Recent developments in science appear to indicate that the emergence of life in general and perhaps even rational life, with its associated technological culture, may be common throughout the Universe. Now, a new paper appearing in the journal Space Policy suggests this universal tendency toward complexity has distinctly religious overtones and may even establish a truly universal basis for morality.

In the paper, author Kelly Smith (an evolutionary biologist from Clemson University) applies recent theoretical developments in Biology and Complex Systems Theory to attempt new answers to the kind of enduring questions about human purpose and obligation that have long been considered the sole province of the humanities.

He points out that scientists are increasingly beginning to discuss how the basic structure of the Universe seems to favor the creation of complexity. “The large scale history of the Universe strongly suggests a trend of increasing complexity: disordered energy states produce atoms and molecules, which combine to form suns and associated planets, on which life evolves,” Smith explains. “Life then seems to exhibit its own pattern of increasing complexity, with simple organisms getting more complex over evolutionary time until they eventually develop rationality and complex culture.”

Recent theoretical developments in Biology and complex systems theory suggest this trend may be real, arising from the basic structure of the Universe in a predictable fashion.

"If this is right," argues Smith, "you can look at the Universe as a kind of ‘complexity machine’, which raises all sorts of questions about what this means in a broader sense. For example, does believing the Universe is structured to produce complexity in general, and rational creatures in particular, constitute a religious belief? It need not imply that the Universe was created by a God, but on the other hand, it does suggest that the kind of rationality we hold dear is not an accident."

And Smith feels another similarity to religion are the potential moral implications of this idea. If evolution tends to favor the development of sociality, reason, and culture as a kind of “package deal”, then he thinks it’s a good bet that any smart extraterrestrials we encounter will have similar evolved attitudes about their basic moral commitments.

"In particular, they will likely agree with us that there is something morally special about rational, social creatures. And such universal agreement," argues Smith, "could be the foundation for a truly universal system of ethics."

Moral absolutism (Image: Mr. A by Steve Ditko)

Moral Absolutism is the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. Thus, actions are inherently moral or immoral, regardless of the beliefs and goals of the individual, society or culture that engages in the actions. It holds that morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, the will of God or some other fundamental source.

Stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done for the well-being of others (e.g., stealing food to feed a starving family), and even if it does in the end promote such a good.

Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality (in the wide sense) of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.

Many religions have morally absolutist positions, and regard their system of morality as having been set by a deity, and therefore absolute, perfect and unchangeable. 

Criticisms of Moral Absolutism

A primary criticism of Moral Absolutism regards how we come to know what the absolute morals are. For morals to be truly absolute, they would have to have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority, which critics claim is an impossibility.

Another of the more obvious criticisms is the sheer diversity of moral opinions which exists between societies (and even within societies) in the world today, which suggests that there cannot be a single true morality.

Sources: x, y

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Happy Birthday to Carl Sagan,

Carl Sagan, in addition to being a teacher of science, was a teacher of morals and empathy. He advocated for free speech, compassion, education, civil liberty, racial equality, gender equality, skepticism, and creativity. His views are continuing to inspire generations. Some, like me, have followed in his footsteps and seek to explore the wonders of science while improving the human condition. Carl had a hopeful view for humanity and he devoted his life to make that view a reality. Carl Sagan was certainly one of the best of us and he should be remembered for his great accomplishments.

(Follow AmericaWakieWakie)

A thousand times more lethal than bourgeoisie law is bourgeoisie morality.

The first physically protects the oppressor. The second goes far beyond that: It conditions you to love the oppressor, to protect their legitimacy and their legacy, to respect their epistemology and their way of knowing the world, to uphold their humanity, to indeed make their humanity the ONLY humanity worthy of life while it rapes, pillages, and murders the oppressed. It is this sort of morality, which upon an oppressor’s passing, can decontextualize an entire history of oppression for the sake of mourning your enemies’ death when it should be understood as an inevitable conclusion to a life of facilitating violent oppression.   

Over and over the past few months we have heard:

Respect the dead cop who serves the murderous institution of policing.

No, I will not. 

Respect the white supremacist who makes white America laugh.

No, I will not. 

Respect the so-called journalist who popularizes Islamophobia and gives moral teeth to imperialism.

No, I will not. 

Respect, at least, the right of bigots to be bigots shrouded in the sloganisms of free speech. 

No, I will not. 

Such respect would be subscribing to bourgeoisie morality and would make me a conduit of bourgeoisie violence. I understand that. I think far to many of you so-called leftists do not. 

The Real Problem of Evil is Thinking Evil's a Real Problem

The idea that people can be completely evil and have no redeeming qualities, extenuating circumstances, or core humanity at all … That is the only place where true evil lies. The belief that some people are “evil” makes it easier for us to write them off, dehumanize them, destroy them, cease helping them. The idea of evil makes misbegotten moral righteousness possible, and justifies all manner of aggressive and hateful acts.

Sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder are just a repackaging of the age-old concept of pure unredeemable evil. It’s morality-driven dehumanization dressed in a clinical psychologist’s coat.

It is comforting to believe that people commit heinous acts because they are henious monsterous people. Such thinking protects us from wondering if we are capable of committing evil acts, if we are hateful and destructive. It also implies that ending suffering in the world is not a matter of slowly and constant reforming all our hearts and minds; it’s simply a matter of finding all the bad eggs and scrambling them.

The concept of sociopathic evil absolves us from doing the hard work of reforming criminals, remedying the precursors to crime, and examining the morality of our own actions. It is much easier to cast off the malicious as evil, disordered, defective, inhuman, exceptional, than it is to turn such a critical gaze upon ourselves.

By accepting the idea that “some people are just evil”, we resign ourselves to an overly simplified worldview where wrongs cannot be prevented, only punished, and where there is no broader societal responsibility for the sins of society’s children.

Climate change is a moral issue. It is an issue which demands all of us not to use merely our minds, but to use our hearts.
—  Naderev “Yeb” Saño, Philippines climate change commissioner. Watch his interview on Democracy Now! today ahead of Pope Francis’ visit.
Offensive Categorization

A week or so ago, I made a post about how words can mean different things to different people, and the importance of learning what definition the user intended. While it’s on my mind, I want to make a quick followup illustrating how this can be used offensively.

Imagine you have six shapes. The Yellow Star is objectively good. Everyshape loves the Yellow Star. Meanwhile, the Red Square is pretty much the worst shape ever. Everyshape hates the Red Square. 

Here’s the interesting part: depending how you categorize things, you can justify any of the shapes in the center as being good or bad.

Like, let’s say you hate Blue Square. She skipped out on your birthday party or something. Rather than saying Red Square is bad (something everyone would agree with), you can make the generalization that squares are bad, using Red Square as proof. Now, Blue Square looks bad too.

Or, let’s say Yellow Triangle is in a bind. He killed his roommate, and the police are getting nosier than he’d like. He can make himself look good, though, with a generalized statement: yellow shapes are good, and Yellow Star is proof of this. This is actually the tactic I wrote about in an essay called Defensive Generalization.

You can even make more complicated generalizations based on the exact people you are trying to discredit. Let’s say you have a problem with both Blue Star and Blue Square. You simply say that shapes with symmetry based off an even number are bad, and point to Red Square as evidence of this. You can even do a two-step: let’s say Red Pentagon and Blue Square get along great and call themselves the “Top-Row-Of-Shapes Club”. If you want to break that club up, you can warn Red Pentagon that even-number-symmetry-shapes are bad (see: Red Square) and that her association with Blue Square could be harmful. And just like that, their relationships are yours to control.

Despite the prevalence of this tactic, seeing through it as a listener is relatively easy: you just need to pay attention to who is categorizing things for you. Blue Square is going to deny having any association with Red Square. People who want to attack Blue Square, though, will take every angle possible to associate them. They’re both squares, they both have even symmetry, they both have one facial feature, they’re both on the right side of the image, whatever. If you question who is grouping things together for you, ulterior motives can become more obvious.

Countering it from the target’s perspective, however, is more difficult. As easy as it is, most people won’t question who is categorizing things for them. Blue Square either has to deny her associations with Red Square, or come up with a whole bunch of groupings that associate her with Yellow Star, who we all know is good. It’s a stressful position and, ultimately, favors whoever has the most people listening. If someone gets shot, it’s the loudest voices that will decide whether he was a student or a thug. 

As listeners, though, we have the most power to counter this. We can be aware that harmful manipulators will use this tactic, and by extension skeptical of people who try to sort things into categories for us. Ultimately, your goal is to look past manipulative categorization and judge parties by their actions, not their grouping. Anyone who tries to keep you from doing this is usually an enemy. 

As usual, though, the best thing you can do is simply be skeptical. Recognize that everyone has an agenda. Even have an agenda - if you look at the sort of things I write, it’s obvious that I’m trying to reduce the value of deception so that I can outcompete people who rely on it. It’s important to note these things and factor it into the credibility of information. Nothing is more dangerous than taking things at face value.

I do not want to be a “bad girl”. I will never smoke, or drink in excess or before I am of age, or do drugs. I will not give away my virginity before I am married. But there is one thing I will do. I will challenge the assumption that innocent is synonymous with naïve. I will challenge anyone who thinks that I cannot be kind and fierce at the same time.
—  a shockingly inspiring thing I churned out in English class

Neuroscientists identify brain mechanisms that predict generosity in children

University of Chicago developmental neuroscientists have found specific brain markers that predict generosity in children. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes.

There are many sorts of prosocial behaviors. Although young children are natural helpers, their perspective on sharing resources tends to be selfish. Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Jason Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar in Decety’s Child NeuroSuite lab, wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether to share something with others out of generosity. In this study, generosity was used as a proxy for moral behavior. The paper is published online by Current Biology and will appear in the Jan. 5, 2015 issue.

“We know that generosity in children increases as they get older,” said Decety. He added that neuroscientists have not yet examined the mechanisms that guide the increase in generosity. “The results of this study demonstrate that children exhibit both distinct early automatic and later more controlled patterns of neural responses when viewing scenarios showing helping and harmful behaviors. It’s that later more controlled neural response that is predictive of generosity.”

The study included recording brain waves by EEG and eye tracking of 57 children, ages three to five, while they viewed short animations depicting prosocial and antisocial behaviors of cartoon-like characters helping or hurting each other. Following that testing, the children played a modified version of a scenario called the “dictator game.” The children were given ten stickers and were told that the stickers were theirs to keep. They were then asked if they wanted to share any of their stickers with an anonymous child who was to come to the lab later that day.

The children had two boxes, one for themselves and one for the anonymous child. In an effort to prevent bias, the experimenter turned around while the child decided whether or how much to share. On average, the children shared fewer than two stickers (1.78 out of 10) with the anonymous child. There was no significant difference in sharing behavior by gender or age. The authors also found that the nature of the animations the children watched at the outset could influence the children’s likelihood of behaving in a generous way.

The study shows how young children’s brains process moral situations presented in these scenarios and the direct link to actual prosocial behavior in the act of generosity by sharing the stickers. “The results shed light on the theory of moral development by documenting the respective contribution of automatic and cognitive neural processes underpinning moral behavior in children,” Decety concluded in the paper.

The developmental scientists found evidence from the EEG that the children exhibited early automatic responses to morally laden stimuli (the scenarios) and then reappraised the same stimuli in a more controlled manner, building to produce implicit moral evaluations.

“This is the first neuro-developmental study of moral sensitivity that directly links implicit moral evaluations and actual moral behavior, and identifies the specific neuro markers of each,” said Decety. “These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster sharing and generosity in them.” Decety added that these findings show that, contrary to several predominant theories of morality, while gut reactions to the behavior of others do exist, they are not associated with one’s own moral behavior, as in how generous the children were with their stickers.

Decety and Cowell are now conducting similar work with even younger children, ages 12 to 24 months, to look at when these neural markers for generosity emerge.