This has been a week of collecting horror stories of behavior by people who seem to utterly lack a moral compass. As a friend of mine said, “Sometimes the world offends me.” But is it true? Are some people entirely lacking, without moral conscience in the way that someone might be born without wisdom teeth, say, or an appendix?
There is a lively philosophical-scientific debate about the origins of morality and its place in our make-up. One school says it is a uniquely human and uniquely conscious creation: a system devised by humans to soften the edges of our animal natures, a rational aspiration toward our better selves.
Another—influenced by the study of social organization and altruistic behavior in primates—posits an innate basic morality akin to the innate grasp of linguistic principles described by Noam Chomsky. In each case, our minds are thought to incorporate a kind of operating system which is evoked, developed and expressed in relation to our social and cultural context. If I live in France, my underlying linguistic capacity is manifest as French in all its particularity. If I am born in a Hindi-speaking region of India, my underlying moral grammar is elaborated as one or another variation of Hindu moral codes. If I am an ape, even part of an extended family in zoo captivity, my actions will express the principle that something good obtained by one is to be shared with all.
Some people resist this idea. For them, there is a thick black line between human consciousness and animal nature. They find it repugnant or absurd to posit continuities between them.
But to me, it has the ring of truth. It gibes with the many documented instances of primate social policy (such as a bonobo acting to save a fallen bird, as cited in this very interesting New York Review essay). It also offers a plausible explanation for why people are so often unable to articulate conscious moral reasons for their feelings: “It just felt right,” they say, or “I couldn’t do it, it felt wrong.”
It if is true that we possess an inbuilt moral nature, what does that mean? If there is a basic pattern of morality embedded in our minds, how did it get there? Believers in a higher order or Spirit may see it as a divine imprint, software installed by the Creator. In Jewish mysticism, for instance, the nefesh is the coarsest level of soul, the spiritual essence residing in the body, possessed by all living beings. A higher soul, ruach, is developed as the person grows, and can be seen as something like the deepest source of personality. The neshama is the spiritual energy that pulls the lower levels toward the highest realms; it can be seen as transcending or transforming the lower levels. (There are two higher transpersonal levels, chayah and yechidah, as well.)
But it can also be argued that innate moral grammar is a practical survival skill, like the ability to run fast. Human survival is in many ways predicated on altruistic behavior: protecting the weak, facing danger or making other voluntary sacrifices on behalf of the group. Early humans who practiced this morality increased the survival chances of their genetic line, passing on the trait as cultures developed.
In truth, these two views are two different ways of expressing the same thing. Kindness (or at least a disinclination to gratuitous cruelty) and fairness make us feel better, more aligned with positive energies. That they also increase our offspring’s survival chances can be understood as a form of spiritual lagniappe, making virtue more than its own reward. Whether the product of spiritual intervention or natural selection, this innate moral grammar is part of our nature. The elaborate philosophical and social codes (and debates) of our complex societies are to this basic moral grammar as epic poetry is to language or elaborate choreography to the basic movements and gestures with which we are endowed.
How can this be true, you may ask, when everywhere we are surrounded by transgressions of even the most primitive moral principle (as Rabbi Hillel put it a couple of millennia ago), “Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself?”
Again, we have explanations from spirituality and from science, drawing us toward the same realizations. In Jewish thought for example, humans are understood to be subject to two competing pulls, the Yetzer HaTov (Good Inclination) and the Yetzer HaRa (Evil Inclination). Gandhi put it this way: “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavour consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.” In evolutionary terms, the drives to compete and dominate and to protect one’s own against outsiders are just as securely locked into our minds as the attraction of fairness and the desire to protect those in need of care. The choice between them turns on that eternal bane and delight of humankind, free will.
Even when people seem to act on the Evil Inclination, we can watch them struggle, engaging with some vestige of an innate moral structure. For instance, yesterday I spoke with a friend who teaches at a prestigious private university in a department where science, economics and public policy converge. He is African American. He described a repeated conversation he has, where he is introduced to someone who does a series of doubletakes (my friend doesn’t teach at Harvard, but I am going to use it as an example):
“You teach at Harvard?”
“The one in Cambridge?”
“And you have a PhD?”
And so on…
To disrupt the stream of unthinking racism, all my friend needs to do is ask one question: “Can you explain to me why you’re having such a hard time getting this?” That’s generally enough for a modicum of self-awareness to kick in, sometimes followed by a sheepish look and a stammer: the repository of moral grammar has been activated.
When people do cruel and stupid things, they often try to disguise them with a great deal of preemptive self-justification. I know two people who lost their jobs at a public institution that lost its soul trying slavishly to emulate a private corporation. They were called into a meeting and told without preliminaries that their department was being abolished, that they were to be out that day. The executioners took great pains to say their work had been excellent, exemplary, and to deflect every question about why there had been no prior consultation with a river of words: unfortunate, unavoidable, out of my hands. Later, meeting in the hallway as boxes were being carried to waiting cars, they wanted a hug!
Even the most egregious of immoral public actions, affecting whole regions and ecosystems, are couched in language suggesting that criminals in high places, like the rest of us, have to deal with the pesky voice of moral grammar. This week, a friend sent a bone-chilling