Just a few short months ago, I never dreamed that one of the many fault lines in our society would be who wore a face mask and who didn’t. But on one day last week, most of the stories on CNN.com were about just that topic.
For reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, the debate has some interesting moral and sociological implications. But before we get to that, let’s address this question: What is morality anyway?
Who’s On First?
In the simplest form possible, there is one foundational evolutionary spectrum to what we consider our own morality, which is: Are we more inclined to worry about ourselves or worry about others? Each of us plots our own morals somewhere on this spectrum.
At one end we have the individualist, the one who continually puts “me first.” Typically, the morals of those focused only on themselves concern individual rights, freedoms and beliefs specific to them. This concern for these rights does not extend to anyone considered outside their own “in” group.
As we move across the spectrum, we next find the familial moralist: Those who worry first about their own kin. Morality is always based on “family first.”
Next comes those who are more altruistic, as long as that altruism is directed at those who share common ground with themselves. You could call this the “we first” group.
Finally, we have the true altruist, who believes in a type of universal altruism and that a rising tide truly lifts all boats.
This concept of altruism has always been a bit of a puzzle for early evolutionists. In sociological parlance, it’s called proactive prosociality — doing something nice for someone who is not closely related to you without being asked. It seems at odds with the concept of the Selfish Gene, first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name in 1976.
But as Dawkins has clarified over and over again since the publication of the book, selfish genes and prosociality are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic.
We have spent about 95% or our entire time as a species as hunter-gatherers. If we have evolved a mechanism of morality, it would make sense to be most functional in that type of environment.
Hunter-gatherer societies need to collaborate. This is where the seeds of reciprocal altruism can be found. A group of people who work together to ensure continued food supplies will outlive and out-reproduce a group of people who don’t. From a selfish gene perspective, collaboration will beat stubborn individualism.
But this type of collaboration comes with an important caveat: It only applies to individuals that live together in the same communal group.
Social conformity acts as a manual override on our own moral beliefs. Even in situations where we may initially have a belief of what is right and wrong, most of us will end up going with what the crowd is doing.
It’s an evolutionary version of the wisdom of crowds. But our evolved social conformity safety net comes with an important caveat: it assumes that everyone in the group is in the same physical location and dealing with the same challenge.
There is also a threshold effect there that determines how likely we are to conform. How we will act in any given situation will depend on a number of factors: how strong our existing beliefs are, the situation we’re in, and how the crowd is acting. This makes sense. Our conformity is inversely related to our level of perceived knowledge. The more we think we know, the less likely it is that we’ll conform to what the crowd is doing.
We should expect that a reasonably “rugged” evolutionary environment where survival is a continual struggle would tend to produce an optimal moral framework somewhere in the middle of familial and community altruism, where the group benefits from collaboration but does not let its guard down against outside threats.
But something interesting happens when the element of chronic struggle is removed, as it is in our culture. It appears that our morality tends to polarize to opposite ends of the spectrum.
What happens when our morality becomes our personal brand, part of who we believe we are? When that happens, our sense of morality migrates from the evolutionary core of our limbic brain to our cortex, the home of our personal brand. And our morals morph into a sort of tribal identity badge.
In this case, social media can short-circuit the evolutionary mechanisms of morality.
For example, there has been a proven correlation between prosociality and the concept of “watching eye.” We are more likely to be good people when we have an audience.
But social media twists the concept of audience and can nudge our behavior from the prosocial to the more insular and individualistic end of the spectrum.
The successfulness of social conformity and the wisdom of crowds depends on a certain heterogeneity in the ideological makeup of the crowd. The filter bubble of social media strips this from our perceived audience, as I have written. It reinforces our moral beliefs by surrounding us with an audience that also shares those beliefs. The confidence that comes from this tends to push us away from the middle ground of conformed morality toward outlier territory. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing the polarization of morality all too evident today.
As I mentioned at the beginning, there may never have been a more observable indicator of our own brand of morality than the current face-mask debate.
In an article on Businessinsider.com, Daniel Ackerman compared it to the crusade against seat belts in the 1970’s. Certainly when it comes to our perceived individual rights and not wanting to be told what to do, there are similarities. But there is one crucial difference. You wear seat belts to save your own life. You wear a face mask to save other lives.
We’ve been told repeatedly that the main purpose of face masks is to stop you spreading the virus to others, not the other way around. That makes the decision of whether you wear a face mask or not the ultimate indicator of your openness to reciprocal altruism.
The cultural crucible in which our morality is formed has changed. Our own belief structure of right and wrong is becoming more inflexible. And I have to believe that social media may be the culprit.