Friday, May 30, 2008

Morality. Neurology. Nature.

Three admissions: I am a third generation nerd, (which isn't to say I am either ambitious or good at it). This takes my mind off losing Grandpa Milt. I ended up at the Neuro Morality lecture last night, part of the first World Science festival.

I don't know why I was expecting something a little more edgy. The audience was mostly retirees looking to keep their brains moving. I wanted to hear about the grammar and syntax of morality as articulated across species, culminating in its most complex form, ours (speciesist that i am) but was thwarted.But mostly what I got was philosophy and some pretty standard pre-DSM-IV psychology. Hume vs Kant, according to Antonio Damasio ought to be more properly expressed as Hume x Kant. Not an original argument in the social sciences.

When Marc Hauser trotted out the old "sex with a chicken in the privacy of your home" moral conundrum, protests broke out, and not for the sake of the chicken alone. Moderator Jon Meacham questioned Harvard's wisdom in his tenure.

Admittedly some interesting conversation about what constitutes morality to a neuroscientist (or in Pat Churchland's case, a neurophilosopher). No one took up the contention that morality is just a bunch of stupid rules we've been saddled with; on the contrary, Pat proffered the opinion that morality is a subset of social behaviors; Tony threw in reward and punishment (he stepped back from that later), and Dan Dennett got closest to the traditional with the idea of "oughts." Marc countered that the brain distinguished moral decisions from others in some way (re-igniting the chicken controversy), accessing those "oughts" in choosing behaviors. Ultimately though, the group saw morality as a more fluid thing -- something akin to my argument that morality is a landscape, not a list.

Tony disgreed with Marc about the special nature of moral decisions: the brain doesn't know and doesn't need to know which decisions are "moral"; it just operates on moral decisions, like any other, reinforcing Pat's social-decision theory. To him morality springs from a universal primitive value: the management of life, survival of individual and group, and ought to be changeable as circumstances dictate. Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People came to mind: no good truth lasts more than say, 20 years.

The idea of needing God for morality to exist in an individual or society was pretty much laughed out of the auditorium by all. Pat offered examples of moral societies that didn't believe in gods at all (animists, Buddhists, ancestor worshippers etc), and went on to delineate animal societies and their rudimentary moralities (she favored birds in this, but found the moral nature of voles particularly intriguing-- apparently you can turn your formerly faithful male prairie voles promiscuous by adjusting vasopressin & its receptors in his tiny brain and end up with a de facto slutty male montane vole--must apply for NIMH grant to study this in governors).

That's not to say they didn't have nice things to say about religions, "a creative way of developing a [moral] system." That had mostly outlived their usefulness. Dennett gave the example of slavery, so popular in the old testament. It's not necessary to have religious revelations about slavery, Dennett pointed out, we can reason our way out, communally. He seems to believe there's a universal morality out there waiting to be reasoned toward; which feels so fin de siecle I almost want to pat him on the bald pate.

Meacham made a comment about reasoning vs. "irrational" emotion in moral choices, but Mark slapped him down (probably still mad about the tenure remark). Emotions, he said, play a significant role in moral psychology. They're not irrational. They fuel us to do adaptively reasonable things. Sometimes the reflexive adaptive behavior is no longer useful, but that doesn't mean they're irrational, just no longer necessary in an evolutionary sense.

Meacham also got a dig from Tony for all of science writing (which criticism rightly should have gone to say, a human nature columnist who will go unnamed herein): the catchy headlines are freaking lay folk out for no good reason. (I sensed a moral rule being invoked). It was a way of setting ground rules, I guess for the rest of this discussion.

Finally Damasio ponied up about psychopathy: there's an area of the prefrontal lobe that, if absent or dysfunctional at an early age, causes an inability to develop moral function. The child can reason, develop language, understand and follow rules, but cannot use emotional reasoning. The social emotions that govern moral action are not present.

What are the social emotions? Guilt, embarrassment, and shame are deployed, he says, when we detect a violation of a moral or aesthetic rule. We in essence punish ourselves, take corrective action, in relation to our social group to benefit ourselves and the group (in other words to reinforce the rule if nothing else). Contempt, disgust, or blaming of someone else for breaking a rule, is an emotional act that intends the other person to adjust their behavior. Compassion/empathy invokes the primary moral value (see above) and admiration, which he says has no precursor in nonhumans, means to manifest appreciation for another's moral deed, in order to reinforce it (I'll withhold my opinion here, but I'm no behaviorist).

The point however, is that when these social/moral emotions are missing, the person is in effect a psychopath (no one in the group is a psychologist, and they enjoyed poking fun at Carol Gilligan, so bear with me), but this structure's function alone does not explain, define or fully predict the phenomenon we'll call psychopathy. It's not that (as Gilligan's work may indicate to some readers) some hormone or other chemical like testosterone is over influencing behavior, or that some brain structure is different here or there: it's the interplay between the two under the control of the life of the individual over time, and the interactions are far too complicated for anyone in the sciences to say there's a "center" or a "chemical" that can be pinpointed as the seat of morality. In other words, said Tony, there's no such thing as nature vs. nurture.

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