Monday, November 3, 2014

Hot Button Issues - Sanctity and Disgust

"This is a list of Wikipedia articles deemed controversial because they are constantly being re-edited in a circular manner, or are otherwise the focus of edit warring or article sanctions. This page is conceived as a location for articles that regularly become biased and need to be fixed, or articles that were once the subject of an Neutral Point of View (NPOV) dispute and are likely to suffer future disputes." Wikipedia list of controversial issues

Not surprising, politics, history, religion, science (biology, health) and sexuality top the list. Why as a people do some subjects become so heated? I propose that for some issues, opponents feel that their fundamental values are violated in some way. If these issues were strictly a matter of logical discourse, surely they could be resolved fairly quickly.

More than Cost-Benefit

I've known we are far more than cost-benefit machines because of the things that we value. There's motherhood, apple pie, goodness and a fair shake. This challenges the perception of evolution as a brutal dog-eat-dog, the Devil take the hindmost filtering to the fittest. I call this perception of evolution because survival of the fittest is a far more sophisticated concept than simply lopping off the weak.

I am convinced that evolution got us here, but what do we do with these intangible values carried from ancient traditions and religions? Where did they come from? Are they part of our fundamental nature and if so, what possible evolutionary value do they have?

There's been some fascinating studies in the primacy of group behavior and the evolutionary advantage of cooperation. One such study is of bats:

"Individuals, whether they be humans or animals, live in groups. They form social organisations of variable nature and composition, and for various purposes. Whilst the adaptive benefits of sociality are generally understood, comparatively little is known of the precise mechanisms by which individuals in a social group establish and maintain social bonds. In this thesis, we expose and discuss some ruling principles of collective social behaviour, specifically by using animal groups as models of complex societies."  Comparative analysis of social interactions in animal groups by Perony, Nicolas (2012)

Sanctity and Justice

Then I came across Haidt's moral foundations, and my dilemma was resolved. As human beings we share some fundamental values that help us form groups, cooperate, and defend our group against outsiders. These may not be the universal morals that religion has sanctified, but they are "holy" orders for getting along. At least with each other. It's not quite as universal, say, as the speed of light or gravity, because as people we still readily attack outsiders/aliens. Not too long ago wolves were treated as vermin. Our values are fundamentally human values. 

Here is Haid's list:

There are two moral categories, Sanctity/Degradation (disgust) and Fairness/Cheating (justice) that can bring the classically democrat and the conservative to loggerheads. The values of care and fairness are common among all peoples, but the conservative element in addition value loyalty, authority, and sanctity. 

"If a value is sacred in the minds of one of the antagonists, then it has infinite value, and may not be traded away for any other good, just as one may not sell one's child...People inflamed by nationalist and religious fervor hold certain values sacred, compromise them for the sake of peace or prosperity is taboo." (The better angels of our nature....Pinker Page 738)

We have for example, the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine. Pinker cites an ingenious study, where various scenarios were offered to both sides. Offering purely monetary rewards for peace were summarily dismissed (likely triggering disgust).

"We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values." Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict by Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Khalil Shikaki (2007)

Breaking Through to Understanding

Pinker continues,

"All of this would be pretty depressing were it not for Tetlock's observation that many ostensibly sacred values are really pseudo-sacred and may be compromised if a taboo trade-off is cleverly reframed....In a third variation of the hypothetical peace deal, the two-state solution was augmented with a purely symbolic declaration by the enemy in which it compromise one of its sacred values.." (
The better angels of our nature....Pinker page 739).

For example, a Palestinian may be asked if Israel were first to agree in principle to their land rights, might they be more ready to reach a settlement? What if the other guy were to offer the olive branch first?

My Fight

My dilemma, which I hinted at in my last post, is that I am fundamentally opposed to the position that a board owner has taken towards Muslims. We are both affected by our own principles of fairness and sanctity. If I dare put words in his mouth, my long-standing colleague was horrified with the image of a fifty-four year old woman beheaded by a knife-wielding zealot in Oklahoma.

The death is senseless, the method brutal. Of course, we are repulsed by the images this offer. In his rage over the events, my colleague offered that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam if it permits, allows, or creates such brutes.

This is when my own sense of fair play was outraged. I am all for containing and eradicating brutal fundamental organizations like ISIS. But these subsets of humanity do not characterize entire groups! There are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. How many have membership in ISIS? Maybe 15,000.

Condemning an entire religion is disproportionate. The images that come to my mind are other groups, "outsiders" who were similarly rounded up and punished for their perceived "threat".

Japanese Internment Mess Hall

These are the sorts of images that horrify me. 

My colleague has tempered his comments somewhat, suggesting that the religion should abandon the violent passages in their holy book, the Quran if they are serious about putting to bed the violent streak in their brand of extremists. My argument is that even Christianity continues to hold it's entire bible sacred, even it's violent bits. It is entirely possible for a devoutly religious person to hold a book sacred, even as we have evolved past it's violent past. We have a finer sensibility these days, and genocide is simply out of the question.

We have broadened our sensibilities of what it means to be human, and it includes all of us.

Compelling Religious Reform

My colleague has been silent on the mechanics of how we might compel a religion to become a kinder, gentler version of itself, to reform its education and decry it's violent past. Whenever I see examples of say, governmental intervention in religious affairs, I see disaster. We're talking about treading on a community's sacred values and frankly, government lacks the finesse.

Waco Siege
Consider also the example of the Marrano forced Jewish converts to Christianity. Even those who publicly converted were treated with suspicion and later they were put to the inquisition. Convert or die; lousy idea.

Then there's the succession of civil wars in England, some of it spurred on by opposing Catholic and Protestant sensibilities.

Next, I'll talk about detente and how it is possible for fierce opponents to reach across the negotiating table.