So we had the first Measles death in 12 years. While I think that anti-vaxxers are vile and wrong headed, I don’t really blame the them. To me they seem like a symptom, not a cause. Getting your kid vaccinated is viscerally unpleasant, death from measles has been entirely theoretical for 12 years. I understand why an animal would accept the risk of an unseen danger to avoid the physical reality of paying money to get your kid stabbed by a stranger.

But we are in important ways more than animals. And our ability to act on the long term impacts of our actions rather than the short term impact is one of those ways. But this ability must be honed, and trained, even in us. This ability, for long term thinking, when properly honed, is a virtue. An ability to tease out which experts are correct and which are obviously full of shit, would be a virtue. But in contemporary American culture the only source of virtue is mystical or supernatural. This is a failure of imagination and understanding I’ve been frustrated with for some time. 

For at least 10,000 years we as a species have had to negotiate the mismatch between our evolved instincts and our constructed environment. Sometimes what is best for us hurts, and sometimes the easy pleasures are deadly. No other animal makes poisons that taste good to itself, but we do. Cultures have come up with many ways to handle these mismatches of near and long term thinking: religions, laws and cultural norms are the most common. But one of the major failings of  religion is how slow it is to change. And in the last hundred or two hundred years the rate of technological and cultural change has increased to the point that religion is stuck with correcting mismatches that no longer exist.

If you consider the ability to act adaptively in the face of an instinct/environment mismatch a virtue then what we need is an institution that encourages and enables virtue in its members. And we had that, to some extent, with organized religion. But now it needs new flexibility, and a scripture based in empirical research, not Revealed Wisdom. We need an organization that can motivate its members to do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult, or unpleasant, and especially when the right thing just changed because of a technological change.

In a responsible and ethically engaged culture people would be taught how to balance their animal fears against the advice of epidemiologists. And instead of fighting against the religious right and pretending that human beings are fine with just trying to be rational, we should be building institutions that help them understand the world around them. Help them talk to their neighbors about the importance of doing the right thing, when the right thing is empirically the thing that causes the least human suffering.