Saturday, July 30, 2005

Morality and the Mind

Many moons ago, in one of my very first blogospheric attempts to convey my thoughts on morality, I wrote the following:

As an individualist, I support the freedom of another to self destruct, as long as there are no other victims. Again, different moral codes can coexist as long as individual freedom and consent predominate.

I will say, that the concept of morality in general is an objective verity, but I reject the notion that any particular moral code is objectively superior, because reasonable, intelligent people can disagree on the fine points of subjective ideology.
Since then I’ve dealt with the topic of morality in different ways, both directly and indirectly. In so doing, I have expressed my displeasure with religious moralists as well as secular moralists. And although the two differ substantially, a well publicized commonality is found in the political realm and has to do with Federal, State and Local legislation. And though their goals may be, at times, mutually exclusive, they invariably use morality to justify laws that are designed to regulate non-violent behavior, whether mandatory or prohibitive (e.g. confiscatory taxation for social programs and arcane marriage and drug laws respectively).

As I intimated above, by way of quoting myself, I’m of the opinion that morality is universal and intuitive, but only in the most basic sense (i.e. morality is limited to respecting another’s life, liberty and property by not violating those rights). Well, my assumption about morality might just be within the ballpark. Chris of Mixing Memory has posted the first installment of what promises to be an excellent series on Moral Psychology.

Hopefully, by the time I'm done, you will have some idea of what the intuitionist view of moral judgment is, in what ways moral psychology and moral philosophy should interact, and who, if anyone, might be a moral expert. There are a bunch of other issues that I'll try to touch on as well. Is morality a natural kind in the brain, or to use a stranger label, a cognitive kind? How much influence does conscious reasoning have on our moral judgments and behavior? How does communication affect moral judgment? These and other difficult questions will be answered definitively in these posts. OK, so maybe not definitively, or at all, but I'm at least going to touch on them.
I thoroughly enjoyed the initial entry, as it is equally informative and interesting. So, by way of a tease, I’ll try to briefly summarize it. Alright, essentially Chris points to a variety of studies that reveal the correlation of brain-damaged individuals and impaired moral judgment. According to those data, morality is the product of both nature and nurture. Nature is involved because the brain is naturally geared to generate moral responses to various social stimuli. Nurture comes into play by virtue of the normal development of the brain. Further, the data show that those who suffer brain damage in adulthood maintain the moral judgment that developed in early childhood, whereas brain damage in small children yields different results.

[neuroscientists] studied two patients whose prefrontal cortex damage had occurred prior to 16 months of age. These patients showed many of the decision-making deficits that characterize prefrontal damage in adults, but they also showed much, much more. They were unable to learn social conventions and moral rules, and showed poor moral reasoning, and were just all around bad people. They lied, cheated, stole, were terrible parents, and for all of this, they showed no guilt or regret. They were so bad that Anderson et al. put it in these strong terms: “Thus early-onset prefrontal damage resulted in a syndrome resembling psychopathy.”


So, there is good evidence from lesion/brain damage studies that the prefrontal cortex, and the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex specifically, is involved in the emotional and empathic responses that are associated with moral judgment.
Beyond that, there is clinical evidence that the brain activity of "normal" people differs in response to moral stimuli. Participants of one such study were asked to respond to various thorny moral dilemmas. An example given in the post is the so-called Trolly Problem, which goes like this:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

In light of the latest neuroscience, it is quite obvious that morality, in general, is innate, rather than learned, although learning (e.g. brain development) is definitely a major part of normative moral judgment. Chief among the reasons for this seems to be that moral reasoning is necessary, generically speaking, given the social nature of human beings.

Now, even though I consider myself to be an individualist, I’m cognizant of the fact that no one is an island. Furthermore, although I often criticize the moralism of others, I realize that morality is intrinsic to every mentally healthy person on earth.

How then do I reconcile these apparent inconsistencies? Quite simply. In my view, the specifics of both moral intuition and social philosophy are extremely personal. Moreover, moral and social considerations are only uniform at the most basic level. That is, since we share a common geography, it is incumbent upon us to refrain from intentionally impinging the rights of others. Similarly, it is the province of each individual to determine the level of social interaction that suits them personally.

For example: I do not equate a citizen (free and equal member of society) with a subject (one that is under the control of another), or pluralism with collectivism. In other words, one can be an individualist citizen in a pluralistic society, just as one can behave morally without being a moralist (one who seeks to impose ones moral code on others). Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is often confused, in that there are some who think that society ought to be monolithic, or at least as close as possible. As I said earlier, those that engage in excessive moralizing—those for whom the state is a means to that end—are religious and secular alike.

hat tip: Will Wilkinson