Morality & Determinism

As Prof. Clayton has pointed out, the repeated theme in all of the novels that we have read and films we have watched is that of chance versus destiny. Novelists are wrangling with the meaning of the genetic code: what can we be made to do through our genetic makeup, how are we restricted and how are we autonomous, what is fate and what is serendipity? Novelists are not alone in wondering about this: scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, and humorists are all interested in these issues. Humanity is intent on discovering its own innate nature.

Much of these musings have centered around the issue of morality. For example, Professors Goodenough and Deacon, a biologist and anthropologist respectively, published an article in 2002 arguing that our moral frames of mind arise from our primate prosocial capacities–that is to say, our interests in hierarchy, nurturing the young, strategic reciprocity, alliances, empathy, and hostility towards outgroups–and thus are ultimately all the same, regardless of which language and religion they are couched in. Morality is determined.

And then at the other end of the spectrum of academic importance, we have this ludicrous video produced by a group of British comedians. It is dry humor, as British comedy tends to be, but it examines the same issues of determinism by reversing a common story in the world of genetics: instead of Christian scientists looking for the gay gene, we have gay scientists looking for the Christian gene. By doing so, it presents the idea of genetic determinism as patently ridiculous.

Who do we look to in this debate? Are the Benedict Lamberts of the world more reliable sources of information than the Zadie Smiths? When talking about something as subjective and mutable as human nature, is science the best way to go about getting an answer?

-Anna Musun-Miller.


~ by AM^2 on April 21, 2008.

One Response to “Morality & Determinism”

  1. I’m having trouble drawing the line of the spectrum that each of your ends is supposed to fall into. In your first example, morality is determined by psychological factors, whereas in your second example sexual preference and religion are deemed as determined by genes (or, rather, it’s the case being argued against).

    Your first example seems to be a question of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” And the chicken is morals and the egg is the need for morals. In the second example, it seems to say that it would be ludicrous for a gene to determine sexual preference or a need for religion, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence disputing that.

    I’ll agree that human nature is entirely subjective and mutable, but I don’t think that science should be left out. A fundamental set of principles seems to be present in human nature, but more importantly, I think there needs to be a structured approach to evaluating ourselves, if for no other reason than human nature is, by nature, prone to flawed conclusions.

    -Jason Wire

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