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Gold. I LOVE how uncomfortable this book made me, and then left me with a strong desire to rationalise it all away - I’m not sure if I'll seem quite psychopathic in conversations if I speak my mind from now on, but I loved the fun. It's an exciting read, although it follows the essay-literary-review style, it keeps you focused throughout. Perfect balance of jargon and casual speech to keep it from feeling like a textbook, but rather as though you’re having a conversation with someone brilliant and engaging.

Both the book and my notes are super long but here are some points I particularly didn't want to forget:

Actionable takeaways:

  1. First we have a gut reaction to right/wrong, then we come up with reasons to justify it - it's good to be aware of this (even if only to stop yourself from judging others so harshly)

  2. If we think we are being purely rational, we likely aren’t, without emotion, we would struggle to make any decisions at all

  3. You’re not always yourself, even how soon you washed your hands and how far away the nearest soap dispenser is can affect your ‘rational’thinking - we should be as intentional as we reasonably can about designing our environment

  4. Find people you can be more bee than chimp with: soliders die for one another, not the nation - you should tap into this inspirational resource

  5. We don’t have a hive switch, we have a hive slider: try to emphasise our similarities to create a more cohesive environment, especially with strangers

  6. Healthy intergroup competition is essential and productive (as long as people aren’t fighting for vital resources)

A modern prayer:

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.

On Children and Moral Development

  • Are lessons innate, learnt from adults, or learnt by ourselves? Many things we only learn when we are ready. He also found that it’s pointless for adults to explain the conservation of volume to kids. The kids won’t get it until they reach an age (and cognitive stage) when their minds are ready for it. And when they are ready, they’ll figure it out for themselves just by playing with cups of water. In other words, the understanding of the conservation of volume wasn’t innate, and it wasn’t learned from adults. Kids figure it out for themselves, but only when their minds are ready and they are given the right kinds of experiences.

  • Kohlberg found a six-stage progression in children’s reasoning about the social world, and this progression matched up well with the stages Piaget had found in children’s reasoning about the physical world. Young children judged right and wrong by very superficial features, such as whether a person was punished for an action. (If an adult punished the act, then the act must have been wrong.) Kohlberg called the first two stages the “pre-conventional” level of moral judgment, and they correspond to the Piagetian stage at which kids judge the physical world by superficial features (if a glass is taller, then it has more water in it). But during elementary school, most children move on to the two “conventional” stages, becoming adept at understanding and even manipulating rules and social conventions. This is the age of petty legalism that most of us who grew up with siblings remember well (“I’m not hitting you. I’m using your hand to hit you. Stop hitting yourself!”). Kids at this stage generally care a lot about conformity, and they have great respect for authority—in word, if not always in deed. They rarely question the legitimacy of authority, even as they learn to maneuver within and around the constraints that adults impose on them. After puberty, right when Piaget said that children become capable of abstract thought, Kohlberg found that some children begin to think for themselves about the nature of authority, the meaning of justice, and the reasons behind rules and laws. In the two “post-conventional” stages, adolescents still value honesty and respect rules and laws, but now they sometimes justify dishonesty or law-breaking in pursuit of still higher goods, particularly justice. Kohlberg painted an inspiring rationalist image of children as “moral philosophers” trying to work out coherent ethical systems for themselves

  • Kohlberg’s most influential finding was that the most morally advanced kids (according to his scoring technique) were those who had frequent opportunities for role taking—for putting themselves into another person’s shoes and looking at a problem from that person’s perspective.

  • Piaget and Kohlberg both thought that parents and other authorities were obstacles to moral development (because you cannot put yourself in their shoes as a child)

  • It’s about harm and fairness (not loyalty, respect, duty, piety, patriotism, or tradition). Hierarchy and authority are generally bad things (so it’s best to let kids figure things out for themselves). Schools and families should therefore embody progressive principles of equality and autonomy (not authoritarian principles that enableelders to train and constrain children).

  • The distinction between morals and mere conventions is not a tool that children everywhere use to self-construct their moral knowledge. Rather, the distinction turns out to be a cultural artefact, a necessary by-product of the individualistic answer to the question of how individuals and groups relate.

  • The world babies enter is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James put it, and they spend the next few years trying to make sense of it all. But when developmental psychologists invented ways to look into infant minds, they found a great deal of writing already on that slate. The trick was to see what surprises babies. Infants as young as two months old will look longer at an event that surprises them than at an event they were expecting. If everything is a buzzing confusion, then everything should be equally surprising. But if the infant’s mind comes already wired to interpret events in certain ways, then infants can be surprised when the world violates their expectations.

(Mis)Understanding Ourselves

  • The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

  • If morality doesn’t come primarily from reasoning, then that leaves some combination of innateness and social learning as the most likely candidates.

We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.
  • Every emotion (such as happiness or disgust) includes an affective reaction, but most of our affective reactions are too fleeting to be called emotions (for example, the subtle feelings you get just from reading the words happiness and disgust). Wundt said that affective reactions are so tightly integrated with perception that we find ourselves liking or disliking something the instant we notice it, sometimes even before we know what it is. These flashes occur so rapidly that they precede all other thoughts about the thing we’re looking at. You can feel affective primacy in action the next time you run into someone you haven’t seen in many years. You’ll usually know within a second or two whether you liked or disliked the person, but it can take much longer to remember who the person is or how you know each other.

  • When we’re trying to decide what we think about something, we look inward, at how we’re feeling. If I’m feeling good, I must like it, and if I’m feeling anything unpleasant, that must meanI don’t like it. You don’t even need to trigger feelings of disgust to get these effects. Simply washing your hands will do it. Chenbo Zhong at the University of Toronto has shown that subjects who are asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography and drug use). Once you’re clean, you want to keep dirty things far away.

Tetlock concludes that conscious reasoning is carried out largely for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery.
Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.
  • Our conscious brain is more like a press secretary; we can ask it why things are going on and it will try it’s best to find answers, but it has no power to change the rules, so it can’t say, actually that’s a great point and make a change, it will always only justify.

  • Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach, because we ask “Can I believe it?” when we want to believe something, but "Must I believe it?” when we don't want to believe. The answer is almost always yes to the first question and no to the second.

So You Think You're Always Yourself

  • When we’re trying to decide what we think about something, we look inward, at how we’re feeling. If I’m feeling good, I must like it, and if I’m feeling anything unpleasant, that must meanI don’t like it. You don’t even need to trigger feelings of disgust to get these effects. Simply washing your hands will do it. Chenbo Zhong at the University of Toronto has shown that subjects who are asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography and drug use). Once you’re clean, you want to keep dirty things far away.

  • Zhong calls this the Macbeth effect, named for Lady Macbeth’s obsession with water and cleansing after she goads her husband into murdering King Duncan. (She goes from “A little water clears us of this deed” to “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!”)In other words, there’s a two-way street between our bodies and our righteous minds. Immorality makes us feel physically dirty, and cleansing ourselves can sometimes make us more concerned about guarding our moral purity.

  • David Pizarro asked students at Cornell University to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing near (or far from) a hand sanitizer dispenser. Those told to stand near the sanitizer became temporarily more conservative. Moral judgment is not a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice. It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world, feeling themselves drawn toward or away from various things. Moral judgment is mostly done by the elephant.

Our Self Against Society

  • When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified. It’s just a social convention.

  • The second thing I found was that people responded to the harmless taboo stories just as Shweder had predicted: the upper-class Philadelphians judged them to be violations of social conventions, and the lower-class Recifeans judged them to be moral violations

  • Unexpectedly, the effect of social class was much larger than the effect of city. In other words, well-educated people in all three cities were more similar to each other than they were to their lower-class neighbours.

  • Yet moral judgments are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong. I can't call for the community to punish you simply because I don't like what you're doing. I have to point to something outside of my own preferences, and that pointing is our moral reasoning. We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.

  • It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.

We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favour, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people's beliefs.
  • Wouldn't it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who did what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what they wanted to believe? That depends on which you think was more important for our ancestors' survival: truth or reputation.

  • Glaucon says he will not be satisfied until Socrates can prove that a just man with a bad reputation is happier than an unjust man who is widely thought to be good.

We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.
McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.
  • Results showed that subjects' brains responded in the same way when the nice" player received a shock as when they themselves were shocked. The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathized, and felt the other's pain. But when the selfish player got a shock, people showed less empathy, and some even showed neural evidence of pleasure. In other words, people don't just blindly empathize; they don't sync up with everyone they see.

  • The hive switch may be more of a slider switch than an on-off switch, and with a few institutional changes you can create environments that will nudge everyone's sliders a bit closer to the hive position. For example: Increase similarity, not diversity. To make a human hive, you want to make everyone feel like a family. So don't call attention to racial and ethnic differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the group's shared values and common identity. A great deal of research in social psychology shows that people are warmer and more trusting toward people who look like them, dress like them, talk like them, or even just share their first name or birthday.

  • Create healthy competition among teams, not individuals. As McNeill said, soldiers don't risk their lives for their country or for the army; they do so for their buddies in the same squad or platoon. Studies show that intergroup competition increases love of the in-group far more than it increases dislike of the out-group. Intergroup competitions, such as friendly rivalries between corporate divisions, or intramural sports competitions, should have a net positive effect on hivishness and social capital. But pitting individuals against each other in a competition for scarce resources (such as bonuses) will destroy hivishness, trust, and morale.

  • Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon ... none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their coreligionists. It's the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That's what brings out the best in people. Putnam and Campbell reject the New Atheist emphasis on belief and reach a conclusion straight out of Durkheim: “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

We Need Emotions To Make Choices

  • Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, & see which preponderates.

  • The only way to make a decision was to examine each option, weighing the pros and cons using conscious, verbal reasoning. If you’ve ever shopped for an appliance about which you have few feelings—say, a washing machine—you know how hard it can be once the number of options exceeds six or seven (which is the capacity of our short-term memory). Just imagine what your life would belike if at every moment, in every social situation, picking the right thing to do or say became like picking the best washing machine among ten options, minute after minute, day after day. You’d make foolish decisions too. Damasio’s findings were as anti-Platonic as could be. Here were people in whom brain damage had essentially shut down communication between the rational soul and the seething passions of the body.

  • People made moral judgments quickly and emotionally. Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made. But were these judgments representative of moral judgment in general? I had to write some bizarre stories to give people these flashes of moral intuition that they could not easily explain. That can’t be how most of our thinking works, can it?

  • In an essay titled “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Kass argued that our feelings of disgust can sometimes provide us with a valuable warning that we are going too far, even when we are morally dumbfounded and can't justify those feelings by pointing to victims: Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Is High IQ Better?

  • Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons. The findings get more disturbing. Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”

If You're Reading This, You're Probably Weird

  • In 2010, the cultural psychologistsJoe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “TheWeirdest People in the World?” The authors pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD)


  • When an artist submerges a crucifix in a jar of his own urine, or smears elephant dung on an image of the Virgin Mary, do these works belong in art museums? Can the artist simply tell religious Christians, “If you don’t want to see it, don’t go to the museum”? Or does the mere existence of such works make the world dirtier, more profane, and more degraded?

  • You are allowed to watch the procedure from behind a glass window. Your son is given a general anesthetic and you see him lying, unconscious, on the operating table. Next, you see the surgeon's knife puncture his abdomen. Would you feel a wave of relief, knowing that he is finally getting an operation that will save his life? Or would you feel pain so strongly that you'd have to look away? If your “dolors” (pains) outweigh your “hedons” (pleasures), then your reaction is irrational, from a utilitarian point of view, but it makes perfect sense as the output of a module. We respond emotionally to signs of violence or suffering, particularly when a child is involved, particularly our own child. We respond even when we know consciously that it's not really violence and he's not really suffering. It's like the Muller-Lyer illusion: we can't help but see one line as longer, even when we know consciously that they are the same length.

50 Shades Of Selfish Genes

  • But one of the most important insights into the origins of morality is that “selfish” genes can give rise to generous creatures, as long as those creatures are selective in their generosity. Altruism toward kin is not a puzzle at all. Altruism toward non-kin, on the other hand, has presented one of the longest-running puzzles in the history of evolutionary thinking.

  • We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. If you take that claim metaphorically, then the groupish and hivish things that people do will make a lot more sense. It’s almost as though there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.

  • Evolution can be fast. Human evolution did not stop or slow down 50,000 years ago. It sped up. Gene-culture coevolution reached a fever pitch during the last 12,000 years. We can’t just examine modern-day hunter-gatherers and assume that they represent universal human nature as it was locked into place 50,000 years ago. Periods of massive environmental change(as occurred between 70,000 and 140,000 years ago) and cultural change (as occurred during theHolocene era) should figure more prominently in our attempts to understand who we are, and how we got our righteous minds.

Politics and Lunch

  • Omnivores therefore go through life with two competing motives: neophilia (an attraction to new things) and neophobia (a fear of new things). People vary in terms of which motive is stronger, and this variation will come back to help us in later chapters: Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as “openness to experience”), not just for new foods but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what's tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions. 38The emotion of disgust evolved initially to optimize responses to the omnivore’s dilemma

  • Plagues, epidemics, and new diseases are usually brought in by foreigners—as are many new ideas, goods, and technologies—so societies face an analogue of the omnivore's dilemma, balancing xenophobia and xenophilia. As with the Authority foundation, Sanctity seems to be off to a poor start as a foundation of morality. Isn't it just a primitive response to pathogens? And doesn't this response lead to prejudice and discrimination? Now that we have antibiotics, we should reject this foundation entirely, right? Not so fast. The Sanctity foundation makes it easy for us to regard some things as "untouchable,” both in a bad way (because something is so dirty or polluted we want to stay away) and in a good way (because something is so hallowed, so sacred, that we want to protect it from desecration). If we had no sense of disgust, I believe we would also have no sense of the sacred.

  • The enemy of society to a Liberal is someone who abuses their power (Authority) and still demands, and in some cases forces, others to "respect” them anyway.... A Liberal authority is someone or something that earns society's respect through making things happen that unify society and suppress its enemy.

  • People often want equality of outcomes, but that is because it is so often the case that people's inputs were equal. When people divide up money, or any other kind of reward, equality is just a special case of the broader principle of proportionality. When a few members of a group contributed far more than the others—or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally

  • People don't crave equality for its own sake; they fight for equality when they perceive that they are being bullied or dominated, as during the American and French revolutions, and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s.

  • Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.

Foundations For Interpreting Moral Behaviour

  • The Fairness/cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.

  • The Loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.

  • The Authority/subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.

  • The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore's dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values—both positive and negative—which are important for binding groups together.

The Total Is Just The Sum Of It's Parts

  • Real armies, like most effective groups, have many ways of suppressing selfishness. And anytime a group finds a way to suppress selfishness, it changes the balance of forces in a multilevel analysis: individual-level selection becomes less important, and group-level selection becomes more powerful. For example, if there is a genetic basis for feelings of loyalty and sanctity (i. e., the Loyalty and Sanctity foundations), then intense intergroup competition will make these genes become more common in the next generation. The reason is that groups in which these traits are common will replace groups in which they are rare, even if these genes impose a small cost on their bearers (relative to those that lack them within each group).

  • The selection process operated at the level of individuals: slower deer got eaten, while their faster cousins in the same herd escaped. There is no need to bring in selection at the level of the herd. A fast herd of deer is nothing more than a herd of fast deer.

  • Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. We’re one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally—even if rarely—can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees. If your moral ideal is the person who devotes her life to helping strangers, well then, OK—such people are so rare that we send film crews out to record them for the evening news.

We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.
  • Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

Pollution And Agression

  • When young children are exposed to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), organophosphates (used in some pesticides), and methyl mercury (a by-product of burning coal), it lowers their IQ and raises their risk of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Given these brain disruptions, future studies are likely to find a link to violence and crime as well. Rather than building more prisons, the cheapest (and most humane) way to fight crime may be to give more money and authority to the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Despite evidence that the rising tonnage of lead was making its way into the lungs, bloodstreams, and brains of Americans and was retarding the neural development of millions of children, the chemical industry had been able to block all efforts to ban lead additives from gasoline for decades. It was a classic case of corporate superorganisms using all methods of leverage to preserve their ability to pass a deadly externality on to the public. The Carter administration began a partial phaseout of leaded gasoline, but it was nearly reversed when Ronald Reagan crippled the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to draft new regulations or enforce old ones. A bipartisan group of congressmen stood up for children and against the chemical industry, and by the 1990s lead had been completely removed from gasoline. This simple public health intervention worked miracles: lead levels in children’s blood dropped in lockstep with declining levels of lead in gasoline, and the decline has been credited with some of the rise in IQ that has been measured in recent decades. Even more amazingly, several studies have demonstrated that the phaseout, which began in the late 1970s, may have been responsible for up to half of the extraordinary and otherwise unexplained drop in crime that occurred in the 1990s. Tens of millions of children, particularly poor children in big cities, had grown up with high levels of lead, which interfered with their neural development from the1950s until the late 1970s. The boys in this group went on to cause the giant surge of criminality that terrified America—and drove it to the right—from the 1960s until the early 1990s. These young men were eventually replaced by a new generation of young men with unleaded brains (and therefore better impulse control), which seems to be part of the reason the crime rate plummeted. From a Durkheimian utilitarian perspective, it is hard to imagine a better case for government intervention to solve a national health problem.



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