Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Losing Sight of Morality

JenniferF of Et Tu Jen sent me a link the other day to a WSJ article (not avail. online so far as I can tell, but it was "Scientists Draw Link Between Morality And Brain's Wiring" on May 11th) about some neuroscientists who have identified what they're calling the moral part of the brain.
Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.

Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. "It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality," said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.

In particular, these people had injured an area that links emotion to cognition, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex several inches behind the brow. The experiment underscores the pivotal part played by unconscious empathy and emotion in guiding decisions. "When that influence is missing," said USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, "pure reason is set free."...

At the University of Iowa Hospital, the researchers singled out six middle-age men and women who had injured the same neural network in the prefrontal cortex. On neuropsychological tests, they seemed normal. They were healthy, intelligent, talkative, yet also unkempt, not so easily embarrassed or so likely to feel guilty, explained lead study scientist Michael Koenigs at the National Institutes of Health. They had lived with the brain damage for years but seemed unaware that anything about them had changed.

To analyze their moral abilities, Dr. Koenigs and his colleagues used a diagnostic probe as old as Socrates -- leading questions: To save yourself and others, would you throw someone out of a lifeboat? Would you push someone off a bridge, smother a crying baby, or kill a hostage?

All told, they considered 50 hypothetical moral dilemmas. Their responses were essentially identical to those of neurology patients who had different brain injuries and to healthy volunteers, except when a situation demanded they take one life to save others. For most, the thought of killing an innocent prompts a visceral revulsion, no matter how many other lives weigh in the balance. But if your prefrontal cortex has been impaired in the same small way by stroke or surgery, you would feel no such compunction in sacrificing one life for the good of all. The six patients certainly felt none. Any moral inhibition, whether learned or hereditary, had lost its influence.
This is really interesting stuff, but I think where some caution needs to be kept is in announcing that this is the "source of" morality. After all, I imagine that neuroscientists have or soon will have identified that part of the brain that registers color. If that part of the brain were injured or removed, someone might be reduced to seeing the world in shades of grey rather than in color, but this would not in turn mean that color is a creation of that part of the brain. Color would still exist, the person in question would simply be unable to discern color without outside aid.

Similarly, the part of the brain being discussed here sounds like it produces an instinctual revulsion against the idea of killing another human. This might in many cases help someone avoid an immoral action -- though in other cases it might make them reluctant to perform a moral but difficult action. (It is notoriously difficult to train soldiers to kill enemy combatants, even in a necessary, just war situation.)

However, because color can be defined in strictly physical terms (a wavelength between X and Y is "green") we are less prone to assume that discovering how it is detected is the same as finding its source.

4 comments:

Rick Lugari said...

Here's a case in point where science without common sense or an informed conscience goes bad. I am not a neurologist, nor would I consider my knowledge on the subject to be considerable. I have two family members with different types (and areas) of brain damage and have done some reading on the subject - Rhonda has read even more. But please follow me here...what they are describing is nothing new about the type of injury and its effects. Pick up any book on the subject and this condition will be discussed as a very common occurrence. It is and has always been characterized as impeded judgment - being unable to consider consequences to your actions, being a slave to the now (impatient to an unimaginable extreme), a profound lack of empathy, minimal to no self-motivation, and being unable to judge the character of others.

Again...any book about brain injury will tell you about those things. The difference is, the above story is looking at that condition and equating it with morality; making a leap that is not warranted. Injuries like that would surely negate moral culpability in and as far as the person acted in as good of conscience as they could, but having no brain damage and the appropriate faculties does not make one moral. We still have free will and make choices (moral or otherwise).

Anonymous said...

hmm, maybe michael savage is right,"liberalism is a mental disorder"

Scott Carson said...

The bit about color--

It would depend, wouldn't it, on whether you think colors exist independently of mind? If you happen to think that what a color just is is an interaction between a certain wavelength of light and a certain part of the visual cortex of the brain, then in fact color wouldn't exist for that injured person. If you don't think that colors are dispositional properties to experience the world in a certain way, then what, exactly, are they? Are we going to say that "red", as we know it, that is, some sort of Platonic "redness itself" exists out there in that apple? I'm not altogether sure what that would mean.

I think morality is rather different. You're quite right, I think, that it's a mistake to infer from the fact that our brains do, in fact, enable us to interact with the world in a certain way, to the conclusion that the "source" of morality is itself in the brain, but that doesn't mean that plenty of aspects of morality are not socially constructed. I would defend the view that it is the highest Good that is independent of the brain, and how we move towards that Good is a function of how our brains work.

JP Benjamin said...

Hi Darwin,
I've been reading your blog for a while but this is the first time I've felt compelled to comment.
We have no reason to worry about claims about the natural sources of what we believe to have supernatural significance. Its true that frequently these claims have the hidden motive of denying the eternal significance of man- I'm thinking in particular of Nietzche's Geneology of Morals where he endeavors to exposit a plausible naturalistic genesis of morality and then basically says, “therefore, this is all that morality is.” Notice the unsupported leap from genetic claim to metaphysical claim. Its pure rubbish.

Example. I notice that every time someone is happy they smile. Do I then conclude that the physical act of smiling is all there is to happiness? No. I don’t do this because I know what happiness is and I know what a smile is and it is a rather straightforward mental operation to make the judgment that the two stand in a relation of nonidentity. Now suppose I am given more sophisticated tools with which I am to observe happiness. I spend years interviewing countless subjects, then scanning and dissecting their brains. I come to several conclusions all of the form “happiness is associated with physical phenomenon x.” Now, do I conclude that x _is_ happiness?

I think the previous commenter was off-track when he supposed that it depends on whether color exists outside of the human mind. Color is something that a subject experiences. It is experienced as a property of an external object—and it is known that color does in fact tell us something about the object; in other words, color is an objectively valid representation of a property that does exist externally. However, the experience of color is strictly subjective. It makes no sense to ask whether the experience of red exists outside of the subject, the answer is clearly no. Experience requires subjectivity.

So when scientists say they have found that part of our brain that is required in order to register color, its no different from me telling you which part of the body is required in order to register the experience of being tapped on the shoulder. It's the shoulder.

We have always known that man is natural and material. Man has an immaterial soul but it is necessarily a soul of a body. We must try very hard to shake Descartes’ influence from Christian philosophy. The soul is not to the body like a helmsman to a boat.

Sorry this is all a bit muddled. I’ll try and put together a proper post later. You might read my posts on “naturalistic accounts” and on “subjective experience and the immaterial”.