Monday, March 26, 2007


of paper. With words.

At my most cynical, they represent incredible frustration: annoyance at improper comma use, and the rampant rape of the english language.

At my most hopeful, they contain indescribable brilliance: excellent syntax, unequaled understanding of tough concepts.

At my most realistic, they are both. And thus begins the long, arduous task of grading.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Morality Play

What determines morality?

Is morality an aspect of humans that can only occur in the presence of rationality? If the answer to this question is yes, then morality must have a strongly cognitive component.

Or, is morality an aspect of humans that fundamentally requires sympathy and/or empathy to be fully realized? If the answer to this question is yes, then morality must have a strongly emotional component.

Philosophers, biologists, and psychologists all have their own answers to these questions. The philosophers and psychologists tend to favor the former. In contrast, an emerging line of thought in biology favors the latter. And when we put the focus on the latter, biologists say that morality belongs not just to humans, but to their cousins, the Great Apes.

In a fascinating article in the New York Times this morning, it appears that Great Apes, and to a limited extent monkeys, display sympathetic behaviors when their fellows are in distress or in trouble. In the opening example in the article, the author discusses the somewhat shocking occurrence of chimpanzees (who cannot swim) jumping in after other chimpanzees who have fallen into zoo moats in the attempt to save their friends. In another example of this sympathetic behavior in chimpanzees, after a fight between two chimps, other chimps will console the loser.

Biologists are trying to tie these types of behavior to the beginnings of morality in humans. The argument goes that sympathy is the necessary first component for morality to develop. The Great Apes seem to have such sympathy, and so they exhibit signs of what we humans like to call morality. However, like I mentioned previously, the psychologists and philosophers tend to disagree with this assessment; and I'll leave it to you all to read the article for more details.

What I find most fascinating about this argument is its implications for human behavior. (And, as an aside, I have no problems acknowledging that perhaps we aren't the only "moral" species.) This discussion makes me think about the three important characteristics that help us understand human behavior: cognition, behavior, and affect (i.e., the feeling component of our selves). We social scientists often talk about these three components in tandem - we don't necessarily focus on what came first in the chain of human evolution. But this new research on the Great Apes calls this practice into question.

Perhaps what we know as morality has its roots in emotion. We can sympathize with others, or even empathize with them. This proclivity probably causes us to act in "non-rational" ways from time to time, or to use post hoc rationales for our behaviors when emotions caused us to act in the first place (as the article discusses). As my fiance and I were discussing several days ago, perhaps we have both cognitive and affective pathways in our brains that help guide our actions. And, in line with this article, I am inclined to argue that the emotions must come first. We have to feel connected to others at a gut level to maintain our species, just as the Great Apes do.

Ultimately, especially in today's advanced societies, we don't really need other people for survival the way we used to; we're intelligent enough, and have enough resources via computer. Yet we still crave emotional connection, along with our Great Ape cousins. Perhaps we want to know that others share our joys and sorrows, the way we seemingly automatically share theirs.

Whatever this research program eventually discovers about the biological roots of morality, there will still be a lot of ground to cover in accepting this new information. It will be interesting to see where we are with these questions in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, here's some thoughts on morality that I found particularly interesting. Perhaps we've complicated morality by incorporating reason, especially when considering Whitehead's words.

"Morality is based on a consideration of circumstances-not principles." - Anonymous

"There can be no high civility without a deep morality." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Morality is simply the attitude that we adopt towards people whom we
personally dislike." - Oscar Wilde

"What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority
then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike." - Alfred North Whitehead

Monday, March 19, 2007

End of the Day

The day is over, and I'm getting ready to head home. I really like this time of day. Everything slows down just a little bit, before the frenzy of making dinner sets in. These two verses, from the old hymn "Now the Day is Over" do justice to the feeling of the evening:

Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.

Now the darkness gathers,
Stars begin to peep,
Birds, and beasts and flowers
Soon will be asleep.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Waiting On the World to Change?

As my mother likes to remind me sometimes, the values of my generation fly in the face of her good, old fashioned, "hippie" values. I find this somewhat absurd from time to time, especially since I view my parents more as hippie dilettantes than full blown hippies. They picked through the prevailing values of their time, and came up with their own plan for how to live, much like most young people.

Sure, they lived in San Francisco and Berkeley during the height of the free love movement. (My mother lived in the Haight-Ashbury district for a time, and my dad lived in Castro.) Additionally, my mom once ate too many pot brownies too quickly at a party - her first, and last, experiment with drugs. They wore hippie clothes, but they also bathed. My father did alternative service instead of going to Vietnam (he was a Quaker growing up), but he didn't run away to Canada or bomb government buildings.

Despite my mom's insistence on their "hippie values," my parents were clean-cut youth. However, they did believe in freedom, justice, peace, and love (though not the free kind). And I know from stories that they had impassioned discussions about Vietnam with my mom's family (all three of my mom's brothers were servicemen, at least for a time).

Because of my parents, I have always admired the romantic ideal of fighting for what you believe in - I guess I've absorbed some of those hippie values. I do not believe in sheer materialism, I believe in equality (or at least equity) for all, I believe in loving the essence of other human beings. And, I suppose I believe in pressing for change, if you count the one peace march that I've participated in, my attempts to use solar energy to dry my clean clothes, and trying to walk everywhere that I can, instead of driving my car.

I am not an activist, the way many in my parents' generation were. And I think this is a general trend among people my age. I was especially reminded of this while listening to Steve Inskeep interview John Mayer on NPR this morning. Steve Inskeep was comparing the message of Mayer's song, "Waiting on the World to Change," with the messages found in 60s' songs. Mayer, who at 29 is only one year older than I am, told Inskeep that the messages found in the 60s would not fly with young people today:
"Look, demanding somebody to do anything in this day and age is not
going to fly...Kids don't even like being talked to like kids anymore, you
know. 'Just give me the option and I'll think about it.'"

At a fundamental level, I think that Mayer is right. We are in a holding pattern - a waiting game. And, as I see reflected in my students' and sister's attitudes, some of us highly object to being told what to do. Most of them (us?) are the product of the 80s (and they're primarily Mayer's audience). This is the next generation of policy makers, folks.

This attitude is a seachange from the 60s. Although there was much hedonism in the 60s, the main focus was on the external - on changing the world from the inside out. Now, the question many young people are asking is, "What have you done for me lately?" (Seriously, read the lyrics of Mayer's song, if you don't believe me.)

Ultimately, if we really did care about the state of the world, we would do something, not just wish that things would change while we sat idly by. Political figures and the media have often made comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. There are many similarities, but the mindset of the young is definitely different. I'm not so sure that my parents' quasi-hippie values weren't preferable to what we have today.