Imperfect Choices, Conflicting Loyalties

I’ve been thinking about how often the discontents in our lives are rooted in the tension between our social bonds and our sharp sense of our individual well-being. Our genes happily carry both our social and our self-protective tendencies because both capacities, when they work together, support our survival. Like other social species, humans have long been “stronger together” when it comes to planning a steady food supply, building housing, and defending themselves. But the quickest signal that one of us is sick, injured, threatened, or being cheated comes not from a group but from our individual first-alert reactions—fear, pain, suspicion.

When our sociality—the term refers to our inherited tendency to form groups—and our sense of self harmonize so smoothly that our well-being seems complete, that’s a mutuality that we build our moral ideals on. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But such balance doesn’t last. The self is quick to feel slighted in one way or another. In a recent family discussion, for example, several cousins and in-laws of mine told tales of flawed diagnoses and unwanted side effects.  “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. Change the wording to “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom” and you have a sampling of the self-protective alarms that go off when we find ourselves at odds with a group or what it stands for.

But we may be less quick to notice how often our discontent also comes not from the “me” end of the social spectrum but from the “we.” We often and easily assert the values of our family, community, workplace, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion. Liberals and conservatives denounce each other, seniors lament their juniors, believers rebuke the skeptics. As often as we defend “my” interests against a group, we also speak up for “our” values when dissidents seem wrong-headed.

Beneath all these labels,  accusations, and justifications by and about selves and groups I’m hearing more clearly the tumultuous human dilemma that sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson summed up in a memorable passage. Wilson may be best known for his thesis that natural selection favors not only those changes that benefit the individual organism but also changes that favor the group itself. Most biologists dispute the validity of such “group selection” as a separate level of natural selection. But no one disagrees that sociality itself runs deep and strong in our species among many others. And when our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our own well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Here, says Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil—and our humanity.

Some years ago I read this passage in Wilson’s Sociobiology (2000 edition). The sentences appear near the close of the fifth chapter. Wilson characterizes our biological and humanistic dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from around 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 closest friends will be fighting for the other side. Wilson writes that the theory of group selection

predicts 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 (

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (

I remember feeling the sweep and the dilemma of human emotion here, from its biological roots to its spiritual consequences, from doubt and guilt to righteousness and war. I took in what I could, then turned the page. But the passage was the kind that sometimes plants itself in our memory more firmly than we know and rises again years later when we need it. Actually, I remembered the passage inaccurately. The condensed version that I had carried for so long included the words autonomy and sociality, two terms missing here that Wilson uses elsewhere.

Still, though, I think that autonomy and sociality are good labels for these volatile allies. We are Arjuna. We all come to the field of life with two capacities that work together though not easily or perfectly.  And I have more empathy for people, 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.



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.  (

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.