Rorty wrote : "Nazi parents found it easy to turn their children into conscientious little monsters." He does not describe how nazi parents taught their children to be cruel with Jews. How did they accomplish such training ? By brainwashing as Pavlov, Skinner or Aldous Huxley had imagined (and hopefully never tested) it ? "Most likely by exploiting other moral modules" say Jon Haidt and Craig Joseph in a recent paper* on innate intuitions and cultural virtues. "Racism, for example, can be taught by invoking the purity module and triggering flashes of disgust at the ‘dirtiness’ of certain groups, or by invoking the reciprocity module and triggering flashes of anger at the cheating ways of a particular group." Using Sperber’s concept of proper and actual domain, they wrote "In this way, cultures can create variable actual domains that are much broader than the universal proper domains for each module."

And baseball ? Isn’t it, as Rorty seems to suggest, even more unnatural than nazism ? "All we need to internalize a moral code is general-purpose learning-from-experience circuitry - the same circuitry that lets us internalize, say, the rules of baseball." Since I’m french, I do not know a lot about baseball (and I should recognize that actually it looks quite counter-intuitive). But contrary to what American would think about some recent events, basic moral modules like fairness are in play in football. I could add some pretty old modules like hierarchy or in/out group. As far as I know, an epidemiology of sports remains to be done. However, it seems to me that sports, far from being highly counter-intuitive are super-stimuli, like cartoons or caricature (and I’m not talking about cheerleaders !).

Teaching morality is not different than, say, teaching mathematics. How do you make someone understand negative numbers or fractions ? You may use her sense of space, you talk about thermometer for negative numbers and sharing a pie for fractions. Stan Dehaene’s team has compared mathematics abilities of educated French people with Mundurucu, an indian tribe in amazonian Brazil, whose language does not have words for precise numbers. French people can precisely count dots, Mundurucu cannot. But the french people’s cultural tools (words of numbers) has not replaced their innate number sense : when they have to compare precisely two numbers (is 65 bigger that 34 ? smaller that 71), they exhibit the same patterns as when Mundurucu have to compare approximately two quantities (a bundle of 65 dots versus a bundle of 34 dots). The bigger the numbers are, the longer it takes time to do the comparison (size effect), and the closer the two numbers (or quantities) are, the longer it takes time to do the comparison (distance effect).

Cultural tools work because we use our intuition about quantities, which is something Rorty does not seem to have envisaged. He concludes his review by saying "Reading histories, novels, philosophical treatises and ethnographies has helped us to reprogram ourselves - to update our moral software". Cognitive scientist would reply that you can reprogram people because histories and novel activate their intuitions. Actually, you do not really reprogram people. You use their purity or fairness module to change their opinion (homosexuality is bad because it is disgusting, you ought to respect animals because they have rights).

Conversely, cognitive anthropologist would make the point that successful tales (prince charming) meet with success precisely because they fit with our intuition. Cultural tools have been culturally selected because they (are useful) and they fit with our intuition. Let’s take another cognitive device we use to estimates numbers. For quantities inferior to 4, we do not have to count, we just “know” that there are 2 or 3 objects. We have a device (almost not cognitive, a possible property of our eyes) to “subitize” small quantities. Mundurucu, who lack words for “three” or “four”, do not make approximate estimation when it comes to 3 or 4. What is the relation with cultural fitness ? In lot of languages, the first two or three word numbers has special grammatical properties. And in lot of system of numbering, as in the latin one, people make one mark for 1, two marks for 2, three marks for 3, sometimes a forth for 4 and then they use a new sign : I, II, III, IV and V. You can immediately know that there are three marks in III, but you have to carefully count the eight ones in IIIIIIII. The design of our cultural tools depends on our intuitions.

Let’s go back to Rorty. He also wrote : "It is hard to see why evolution had to carve out a new, specialized organ just to generate the extra emotional intensity that differentiates guilt from chagrin." It is not that hard if you think few seconds in term of evolution. Primates do not seem to cooperate as much as we do. Actually, they do coalition, they reconcile, they retaliate, they do policing intervention but all their behavior seems to be explainable in term of direct individual interest (except behaviors related to kin). It is not the case of humans, who solve prisoner’s dilemma in the field at some cost to themselves. Some, like Alan Gibbard, has suggested that shame and guilt are two different emotions evolved to cope with two different social situations : "Two broad categories matter. First, one must have the resources to contribute, with “resources” understood very broadly. A valued team hunter needs skill, knowledge, and strength; a valued ally needs kin and friends he can call on; and likewise for other cooperative endeavors. Second, though, one needs good will, a disposition to play one’s part at some cost to oneself, and not to seize all the fruits of cooperation for oneself. (…) A cooperator may fall short, then, in two ways: through lack of resources shame, and through lack of the right motivations given his resources guilt." It seems to me that "a new, specialized organ just to generate the extra emotional intensity that differentiates guilt from chagrin" is a pretty useful adaptation in a cooperative specie if you want to be considered as a good fellow, and not as a cynic and cold potential cheater, in real life as in football.

  • En français, dans un numéro à paraître de Terrain.