Don’t Confuse Virtue with Happiness
No greater good is served by letting ethical beliefs obscure biological facts.
We are often told that altruism and empathy make you feel good. Helping others is widely asserted as the path to happiness. How does that fit with the fact that happy chemicals are the brain’s reward for meeting a survival need? Many people are convinced that virtue is the source of happiness, so they refuse to accept the reward-seeking nature of our brain.
In my opinion, the two views are easy to reconcile. Virtue helps you get long-term rewards that you’d miss if you always yielded to short-term rewards. Virtue is simply the habit of focusing on long-term rewards.
But that’s not enough for true believers in the virtue paradigm. They reject the very concept of rewards and insist that their brain only cares about higher values. They think the brain cannot be focused on meeting its own needs because that would be selfish.
They have a right to their opinion, but they insist this is “Science” rather than opinion. Even academic psychology has embraced this virtue paradigm. You might accept it too, because you want to be ethical. Thus, it’s important to know how the virtue paradigm actually harms the greater good.
It takes hard work to manage our reward-seeking brain, and people don’t do the work when they’re taught to just deny that they care about rewards. The virtue paradigm trains people to believe in their own enlightenment, so they blame their problems on other people’s lack of enlightenment.
The virtue paradigm leads to bitterness and resentment, which often leads to bad habits. The world fails to reward your virtue the way you think it should, so you tell yourself that it’s OK to have another drink, or steal from your employer, or burn down a building. You get upset when you see rewards go to people you think are less virtuous than you are, yet you still believe that you are free of self-interest.
The virtue paradigm subordinates science to a belief system. Those who embrace the virtue paradigm get rewards from the science establishment, and those who question it are ostracized. Eroding the integrity of science does not serve the greater good.
You may not notice the virtue paradigm in the same way that a fish doesn’t notice water.
You may not question the virtue paradigm because you fear getting excommunicated by your virtuous colleagues.
So you accept the belief that selflessness is our natural default state, even though it ignores basic biology. Let’s look closer at the biology that the virtue paradigm filters out.
The brain releases dopamine when you find a new reward. We like “new and improved” because dopamine makes it feel good. This sounds like bad values, so believers in the virtue paradigm simply reject it. They explain it away by insisting that corporations have gotten control of your dopamine. They disempower you instead of teaching you to manage your impulses. That view is alarmingly popular. Blaming society is more fun than taking responsibility for your brain.
Our brain releases oxytocin when we feel protected by others. Oxytocin motivates a lone gazelle to run toward the herd when it smells a predator. This promotes the gazelle’s survival, even as it endangers others. Virtue believers think social bonds are pure altruism, and ignore the selfish motives in social interactions. They think that you can get your oxytocin by loving everyone and expecting everyone to love you. When that doesn’t work out, they condemn society for being “uncaring.” Before you waste your life condemning society, check out the biology. Even a mother’s love is selfish in the sense that she is protecting the survival of her genes. If you expect the adult world to nurture you like a child, you will be disappointed. In adulthood, we must offer protection to others in order to receive it.
The brain releases serotonin when you feel stronger than the monkey next to you. This fact is deeply offensive to virtue believers. They want you to stimulate serotonin with a hot bath. That can work for a few minutes as you lock everyone else out of the bathroom, but it doesn’t help you navigate a world in which seven billion others want to be top monkey. If you can’t acknowledge your own urge to be special, you resent that urge in others. You believe that others are putting you down because you can’t see that you are trying to put yourself up. Thus, the virtue paradigm creates conflict instead of appeasing it.
You may not think the brain should work this way, but this is how it works. Fortunately, you can be virtuous and still enjoy happy chemicals. It takes the hard work of resisting immediate rewards and steering yourself toward long-term rewards.
Psychology is supposed to be a science, not a religion
The psychology establishment has embraced the belief that empathy and altruism are the brain’s core driver. They don’t say this openly, but you must fit this agenda to get academic approval, research grants, and publications. If you question this belief, you get ignored, or worse. Thus, they create a lot of “evidence” that supports the virtue paradigm, and no “evidence” that contradicts it. So they are not lying when they say “the evidence supports it.”
How did the virtue paradigm take over academic psychology?
It stimulates serotonin by making you feel morally superior.
It stimulates oxytocin by surrounding you with the safety of a herd.
It stimulates dopamine by making you feel like you’re “changing the world.”
It’s easy to see why well-meaning people submit to it.
You may pride yourself on empirical objectivity. You may strenuously reject the idea that you have confused a belief with science. Here is a brief story about our natural inclination to let our beliefs overshadow our facts.
Zookeepers know that an animal is likely to get killed if they place it in the enclosure of an existing group. Zookeepers want to protect their animals, so they have elaborate procedures for introducing new critters. But they don’t like to admit that animals are violent, so they disguise the reasons for these procedure. They spin the facts so cleverly that they hide the truth from themselves as well as the public. For example, they say they are respecting an animal’s nature, without acknowledging that its nature is to kill strangers in its territory.
Young people trained in this fact-spinning environment end up believing that peace and love are the norm for animals, so violence is caused by “our society.”
I sympathize with the urge for virtue, but we need to understand reality in order to navigate it. If you want to promote virtue, join a religion, but please don’t spin science to fit your beliefs.
Loretta Breuning has written another brilliant article, revealing the source of our hypocrisy.
The pressure to be a social justice warrior, without any scientific evidence that our efforts are working, has become so universal in academia, especially in the social sciences, that we have come to believe that we are inherently virtuous and others the evil ones responsible for our misery. The anti-bullying movement is so incredibly popular because it confirms our irrational but comforting belief that we are the good ones and they are the bad ones.
As I often say, "The reason the anti-bullying movement is so popular is the same reason it is failing so dismally: everyone thinks the bully is the other person."
Hmmm... I haven't found people to be generally in denial of what you say about people trying to meet their natural, selfish needs. Of course we try to get our "happy chemicals" in selfish ways, as determined by human nature, but since we understand this, we can try to do better and meet the needs of all of humanity instead of just ourselves.