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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Being an angel to an angel.

We lost Milt last night. His last words to me (on Friday) were "You're an angel." Because he found out I had been hitting his morphine button for him every 10 minutes for 4 hours when the nurse didn't show up. He'd been in pain all morning and no one had helped him except one of his sons had put a pillow under his lower back to ease that, but as soon as he left, the attendants pulled it out and wouldn't put it back. They said they'd bring him pain meds and never came back. When I got there at 430, they'd left the button dangling on the floor instead of where he could reach it, and his hands were too swollen to press the call button. Oh, and his vocal chords were removed a few years ago, so he couldn't tell them over the speaker what he needed.

I realized last night after his youngest called us to give us the news, that I had never had a chance to thank him for putting Jesse's little brother in his will (he had told me years ago that he wasn't going to and I said that was fine with us as long as he kept hanging out with us, because all we cared about was his company). He gave him 25% of his upper west side co-op. I'm astonished. I guess I didn't want him to think that's why I was going up there every day.

It's been a tough few weeks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day Two

Yesterday I thought Milt had just entered the hospital that morning, since that's when we got the call from his son, my ex-step brother-in-law. But he's been there since Saturday. I felt a little irked that no one had called me sooner, but that's how it is with ex-step-families, I guess. He'd already moved from a regular, semi-private room to a pre-ICU room, with ICU-style monitors and a nurse right there in the room 24 hours a day. He told us that in the semi-private room, he'd suffered from some kind of panic attack. He couldn't catch his breath, and the nurses didn't respond to his panic button. So he lay there gasping, he said, drowning. "I never want to go through that experience again," he told us, and he meant it literally.

This room has an expansive view of the East River, which is more a benefit to his visitors since Milt's bed, though right near the window, faces toward the city he's lived in for the last 6 decades.

Milt was glad to see us, and pretty perky considering. He rubbed his unshaven face and apologized. The razor, he said, was too heavy. I'd offer to give him a shave today, but I've never done that for another person in my life. You'd think the nurses would know how to do this. Milt's voice is gone, all he can do is whisper, but we're used to this. He lost a good deal of his vocal cords to cancer a few years ago. When the nurse leans over him to fuss with his catheter, he says/whispers, "isn't she beautiful" to me. She smiles shyly. Later he tells me, "see, that's how I get extra attention." I think she's on to him, though.

Talking wears him out, but he can't stop when we're there. He tells us about a book he read in the library of his apartment complex. I want to figure out who the author is (Sarah somebody, he says), and get him one of her works he hasn't read yet. Only I'm not sure which ones he's read. He tells me he's in love with her writing style. Detective novels. The detective is Jewish, but didn't know he was (because of an adoption mixup). I'm sure I can find it all but maybe not in time. I'd like to be able to read him the next one in the series. So he won't have to talk.

He was having trouble lifting his spoon, too, so I fed him his dinner. Hated the fish. Loved the cherry jello. I promised to come back today to feed him jello again. It's a pleasure to find a way to help him, after all the kindnesses he's shown me in the last 30 years.

My son and husband leave to let Milt rest. He motions me toward him and tells me when -- if -- he ever leaves this place, I have to go to his apartment with him immediately, because he has something to give me. "It's not a fortune," he says. Just what he's put away in cash for my son, and the two step-grandkids who live in upstate New York. The three of them are his late wife's only grandchildren, and of them, only Jody is her blood relative. But for Milt, they are all his, too. It throws me for a second, though. Haven't they told him he's not getting out of here? I tell him, don't worry, I'm sure one of the boys (his sons) can do it.

"Oh no," he says. "I don't want them to know I have that kind of cash lying around."

Which means he doesn't realize that they won't be getting mad at him for things like that ever again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Saying goodbye to Grandpa Milt

Grandpa Milt has just entered the hospital for the last time. We've known this day would come. He was diagnosed with lung cancer around the same time Jesse relapsed with leukemia. But the last time I saw Milt was at his 90th birthday a couple of weeks ago. He was still getting around on his own, no oxygen tank yet, no cane: we danced together to Beyond the Sea, then the belly dancer cut in and did something with a sword balanced on her head. Women were always one-upping each other around him.

Milt's not our blood relative; he was my late ex-husband's stepfather. So when people ask us how we're related, it can be difficult to explain. We usually settled on ex-step-in-laws, with a laugh. He was the only grandpa my kids really knew: he took them fishing, and taught them how to build wooden toys and paint them. He smoked cigars from Ya Mother's Cigar Store. He had a summer place that he'd renovated and maintained himself, on a lake, with a paddle ball court and a dock and a row boat, and a little tool shop out back. His other hobby, besides being an unrepentant flirt, was restoring antique clocks. So you'd be napping in the summer place, a fire crackling softly in the iron stove and suddenly you're jerked awake by every possible clock sound known to man. That is, if you forgot to stop the pendulums of the two dozen or so active antiques he had on the walls. And the grandfather clock. And the cuckoos in the dining room.

He's a real Jewish farm boy: brought up near Liberty New York on a sprawling few hundred acres, back when folks still traveled by horse and cart up there. He joined the Navy to see the world, and ended up in Indianapolis during WWII, right when my dad was busy growing up just 40 miles SW of town. They could easily have crossed paths more than once.

He once asked my youngest sister to run away with him to Spain. Another time, he asked out an entire table of Southern ladies moored at our friends' Turkish place on the Upper West Side. They each gave him a kiss. We used to take him to dinner about once a month, for the pure joy of seeing a man in his eighties who lived harder than most men half his age.

He's a Commie even now. If you were sitting with him, over at the hospital right now, and brought it up, I guarantee you he'd enjoy nothing more than arguing with you about it. His wife was the daughter of one of the office holders of the CWP.

I'm glad he gets to check out with all his faculties intact. It feels more like we're losing him, this way, but at least he gets to wring these last moments out of life. I'm going to head up there in a few hours to send him off with the rest of his family. My ex-step-in-laws. I'm glad they understand how much he means to us.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Secrets, mysteries, embarrassing crap

The first time I lost Jesse was when I left his dad. I don't think Jesse ever really forgave me for that, even when he found out why I left. I don't mean that there was any secret, just that his dad finally started treating Jesse the way he'd treated me. I didn't know what was wrong with his father. I just knew I couldn't tolerate it any more. Nothing I said or did changed anything. I never knew, when I came home back then, who would be there: was it the nice Jaimie, the loving one? Or the jealous, angry, irrational one who believed that the only reason offices existed was so people could cheat. Who would berate me for not getting a full time job when he refused to work, then berated me for being gone at work when I should be home with the kids. Of course he still wasn't working. I could go on with the litany. Throwing a chair at me. Throwing newspapers, whatever was handy. Shaking me so hard my contacts flew out and bruises in the shape of his fingertips formed on my arms. If I showed them to him, he'd laugh and say I bruised too easy.

And yet, when I decided to leave, I didn't believe he'd use the boys against me.

Years later, when he was 18 and his father had disowned him for no real cause, Jesse told me I should have sucked it up and stayed, because I was a mother and that was my job. I wonder if he ever realized what he was saying. I tried to explain. I tried to apologize for all the stupid things I did wrong when I was trying to escape with him and his brother, and failed. Failed him. But all he wanted was for me to say I was wrong to leave his dad, and I could never say that. I told him so. I wish that had been enough for both of us. A beginning of forgiveness. All I've wished for since is his forgiveness. Can the dead forgive?