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Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Just finished Robert Kurzban's book, Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the Modern Mind. Pleasant, fast read.  I thought it might be useful for my project in New Ethics.  And it was.

But if you've already read as much as I have in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology (Gozanniga, Pinker, Dawkins, etc), you will find it pretty much a summary of the findings for a modular brain.  It is another good attack on the Cartesian dualism we've inherited culturally and biologically along with the illusion of a wizard of Oz "self" behind all the curtains.  And it is a rather fun critique of self-deception, self-control, self-help, self-interest, and even self-actualization with all their silliness.  It certainly helps to explain what's happening in the Republican primary debates and an electorate desperately wanting purity, certainty, righteousness.

Inconsistency is a well-evidenced way of the brain for a lot of evolutionary adaptations related to diverse modules, some conscious, some not, with very diverse functions developed in the course of natural selection.  What is seen as hypocrisy in others, is often just what we would call "flexibility" in ourselves.  Knowing this makes me a bit less judgmental.

However, when Kurzban does do some ethical reflection, he finds that in the long run hypocrisy is not good for the species.  Morality was developed primarily because we need to live and act with other people to survive and thrive, i.e. achieve "reproductive advantage." Rules were developed to limit other people's negative behavior.  When rules were not applied to all (e.g. not to the sovereign or some elite), they could not be sustained.  So people are held accountable to the rules through publicity.  We can be as inconsistent as others allow us to be.  That's the extent of liberty, e.g. do your own thing as much as you want as long as you don't harm others (meaning as much as others allow you.)

His is not a very deep ethical reflection, but I suppose mirrors what most people say--and maybe even live by.  Kurzban does believe that some antidote to hypocrisy is found in linking your speech and action to consistent mutually agreed upon principles.

I find that Kurzban is somewhat inconsistent himself (though I certainly do not judge him a hypocrite!).

  • While he denies a unitary self, he does an awful lot of "I" talk.  
  • He makes morality mainly a negative act, a condemnation of others harmful (to me) behaviors.  Maybe--but I think an ethics can be created on a more positive basis--which is what I am trying to do in my attempt for a "universal ethics."
  • Principle based rules can I think lead to rigidity, i.e. the consistency of religiously based war and torture.
  • His "reproductive advantage" criterion is certainly good evolutionary biology, but I think doesn't show the new option beyond simple reproductive advantage that our evolution for reproductive advantage is providing us.
  • He adopts a sort of naturalistic fallacy (Hume's "ought" from "is") without showing why or how.  
  • Maybe saying the same thing, his is a pretty static view of human existence, ironically more machine-like than organic, much less emergent.  
I argue in my "Integrity: the Search for the Universal Ethic" that good human behavior is more than non-hypocrisy to be achieved by simply limiting other people's behavior; that while there is no "real" or "being" self, there is a "becoming" self; that while integrity is not an achieved reality, it is an achievable reality and even a being-achieved reality.

Much more later.

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