Greetings from Puebla! The meetings here are stimulating but exhausting; I went to the venue at 7:30 this morning and didn’t return until 8:30 p.m., and even so I missed the fireworks display (!). It is all very luxurious for us speakers, with chauffered limos, fancy hotel rooms, private minders to show us around, our own backstage dressing rooms (get that!), and fancy pyrotechnic digital introductions with LOUD rock music. What with all this hoopla, walking on stage makes you feel like a rock star (the audience is about 1200). I’m told that this technological hoopla resembles what happens during a TED conference.
The talks are, in the main, excellent, although a bit short at 20 minutes each! Highlights for me today were Frans de Waal on primate morality (he also showed some new footage of work on elephants, using the “marked forehead” design to show that pachyderms can recognize themselves as individuals); Jamie Whyte, a British philosopher whom I didn’t know, but who gave a fantastic talk on why we must not refrain from criticizing beliefs (including religion); Julian Baggini, author of the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Atheism; Randy Cohen (the New York Times ethicist); and Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, who also talked about his work on Abu Ghraib (he was an expert witness for one of the defendants). Marc Hauser also gave a good talk (similar to the one he gave at Chicago) about the universality of how people solve moral dilemmas, regardless of their gender, upbringing, or faith (or lack thereof). Hauser’s work really does make a good case that morality is something innate in humans: perhaps from shared evolution, but certainly not from faith.
Curiously, both Cohen, from his decade of writing The Ethicist, and Zimbardo, from his psychological experiments, arrived at the same conclusion: there are no such things as people with inherently good or bad characters: environmental circumstances can make good-intentioned people behave badly. As Zimbardo said, “There are no bad apples, just bad barrels.” Do have a look at Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment webpage: that work, done in the ’70s, is still a sine qua non in psychology texts as it raised disturbing questions about how nice people can become evil very quickly.
I was not completely convinced by this extreme environmentalism. For one thing, it’s an easy way to exculpate people who commit antisocial or criminal acts; for another, there do seem to be some people who are of inherently good character and prone to do heroic things in circumstances where others are apathetic. On the other hand, I keep thinking of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which showed how everyday Germans, most of whom we’d consider nice, well-meaning people, became avid supporters of the Holocaust.
Robert Wright also spoke, but mostly about his theory of how increasing non-zero-sum interactions are making society better. Thankfully, he didn’t bang on about the evolution of God.
The big draw of the conference is, of course, Sunday’s debate between Schmuley Boteach, Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D’Souza, and Sam Harris. I’m told that Wright will also participate. Unfortunately, I’ll probably have to leave before the debate, for many of us are flying out on Sunday.
The good thing about meetings this eclectic is that they make you think. You encounter new ideas and topics far removed from your everyday fare, and it’s good to get shaken out of one’s normal milieu to see what’s going on in other spheres. People whom I’ve never met (but whom I’ve admired), like de Waal, Cohen, and Zimbardo, were truly nice guys who were glad to discuss their work with me.
There’s another spate of talks tomorrow, mostly by people I don’t know, but that makes them even more intriguing.
And I’m eating well. Photos forthcoming, but let’s just say the conference organizers are putting on the culinary dog as well. I’m told that they flew two chefs over from Europe just to cook for us. Yesterday my minders took me to a swell local restaurant to sample local specialities, including mole poblano.
Update: xoxox to the travelling Otter.