Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Biology is not the opposite of morality

Interesting article here from New Scientist magazine. It describes research from Terry Burnham at Harvard investigating a game known as the Ultimatum Game. In the ultimatum game a person, called the proposer, is given a pot of money that he or she can share with another person, the responder, who then either accepts or rejects the offer. So, for example, if I had £10 I could choose to give you £2 keeping £8 for myself. If you accept then we both keep the money, if you reject my offer then neither of us get anything. It is interesting because I as the proposer has to ask myself "what is the minimum amount of money that you will accept?". If this sum is too low then I get nothing, if it is too high then I get less than I could have got (e.g. if I offer a sum of £8 then you will doubtless bite my hand off and I am left to ponder whether you would have accepted less leaving me with more.

In these kind of experiments, responders generally reject any offer less than 20% of the total (of which they are aware) and in many cultures a "fair" split of around 50-50 is achieved. (If you are interested, the Nash equilibrium of this game is where the responder rejects anything that gives the proposer anything at all, which means no one gets anything.)

Anyhow, the experiment described in this article shows that men with higher testosterone are more likely to reject an offer than is acceptable by a man with lower testosterone.

Interesting results.

However, I do have a moan about the way that the article is written (not by the researchers themselves but by a journalist) because it seemingly puts biology and morality at odds with one another.

For example:

"According to researchers, the finding demonstrates that our hardwired biology can cause us to make irrational economic decisions.

"But Terry Burnham at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, suspected that this irrational economic decision might have more to do with basic biology than moral convictions."

I'll leave aside my general dislike of the word "hardwired" used in contexts such as this and focus on the notion of irrationality. Irrationality is a difficult concept to pin down, not least because something can be irrational in one time frame and rational in another (and, of course, vice versa). My giving you a birthday present can seem irrational as I am transferring my resources to you, placing me at something of a disadvantage. However, if gift giving is seen in a wider context and over a longer time frame, it could be rational. Basically, gifts (and other acts of kindness) can be seen as investing money in a kind of insurance scheme that we all provide for one another. The name of this insurance system? Friendship. One way of viewing friendship is as an insurance system for times when we might really need help my gift giving (and all the other nice things I do for you) is one way of obtaining my ensuring that you will come to my aid when I am up to my neck in trouble.

Thus although the short-term consequences of giving might be irrational, its long-term effects might be perfectly rational. Evolutionarily speaking we have to ask, when we observe a behaviour X as irrational, can we imagine a condition under which it is, in fact, rational (in terms of reproduction and survival). We can then test whether this is actually the case by experimentation.

And then there is that weird contrast between morality and biology. It is not morality, rather it is biology. What does that mean? Most scientists are materialists (rather than, say, dualists) which means that they view mind as the result of matter ("matter in motion" as Thomas Hobbes put it as long ago as the 17th Century). Thus is morality is a product of mind it is necessarily a product of biology. QED, there is no contradiction.

None of the above is to deny the importance of culture because that is part of biology too. Culture is simultaneously out there and at the same time, in here.

Katherine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen that "human nature is what we were put on this earth to rise above" but I think that this is wrong. Morality is part of human nature; it has a purpose, it is for something, no matter how cryptic.

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