Bite-Sized Musings: Morality

UPDATE: Sam Harris, noted Athiest, Author, Neuroscientist, and Philosopher, read this blog post and decided to write his own blog post about science and morality. His is complex and difficult to understand, so feel free to read this one instead.

Today I was listening to NPR and heard a story linking morality to brain processes - as opposed to one's morality being located somewhere in the "heart" or "soul" or what have you.

Participants were told two stories - one in which someone did something malicious by accident, and one in which someone did something malicious but failed in the attempt.

Normal adults judge the first person as relatively innocent and hold the second person accountable morally for their bad behavior.

But, with a little electromagnetic stimulation to a specific part in the brain,
"The stimulation caused people to pay less attention to [Person 2]'s intention and more attention to the outcome, Young says.

"If no harm was done, then subjects would judge [Person 2's behavior] as OK," she says, even if the story made it clear [Person 2] was trying to poison her friend. That's the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says."
The study argues, sort of, that if moral judgments are brain processes like any other, then "it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul."

I grew up believing that morality was God-given; that "good" and "bad" were defined by God, you could say. That humans aren't meant to judge others, that God would do the judging at the end of things.

This is a great theory; less judgment among humans is, generally speaking, a good thing. Not that Christians tend to take heed of this Biblical advice (Luke 6:37 among others) more than any other population, but that's neither here nor there.

This study, when extrapolated sociologically, suggests that morality is cultural, is society-driven. We learn to judge "good" and "bad" behavior like we learn to subscribe to other social norms.

This can be taken both positively and negatively - if we aren't to judge anyone but instead see behavior as subscribing to or not subscribing to our own culture's norms, are we allowed to judge anyone at all anymore? (See this post about drinking in the daytime) This seems swell to our post-modern, live-and-let-live liberal sensibilities. But what about things like some instances of murder, or incest, or ritual disfigurement (think FGM)? Can we still judge those?

I can obviously see why Christians, and in fact many persons of other monotheistic faiths and others, would balk at this idea. I kind of like it but part of me is a lil' dismayed.

What do you think? Do you buy the conclusions suggested by the study?
Do you think this discounts the argument for a soul?
Do you think the study suggests the sociological conclusion I've made?
Do you think morality is largely culture-specific or are there universal morals?
If morality's culture specific status were to be widely accepted, do you think that this would be a good thing or a bad thing?

Who Am I?

I was filling out the Census 2010 form with my housemates last night and I struggled to answer some of the questions about "Who I am." Hispanic/Latino heritage is no longer a race, y'all! That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the way the question is worded on the Census form.

It asks whether I am of Latino/Hispanic "origin." What does that mean? My grandmother was from Spain. I think. Or maybe my great-grandmother. So I am "Hispanic," sort of. But I'm not of Hispanic "origin." I've never been to Spain. I don't know whether my grandmother has ever been there, or where she was born. "Origin" implies a starting place of sorts; does it mean where my "family line" originated, or me personally? Because it was too confusing, I put "No, I am not of Hispanic origin." But I felt like I was leaving something out.

The whole Census thing was difficult for someone like me who doesn't fit into the lil' boxes. My dad is Black, too, or as the Census form suggests, "Negro." I was initially appalled by the inclusion of that word, so entangled it is with our country's racist history, but apparently more than 50,000 people wrote-in "Negro" on their form in 2000. So, whatever.

Got me thinking about identity, though. Like Nick Jonas would say, I want someone to love me for "Who I Am." (sweet tunes, actually somewhat-talented Jonas bro). But who am I? Got me thinking about this recent Cat and Girl comic:

click to enlarge.

I was listening to NPR a couple weeks ago and they were discussing a new report about Millenials - us, y'all! I don't remember everything that was discussed, but I think they mentioned the tenuous relationship that us young folks have with work - something about how previous generations have imagined a much more direct link between what they do and who they are.

I like Girl's understanding of the issue as a positive social trend - we are moving away from defining people by "accidents of birth." This is nothing new in American society, at least ideally or intellectually - we tend to believe that the United States is a land of opportunity, with upward mobility and all that. But maybe in previous generations that's been less the actual reality than we want to believe. And maybe it's still not the reality for this generation either.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explained about grown-ups in The Little Prince,
When you tell [grown-ups] that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.
When we meet people, we still ask them "What do you do?" Should we ask the above questions instead? And surely, how one chooses to spend one's time can, and I'll say should, say a lot about who they "are." But only to an extent, you see.

But to what extent? If it's not what you "do," then what is it?
Awhile back, Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films -- these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the damn truth.
But to what extent are someone's "likes" and "dislikes" representative of who they "are," either? Rob Gordon says that who you are is what you like - the things you choose to entertain yourself with.

Another dimension is politics - are you libertarian, republican, anarchist, centrist? This seems like it has to do with ideals, or vision - how should the world be run, what should motivate people, how you think power should be distributed. I think faith fits in here too - "I am a Muslim. I am Baha'i. I am spiritual but not religious." This is an intellectual identity, of sorts; has to do with your inner self.

But all of these things change and grow as we do. I don't like the same music I did when I was younger, I don't do the same things, I don't practice the same religion or have the same politics. Is there something deeper? And it's deeper than DNA, here, too, I think.

It gets into the question of the individual soul - is there a pure essence to who I am, an "Elliott" deep down in there, never changing? Is my identity transcendental? Does it reincarnate? Is there such thing as a soul? If I had a twin brother, and he had my exact same job, pursued the same interests and passions, had the same upper-middle class upbringing, liked the same music and movies, had the same political leanings as I do, would we effectively be the same person? Or is there something deep within me that constitutes "me?"

It could be all of these things, to varying degrees. We all have the opportunity to define ourselves. So what do you think? Who are you?

Bite-sized Musings: Drinking in the Afternoon

The other day I was sitting outside during my lunch break (around 12:30pm) near where my workplace's parking lot exits out into the street. A car pulled out of the parking lot and stopped before driving into the street. In the car were two men - both of them with cans of beer in their hands.

I was appalled. Some people drink and drive. It's not a crime to have one beer or so and then hop in your car, right (or is it? One beer wouldn't put me over the legal limit...)? But drinking while driving seems ludicrous (they were drinking tall cans of Steel Reserve, too - the equivalent of two crappy beers in one) . In the middle of the day! They were asking for trouble.

I was so flabbergasted that I didn't have time to get the license plate number and report them to the police (which I should have done, right? I don't want dudes drinking while driving around my neighborhood. I ride my bike through this neighborhood). But it got me thinking - part of the reason I was so surprised to see this was that it was at lunchtime.

Whenever I'm at or near the gas station in my neighborhood in the afternoon I see people (usually scruffy-looking men) buying and/or drinking beer in the middle of the day. Go to a city park on a normal afternoon and you will see people (again, usually scruffy-looking men) drinking and/or passed out drunk in the park. This is both illegal and almost universally looked down upon.

The questions are:
  • Why is drinking in the early afternoon, even if just a beer or two, unacceptable while getting smashed at a party or the bar at 10pm is fine?
  • Does it matter whether it's a well-dressed businessman having a drinking lunch in a restaurant vs. a scruffy dude buying a beer from the gas station and drinking in the park?
  • Why is driving after having had a couple beers sometimes OK but driving while drinking not OK?


A man and woman marry and have a child. Their son is born about eight months before the man, a West Point graduate and linguistics specialist, is deployed to Afghanistan.

The couple writes letters back and forth weekly, and the man cherishes the pictures that accompany many of his wife's letters - he watches his son grow, begin to crawl and then walk, smother himself with birthday cake, pal around with a new puppy - through pictures, from across the world. "I miss you so dearly," the letters always begin. "I never imagined how difficult it would be to sleep alone."

As the months, then years pass, the letters arrive less and less frequently and are shorter; they sometimes seem hurried, almost obligatory. Because the man speaks Arabic and has a natural gift for logistics that makes him almost invaluable, he does two back-to-back tours of duty.

His wife talks about herself less and less, and instead focuses on their son. Soon it is he who misses the man dearly, and his wife no longer mentions her loneliness. The man feels the strain of his absence in his wife's letters but chalks this up to the inherent difficulty in any prolonged separation.

The man finally returns home and is greeted at the airport with unbridled, almost manic enthusiasm by his wife. She is almost uncharacteristically over-affectionate, and as happy as he is to see her, he remembers the subtext in the letters and wonders at the behavior.

Things I've Seen

I was out of town for about five days; I've also been hit with writers' block, hard. As we all wait with bated breath for the next blog post, here is a sketch-quality comic I made recently. Thanks for your patience.

Click the image for a full view.