mankind were committed by people who did not drink vodka, did not smoke, were not unfaithful to their wives and fed squirrels from the palms of their hands.”
Or from C.S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
People do have an innate sense of morality, mind you, but it’s very general in scope and often our mores conflict with one another. We’re very, very good at finding reasons why our specific action, while immoral, was the right choice.
There are those romantic enough, who have the leisure to suppose that this is not our nature – despite millenia of evidence to the contrary. If I was even more cynical than I am, I would postulate that they believe this so as not to have to confront their own weakness, so as to chalk up moral failures as exception or situational rather than a rule that applied to them, so that they may believe mankind to be perfectable here on Earth. And there’s no talking anyone out of something that they need to believe.
But reality is what doesn’t go away even if you don’t believe in it, to paraphrase Phillip K. Dick. Reality may very well get harsher here in our country. When it does, when we can no longer afford to bullshit ourselves or let others do so, then we as a people can get practical, limit our impulses to rule or “save” others and make right what went wrong during our Time of Dreaming.
Or we can go bankrupt. Or perish. Those are always possible too. Realists know that.