“Damn it, it’s MY Body That’s at Stake”: Autonomy, Sociality, and Imperfect Choices

My family were swapping medical grievances one evening—flawed diagnoses, unwanted side effects, useless procedures. “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. I thought how forcefully people can stake out the inviolability of not only their health but “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my free will.” When relatives, employers, government, or banks overstep, we stand by our autonomy. Don’t tread on me.

But we work the other side of this relationship too. We uphold—because we benefit from— social codes and expectations. Rebels who don’t share our values make us nervous. “Take the statin.” “Don’t forget to invite that cousin you don’t like. Family first.” “You’re going to wear that?” “Showing up is eighty percent of the job.”

We carry both the autonomous nonconformist and the social enforcer inside us. The roles take different forms in different cultures but are rooted in our genes. Our autonomy is our expectation that we could get by on our own if we had to, that we can make some of our own decisions, solve problems ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we actually expect to go it alone. We are groupies. The biological term is sociality. Sociality doesn’t refer to being sociable or friendly. It refers to the inherited tendency to form groups, sometimes highly organized ones. Social ants work for the queen, bees signal each other how to get to honey, wolves hunt in packs. Stronger together.

But as inherited traits, autonomy and sociality aren’t so perfect together. Most species inherit more of one than the other. Cats go solo while ants hatch ready-made for their roles as workers, soldiers, or queens. The blessing and the curse for humans is that we have high levels of both. It feels right to us to decide what is best for ourselves while at the same time we’re reluctant to risk losing our social support. The result is ambivalence. “Should I take the statin/invite the cousin/change my shirt/get myself to work?”

Such ambivalence, says sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, is the turmoil of the human spirit. When loyalty to our clan, friends, or religion clashes with our concern for our well-being, we may feel angry or sad or confused or frightened or betrayed. Near the close of the fifth chapter of Sociobiology (2000 edition), Wilson summarizes the dilemma, surprisingly, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and close friends will be fighting not with Arjuna but for the other side. Arjuna wavers. Wilson writes about

ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

The god Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, turns as Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I first read this passage from Wilson years ago but it comes back to me when I hear protests and arguments. We are Arjuna, come to the field of life with two strengths that work to our advantage but that also get in each other’s way. I understand people better, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

Sam Harris and the Science of Morality

Morality and values are usually considered aspects of life that science can say nothing about. In The Moral Landscape (2010), Sam Harris argues the opposite.

Questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose–are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human value….A more detailed understanding of these truths [about well-being] will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.

For example, hundreds of thousands of school children are beaten by their teachers with wooden boards every year. Such corporal punishment is legal in 21 states. Is it wise—is it moral—“to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development”? “The research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology.” The argument that corporal punishment is acceptable because it is based on religion and is an integral part of certain cultures does not outweigh the evidence of its destructive effects. It remains immoral.

paddling

(indiacurrentaffairs.org)

Harris sites other, similar cruelties, including female genital excision, human sacrifice, slavery, foot binding, and ceremonial rape. His judgment of them is resisted by secular academics who have long held that there is no absolute moral truth, that morality springs from culture, that therefore the bizarre practices of other cultures cannot be judged by our own standards. Harris’s reply is that “the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive, much less wise.”

Critics praise The Moral Landscape for challenging our assumption that the factual nature of science has nothing in common with values and morals. Harris believes that the two are, in reality, interdependent: facts entail certain values, such as objectivity, while values are based on perceived facts about how people respond in certain situations. In this way, our growing knowledge of the brain can serve as the foundation for greater human well-being. Much as scientific advances in medicine have improved human health, so advancing knowledge about the brain can help people flourish.

But the book has been criticized harshly on several grounds. One is that basing morality on well-being is not as new as it sounds. Two hundred years ago, Jeremy Bentham proposed that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” One weakness of basing morality on happiness this way is that justice takes a back seat; crimes require punishments even though those punishments may make the family of the criminal unhappy.

Moreover, critics say, Harris’s examples—corporal punishment, genital mutilation, etc—are extreme and straightforward instances of morally indefensible practices. But in a nuanced debate over whether a specific case of, for example, theft or adultery is justifiable, the well-being of the individuals may be too vague and inconsistent to serve as the basis for moral judgement.

well being cloud

Well-being: too many versions to serve as a foundation for morality.  (shutterstock.com)

For me, The Moral Landscape began feeling claustrophobic after a while. Harris belabors his critique of the boundary between facts and value but overlooks ways in which science already plays a part in morality and ethics. He might have cited, for example, the contributions of psychology to understanding such topics as happiness, the role of money in well-being, and the nature of power. He might have considered the role of science in moral decision-making whenever DNA is used to identify a criminal  and whenever economic data helps shape programs to reduce poverty.

As for the whole study of evolution, Harris dismisses it with the comment that moral behaviors that may have bestowed some survival benefits long ago make no contribution to our leading “deeply fulfilling lives” today. This makes no sense. Our capacities for cooperation and other social experiences, acquired over millennia, are for many people the very keys to a fulfilling life.

The relationship between science and morality is intricate, and understanding it more clearly is an important task for modern culture. Harris’s book is a step in that direction but is not the whole picture.