Last Sunday, Jon Haidt wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled “Why We Celebrate a Killing,” wrestling with the question of the morality of large-scale celebrations of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Is it OK to party in the streets when one’s nation’s enemies are killed?
His argument goes like this. First, he suggests, humans are the product of group selection, which is why we frequently behave altruistically toward fellow group members. So, while humans can be selfish, we also have adaptations making us “collectively effervescent,” turning us, at least sometimes, into “hive creatures like bees.”
This, he says, explains why people celebrated the death of bin Laden and, crucially, this fact implies that doing so was “good and healthy.”
I have deep respect for Jon Haidt, and I think few have done more to advance our scientific understanding of morality. But, having said that, while the idea that humans have been group selected might help to explain why people celebrated – and I’m taking no position on that here – to say that this makes the celebrations “good” commits what has been called the “naturalistic fallacy,” inferring what is good (a normative claim) from what is (a positive claim).
I won’t belabor the argument here, since it has been presented so frequently elsewhere. If we were to discover that humans have been selected, for instance, to commit murder, we wouldn’t then want to infer that murder, or the celebration of murder, are, as a consequence, morally good. If humans have been selected to compete with members of other groups, this similarly doesn’t mean that when they do so, it is morally correct. (Indeed, in one context of intergroup competition, football, excessive celebration is explicitly made against the rules and penalized.)
This line of reasoning is particularly vexing to those of us who continually run up against criticisms of research on controversial topics with the argument that there is an agenda on the part of scientists to “justify” unpleasant behaviors. Defending against such accusations, scholars generally assert that they are interested in understanding what is true, and don’t make – indeed, cannot, as a logical matter, make – moral claims on the basis of our investigations. Substantial misunderstanding surrounding evolutionary psychology seems to stem from this error, and I worry that the claim of what is good from what is true in such a prominent place from such a prominent scholar could set back efforts to make this distinction clear to consumers of science.
Now, having said that, I might add that that the previously clean waters that divide the lands of “is” and “ought” have been muddied recently to a certain extent, and I think there are two reasons for this. The first reason is the argument made by Sam Harris, which begins with the idea that science can tell us how to improve the well-being of conscious creatures. This, it seems to me, is transparently true, and I’m happy to grant it. But because Harris (to put it roughly) takes morality and well-being to be the same thing, he argues that the Humean is/ought gap can bridged; if science can tell us how to improve well-being, then this means that it can tell us what is moral because the two are equivalent. There are those who resist this move, equating morality and well-being – and I count myself among them – and retain the belief in the integrity of the two domains, positive and normative.
The second reason I think has to do with the way that Haidt and others in the scientific literature have approached the question of explaining morality. When people claim to have explained morality, they refer to theories such as reciprocal altruism, kin selection, and, as in Haidt’s op-ed, multi-level selection. These theories, if they are true, can explain why humans have adaptations designed to deliver benefits – altruism – but they do not explain what some would argue is the key moral phenomenon, evaluating others’ acts as right or wrong. (If delivering benefits at a cost seems identical to you to being moral, consider the person who donates money to terrorists. You would say that this person has been altruistic, but immoral.)
I want to close with another distinction, though perhaps one not as fundamental as normative versus positive. Announcing bin Laden’s death, Obama claimed that justice had been done, and this has raised in some minds the question of whether it was, or if, instead, revenge had been exacted, with the connotation that the former was good, but that the latter was bad.
How are revenge and justice distinguished? Revenge seems relatively clear; it is harming someone because they intentionally harmed you. Justice is notoriously more difficult to define, but it does not seem, usually, to depend only on the outcome; the process matters. When a murderer is killed, we’re comfortable saying that justice is done if the case is arbitrated in a court of law, but less so if the mob burns the man down in his home. Justice, then, seems to be a quintessentially moral phenomenon, in which a person’s deeds are measured according to established standards and punishments assigned according to a set of practices that are applied more or less uniformly. Lady Justice does bear a sword, but her balance and blindfold are equally important to her identity.
In the case of bin Laden, the intuition seems to be that revenge is justice if the guy had it coming – and in this case he surely did – but I myself am not confident this this is where the distinction lies.
I’m not even saying that in this case we should have sought justice rather than revenge. That is not my point. My point is that these distinctions are useful. The difference between Is and Ought is one that many of us find crucially important. If it does turn out that humans are group selected, and have adaptations that make us happy, as a group, when our enemy is killed, this fact does not alter our measure of the moral weight of that evening’s celebrations. It might explain them, but it does not morally license them.
This article originally appeared at http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2011/05/the-morality-of-joy-in-death/
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