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Social Sciences Handicap the Moral Wrestler

We all carry a narrative about human nature in our minds. A major narrative, acquired from Judeo-Christian values, is that life is an unending moral struggle. We know what is right, however our flawed nature tempts us to misbehave. We try to lead a more moral life. Some of us excel more than others; none of us has a clean slate. In this lifelong moral wrestling match, we are influenced by our surroundings, especially the culture and its narratives. The social sciences, taught each year to scores of millions of young people in high schools and in colleges, are a major source of narratives that undermines the moral wrestling.

Homo Economicus: The Leading Culprit

Mainstream economics is based on a meta-conception of human nature, often referred to as homo economicus. People are assumed to aim to maximize their self-interest, which is equated with satisfaction drawn from the consumption of goods — in short, material hedonism. This thesis is often expressed by the use of the term “utility.” The original concept of utility, as developed late in the eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham, clear holds that all actions are directed toward gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Utilitarian philosophy views pain and pleasure not only as sources of motivation, but also of ethical guides: “It is for them [pain and pleasure] alone to point out what we ought to do” and determine the “standard of right and wrong.” Along similar lines, John Stuart Mill wrote that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” with happiness defined as “pleasure and the absence of pain.” Adam Smith famously argued, in The Wealth of Nations, that the market as a system relies on each actor pursuing his self-interest.

Economists have gone to great lengths to defend their view of what drives people. Gift-giving, for example, seems to contradict hedonism because it involves a voluntary reduction of one’s own utility, in order to benefit that of others. Economists have responded by arguing that gift-giving is often driven by “cooperative egoism,” with those who give gifts expecting reciprocal gifts, reputation, status, approval, or some future benefit. And to the extent that gift-giving occurs in the absence of such expected rewards, for example in the case of anonymous gift-giving, economists argue that the giver enjoys a “warm glow” from the act of gift-giving itself.

Homo Sapiens as Clueless Creatures

A major branch of psychology, referred to as behavioral economics, set out to prove economists wrong and to proffer a rather different conception of human nature. The findings and the implications of the new psychology are summarized in a best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

The main finding of behavioral economics is that people have hardwired, innate, cognitive biases. These lead them to systematically misperceive facts and draw wrong conclusions from them. Thus, because they fear loss more than losing a gain, they see a $1,000 salary cut as a much bigger deal than not getting a $1,000 raise. They view spending $100 as a major outlay if they just spend $20 on something else, but not if their last purchase cost $300. They do not get around to putting money into a retirement account, even when often reminded, and even if there are strong economic advantages to doing so. And they still are fooled by marketers who charge $3.99 for an item, which people see as costing $3 rather than $4. And so on and so on. Moreover, even people with high IQs who are trained in statistics do not function significantly better. That is, the defects are so strong that education and training cannot do much to remedy these innate, hard-wired intellectual flaws.

All this may well be true, but it does not improve the economists’ narrative that being selfish is natural.

It Is All in Our Genes

Evolutionary biologists hold that people are sympathetic to others because this moral predisposition was an advantage in the early days, when people had to share the spoils of what they hunted and were safer as a group. Those who were not sympathetic got less food and security, and, hence, they and their genes were less likely to survive.

If genes determine how moral a person is, and genes are set for one’s lifetime, one cannot but wonder how to account for rapid changes in the extent to which people are altruistic. For instance, initially, when the German Chancellor welcomed a million refugees, her policy was very widely supported by the German people. However, following a few incidents — sexual assaults during an Oktoberfest, a machete attack — the German people turned out to be much less sympathetic to the same refugees (and to their Chancellor). Such changes, which are very common, are incompatible with the notion that people have genes that make them moral in one way or another.

Moreover, if our moral nature was set by our genes, there is little sense is wrestling to improve our conduct.

Anthropology Liberates — But Engenders Cultural Relativism

Ruth Benedict had a major effect on the conception of human nature. Benedict, in Patterns of Culture, described the values of the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, the Pueblo of New Mexico, and the Dobu of New Guinea. She stressed that although the moral values of these very different tribes may seem objectionable to Western eyes, each made sense once it was understood within the context of the moral culture of the specific society.

At the time in which her works were published — in the mid-20th century — Benedict’s efforts, along with those of other leading anthropologists from that era (especially Franz Boas and Margaret Mead), served as a major antidote to cultural imperialism, to the widely-held notion among colonizing nations that they were called upon to bring light to the primitives. At the same time, by arguing that the values of different cultures were merely different, rather than some being morally superior to others, she and her colleagues in effect promoted moral relativism.

Once one takes the position that morality depends on cultural context, one pulls the rug out from under all cross-cultural moral claims. And because the same is true for subcultures within our society, we also leave these intra-societal judgments without a firm foundation.

Sociology: The System Made Me Do It

A major sociological thesis is that what makes people more or less moral human beings, how well they wrestle with moral issues, is The System. People turn to drugs, commit crimes, and walk out on their children not mainly because of their “bad character” but because they have been economically deprived, socially disadvantaged, politically disempowered, or otherwise alienated. The main moral wrestling does not take place within the person but with society. For instance, social movements — such as the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements — made American society a less immoral place.

Sociologists argue that there are no good or bad people, merely people who are socialized to different sets of values. Albert Cohen captures this widely held sociological position in these terms: “It is commonplace that normative rules vary enormously from one social system to another. It follows that no behavior is deviant in itself but only insofar as it violates the norms of some social system.” You can make people conform more, but this does not make them better moral wrestlers, more able to figure out what is right and more able to live up to one’s moral obligations.

Clinical Psychology: My Mother Made Me Do It

Sigmund Freud in effect incorporated the age-old, religious idea of the moral wrestler into a secular conception. He posited that people are struggling between the pulls of their debased self (the id) and the commands of the moral voice (the superego). Sometimes, and under some conditions, one side prevails, and sometimes the other. Moreover, out of these give-and-takes, people construct their own personalities (ego). And, while the urges of the id can be channeled into pro-social behavior (through sublimation), such conversion is never fully successful. The id gnaws, the moral wrestling is never-ending.

Clinical psychology has a number of different schools and gurus. By and large, though, they tend to help people liberate themselves from the moralistic demands of their society and follow their own star. Thus, Philip Cushman finds that clinical therapists see the ideal individual as one who has gained a “masterful self,” who can “function in a highly autonomous, isolated way,” and who is “self-sufficient.” That is, free from the restraints that the moral demands of society put on people’s desires. Therapy liberates people from the demons of their past, leaving them free to follow whatever they lust for, without moral guidance.

Before I sign off, a word to my academic colleagues. Of course, I realize that each social science has various subdisciplines. However, often the subdisciplines all share the same moral assumptions, as seen, for instance, in micro- and macroeconomics. Others have amoral assumptions of their own (e.g., rat psychology). And the few that recognize the moral wrestler, e.g., humanitarian economics, have very little voice in the chorus of amoral narratives spewed by the social sciences.

In short, the narratives that the social sciences provide unwittingly undermine our understanding that we face lifelong moral wrestling between our better angels and the more debased bases of our nature — and thus weaken our resolve. These narratives are taught to scores of millions of students each year and seep into society at large. It is left to religious mavens and ethicists, and pubic intellectuals, to strengthen the hands of the moral wrestler.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.