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Why do humans have a conscience?

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Why do humans have a conscience?

See the link for an answer to the Quora question on conscience. Part of it is as follows:

So, on this view, the conscience works something like this:

  1. Consider an action
  2. Search the normative model database for anger-oriented objections to actions like this.
  3. If you don’t find any, then consider the action permissible.
  4. If you find an objection, then see if there are ways to justify doing the action in spite of the objection.
  5. If so, then the action is permissible (but be careful, and be ready to justify yourself if questioned)
  6. If not, then the action is wrong.

I commented:

It seems to me that there are some normative assumptions in evolutionary psychology which fail to consider personality deeply. If, for instance, this model of conscience were put into a cartoon, rather than having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the character would have only an angel since the only thing that prevents them from doing what they would otherwise do (which, as in game theory assumptions, assumes blind self interest) is fear of anticipated social consequences, including guilty feelings.

I think that the stereotypical angel-devil cartoon actually has it more correct. Children and adolescents tend to embody this more clearly than adults, as ‘bad kids’ may not only have poor impulse control or a faulty conscience, but they are motivated by a more sadistic reward system. They enjoy hurting others, sometimes more than they are afraid of being hurt themselves.

By contrast, ‘good boys and girls’ may have a conscience which is naive even to guilt and is motivated by the better angels (of parental approval or perhaps self approval). There is something sexual here too…sort of paradoxical in that good kids are seen as both more ‘mature’ (trustworthy, better judgment) and less mature sexually (goody two shoes = late bloomer/virgin).

It seems to be very common that families often have kids where conscience is radically unbalanced. One is saintly, one is the delinquent, one presents themselves as tougher or nicer than they are…many combinations. Often these characteristics can seem present before their role in the family has even developed. This suggests to me that evolutionary psych models overlook some of the most important motives that drive conscience, which I think are ultimately only loosely related to evolutionary biology. Before we can care about right or wrong, we care about how we feel and how other people feel. It is not a model made by our brain at all, it is the direct presentation of anthropological aesthetics.

I agree of course that we have sub-personal mechanisms but that does not mean that we do not also contribute directly to our own life and the lives of others in a way which is irreducibly individual, non-mechanistic and volitional. The image of conscience as a matrix of modal logic is too reactive to rise, plausibly, to the level of conscious attention. If it was just a matter of not making others mad, we should have no business knowing that any strategies were being formulated at all – no more than our stomach would need a digestion conscience to avoid disappointing the colon.

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