Monday, May 28, 2007

Science and Altruism: 5/28/07 Edition

Whew. Too many confusions in here to sort out right now. Hard to tell how many of them are coming from the scientists and how many are attributable to the journalist.

To touch on some of the major points:

1. It is not a recent discovery that doing the right thing sometimes feels good.

2. Even if doing the right thing does sometimes feel good, that has few implications for questions about the nature and grounds of moral obligation.

3. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: doing the right thing does not always feel better than doing the wrong thing. Yet we sometimes manage to do the right thing in such circumstances nevertheless.

4. We already knew that some people seem incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. This defense is often misused...but if someone genuinely can't tell the difference, then we don't hold them responsible for their wrong-doing. None of what's in this piece seems to tell us anything new about that.

5. One does something wrong when one can tell the difference and does the wrong thing anyway.

6. None of this shows that the only reason we do anything is because it feels good. That question remains an open one.

These really aren't complicated points.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right that the article contains a great many confusions, especially on the worry that this might offer excuses to people that do wrong. The findings presented are genuninely interesting for moral philosophy I think.

It's another blow against the Hume's old canard that there is no evil to be seen in the torture of babies, just babies and torture. ("The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy" if you will.) The current research would seem to back up the view that the fashion in which we recognize good and evil in situations is very similar to the way in which we are sensitive to other elements, such as danger. No one would be so foolish as to think that just because the sensing of danger has evolved, and characteristically feels a certain way (scary), that there is nothing to danger except the feeling produced by our brains as we sense it. No one would think that acting by virtue of such an evolved mechanism alone means we failing to act with genuine prudence. Both positions however are tempting in the moral realm. (The projectivist anology is obvious. The second point is against Kant's claim that impulsive action is never moral.) This research may help to lessen the temptation of these positions and make the various kinds of "normative naturalist" positions positions more respectable, at least amounst those philosophers who can't take anything seriously without some scientist seeming to agree.

3:53 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Quotes caveman commercial:

"Yeah, I have a reply..


4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to figure out what to say about this, since the article, though glib and too speculative, reports interesting facts underneath the fluff.

This paragraph, which comes after the breathless Mr.-Watson-I-need-you opening hook and the obligatory genuflection to Christianity, is the nub:

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.

I would say, "Duh!" Our behavior is constrained by our physiology. It's foolish to think otherwise. The truly unexpected result would be if neuroimagining could not detect physiological signs of altruism (implicit definition: self-sacrifice or maybe even just generosity). Likely a negative result would mean the imaging was inadequate, not that there was nothing to find.

Some economists will see this work as vindicating their axiom that altruism is impossible (makes the models sooo much easier). They'll claim, as they have before, that the pleasure reward determines the "so-called altruism". These are the economists formally known as idiots. They mistake their cherished axiom for empirical finding.

What the scientists are really answering is: How is it possible that we can act altruistically at all? Their hypothesis appears to be that we're wired for it, and this experiment confirms that. It's obvious to most of us that we can act altruistically; they're just looking for mechanisms, and they've found one. (Note: This doesn't mean it's the only one, but it's probably a key motivator of our ability to philosophize about morality, which extends and refines what our brains can reward.)

Evolution is a great reuser, too, so it's not surprising that inner rewards for altruism would use existing pleasure mechanisms.

This all happens in the paradigmatic context of long moderation of the classical Darwinist nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw model. Social organization is adaptive for many organisms; the possibility of altruism (yes, as narrowly defined here) is a requirement for social animals. Neo-Darwinists don't have a problem with this.

Behaviorists have long asserted a blanket prohibition on imputing thoughts or feelings to (other) animal species. Maybe this was necessary to wring out anthropomorphism, but it clearly went too far. Our common descent militated against this behaviorist methodological dogma from the start; all the traits that we find wonderful in ourselves could not possibly have evolved so recently and without animal precedent. The most peculiar effect of the anti-anthropomorphic dogma was a retreat into theomorphism, or maybe demitheomorphism, if you'll let me coin a word.

We humans are of a piece with the rest of the animals, and we share many attributes, including memory, reasoning, and emotion, however primitive they may be in many species. Researchers are flinging off their behaviorist shackles and showing this again and again. WaPo had a recent story on reasoning in dogs, for example.

I do agree with WS that the discussion of impacts on our moral judgements and their social expressions is almost willfully obtuse. Arguendo, if the idio-economists are right, and we only do what feels good (one way or another), this determines our behavior, and determinism has no implications for how we actually behave since it surrenders all claim to be normative. Thus, if pleasure determines what's "moral" (in the name of successful adaptation for the species and its individuals), we as a society can continue to punish and segregate offenders, and we'll derive the necessary pleasure from doing it that it will be "moral".

(OK, Mystic, that last may provoke you to quote from Geico again!)

4:06 PM  

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