So, as I’ve mentioned previously here probably, I’m working on a rather largish project that I guess you could describe as a popularization of a lot of current strains of moral psychology. And the way I’m setting it up, while there will be a series of different narratives and illustrations woven throughout, tying together different sections, I’m basically breaking it down by discipline to look at different factors of the phenomenon I’m interested in, starting with evolutionary biology, running through human neurology, culture and cultural evolution, media theory, child development, and finally looking at adult psychology in these specific contexts.
I had always thought of this way of organizing it as a move from the general to the specific, from the universal and collective to the individual, a bit like an inverted pyramid. We share an evolutionary heritage with the higher primates, a general neurological configuration with all humans, cultural identities with some much smaller subset, and so on for the details of upbringing, finally getting down to a specific adult individual with a particular, personal psychological profile. But it occured to me that, viewed slightly differently, you can see it in the opposite way if you focus on determinants of behavior in particular situations. A particular genetic structure is (well, barring twins) maybe the single most permanent or stable thing that marks you out as a distinct individual, what’s “yours” in the least contingent way. Our brains change and rewire a bit as we age, but a similar sort of point might be made there. Then come the cultural identities, the intersection of which is shared with a relatively small group, each individually with a larger group. And while it’s hard to disentangle this fully from culture, there are general aspects of upbringing (strict vs. permissive, say) that will create still broader commonalities. When we finally get to the psychology of the adult chooser in these particular sorts of situations, one reading of the Milgram experiments supports a kind of psychological “situationism,” the upshot of which is that all these individual psychological differences and determinants actually have a lot less to do than the details of the choice situation in which they’re placed. So, in the Milgram case, if you want to know predict whether someone will obey and “shock” the “victim” in some version of the experiment, knowing all sorts of details about the person’s dispositions and history and cultural background will ultimately be a lot less helpful than knowing the details of the particular experimental setup: Is the scientist giving the orders in the same room with the subject? Can the subject see the “victim” up close? Put another way, the most “general” or “universal” determinant of behavior in a choice situation is the choice situation itself, which by definition you share with everyone who faces it. (That’s actually a little too simplistic: One point I want to raise as a complication for the situationist view is that situations don’t interpret themselves, so there’s one sense in which different people aren’t necessarily facing “the same” situation. People may respond in similar ways to authority, but whether a priest counts as “an authority” will depend a lot on your personal views.) Anyway, not sure this is interesting to anyone but me, but when I had the thought it felt weirdly like staring at a Necker cube and suddenly seeing it flip inside out.