The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 4

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In the previous post, I pointed out that experiments with babies suggested that although the theory of evolution supports the idea that the desire for justice and fairness is part of our genetic makeup, it is also limited in that seems to stop with our relatives and immediate community or nation. It is not entirely limited, though. There are many examples in evolution of characteristics that evolved to serve one purpose but then get used for other purposes. Sex is a good example. The pleasure it gives served the purpose of encouraging procreation but now people indulge in it for pleasure alone. Similarly, although the desire for justice my have evolved within the domain of kin and the immediate community to benefit the propagation of genes, it can still drive our relationships with the broader community even when there is no genetic benefit.

But there is another important evolutionary development that extends the drive for justice and fairness. What ethicist Peter Singer points out in an excellent book titled The Expanding Circle (2009) is that evolution has also given us the power of reasoning and it is the use of this power that has enabled us to build upon our biological sense of justice to encompass more and more people within our sphere of concern. In other words, our reasoning power has enabled us to go far beyond the initial biological impulse to seek justice only for our relatives and local community and has helped us to develop the idea of impartiality, which is a core feature of the desire for justice.

The way this happens is that while biology might instill in us a desire to treat just our own relatives fairly, our sense of reason tells us that there is nothing particularly special about our families, that ours is just one among many families and that all of them are equally worthy of being treated as fairly as our own. It is then a natural extension to realize that our own community or nation is also just one among many communities and nations and that they deserve fairness and justice too. Once we start reasoning along those lines, the advance is inexorable and we start increasing the size of the circle that encompasses our concern. Reason can overcome parochialism.

As a result of this process, over time we can see that the circle of concern has expanded greatly. We now think that discrimination towards anyone based on gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, etc. is wrong. We are also expanding the circle to include non-human animals, with the realization that they too should have many of the rights that we take for granted. As a result we see the rise of animal rights movements, the increased adoption of vegan and vegetarian diets, the drive to eliminate factory farming to ensure that animals are treated humanely, much stricter controls on animal research, and so on.

So while the basic drive for justice and fairness is innate in us, in the sense that it is hardwired into our genetic makeup as a result of our evolutionary history, it required the further evolutionary development of the sense of reason to bring it to fruition, where we seek to maximize justice for everyone, not just our own group.

In his essay Morals Without God?, primatologist Frans de Waal said that Charles Darwin foresaw that this expanded concept of morality would follow naturally in any species that developed social instincts along with sophisticated intellectual powers:

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in The Descent of Man: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

As Sandel makes clear in the book, it is not always clear or obvious how to decide what is just in any given situation. What is clear is the importance of developing our ability to reason, so that we can break free of, and rise above, our tribal instincts that makes us want to give special privileges and favors to our own group that we deny to others.

This is where all of you are particularly fortunate. For the next four years, you will be in an environment at Case Western Reserve University that is dedicated almost exclusively to helping you develop your sense of reason and all the other critical thinking skills. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself with the knowledge and reasoning powers to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Such a deep education will also enable you to better judge what is the right thing to do. It is important to do so because the quality of our entire civic life depends on having people work for justice. The writer H. L. Mencken put it well when he said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”


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