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Ethical Brain: Chapter 10 
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Post Ethical Brain: Chapter 10
This thread is for discussing Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics. You can post within this framework or create your own threads. ::44

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 11/1/05 12:29 am



Fri Sep 30, 2005 3:29 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
Well, in answer to a question that I raised in the "preface" thread, it looks as though Gazzaniga's intention was to initiate the search for a set of flexible principles that allow for moral determination. His suggestion that there may be a universal moral response in the brain turned out to avoid -- though perhaps suggest -- the implication that morals are tied to a particular set of neurological features that are identical from person to person, and therefore always tend towards the same general formulation. It seems to me that his concluding remarks leave all of that rather open -- the focus is on a conscious effort to derive ethical maxims from the context of situations, not on an automatic response that is basically immutable.

That said, I do see a few points for disagreement. (C'mon, you knew I would.)

One is at the point where Gazzaniga raises, by reference to J. Q. Wilson, the idea that there are certain universal moral impulses. "Highest among these," Gazzaniga writes on page 167, "are that all societies believe that murder and incest are wrong, that children are to be cared for and not abandoned, that we should not tell lies or break promises, and that we should be loyal to family." We may start by recognizing that these are broadly true, but only because the definitions range from culture to culture. Incest, for example, is a matter of degree. One culture may define incest as any sexual relation that takes place with any one related as far back as several generations (that is, up to fourth or fifth degree cousins), including adopted children, while another generation allows sexual relations between aunts and uncles and their nephews or nieces. Murder is also a matter of translation, and some societies allow for deaths that most Western nations would consider murder plain and simple. Murder in ancient Norse society, for example, was restricted to killing in secret -- so long as the killer announced his crime, thus allowing for recompense, the death was not considered murder and not subject to the same moral sanction.

More even so, those "univeral values" are only so universal. The Greeks, for instance, sometimes abandoned their children, going so far as to pierce their ankles to prevent their survival. Some societies have held that service to the state, the tribe, or some given ideal supercedes one's loyalty to their family. The taboo against incest, once held to be universal, has seen been recognized to hold no sway over certain societies. Anthropologists and psychologists have come to reject the idea of universal taboos, and I don't see any reason why Gazzaniga and Wilson should thing themselves more qualified to decide the matter.

Gazzaniga concludes on page 177 that, no matter how we decide those rules were put into place, "one thing is clear: the rules exist." Not universally, I would argue, and therefore, not as the result of a biological commonality alone. Some other factor must be in play in the development of these moral values.

And a final issue I want to raise in this post is Gazzaniga's assumption as to what should determine the principles of his universal ethics. I see four criteria, listed in a single sentence on page 177. Feel free to draw other criteria to the group's attention; these are just the criteria I see in Gazzaniga's argument.

The sentence is this: "I believe, therefore, that we should look not for a universal ethics comprising hard-and-fast truths, but for the universal ethics that arises from being human, which is clearly contextual, emotion-influenced, and designed to increase our survival." Whether or not everything else in the book leads up to this point -- I don't think it does -- it seems clear to me that this was meant to be the central point of "The Ethical Brain".

Here are the criteria:
1) "being human" -- this is problematic precisely because, while able to raise the question of what it means to be human, Gazzaniga hasn't yet found a way to answer the question. Leaving it open has allowed him, over the course of the book, to imply that we can exclude from the category of embryos, people with severe dementia, possibly even professional atheletes. As I see it, there are two sides to this criteria. One is how we determine who is worthy of ethical determination. If we can say that another being is not human, then we can also assume a different set of ethical responsibilities to that person. That's the sort of mentality that has allowed previous generations to take positions that we now hold to be unethical in the extreme. The other side of the coin is that of how we determine how what ethical responsibilities are proper for someone who is human. But, again, before we can decide that, we have to agree on what it means to be human -- that is, it's the question of what it means to be humane.

2) contextuality -- this is acceptable on the face of it, but it invites a certain danger. We have to ask ourselves how much context ought to play into an ethical consideration. Otherwise, we run the risk of finding that all of our ethical conclusions are relative to the circumstances in which they take place, relative to the degree that the formulation of ethics becomes practically impossible. I'm not talking merely about it being impossible to arrive at ethical maxims that are always applicable, the "hard-and-fast truths" Gazzaniga rejects. More worrisome is that idea that context may play such a large part that we cannot hope to figure out what ethical solutions is applicable to any individual situation. In short, we have to be sure that contextuality is not ultimately antithetical to ethics itself.

3) "emotion-influenced" -- this, as I understand Gazzaniga, is the point at which neuroscience is most instrumental. He has argued that morality may ultimately be linked to emotion in such a way that understanding how emotion works can help us clarify what is most ethical. I'm skeptical of that conclusion, but it's something we can discuss in more depth at the insistence of others.

4) "designed to increase our survival" -- let's ask the simpler question first: does Gazzaniga mean our survival individually, the survivial of the social group, or something else? There's a pretty clear answer in the school of neo-Darwinians that sprung up in the wake of Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", but I'd like to see us address the question on its own merits, and apart from the assertions made by writers like William Right, et al. The trickier question, I think, is that of whether or not morality is really, at root, about survival. It is not a given that we have been evolved to address evolution, as such, to react consciously to it. In fact, it is patent that some individuals make decisions that they know will limit their survival, and do not feel that such conclusions conflict with their nature. Some individuals even make decisions that limit the survival of the species -- think of all the people who know, or ought to know, that polution damages the environment, and that it could eventually make the earth uninhabitable, but who knowingly contribute to pollution in avoidable ways. I think we ought to at least consider the possibility that the human creature is cognitively flexible enough to subvert the survival imperative in favor of another goal, and that at least part of our morality is geared towards serving other goals. It may even be that, apart from preserving life, morality is geared towards producing "the good life" -- that's something we have to consider, I think, any time we assert that it is sometimes more ethical to die than it is to live under certain conditions.




Mon Oct 17, 2005 7:39 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
As I see it, science consists of models of the real world and isn't capable of providing moral judgments. Of course, science can provide information that influences people's moral decisions. And science can study how people approach ethical issues, such as their behavior and the portions of the brain that become more activity when pondering a moral dilemma. Still, science by itself cannot resolve questions of morality.

Gazzaniga's claim that "Evolutionary psychology points out that moral reasoning is good for human survival" is backwards. Instead, evolutionary forces led to behavior that increased the likelihood of human survival, and people developed moral beliefs to foster that behavior. In other words, since murder and incest reduce the likelihood of survival, people developed taboos to avoid those actions. Morality is just another name for taboos such as those.

The description of the three branched of Western philosophical ethics and their ties to different parts of the brain was rather neat.




Sun Nov 06, 2005 2:43 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
JulianTheApostate: Instead, evolutionary forces led to behavior that increased the likelihood of human survival, and people developed moral beliefs to foster that behavior. In other words, since murder and incest reduce the likelihood of survival, people developed taboos to avoid those actions.

No, I think even that is off the mark.

I think the terminology is apt to confuse us in this regard. We shouldn't talk about evolutionarily selected morals, but rather about evolutionarily allowed morals. "Selection" implies a little too much agency, when what we're talking about is whether or not certain moralities are compatible with the environmental pressures -- or more specifically, with the strategies adapted for dealing with those pressures -- which threaten survival.

A morality that encourages hygenic behavior, for example, may tend to promote the survival of the population which adopts that morality. That should not suggest to us that it was adopted for that reason. It may have been adopted for reasons that are, from the evolutionary viewpoint, entirely arbitrary. Evolution is involved only as a form of automatic censorship -- it expunges those who adhere too closely to modes of conduct that do not promote their survival. Even that statement is a little too anthropomorphic, but I think it makes an important point. We ought to bear in mind that evolution doesn't have so much to do with what moralities develop as it does with what populations do not live to pass on their moral codes to future generations.

So far, I haven't read or heard anything which would convince me that morality is evolved in anything like the sense in which we talk about opposable thumbs having evolved.




Mon Nov 07, 2005 12:39 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
As I see it, evolution is responsible for both physiology and behavior. That guiding principle of evolutionary psychology, as described in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, makes perfect sense to me.

And from a purely functional perspective, morality is a set of behavior rules that people tend to follow. Humans evolved to possess morals that increase the likelihood of that they and their progeny would survive.

Also, your evolution as censorship metaphor is too limited. Evolution postulates continual variation within a species, arising from differing genes and random mutations. Over time, a gene that leads to greater longevity will become more prevalent in the gene pool of the species, and that's the driving force of evolution.




Mon Nov 07, 2005 2:57 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
JulianTheApostate: That guiding principle of evolutionary psychology, as described in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, makes perfect sense to me.

That's one I've actually read, but it's been so long that I don't know how well I'd be able to discuss it. I was never quite satisfied with Wright's argument, though. It suffers, I think, from the same problem as Richard Dawkins' arguments in "The Selfish Gene", which is that, while all of these things may appear to be true when viewed from the perspective of statistical analysis, that does not imply the causation that they routinely infer.

And from a purely functional perspective, morality is a set of behavior rules that people tend to follow. Humans evolved to possess morals that increase the likelihood of that they and their progeny would survive.

I don't see that in practice, though. It's all well and fine to argue that morality does, on average, increase the chances of survival -- Huxley made that argument towards the end of the 19th century -- but that just doesn't seem to be the case. I could labor the point by making reference to any number of instances where the moral choice tended to decrease the chances of survival. If nothing else, it's fairly clear that the tendency towards pacifistic engagement doomed a very large portion of the Jewish population of Europe during the Nazi Final Solution. But it's should be enough to suggest that the conformability of morality to evolutionary fitness is wholly dependent on the circumstances of the moment. Beyond which, as with any scientific claim, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who draw the inference.

Evolution postulates continual variation within a species, arising from differing genes and random mutations.

And that's where the analogy between physical evolution and conceptual development tends to break down. It was problematic enough for Dawkins that he coined a new term in order to bolster the analogy, and thus we have the meme. But the problem, as I see it, is that conceptual variation is far more plastic than the sort of mutation we see in physical bodies, without the means of fixing traits -- through heritability and a form of embodiment, ie. DNA -- necessary for the reliable transmission of traits. Unless it can be demonstrated that morality is encoded in the DNA or some similar physical apparatus -- and here I'm talking about specific moral tendencies, not merely the capacity for developing morality -- then it becomes difficult to talk about the heritability of morality without abstracting either term to the point of absurdity. Language, to my mind, does not suffice, not because it is intangible but because it lacks precision -- a problem that has dogged the heels of philosophers of science like Karl Popper, and which poses insoluble problems for those who would build a theory of objective knowledge.

Ultimately, my problem with the theory that morality is an evolutionarily determined trait is that there's no substantive argument for causation. Let's take a particular example. I forget the name of the groups, but there have been, at various points in American history, sects of Christianity who require total abstinence from their adherents. This is obviously an evolutionary dead-end, as these adherents will be unable to pass their genes on to the next generation -- a point that would be lost on these sects as most of them believe that, anyway, the end of the world is nigh. But evolutionary psychology suggests that, at this fairly late stage in human evolution, such a morality should be fairly improbable, as it would already have been selected out. Given that there is a strong genetic "taboo" against total abstinance -- which makes good evolutionary sense -- it stands to reason that these adherents are mutations, that their morality is a random variation. That explanation isn't terribly necessary, though, as the morality of such sects is explicable in historical and cultural terms, and the cohesion of such groups tends to come in historical phases, related to social events. There's not much reason to fall back on the explanation that these beliefs are the result of random genetic variation. And for that matter, I've seen nothing to suggest that offspring produced prior to the parent's admission to the sect have an a priori predisposition to the same morality, though they may be conditioned or indoctrinated into the sect depending on their dependence on the parent at the time.

Over time, a gene that leads to greater longevity will become more prevalent in the gene pool of the species, and that's the driving force of evolution.

Not necessarily, but then, I presume that you're well aware that a gene which promotes longevity after the end of the viable reproductive years is more likely to endanger its offspring through persistent intraspecific competition.




Mon Nov 07, 2005 3:44 am
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
I'm just starting chapter 10, but one sentence got my attention:

Quote:
Putting it in secular terms, nobody has told the kids yet there is no Santa Claus.
I'm shocked none of you have commented about this line yet. ::44

Chris




Mon Nov 07, 2005 11:20 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
According to evolutionary psychology, human behavior evolved when society consisted of small bands of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Once cultural factors, such as technology, took over, the world started changing far too quickly for evolution to keep up. In other words, we all have Stone Age personalities stuck in a radically different modern world.




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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
Trying to steer clear of that topic for the moment, Chris, given the ruckus it caused in the Chapter 1 thread.




Tue Nov 08, 2005 4:39 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
I found the discussion regarding empathy altruism hypothesis, on p 174, interesting. I have heard about many theories on altruistic behavior, but this was a new one for me. Basically, this hypothesis puts forth the idea that we help others to relieve our own simulated distress. This is based on the idea that people unconsciously mimic the distress we see in others. This simulation actually makes us feel bad. Therefore, we want to help the person in distress in order to alleviate our own distress. Does anyone have any thoughts on this hypothesis?




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Post Re: Ch. 10 - Toward a Universal Ethics
Tarav
Quote:
. . .this was a new one for me. Basically, this hypothesis puts forth the idea that we help others to relieve our own simulated distress.
I thought this was the standard explanation.
Quote:
This is based on the idea that people unconsciously mimic the distress we see in others. This simulation actually makes us feel bad. Therefore, we want to help the person in distress in order to alleviate our own distress.
this part is new, it elaborates on the neural substrate of the above explanation.
Quote:
Does anyone have any thoughts on this hypothesis?
This is a proximate explanation, rather than an ultimate explanation. Although proximate explanations are interesting and have their place (after all, medicine is built on them), ultimate explanations are much more interesting to me. Why did it evolve? What selective pressures led to this mechanism? What predictions can we make based on its survival value?


If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything. Daniel Dennett, 1984




Sun Nov 13, 2005 12:54 pm
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