Mind Design

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A Mind Designed for Hypocrisy

Who did Johnny's homework?

No, I didn't write it. But I commissioned it all by myself...
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My name is Rob Kurzban, and this is the first entry in my blog, Mind Design. The title refers to the idea that the human mind is the result of the process of evolution by natural selection, and my job - as an evolutionary psychologist - is to discover the details of how it works and what it's for: What is the human Mind Design?

I'll say more about myself and my research over the course of my blog entries, so I thought that instead of rolling out the usual biographical details, I would just jump right into it, and discuss one of my favorite topics: hypocrisy. In particular, I wanted to remark on an interesting essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month about the apparently sizable number of students who pay someone else to do their homework.

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The essay, written by Ed Dante - a pseudonym - discusses how the author pens papers for students to be turned in with their name on the top. He seems to handle everything from graduate school admission essays to doctoral theses, and he seems to have generated quite a stir, with over 600 comments on his essay on the Chronicle web site and counting.

There's much to like about the essay. It has this strange mixture of mea culpa with more than a hint of gloat thrown in. There's an acknowledgment of doing wrong - "in simple terms, I'm the bad guy" - but with a certain pride in his work, including, he says, banging out 75 pages in the space of two days. Not bad.

As someone interested in morality, and especially moral inconsistency, I like discovering all the various ways that people justify their own moral lapses. In his essay, Ed engages the issue this way: "I see where I'm vulnerable to ethical scrutiny." Well, that's one way to put it, that he's vulnerable to scrutiny. And that's not a bad way for him to put it, either, since it would sound so much worse to say something like: "I see where I am the means by which students cheat, plagiarize, and obtain degrees they have not earned."

To address his "vulnerability to scrutiny," Ed uses the same strategy I used when I did something morally murky: try to blame someone else. Well, yes, I was playing frisbee in the house and broke the vase... but if you had just bought me a swing set, I would have been playing outside in the back yard in the first place. Ed uses a couple of rhetorical questions to move the moral marble: "Why does my business thrive? Why do so many students prefer to cheat rather than do their own work?" He asserts his innocence by pointing the finger at me (or people like me), saying "I am not the reason your students cheat." The fault, he says, is that because we educators don't catch and punish cheaters, well, it's no wonder the students keep retaining his services.

By this logic, of course, a guy who broke into Ed's apartment and stole all the plagiarized term papers might say that, yes, he could see where he was "vulnerable to ethical scrutiny," but, well, why do so many thieves stay in the profession? The cops don't catch enough of them and judges don't punish them enough. It's not the thief's fault. Cops and courts are to blame.

Anyway, this is an interesting part of moral psychology; we try to suggest that what we did wasn't wrong not because we didn't break the rules, but because of some sort of lapse on someone else's part. But there's something I found even more interesting. Ed reports that he takes a lot of assignments from seminary students. He writes that he has "been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution." This last strikes near and dear to my heart, as an evolutionary psychologist, but there is something just delightfully ironic about people paying someone to write an essay they will claim as their own about moral decay.

What is this telling us about the design of the mind? Well, most importantly, to me, such cases show that humans are - no surprise - not particularly consistent. We're pretty fast to tell other people what not to do, but a little less vigilant about what we ourselves get up to. That is, our minds are designed to identify and even point out other people's moral failings while, at the same time, pursuing our own interests even if doing so means violating the very same rules we want to punish others for violating. This is just one way that we try to gain strategic advantage in the social world; pursuing our own interests while at the same time trying to stop others from pursuing theirs.

I'll be saying more about inconsistencies and hypocrisy down the line, so I'll leave it there for now. Welcome to my blog. I hope you enjoy it.

Postscript. I also blog at the online journal Evolutionary Psychology. In this blog here at PT, I'll focus on issues that are of interest, I hope, to a general audience, while in the other blog I'll discuss material relevant to both general audiences and people in the community of evolutionary psychologists.

Robert Kurzban, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.

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