This proves to be a beautiful place in a beautiful park, reachable by footpath through a wood that runs atop a cliff overlooking the Hudson river. After a time, you come to a ridgetop and look across to the next, where the bell-tower of the monastery-shaped museum rises from the oaks.
I'm not sure that New York City has anything else that could hold my interest or suit me so well; but it has at least one thing that can.
First of all, let me congratulate Alabama on their victory, and an oustanding season. Though a Bulldogs fan myself, tonight we must all say: "Roll Tide!"
Second, an announcement about the weather in Hell. I find myself tonight in New York City, where I will be for the next couple of days. Had you asked me to predict such a visit even a week ago, I'd have put the likely timeframe as sometime between now and never. Yet here I am, intending to take the suggestion from our friend 'Dellbabe in da Bronx' to visit the Cloisters tomorrow.
It's cold up here. However, compared to the last time I was in New York, I do notice a greatly decreased propensity among the citizens to steal anything that isn't tied down. Nobody seems to be afraid, really, though pervasive fear was another feature of the NYC I remember. I guess all those stories about Rudy were really true. Amazing what can happen if you put your mind to it.
A slightly reduced caseload, a short bit of leave ending in a short bit of sickness - I found time to read Nicholas Wade's The Faith Instinct, well-reviewed by John Derbyshire and Razib Khan. I highly recommend it to our guests here - each chapter, especially the earlier chapters, provides much food for thought. His later chapters are more speculative and occasionally go completely off the rails - but the first seven chapters alone, about 2/3 the length, are more than worth the price and time.
He doesn't get around to the basic theme of the book - "The Evolution of Religious Behavior" - until chapter 3, but the chapter before, "The Moral Instinct," is well worth reading. I want to say something about that topic and my own thinking. I grew up as something of a blank-slater, with an idea that "morality is pragmatism with a long-range view," so that while it wasn't exactly a "type of knowledge," it could be taught. (Contrary to a well-known inductive argument to the contrary.) In this view, moral philosophy (I inclined to the rule-utilitarian) is of central importance - without reasoning it out, you don't find the rules.
I haven't believed that in a while - have instead thought that moral instincts are built-in, messy, and inexact like other instincts, with of course the occasional mutation and outlier who lacks them completely. Amongst other things, it better explains what I read in LTC Grossman's book - that the psychological effects of killing struck strongest on the troops that had to shoot or stab and see the results; battleship gunners might well know they were killing, but they didn't suffer the heightened psychological casualties, because their knowledge didn't trigger the instinct against killing. It explains to me why the most intensely moral people I have known were not always armed with an airtight philosophy of ethics, or indeed much of one at all; and persons who spend quite a lot of time thinking about morality needn't be the most moral (Barbara Branden described her ex Nathanael in this way). Moral philosophy in this view is of lesser importance, and a good thing too - because otherwise the behaviors we need to keep society going, with all its attendant blessings, would be limited to people who reason them out correctly, and this would not be good.
Wade, being a better writer than I am and knowing more, traces the view of morality as innate from David Hume (quoting: "Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions...The rules of morality...are not conclusions of our reason") through Jonathon Haidt and beyond, in a few pages of crisp prose - summarizing pages 17-20 of this paper quite succinctly. It points to various experimental papers to discuss the blend of inherent and learned moral values - there's a section on "primate proto-morality," and another on how children at impressionable ages can experience "the selective loss of intuitions."
In discussing how such a thing as morality might've evolved - that is, how it conveys a reproductive advantage - Wade follows the authors who suggest that morality (and, ultimately, religion) was an advantage to groups rather than individuals. It's not hard to see that a group in which, let's say, everyone's truthful with everyone else, because it feels wrong not to be, is going to have an advantage over a group in which everyone lies to everyone else, whenever they like. But within a group, a good liar would get a lot further in the competition for food and mates - unless there's a countervailing force of some kind. In chimpanzees, who have a sort of proto-morality and a social system dominated by a "strongman," there's a habit of coalition-building (a coalition of chimps will kill a domineering alpha if he's alone, so the successful leader shares out the mates with a coalition of his own, strong enough to keep him in power). In modern primitive groups, there's a strong sense of egalitarianism - a readiness to ostracize or kill the man who exceeds the rest, or takes too much pride in his success - leading to societies without real chiefs or hierarchies. Again, if his argument's right, this is the sort of thing that lets a group advantage - like morality - convey its advantages without having it self-destruct from the inside (by letting a free-rider take over). (He suggests other countervailing factors, such as the high rate of warfare between primitive groups; one thing everyone here understands: when you're fighting for your lives all the time, the "we" matters more than the "I." And this ties into his views on why religion evolved, but that is not my subject for this post.)
Switching wholly from Wade to me: While more modern humans haven't kept that kind of equality, those instincts are obviously not dead - the desire to pull down the successful is that thing called Envy, a Deadly Sin to the traditionalists, and a thing I particularly hate (even if it's spun as a desire for "fairness"). I suppose that since I recognize true morality as based on instincts, and am inclined to accept that this kind of envy came as part of the "morality package," I'd be self- consistent to start accepting egalitarian envy as right. I don't, for I am stubborn.
I am inclined to think this way: Doubtless, moral instincts are largely innate and operate as instincts - that is, feelings triggered by certain events, and that do not line up in a coherent system. But they serve a metaphorical "purpose" - that is, there is a reason we should be glad we have them (contra this man) - and that is to help us get along in groups. Suggesting further that a rule that accomplishes the purpose better than the instinctsn is a moral one. In modern, complex societies, tolerating successful persons and minorities is a lot better than the contrary - for material and intellectual advances, at least, you won't get too far if you wipe out your middleman minorities with the IQ advantages, no matter how much resentment they draw. So perhaps in this way, I can justify rejecting some moral instincts but not others.