Three Seductive Ideas
The overall impression of this work: Three op-eds stretched to 200 pages. Someone called the undeveloping world “tribalism
mixed with the refuse of pop culture.” I will borrow part of that phrase and
call this psychologizing mixed with the refuse of academic culture.
The first chapter argues that
psychologists generalize too broadly and anthropomorphize too much, which may
be true, but the chapter is a long-winded mess.
The second chapter argues against
infant determinism. If you want to learn about this and related issues, you are
better off reading The Nurture Assumption and The Myth of the First Three
The third chapter covers morality and
the pleasure principle.
Sensory pleasure—eating pizza—differs
from the pleasures of matching principles with actions, thinking you should
report your employer’s dangerous violation of a fire code, then reporting it, for
example. The latter “feeling” lacks an
Kagan writes that even when moral
language whithers, “the desire to believe that the self is ethically worthy,”
The “seeking of evidence to prove one’s
virtue” is a self-sculptor for humans. “Not even the cleverest ape could
be conditioned to become
angry upon seeing one animal steal from another. So far, so good.
That most individuals consider themselves
ethically worthy, despite eschewing moral language, remains no
surprise. David Whitman writes elsewhere that surveys suggest most individuals believe themselves morally better than famous individuals scoring highest in admiration.
More individuals, for example, think they will travel to heaven than think Mother Teresa went to heaven or is headed to heaven. Eighty-seven percent of Americans think they are
headed to heaven. Seventy-nine percent think Mother
Teresa belongs in heaven. Michael Jordan came in third place, one point behind Oprah with 65
percent. Judging from the list, Americans somehow think
media hype and heaven worthiness are causally related
Half of Americans rate themselves 90
or above on a one-to-100 scale of morality according to a Wall Street Journal
poll. Eighty-nine percent gave themselves a
75 or more. And you would think the responses given to pollsters would be more modest
than actual beliefs. (Whatever I would give myself must put me somewhere near the bottom one
Unfortunately, the chapter unravels.
Kagan does not make clear distinctions between what is right, what individuals think is right, and what societies think is right. Flow and shame,
social bonds and cultural beliefs are thrown together by Kagan,
as is feeling good about beliefs and actions.
Kagan’s moral pleasure does not
necessarily have a relationship to morality. If someone believes his moral goal is to build the world’s biggest ice sculpture, then builds it, his “moral” pleasure
can be just as great as someone who invents a new vaccine. History reeks
of ideologies that feel virtuous but deliver little actual virtue.
If we inherited biological tendencies
toward what some consider better moral emotions, the emotions might not make us
better beings. If we had a compassion super tendency, we might be even more
gullible for misplaced compassion. Our compassion for wrong doers is already
grossly excessive. The total number of evils in the world might increase even
while compassionate feelings for fellow humans would increase. No matter what we feel, we are not relieved of the duty to morally reason, though much of the
quality of our reasoning depends on what we feel.
Kagan, however, subscribes to the
emotion and reason remain at odds theory. Antonio Damasio, Jerome Solomon, and
numerous others have a better understanding of the relationship between emotion
and reason. Damasio maintains that emotion assists reasoning, especially on
personal and social matters involving risk and conflict. Damasio writes that
well-targeted and well-deployed emotions are a support system without which
reason cannot operate properly. That does not mean that emotions are a substitute
for reason or that emotions should decide moral issues for us.
Kagan asserts “rather than make guilt and
shame critical to conscience, Darwin, reflecting the prejudices of his era nominated
language and reason as seminal features in morality.”
First, saying guilt and shame are
critical to conscience is about as trite as saying oil and vinegar are critical
to oil and vinegar dressing. Guilt and shame are reflexive
arousal-judgments that fit in the general category of arousal-judgments called conscience.
Morality and conscience are not the same thing. A critical aspect of morality
is finding out what is right, wrong, good, bad, beneficial, and so on, not
snap impulses. Conscience can give hints, but it is not the final
Many individuals feel shame and
closely related emotions when doing nothing morally wrong. They have merely
violated some etiquette rule or some tenet promoted by prigs. Wearing wrong
clothes for the occasion is not morally wrong. If you seek to do right, rather than be a wanton vessel that mindlessly responds to environments and to beliefs hammered into you by others, you must reason.
Kagan alleges “evaluating the
correctness, coherence, and logical consistency of an argument is relatively
easy[,]” the most inaccurate statement I have heard all week. If it is so
easy, why do millions of individuals have millions of different
prescriptions for the world, many of them learned from arguments, almost all of
them claiming to be accurate? Do almost all these individuals know truth is
easy, but instead deliberately espouse lies? I bet many
individuals who read this book had no idea the arguments on page 160 stink.
Most arguments on difficult issues leave out extremely important claims, most often the strongest counter
arguments never reach readers. Sometimes omissions are deliberate and sometimes authors do not know the strongest
arguments, though sometimes this remains blameworthy because the author was too lazy
or unresourceful in finding good arguments. Finding the truth on important
issues is harder than almost anything.
Kagan claims “emotions evade…
judgments” made by arguments. He must be kidding. Emotions present excellent
subjects for arguments. The more I read psychologized accounts of morality, the
more I want to throw up.
Among the better ideas in the chapter is a quote from Louis Menand: “Go ahead, ask your genes what to do. You might as well be asking Zeus.” (Or as Alan Wolfe wrote elsewhere, evolutionary science is a moral emperor with almost no clothes.) Also good is the observation that in societies that believe individuals are primarily personally responsible for their wealth, power, and status, lack of those things leads many to feel guilt and shame. Another good idea notes that those identifying with groups develop pride and shame based on actions done by other group members and on things they had no control over. However, I do not recommend this book. And if you ask your conscience whether this is a good book, you might as well be asking Thor.
—Book review articles by JT Fournier, last updated July 7, 2009