We atheists are fond of telling theists how much better natural morality is than dogmatic morality, and we’re right. My compilation of Christian Bashing is mostly based on the absurdity and depravity that results when you treat morality as an inscrutable list of mandates as opposed to a system of valuation based on intent and consequence. However, I’m afraid that we sometimes get caught up in a little idealism of our own. We get caught in the trap of thinking of morality in theist terms — or more properly, outdated philosophical terms.
A recent article in New Scientist describes a phenomenon that liberals have known about for a while, but haven’t had much success in selling — that the lower classes are not inferior people, but rather people in inferior circumstances. When we take our emotions out of the equation and look at human behavior the same way we’d look at other social animals, we see something shocking. Impoverished humans behave the same way as other impoverished animals in their mating strategies and social risks.
We like to put teenage mothers in a box and label them as “bad people,” but across the entire human population, we see a powerful correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy. More importantly, we see a negative correlation between wealth and teen pregnancy. In other words, it isn’t the quality of the women that determines mating strategy. It’s the quality of the environment.
To put it plainly, humans do the best they can with the environment they live in. Their strategies (en masse) make sense, evolutionarily. Overwhelmingly, poverty is equivalent to shorter lifespans. Across the entire animal kingdom, we see a strategy in which animals facing a shortened lifespan reproduce more and earlier than those with long life expectancies.
Similarly, poverty is usually a predictor of crime. (Yes, I realize that white collar crime happens. That’s another post.) This also happens in the animal kingdom, and typically in males. When there is no clear path to the top, animals are willing to accept higher risks for higher rewards.
But it’s not just crime. Do you think it’s coincidental that the explosive growth of poker in the U.S. coincided with the collapse of the economy? No. It’s a predictable behavioral adaptation, in which millions of people who can’t see a way out of their situation engage in high risk behaviors in the hopes of hitting the big Chris Moneymaker jackpot at the final table. It’s why lotteries and casinos are all the rage.
I could list lots of strong correlations between “immoral” behavior and environments, but I need to take it as read at this point. I promise I’ll cover this topic in more depth soon, but for now, I have a broader and (I think) more important point to make. We have a real problem with the naturalist fallacy and morality.
Here’s the nasty truth: Our moral instincts are not designed to make us all equally happy, healthy, and self-actualized. They are designed to create a macro-organism which reproduces successfully across as many environments as possible.
So we have a very basic problem: The study of ethics has been primarily a philosophical endeavor, attempting to reason its way to a “formula” for determining how one ought to act in a particular situation. It has also largely treated humans as if they have free will — that they can and should choose certain actions because they are good. But this is a simplistic approach. Humans do not behave uniformly across populations, and frankly, they cannot be expected to behave uniformly.
Humans do behave predictably. We don’t like thinking about how predictable we are, but it’s true. Take the example I gave recently in describing the decoy effect. Like it or not, when the decoy effect is used, there is a predictable swing in what humans will choose. Similarly, when we study moral behaviors in particular environments, we find that people are equally predictable.
So we have a chicken and egg problem. On one side of the fence, we are told that if only people will behave differently, their environment will change for the better. On the other, we are told that if we only change the environment, people’s behavior will improve. Of course, environment and behavior are intertwined, since other people’s behavior creates the environment which influences our behavior, but as far as the science goes, there is a rather depressing truth emerging: In the immediate sense, telling people to change their behavior doesn’t work. Changing the environment does.
This fact calls into question our very concept of morality. Can we really look at a poor, uneducated teen girl and tell her she’s a bad person for having a baby at sixteen? Or to put it more generally, how much can we ask of our fellow humans when it comes to defying their genetics? The quest for better morals has always focused on improving people. I submit that while it’s important to encourage and teach good morality, it is far more productive to go about it from the opposite point of view. If enough people are behaving in a way that we don’t like, we should ask ourselves how we can change their environment such that they will behave the way we’d like.
The recent research on AIDS prevention bears this out. In Malawi, the AIDS infection rate was cut by over 50% by simply giving young girls a little bit of money each month. Talking about morality is great, but when there’s no food in the cupboard, and an old man offers you food or money for sex, morality goes out the window. Food trumps morality.
This also gives us a new perspective on the environment itself. As predicted, I’ve caught a bit of flack for my post on objectification and sexy atheists. How dare I question the obvious harm caused by objectification of women?! I’ve been told to look at all the women starving themselves and getting plastic surgery and putting their daughters in beauty pageants. It’s an obvious line of cause and effect, right?
Or… is it? Which women are we looking at? Is there a particular demographic which is especially susceptible to social pressure to look like supermodels or pop stars? When is the last time you heard of a famous female scientist in a beauty pageant? I can’t think of one. At first glance, it seems that while female scientists certainly come in various degrees of attractiveness, they aren’t flocking to the wet t-shirt contests to gain validation by winning a hundred bucks for taking their tops off.
So are we really being fair when we blame “objectification” for runaway female sexualization? Do we really have a problem with objectification, or do we have a problem with a population that is especially susceptible to pressure from objectification? Does the objectification cause women to harm themselves, or does a lack of education, self-esteem, and self-actualization cause them to react especially negatively when they are objectified?
Let me relate a conversation I had a few days ago with a friend who has been trying to learn “Game.” He approached a group of girls and ran a “routine” straight out of the Mystery Method. He got shot down pretty brutally, too. When he told me about it, he asked me why it failed so badly and I asked him about the girls he was approaching. It turns out, they were at least graduate student age, and hanging out in a bar known for being friendly to the intellectual type. In other words, these girls were very smart, and probably very secure in their academic field. And they saw right through what he was doing. But by the same token, I’ve seen other friends follow the Game program to the letter and have it work like a charm. On younger girls with self esteem issues.
So we can rant and rave about the evils of men who use Game, or we can chide the girls for being too stupid to recognize Game when they see it. Or we can look at Game as a social dynamic that functions in a particular environment. Want to give women a Game Immunity Shot? Find an environment in which they can gain self esteem and education. Want to put a stop to all the social outcasts who learn how to pump and dump by negging? Find an environment in which men learn valuable social and emotional skills at a young age.
Want to stop girls from sticking their fingers down their throats? It’s a great goal, and I support you in it. But stop blaming Victoria’s Secret catalogs and billboards. Do it the same way that scientists do it. Find a group of women who aren’t susceptible to over-sexualization, who have healthy self-esteem and compete effectively for the attention of men. Figure out what they have that the other women don’t. Then find a way to give it to the other women. Just like the scientists who figured out that ten dollars a month cuts AIDS transmission in half.