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Practice, Practice, Practice

02/20/2014 02:57 pm 14:57:57 | Updated Apr 21, 2014

I've just finished Paul Bloom's marvelous book, Just Babies, The Origins of Good and Evil. It's a rigorously rational, empirical book, rooted in this cognitive scientist's conviction that our behavior has evolved, biologically into our flawed history as a moral species. It might be safe to say Bloom's conclusion is that we're about halfway along the road to moral enlightenment.

He establishes early on, convincingly, that our moral sense is hard-wired into our nature at birth. Infants and toddlers know right and wrong, and demonstrate a sense of justice before they can even speak. The experiments on this are startling and remarkable, and he documents them in detail. We have evolved as a species with an innate moral sense in order to ensure the survival of the individual and tribe. After making this point, he shines his light of reason with sensitivity across a mine field of contemporary political issues, without stridency about any of them, focusing or just glancing at religion, abortion, homosexual marriage, some sidelong hints about drone strikes and even immigration (if you follow the implications of his logic). He suggests how far we still have to go in these areas, but leaves the reader to draw his or her own enlightened conclusions about them, based on the book's research. What was most refreshing in all of it was this Yale professor's level-headed, non-partisan tone? The implications of his views are corrosive for some conservative stances on social issues, but there's no animus here, no sense of gleeful debunking. He gives the impression of being able to listen and really think about divergent opinions. In fact, on issues of moral choice, he quotes Adam Smith, one of the fathers of free market theory, continuously and approvingly throughout the book, from Smith's lesser known book about humanity's moral nature.

Not surprisingly, he isn't terribly warm toward religion. Oddly, at one point, he identifies religion with ritual codes of conduct around a list of ancient concerns: "pollution and purity, sanctity and sacred order." (Did he not get around to reading the New Testament?) Yet by the final chapter he cites the Golden Rule: the teaching of wisdom and love at the heart of our religious traditions, which often gets obscured by the intricate doctrines that distinguish one faith from another. In other words, he shows his hesitations about religion, on purely rational grounds, and yet he then approves of a core, universal religious teaching that's actually consistent with his central argument.

What he urges is an expansion of our sympathies and moral codes in a way that makes the entire world our family. In other words, he's urging his reader to take seriously the wisdom at the heart of the New Testament, and the world's other major religions, without calling on any of them for support. He points out how we're good people, or try to be, when it comes to people we know or identify with. Others, not so much. We're vehemently aligned, as moral creatures, with family, tribe, nation and race, because it's been evolutionarily advantageous. It's how we've survived--through effective, cooperative survival behavior in groups. It has gotten us this far, though at a terrible cost, down through history. Yet we need to expand this code now. He urges us to rationally examine our allegiances to our own group and open up our heart to include anyone and everyone. How do we do this? Bloom's answer is to rely on reason. Moral action is "the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason."

Yet, like so many others, Bloom doesn't see how consistent this can be with actual religious practice. He tends to dismiss, or ignore, how religious ritual can train an individual in the self-effacement required to do exactly what Bloom asks: to be both compassionate and reasonable--both on a daily basis and especially in a crisis. When Antoinette Tuff gently calmed a killer into laying down his gun, saving the lives of countless schoolchildren, her years of faith girded her to do it, despite the terror she later recounted feeling. Meditation, prayer, church services, fellowship and even the admission of wrongdoing -- confession -- all help train an individual's ego into seeking something more important than individual satisfaction. That's the essence of being moral -- when an individual can freely choose to do what is rationally good, regardless of self-interest. Rationality might show clearly what needs to be done, for the good of others, but reason alone won't motivate me to hand over my car keys to the fellow who just stole my jacket. That's what Jesus suggests we do -- love everyone unstintingly, even enemies. And it requires more than reason to pull that off. It requires will and a sensitivity awakened by humility -- along with an all-consuming allegiance to something beyond myself and, sometimes, my own common sense. Like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice, practice, practice -- both to know what's right and then to actually do it. Religion can offer the training needed to build that skill and the will to choose what's most reasonable -- as well as acts of compassion many rational people would think are foolish -- like acting as a human shield by showing compassion to a killer, rather than running for one's life.

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Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. Follow him on Twitter.