Balkinization  

Monday, May 28, 2007

Scientists prove that Adam Smith was right and that Dick Cheney is brain damaged

JB

Take that, Immanuel Kant:

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe's head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

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.

Moral decisions can often feel like abstract intellectual challenges, but a number of experiments such as the one by Grafman have shown that emotions are central to moral thinking. In another experiment published in March, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

Comments:

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.

Perhaps, the ability to make non conflicted decisions about life and death situations should be counted among the unintended benefits of such brain injury. We spend billions of dollars every year teaching this skill to military and law enforcement recruits so that they can protect themselves and the rest of us from the predators of the world.

Leisurely contemplation may be a luxury law professors enjoy and expect. However, soldiers or police who hesitate because they cannot make up their minds as to which course of action to take get themselves and others killed.
 

Via SEED magazine I discovered a particularly important read, "Moral Minds" How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc D. Hauser. This is beyond a fascinating read.

"If there is any issue more important in the current cultural agenda than understanding the mechanisms behind the human moral compass I don't quite know what it is. To date, Hauser's book is the more complete attempt to bring together philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science and neuroscience around that critical issue. The result is both daring and wise." - Antonio Damasio, prof. of neuroscience USC.
 

Bart, the brain-damaged like yourself push the world into greater and greater chaos and mayhem through your actions. The discussion here is about behaviors that decrease violence, not increase it.

Morality, broadly speaking, emerges as a function of greater and greater capacity for reason. Reason, more or less, is the ability to see the world clearly in spite of the obscuring influences of desire and aversion.
 

Professor Balkin,
Give credit where its due: "Scientists prove David Hume right (again)."

Add this to the previous scientific confirmations:

The Finite Divisibility of Space (Quantum Mechanics)

The Empirical Origin of Geometry (Non-Euclidean Geometry & General Relativity)

The Illusion of Design arising from non-teleological perfections occuring over vast amounts of time (Natural Selection)
 

“Scientists prove that Adam Smith was right...” “Take that, Immanuel Kant.”

Jack, you barely started your post and I already have objections!

1. “Scientists prove...” I think that this oversells and overhypes the findings of the neuroscientists. First of all, the experiment described in the article had to do with only one moral phenomenon, altruism. Other experiments, such as those described by Green and Hauser, also study only a narrow set of moral problems, mostly highly emotive and unusual ones at that (such as trade-offs among human lives). These only scratch the surface of morality – and, so far as I can tell, they have nothing to say about moral issues that may be crucially important but are subtle rather than hot-button issues. For example, Kant thought we have a moral duty to cultivate our talents rather than idling and slacking our days away. None of the neuroscience experiments I’m aware of studies issues like that, or for that matter small-stakes issues of everyday interaction.

Second, some of the experiments strike me as scientifically questionable. For example, Marc Hauser and his collaborators study people’s reactions to hypothetical moral dilemmas using a web-based survey called the “Moral Sense Test.” The title of the test is already a confounder: it tells the subjects that their moral sense is being studied, which may put them on guard and elicit different reactions than the subjects would have if the test was labeled, for example, “Strategic Reasoning Test.”

Third, I also have serious questions about what conclusions can be drawn about moral behavior in reality by studying people’s reactions to hypotheticals posed while they are hooked up to brain-scanning machinery. (In scientists’ jargon: whether the experiments have “ecological validity.”) Remember Stanley Milgram’s famous electrical shock experiments. When he posed the problem to audiences hypothetically, nobody in Milgram’s audiences said they would administer the whole series of electrical shocks, and they guessed that only one in a hundred or one in a thousand people would do so – a clear tip-off that people think administering the shocks is wrong. Move them from the hypothetical to the reality, and almost two-thirds of the subjects administered the whole series of shocks. This suggests that responses to hypotheticals may be bad tests of real-life responses – or, at the very least, that it remains to be shown how good they are as tests. For decades, social psychologists have shown and argued that minute differences in people’s situation can translate into large differences in behavior. Surely, that well-established “situationist” conclusion should make us wonder how much the difference between sitting in a laboratory hooked up to an MRI and any real-life situation might affect people’s responses.

Let me be clear: these are genuine questions, not objections. Presumably, there are scientific ways to evaluate the ecological validity of the experiments. I just haven’t seen it done.

2. Adam Smith’s “sympathy” has a cognitive as a well as an emotional side, so it isn’t totally different from Kant’s idea that morality involves reason. In the opening pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith writes:

"Sympathy does not arise so much from the view of the [other person’s] passion, as from that of the situation that excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality....

The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment."

So Smith’s sympathy includes reasoning and judging “dispassionately” about the other person’s situation as well as feeling it with that other person. That suggests that the experiments described in the article are as much a disproof as a proof that Smith was right.

3. The experiments show that when people help others they get a nice jolt from their pleasure centers. Does that mean that they are helping others simply in order to get psychic pleasure themselves? Nothing in the experiments suggests anything of the kind. Do we really think that Wesley Autrey jumped in front of a New York subway to save another because he consciously or unconsciously anticipated getting that pleasurable buzz?

If people are NOT acting well in order to get a psychic buzz, then nothing in the experiments rules out Kant's basic claim: that morality consists in acting from duty. It may be that people acting from duty get a psychic buzz. But to identify that with "moral motivation" may mistake cause and effect.
 

Mr. Luban,
The easiest rejoinder to your defense of Kant is that the duties which he wished to ground purely in reason were still just founded on sympathy & sentiments. Shame, in particular, seemed to be a big part of Kant's morality. You can see this in the *highly* emotive language he uses in discussing morality based on happiness rather than duty (paraphrasing from memory) he claims that grounding a morality on happiness would fill one with self-loathing.
 

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.

This kind of research should be threatening only to a Cartesian dualist, or anyone else who believes, with no scientific justification, that the human mind is separate and different from the very complicated chemical and electrical systems through which our brain operates.

These studies help us understand the subconscious mechanisms that together lead to conscious ideas. If the materialists are correct, our minds will eventually be understood as comprised entirely of complicated chemical and electrical neural computer elements. This only strengthens the idea that I am an entity, that makes decisions.

The abstract I is not removed from the physical brain chemistry — indeed, these are simply different levels at which the view certain phenomenon — so certainly an I should take responsibility for its actions.
 

I didn't read the full article, but I would suspect that the brains of sociopaths are physiologically divergent from normals in the area in question, as a result of either genetic or environmental factors (or both).

So perhaps Cheney is a sociopath.
 

The neurological studies are fascinating, but it's also interesting to tease apart the questions of 1) what they tell us that we didn't already know and 2) what it is about the neuroscientific data that is so seductive.

As to the first question, the work of Damasio, Hauser, Greene, Jonathan Haidt and others on cognition, morality and empathy seems especially valuable because it helps demonstrate how closely emotion and cognition are interwined by showing that emotions aren't confined to any one area of the brain, but are implicated in a variety of cogntive functions. More specifically, it suggests that moral choices devoid of emotional input may be problematic--not just that the decisions are not accompanied by anguish, but that the decisions themselves are often disastrous. Damasio describes what happens when loss of affect is combined with intact reasoning as "acquired sociopathy."

But although the mapping of the brain functions is fairly new, the insights about reason and emotion are not. Psychologist Paul Bloom, in his interesting book Descartes' Baby, notes that "it is unusual for the techniques of neuroscience to provide insights that we had not already obtained through simpler means." So, I am as excited about this work as Jack is, partly because of its informational value and potential, but part of my excitement stems from the fact that it is causing many more people to take the role of emotion seriously now that science is weighing in and showing us color coded pictures of the brain (what NYU cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps memorably called "the cognitive paparazzi.")
 

Bart writes:Perhaps, the ability to make non conflicted decisions about life and death situations should be counted among the unintended benefits of such brain injury. We spend billions of dollars every year teaching this skill to military and law enforcement recruits so that they can protect themselves and the rest of us from the predators of the world.

Such ends-justify-the-means reasoning (if you can call it that) all to often leads to behavior that includes them in the ranks of the predators from which we need protection.
 

I recall another recent study that showed that the most successful equities traders are those who have sociopathic tendencies:

http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/9/23/225810.shtml

(looking for more primary quotes).

This explains a lot.

The main problem that this overlooks is when those do not have the emotive capabilities (either through damage or training) use that for immoral or illegal (or in the administration's case, unconstitutional) decisions.

The risk for removing the emotional responses for our guardians is that we cannot remove the legal and moral dimensions, either; otherwise, the only justification becomes effect.
 

Nicholas: your response to Luban's defense of Kant only works if one presumes that the duties Kant specifies really are "founded on," rather than merely accompanied by, emotions (Luban's point #3). In other words, your response only works if we all concede from the outset that Kant just can't be right about this. Of course, if we always had the luxury of getting to assume that our targets just can't be right, there would be no pressing need to issue a rejoinder in the first place.

I'm not sure whether these findings pose much of a threat to Kant's theory. (Kant's theory might be a failure, but not because of these findings.) Kant is widely misinterpreted as saying that someone acting from duty cannot under any circumstances be motivated by her "inclinations"-- that is, her own subjective preferences, feelings, etc. But he doesn't say that. In his Groundwork, it sounds as if that's the claim he's making. But he explicitly concedes that frequently, a person's inclinations and sense of duty coincide. But Kant finds such cases uninformative for the question he's asking, which is whether or not the fact that inclinations and duties coincide means that they are just the same thing. Kant's focus on cases where inclinations and the sense of duty fail to coincide help him answer his question in the negative, i.e. that moral obligations cannot be identified solely with some set of facts about human nature. This is a feature, though, that Kant's theory shares with theories that differ significantly from his (such as utilitarianism).
 

I'm aware that temperamental inclination can exist concurrently with duty for Kant, and since I don't have my Kant with me (but have read both the Groundwork and most of the 1st Critique, including the moral parts), I'll avoid trying to defend the sentimental foundation of Kant's morals and turn to the more fatal difficulty with his duty based morality.
Kant wants a morality that is universally applicable to all rational beings. The problem for Kant with moralities based on happiness is that such moralities will lead to uncertainty, disagreement and conflict (up to and including war, according to Kant's 3rd Critique). With Euclid's Geometry as his model, Kant believes that pure reason can lead to a system of morals that could be universally agreed upon. Unfortunately for Kantians (though not Kant. who died too soon), non-Euclidean geometry proves that you can have logically rigorous systems based on differing axioms and pure reason can't supply a basis to prefer one set of axioms from another.
 

Ironically, the aspects of human living that we most identify with being human -- our emotions, love, maternal instincts, and yes, empathy, are really far more mammilian than they are confined to the human race.

What really makes us human as opposed to being merely mammilian, are the traits exemplified by Star Trek's Spock -- our higher order reasoning abilities.
 

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