The Thinker’s Brain: With a view of Rodin. Philip Gorski writes for Public Books:“Keane tacitly distinguishes at least four levels of social reality. Let’s call them the physiological, the psychological, the sociological, and the anthropological. Each emerges out of the other. Human culture emerges out of human interactions; human interactions depend on psychic capacities; psychodynamics are rooted in our bodily makeup.”
Image Credit: Bill Sanderson, 1997; The gyri of the thinker's brain as a maze of choices in biomedical ethics
Source: Wellcome Library
In a book review article in Public Books, Philip Gorski looks at the issue of where morals emanate, an important question for anyone interested in such ideas as public good and making good individual decisions. The book being reviewed is Webb Keane’s Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories. In “Where Do Morals Come From?” (February 15, 2016), Gorski, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University, writes:
The social sciences have an ethics problem. No, I am not referring to the recent scandals about flawed and fudged data in psychology and political science.1 I’m talking about the failure of the social sciences to develop a satisfactory theory of ethical life. A theory that could explain why humans are constantly judging and evaluating, and why we care about other people and what they think of us. A theory that could explain something so trivial as the fact that social scientists care about data fudging.Not that there are a lack of theories, or a lack of effort in trying to define morality and the moral instinct. There are no shortage of theories found in the academic writings of social sciences and the humanities (as well as in the biological sciences and neuroscience), but the author notes that despite their brilliance (in some cases), none are completely satisfying to us humans. It is worth reading this complete article, if only to see what is out there.
This might lead you to an understanding that when it comes to the roots or history of morality, you will probably have more questions than answers, and that you will probably return to the beginning of it all. This might happen a number of times during your lifetime, as new knowledge adds to “old” knowledge. Understanding is always preferable. Even so, one central question worth asking is whether it is necessary to know the source of human morality to act morally.
Might this define a case where understanding is not a necessary precursor to action. Even a basic understanding of right and wrong can go a long way, at least for the average person; since most persons do not face the moral dilemmas of presidents, prime ministers, business leaders and scientists engaged in bio-ethical issues. This is one of those cases where, in particular, knowing the roots of morality is less important than making good moral decisions, or to put it another way, “to enact morality.” In other words, one can act moral without (completely or sufficiently) understanding from where morals come. Understanding might come later.
For now, moral action will suffice.
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