We Really Do Have a Moral Sense

My alumni magazine from Harvard University came recently.  By chance, it included two short articles, each of which supported the conclusion that we human persons have a moral sense, whether we want to or not.

The first article reports that Harvard professor of biological anthropology, Joseph Henrich, argues that human intellectual brilliance emerged from generations of sharing information in communities and networks.  We humans, he says, are uniquely able to engage in collective information processing.

We can do this because we are moral creatures.  Aristotle made this point centuries ago, calling us zoon politikon – creatures driven by social and political needs for association and mutual understanding.

The threefold expansion of the size of our brains over the last two million years was driven, Professor Henrich says, by the need to acquire, store and organize cultural information.  From this, he concludes that societies which best capture and transmit inherited culture enjoy greater success.  Successful cultures facilitated specialization and intergenerational transfer of intelligence and skills.

Specialization, with its creation of a demand for cooperation and intergenerational interdependencies, depend on morality in the mind of individuals, tied together by those relationships and reciprocal responsibilities.

The second article reported on research identifying who are the best team players.  Professor David Deming at the Kennedy School ran simulations of team collaboration looking for clues as to who most enable success for the team.  A measure of teammate strength was developed to generate data for analysis.  The data led to identification of those better at teamwork.  Then, the researchers looked for traits those more proficient teammates had in common.

The most interesting commonality was a high score in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET).  This is a test for social intelligence developed to test for autism and Asperger’s.  The subject is shown photographs of human eyes and is asked to identify the emotions revealed by those eyes.  Being able to correctly infer another’s emotions just from looking at their eyes is a skill that leads to excellence in working with others in a team.

But that skill, in turn, is made possible by a mind that has moral awareness of others and of emotions.

The most common and universal skepticism about the possibility of a moral capitalism is that people can’t be trusted to be responsible for others that, as Herbert Spencer and other social Darwinists believe, we human persons are thoroughgoing egoists without any moral sense or at least with only very intimidated ones.

If, on the other hand, we are each born capable of developing a robust moral sense, as Adam Smith believed, then moral capitalism is a very practical alternative economic system.