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And the Moral Law Within

May 30th, 2007 · 4 Comments

The New York Times sums up some of the interesting work being done on the neurological bases of morality, in particular the finding that we seem to be hardwired to enjoy altruism. The piece is a little less precise than I might have liked: It should come as no surprise at all that there’s some specific mechanism of reward in the brain that cashes out the old notion that it feels good to do good. But if the mechanism is hardwired, its specific triggers—the group of people I’m going to get satisfaction from helping—are equally clearly not. Because we’re also hardwired to draw moral in-groups and out-groups, typically in culturally determined ways.

Inevitably, there’s a paragraph on how this research is provoking some misguided handwringing:

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry — rather than free will — might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

In one sense, this particular horse has already left the barn. For anything we do or think, there’s going to be some corresponding brain activity, so we already know that all human experience and action is (bracketing, for the moment, quibbles about how precisely to interpret this term) “reducible” to brain chemistry. All that’s changing is that we’re gaining understanding of the specifics of the mechanisms involved. And similarly, all our cognitive capacities are byproducts of an evolutionary process that designed our brains as a tool for survival and reproduction. And we know this in a general way whether or not we get into a taxonomy of the specific adaptation and the reasons for their selection.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to imagine that this research shows that morality is just some sort of blind reflex, like a sneeze. (Compare Dan Dennett’s idea that when we get distressed by the notion that humans lack radical free will, it’s really because we’re concerned with being “sphexish rather than with being determined per se.) We’re born with a pretty crude and simple set of biologically given needs: Food, love, sex, warmth, security. From these building blocks, we generate varied and complex personal and collective goals, as well as life plans to fulfill them. Knowing something about the hardwired foundation will doubtless tell you something about the structures built atop it, but there’s a lot it won’t tell you as well. It’s interesting if, say, aesthetic appreciation of opera lights up the same part of the brain as an orgasm, but there’s rather a lot left to say about why Wagner is good, and only some of it will amount to an explication of the physiology of hearing.

In any event, why should morality be degraded by having its roots in our evolved brain structures? Degraded relative to what? Suppose, after all, there really were Platonic forms of the Good out there somewhere. Why would that leave things better for morality? Because an evolved, embodied morality is more contingent? But we’re in that contingency. Because it would be more “transcendent”? But we make our moral decisions from behind our own eyes.

Tags: General Philosophy



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nick // May 31, 2007 at 9:14 am

    How many, many times have I made this argument? Too many.

    A corollary is that the fact that something is “natural” or “unnatural” has no moral weight. That we are evolved to prefer a particular behavior does not make it “right” or “wrong”; those things are separate. Claiming that something is good because it is natural is the God-said-it argument with a different face on it.

  • 2 Adam // May 31, 2007 at 10:07 am

    I don’t think morality is degraded per se because we’ve discovered the human brain already comes with this specific set of software already installed.

    Instead, it makes people fret because we tend to believe that morals can only come from the high moral authority of fill-in-the-blank (God, Marx, the Constitution, etc.). That morals can only be born from centuries of philosophical thought, perfected by important men thinking important things, who are able to preach to the masses that, at last, THIS is the true moral way of living.

    Another thing that intrigues me is that now that we better understand morality’s connection to simple brain structure and chemistry, who’s to say we may one day be able to control it? Is it outside the realm of the impossible to say that someday, a thief may be sentenced to having brain surgery to rewire him to behave more morally? I think that’s another thing that freaks some of us out – if we are hardwired by nature to behave this way, then what’s to men from intentionally hardwiring others to think a certain way, once we have the tools.

    Would that be good? (Arguably yes, if the thief becomes a saint). But what of absentee fathers – can we wire their heads to suddenly make them more paternal? What of the artist who does not want to work at a desk? – could we hardwire their right side of the brain to be more active? And how far can one go before it is “immoral” to do such things to people? Can we get this problem out of the way simply by rewiring ourselves to think it is not “immoral?”

  • 3 Julian Elson // May 31, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Your link appears to link to an article on ending tobacco addiction.

    I suppose the question is whether moral behavior is psychophysically supervenient upon neurobiology (well, yes, it is) or whether morality itself is (no, I don’t think so).

    Even if you don’t accept that idea that the naturalistic fallacy is really a fallacy, or you think that Hume’s is-ought gap can be bridged, surely no one would seriously argue that whatever our brains do in determiming our actions is morally right. When one part of someone’s brain fires in a certain way as cause him to beat his wife, and another part of someone’s brain fires in a certain way as to cause him to give money ot Oxfam, the reason we say that the part the causes the Oxfam donations is moral is because we’re applying our pre-established moral norms onto those brain functions ex post facto.

    I don’t think we can really infer anything about what actually is or isn’t moral from neurobiology — we can just determine how people are likely to act, and, at a very basic level, why, and then call these moral or immoral based on what we already think. Of course, I could be wrong here: I’m not familiar with this sort of philosophy so much, but it seems to me that there are a fair number of people who think that we can actually learn about morality by looking at brains. I don’t see how, though.

  • 4 Richard // Jun 1, 2007 at 12:03 am

    Yeah, simply put: Moral Judgment ? Moral Fact.