Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds

The End of ISMs

Racism, Sexism, Species-ism, Age-ism, Elitism, Fundamentalism, Atheism. These –isms, and others,  have fueled hatred, inspired war, justified torture, divided countries, prevented education, increased disparities in wealth, and destroyed civilizations.  For some, they represent ideas to die for. For others, they represent ideas to destroy.  Though the targets differ, there is a single underlying cause: a brain that evolved an unconscious capacity to seek differences between self and other, and once identified, seek to demote the other in the service of selfish gains. It is a capacity that is like a heat sensing missile, designed to seek and destroy. It achieves its ends by exceptionally clever tactics that involve an ever escalating arms race between demoting the other to the level of a pestilent parasite while raising the self and its accompanying brethren to the level of  virtuous saints. This is the bad news.

The good news is that science is uncovering some of the details of this destructive capacity, and may hold the key to an applied solution. My optimism: if we play our cards correctly, we may see the day when our instinctive prejudice toward the other will dissolve, gaining greater respect for differences, expanding our moral circle in the words of Peter Singer.  Here's the playbook, building on several recent ideas and scientific findings:

1. Decide what is fair by living under a veil of ignorance.

The late political philosopher John Rawls argued that every human being will default to a selfish position, a bias that grows out of survival instincts, and in current evolutionary parlance, the biasing of genetic kin. To avoid such biases and achieve impartiality, we must imagine a set of principles that would apply while ignorant of others' political affiliations, wealth, age, gender, and religious background. As a device, the veil of ignorance works wonders because it feeds into our selfishness. Let's say that I think university professors should obtain the highest salaries, while athletes should obtain the lowest.  I can only entertain this principle of income distribution if I would be satisfied in a world where I was the professional athlete making the lowest salary. The veil of ignorance guarantees impartiality. Teach it to your children, friends, colleagues, and enemies.

2. Recognize the universality of our moral intuitions.

Peel away the explicit rules of action handed down by such institutions as religion and government, and one finds a common moral code. Those with a religious background tend to believe that abortion is wrong and so too is euthanasia.  Atheists see life through a different lens. Remove the doctrinal rules and our intuitive moral psychology propels us ¾ our species that is ¾ to decide what is morally right or wrong based on general principles concerning the welfare of others and our own virtues.  If the Protestant and Catholic Irish can see past their religious beliefs, empathize with the other, recognize their shared underlying humanity and settle into peaceful co-existence, why not other warring factions?

3. Be vigilant of disgust!

The most virulent of human emotions is disgust. Although disgust was born out of an adaptive response to potential disease vectors ¾ starkly, things that are normally inside but are now outside such as vomit, blood, and feces ¾ it is a mischievous emotion, sneaking into other problems, alighting, wreaking havoc on group structure, and then spreading. Throughout the history of warfare, every warring group has tagged their enemy with qualities that are reminiscent of disease, filth, and parasites. The imagery is overwhelming, beautifully designed to trigger the rallying cry. Though the destruction of 6 million Jews by the Nazis was made possible by an extraordinary advertising campaign, it was made all the more possible by the carefully crafted manipulation of disgust: in the Nazis'  hands, the Jews were vermin, dirty, diseased, and thus, disgusting. Wouldn't we all be better off without disgust? What if we could remove this emotional card? 

Would we knock the sails out of our efforts to denigrate the other?  Intriguingly, there are some people who never experience disgust and don't recognize it in others, even though they experience and recognize all of the other familiar emotions ¾ sadness, happiness, fear, surprise, anger. These people are carriers of the genetic disorder Huntington's Chorea. Though they suffer from significant deterioration of the motor systems, they are disgust-free. So too are carriers that are pre symptomatic. Although we don't know whether patients with Huntington's are immune to the nefarious propaganda that might come their way should someone wish to foist their prejudices upon them, my hunch is that science will confirm this relationship. And if that is the case, perhaps modern molecular techniques will one day find a way to cure Huntington's, but along the way, work out a method to crank down or turn off our disgust response, while preserving our motor systems.

This is a playbook for today. It is not a final solution. It provides, I believe, a breadth of hope that someday we may see greater peace in this world, greater respect for the other.