November 03, 2012
Obsession With Righteousness A Normal Quality Of Human Minds

Among the couple of dozen books I'm currently reading interleaved (which I find a great way to make more connections between different pieces of information) is Jonathan Haidt's very interesting The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Just came across a great quote which sums up one of the problems with the human condition:

I want to show you an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

Our large scale societies are made possible by our righteous minds.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings - but no other animals - to produce large cooperative groups.

So moral motivations have great utility. For example, a society needs altrustic punishers who prevent free loading parasites from preying on others. However, we have the problem that our subconscious intuitive systems for moralizing can decide to punish people whose moral intuitions are different but who aren't parasites.

One manifestation of instinctive opposition to inequality is communism which resulted in tens of millions killed. But quite short of such an extreme moral enthusiasm people use their moral intuitions support policies which are themselves parasitic but justified on moral grounds as being a reaction to parasitism by others. But which policies are parasitic and also which business practices are parasitic? You can find countless vociferous intuitive debates on these questions. But the next time you are tempted to get into such a debate ask yourself if you are addicted to political partisanship.

My overall (heavily utilitarian) take on moral intuitions: we need more of the benefits of moral reasoning and less of the downsides. Can this be achieved with genetic tinkering on future generations to make human intuitions less error-prone?

We are moral rationalizers who deceive ourselves that we are reasonable.

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

I am expecting genetic variants will be found that cause differing degrees of self-righteousness. I'd prefer to be surrounded by people with lower levels of self-righteousness and higher curiosity. Will the human race become more or less self-righteousness once offspring genetic engineering becomes possible?

One underlying problem is that our intuitions are very often wrong. We combine subconscious moral instincts with subconscious reasoning and then rationalize and delude ourselves into thinking we have rational beliefs about moral and political questions.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

Genetic engineering may eventually render one purpose of the incest taboo obsolete. Currently the incest taboo serves two necessary functions: A) reduces the incidence of two copies of recessive harmful mutations; B) reduces social bonds at the family level (less consanguineous marriage so that more loyalty can be given to higher levels of social units such as governments, businesses and voluntary organizations. But harmful mutations might become a thing of the past, thereby removing the value of that purpose for the incest taboo.

We will have plenty of motives to remove harmful mutations that make mating with close family members harmful to offspring. The genetic load of harmful mutations (which we all have) lower our potential functioning and in particular, genetic load probably lowers our intelligence (says Greg Cochran). This idea has begin to attract wider attention as others such as Kevin Mitchell start thinking the same thing. As a result, I expect future efforts to reduce genetic load in order to raise intelligence and improve general bodily and mental function. Go far enough into the future and harmful mutations shared between siblings will likely become very rare (at least among those who genetically engineer their children). So the genetic harm from brother-sister or parent-child mating will become avoidable.

I expect humans will tinker with the moral instincts of their offspring. One worry: a growing divergence in moral instincts between groups that choose different moral instincts for their children. Such a divergence could make the current left-right divide on moral questions small potatoes by comparison.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 November 03 09:02 AM 

PacRim Jim said at November 3, 2012 1:24 PM:

The paramount imperative of evolution is survival, at least long enough to assure the survival of one's offspring (i.e., genes).
Moral behavior is essential, therefore, only to the extent that it is adaptive. It has never been about absolute morality in a Platonic sense.
In any case, an individual human is capable of knowing only a tiny subset of all available information.
Cooperation enables groups of humans with access to larger, though by no means unambiguous, subsets of information.
In other words, not only can we humans never be certain that any one of a myriad conflicting moralities is the true morality, we humans have never needed an absolute reality, and unsurprisingly the quest for an absolute morality has proven to be maladaptive. Just recall the 20th century.

ASPIRANT said at November 3, 2012 5:29 PM:

Oh my god I've been waiting for you or someone else to dig something like this up for a long time. It's something I've intuitively known, but never had the means to prove. Everyone, whether they're Klansmen, Liberals, or Black Panthers are convinced of their own righteousness, regardless of how others see the world. They don't even perceive these outside groups of have a moral code at all, even if their minds are operating in an identical way.

Regarding incest, I foresee "genetic dynasties" emerging over time, eusocial human families. I don't think anyone will necessarily aim for that to happen, but I think that the most successful "families" will do that, and out-reproduce families that don't... People with fierce loyalty to others who share genetic traits will support their kin. Might be bad for humanity as a whole, as such homogenous groups will be vulnerable to singular strategies of exploitation, sort of how monoculture plants are susceptible to disease. Such "families" with similar temperaments might be convinced en masse to join a suicidal religion, for example.

ASPIRANT said at November 3, 2012 5:56 PM:

PacRim Jim: The only reason that there's no single morality that works for all viewpoints is that people have wants and desires that conflict with others'. Moralities are tailor-made by people to support their own goals... Poor people have a morality that emphasizes sharing wealth because they don't have a lot to lose. Rich people created a morality that emphasizes personal property to protect what they own. There's probably no such thing as an absolute morality, but knowing this can help you formulate one that supports your own goals, and/or the goals of humanity as a whole, depending on taste.

Also, I completely disagree that there's no such thing as an absolute reality. For example, the moral code that holds stem-cell research as immoral is delusional. It posits the existence of a "soul" that enters the body at conception, which is impossible given that the sense of self is created by neural circuitry that stem cells simply don't have. This may be a Christian's subjective reality, but it ignores objective truth, and is therefore invalid. I'll agree it's possible to only have a small subset of the truth, but it's totally possible to check for and rid oneself of incorrect beliefs.

James Bowery said at November 3, 2012 7:00 PM:

Eusociality is already a fact of life for humans. It's called civilization. See E. O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth".

Once you head down the group-selection path, you have basically one morality:

Total world domination by your group -- regardless of what this does to individuals of any group, including your own.

All else is hypocrisy, including E. O. Wilson's purported "religion" toward the end of the book where he engages is pure wishful thinking about human eusociality.

Now, it is true that some groups, such as northern Europeans, are not as far along eusocial biological evolution as are other groups, and that perhaps there is some sincerity in their resistance to the idea of total world domination, but all that means is that they will be eliminated before the others -- that is unless they start to take their individualism as seriously as a heart attack and go after the group selectionism of civilization with all the ruthlessness that nature demands.

How likely is that?

PacRim Jim said at November 3, 2012 7:48 PM:

@ASPIRANT Given that the only reality we know is the derivative reality gradually approximated between our ears, I would argue that, if the absolute reality we infer does indeed exist, we have no way of knowing it.

Randall Parker said at November 3, 2012 9:20 PM:


People try to marginalize and silence those who hold competing moral codes. You can tell who has the upper hand in a society by who has had their moral beliefs delegitimized. The delegitimizers are the ones who are winning.

Genetic dynasties: Interesting idea. I see a huge reduction in genetic variation coming as people weed out harmful mutations. The reduction in genetic load will lead to a smaller number of remaining genetic variants in competition with each other. Then even if cloning is outlawed we'll see people with lots of common genetic variants breeding with each other aiming to propagate variants they hold as important.

pond said at November 4, 2012 10:48 AM:

I have not read Haidt's book. But his comment (first quoted) makes me wonder just how far this 'delusional self-rationalizing' creeps into science. It has long struck me, intuitively, that a lot of philosophers operate that way. First they have their biases, then spend their careers constructing elaborate rhetorical edifices justifying why what they learned in kindergarten school is the 'truth.'

Theories of social evolution really do carry a grave danger of teleological thinking. The notion is that if there is some widespread behavior, there *must be* an evolutionary cause, and thus there *must be* benefits for the behavior. Therefore the task confronting the evolutionary biologist is to ferret out the benefits.

But genetics is a lot more complicated than that. Remember the Russian scientist who bred dogs based on, IIRC, melanin levels. Increased melanin led to curly coats.

It is at least possible that righteous thinking (whatever that means!) - if it is genetically based at all and not a social meme - is the byproduct of other behaviors, or mindsets, that are beneficial, but the righteous thinking in and of itself is not beneficial.

Phillep Harding said at November 5, 2012 3:40 PM:

Specifically regarding incest/inbreeding: I used to raise small livestock. Inbreeding is /the/ basic tool for developing a strain of whatever. (Usually "line breeding"; parent/offspring crosses then sibling cross, then parent/offspring cross, etc).

This works very will for animals that produce large numbers of offspring so the rejects can be culled, not so well for animals that have few offspring and that risk the mother with each birth, the litter sample size is just too small and too few litters.

For humans, there is the additional problem that the parents are about as smart as the breeding judges, and as long lived. Culling defective humans is an explosive subject, even suggesting that culls be sterilized can get one burned in effigy, at minimum.

Phillep Harding said at November 5, 2012 3:45 PM:

@Aspirent: Research the Hapsburgs. They fizzled out because they did not cull their defectives, regarding them as superior to outsiders simply because they were Hapsburgs. They also had no way to do genetic screening, so future "Hapsburg" dyanasties might survive.

Randall Parker said at November 5, 2012 8:10 PM:


Our brains are coded for by DNA. We have large numbers of behaviors determined by our genetic coding. Of course evolution selected for the variants that caused behavioral changes. Else we'd still be like neanderthals or australopithecus.

Phillep Harding,

The selection is going to happen at the embryo stage or even before. Initially genetic load on future generations will be reduced by choosing between genetically tested embryos. Also, women will solicit sperm donations from men who have low genetic load and men will seek women with low genetic load. In later phases we'll begin editing our genes to remove harmful mutations before a pregnancy even begins. Imagine taking some of your own DNA, getting it edited to remove harmful mutations, and then turning it into stem cells for sperm generation. Suddenly you gain the ability to make super babies.

Anonymous said at November 6, 2012 2:35 AM:

I recommend reading "Spent" by Geoffrey Miller to understand the evolution of our brains and our psychological differences. But Summing up what I've learned: GOCASE
G = General Intelligence; O = Openness; C = Conscientiousness; A = Agreeableness; S = Stability of emotions; E = Extrovertion.
All of these have their opposites, and they are correlated to genes.
So even if people are good and intelligent (which is already rare), there are still 2x2x2x2x2 = 16 variations of these good and smart people, which will disagree on things, and then they'll think: If I'm good and smart, and others don't agree with me, they are probably not as smart or as good as me.

JP Straley said at November 6, 2012 5:44 AM:

Well, Randall Parker has discovered Tribalism.

Want to see a fairly large modern-day tribe in action? Check out the Mormons in the Western States. Nationwide I think the utility of their tribe breaks down, but the regional example is writ large before those who will see.

IMHO, from the tribe come proto-nations. Add 500 years of mistakes and learning and you have actual nations. The classic nations, and probably those persistent through the future, are language groups.

I heartily approve of tribes. They breed fitness and success for their members, and find bridges across troubled times.

I even wrote a book about modern tribes called Smart Kat...not particularly successful...but a good thinking exercise.

dscott said at November 6, 2012 7:56 AM:

Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? Who gets to decide what is a rationalization versus what is a reason?

If you don't care about getting a disease from having sex with another species, let alone a dead one incubating the decay process nor care about transmission of disease to the next person who might foolishly have sex with you, please, be my guest, go right on ahead. Sooner or later you will delete yourself from the gene pool by ignoring the consequences. Faster please.

Maybe the readers might want to consider that a rationalization is nothing more than the promotion of consequence free, self involved lifestyle whose idea of fairness is doing anything they want/desire. Self destruction is the innate desire of the self righteous because they disregard the consequences but more importantly zealously condemn those who do not approve of their rationalization. Rationalization and self righteousness are contrary to survival in nature and therefore considered aberrant behavior that leads to premature death. This is nature's way of culling the weak.

Reason says the I won't stick my finger in the fire because the fire is hot, if I stick my finger in the fire I will get burned and it will hurt. Therefore those who lives are directed by reason make their choices based on the consequences they desire.

Mthson said at November 6, 2012 3:16 PM:

Dscott, that's a good point.

The disease risk could probably be eliminated when having sex with a dead chicken, but there are still two problems:

1. Aberrant behavior in general has risks even if they're not immediately obvious.
2. Non-virtuous behavior has a lasting effect, diminishing the person's psychology and personal culture.


I was once at a business dinner when, amidst a rapid-fire series of jokes, a colleague made a bad-taste joke about porn that made it clear he wasn't maintaining a virtuous cultural in his personal life.

We get glimpses into people's internal environment by observing their reactions that occur too fast for them to control. This is why our thoughts matter even when nobody else is around. Virtuous personal culture can't be faked.

Phillep Harding said at November 7, 2012 2:40 PM:

Randel Parker, We should be able to select gene tested embryo's, but that is not likely to happen any time soon. Screened sperm and eggs are just waiting for enough gene mapping, IMO.

I've long wondered about why chimp embryos (and chimp embryonic stem cells) are not being investigated. Chimps are so much like humans that the results should be directly applicable with minimal testing. The usual answer is "chimps are rare, humans are not". However, chimp investigations can be federally funded, humans can not.

Political agenda interfering?

dscott said at November 8, 2012 7:29 AM:

I would submit, contrary to the implication of the article, that morality is merely a codification of the reasonable. Self righteousness is the rejection of the reasonable by virtue of a rationalization. E.g. Old Testament Laws on purity in regards to what meat not to eat and how fresh it had to be was merely a codification of reasonable actions in the face of no technology to adequately insure food wasn't contaminated (getting a disease) or from eating the meat of species like swine (pork - trichinosis) under the rubic of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, when in fact there was no cure. The same could be said for monogamy versus sex outside of marriage to avoid VD such as syphilis. If you are not having sex with more than one person and they aren't either, you can not contract such often deadly (incurable at the time) diseases.

Remember that in the Old Testament, the definition for self righteousness was setting aside the rules of God and creating one's own rules. Unless, that is, someone has redefined what being Self Righteous is. Some might object to the reduction of the divine to the practical but then religiousness doesn't always mean understanding of one's faith but a blind devotion to it. Small wonder then that those who have no faith misinterpret religiousness for unthinking devotion to mindless cultural pablum.

Phillep Harding said at November 9, 2012 10:37 AM:

The most self rightious I've noticed are those who believe they have suppressed their own wills totally and are in total submission to whatever authority (includes gods, parents, the teachers at school, and "The State"), and that anything that occurs to them as "right" is therefore from what they have submitted their wills to.

Objective accuracy ("Does his will match his god's will?") is not a factor. Self rightiousness is an emotion and orientation.

Randall Parker said at November 9, 2012 11:02 PM:


I do not understand what you mean by screened sperm and eggs. The advantage of embryos from a genetic testing standpoint is that a single cell can be removed without destroying the embryo and then the removed cell's chromosomes can be genetically tested. The single cell is representative of all the cells in the embryo. By contrast, each sperm or egg is genetically different from most other sperm and eggs. In fact, there are 2^23 different sperm or eggs possible for each person (one of either of 2 chromosomes for each of the 23 pairs of chromosomes go into making a sperm or egg's genetic material). But you can't test a sperm or egg without destroying it.

Before we can do embryo selection people will be able to choose mates (or sperm or egg donors) based on genetic testing results.

JayMan said at November 10, 2012 12:08 PM:

But which policies are parasitic and also which business practices are parasitic? You can find countless vociferous intuitive debates on these questions. But the next time you are tempted to get into such a debate ask yourself if you are addicted to political partisanship.

One little quibble, and this is something I will discuss in depth at some point, the idea that some people are addicted to this and others are addicted to that is a bit of a red herring. We are ALL addicts. The discoveries emerging from neuroscience observing the "pleasure"/"addiction" centers light up in response to certain activities stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation/desire. What do people think makes us want to do anything? We all have something that tickles our fancies, often things we truly love, and I'd bet they'd light up the same regions of our brains. We call those whose brains light up in response to something not necessarily socially acceptable (drugs, porn, junk food) "addicts", ignoring that similar impulses exist in all of us, lest we would lack a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Phillep Harding said at November 12, 2012 12:00 PM:

RP, Could be I'm thinking too far into the future re sperm and egg (science fiction fan, here).

Embryo testing brings up the problem of what to do with the tested embryo if it is not selected. Political dynamite. Trouble with setting a sensible compromise is getting two sets of fanatical idiots yelling at you.

Randall Parker said at November 14, 2012 9:39 PM:


People are already selecting between embryos in fertility clinics every day. Amazingly this has not become a big political issue. It has become only a very small political issue.

Once it becomes much more useful to select between embryos (because genetic tests will tell us far more about the relative merits of different embryos) the incentive to do embryo selection will rise, especially among those who want very bright kids. It'll also rise for those who want star athlete kids and good looking kids and kids who do not have the allergies or asthma or other problems their parents have.

Farther into the future the next cool step would be to choose individual chromosomes from the parents to construct the ideal combination of chromosomes.

Beyond chromosome selection comes the tweaking of genetic sequences. Edit your chromosome. This has use not just for creating better babies but also for creating better stem cell therapies. Got bad genetic variants? Fix them and then introduce stem cells into the body that'll gradually displace cells that have the original bad genetic variants. Reduce your genetic load. I want that.

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