Monday, January 19, 2009

The Futurist - Reinventing Morality

Nice article on the ways our understanding of morality is changing with advances in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. As much as this is useful, and it is, there is still no way to divorce morality from the culture in which it is embedded.

Reinventing Morality

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience are adding to our understanding of a historically unscientific area.

By Patrick Tucker
Senior Editor

Morality may be something different for everyone; it may be the set of rules handed down by God to Moses on stone tablets, or the system in which karma is passed through the Dharma. But morality is also a decision-making process, one that plays out in the brain in the same way a mechanical decision-making process plays out on a computer. Clerics, theologians, and, in the last century, anthropologists have put forward various answers to the riddle of how our species stumbled upon the concept of goodness. Now, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists are adding to that understanding. Discoveries in these fields have the potential to achieve something remarkable in this century: an entirely new, science-based understanding of virtue and evil.

Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds (Ecco, 2006) and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University, is at the forefront of the emerging scientific discussion of morality. David Poeppel of the University of Maryland is on the cutting edge of today’s brain and neuroscience research. I spoke with both of them about what science can contribute to the human understanding of good and bad.

The first thing I discovered is that applying a scientific approach to a murky, loaded issue like morality requires understanding the problem in material terms. You have the event, in this case the moral decision. Then you have the space where the event plays out, the brain. Some aspects of the decision-making process are fluid and unique to the individual. To form a crude and an unoriginal analogy, this would be like the software code that the brain processes to reach decisions about what is morally permissible and what is not. Other aspects are fixed, like hardware.

Marc Hauser is an expert on the former.

Moral Grammar

A great example of moral-writing software is culture. Cultural influences on moral decision making can include everything from the laws that govern a particular society to the ideas about pride, honor, and justice that play out in a city neighborhood to the power dynamics of a given household. Religion, upbringing, gender, third-grade experiences dealing with bullies, and so on all contribute lines of code to an individual’s moral software. For this reason, no two moral processes will be identical. Academics have given this phenomenon a fancy name: moral relativism. The theory holds that because morality is transferred from groups to individuals in the form of traditions, institutions, codes, etc., everyone will have a different idea of good and bad.

But what if there are limitations to the spectrum of variation? What if, beneath the trappings of culture and upbringing, there really is such a thing as universal morality? If such a thing existed, how would you go about proving it? Enter Marc Hauser, whose research is adding credence to the notion of a universal goodness impulse.

According to Hauser, the human brain learns right from wrong the same way it learns language. The vast majority of the world’s languages share at least one thing in common: a system of guidelines for usage. This is called grammar. Just as languages have rules about where to put a subject, an adverb, and a predicate in a sentence, so too every culture has a set of guidelines to teach people how to make moral decisions in different situations. So just as learning a language means learning not only words, but also a system for putting the words together, the same is true for morality; there are very specific “commandments” that are unique to every culture, but there are also softer usage guidelines. People who have mastered the moral guidelines of their particular culture have what some might call principles or scruples. Hauser calls this a moral grammar.

“A mature individual’s moral grammar enables him to unconsciously generate and comprehend a limitless range of permissible and obligatory actions within the native culture, to recognize violations when they arise, and to generate intuitions about punishable violations,” he writes in his book. “Once an individual acquires his specific moral grammar, other moral grammars may be as incomprehensible to him as Chinese is to a native English speaker.”

Hauser has spent his career studying how people from different backgrounds and cultures rely on different grammars to make moral decisions. About three years ago, he put up a survey Web site called the Moral Sense Test, which is still operating today. Since its establishment, some 300,000 people from around the world have logged on. Participants are asked to answer a series of so-called trolley problems to reveal their unique moral decision-making processes.

The quintessential trolley problem goes something like this: A group of five people is on a train track unaware that a runaway trolley is heading toward them. One person is on a separate track, equally oblivious to what’s going on. If you’re in a control room overlooking the train yard, is it morally permissible to pull a lever and divert the train away from the five people onto the track with the one person, thereby saving the five and killing the one? Or is it morally preferable to take no action and allow the trolley to continue along its predestined path?

“Each question targets some kind of psychological distinction,” says Hauser. “For example, we’re very interested in the distinction between action and omission when both lead to the same consequence.… It’s an interesting distinction because it plays out in many areas of biomedical technology and experiences.”

Surveys such as these aren’t new. But Hauser’s Web-based survey model allows him to ask these questions of people who originate from all sorts of cultural, economic, and educational points of view, as opposed to polling the opinions of a handful of Ivy League undergrads.

“There’s going to be that kind of variation culturally,” he says. “But what the science is trying to say is Look, could the variation we observe today be illusory? Could there be real regularity, universals that underpin that variation fundamental to how the brain works?”

Though the Moral Sense Test is ongoing, it is adding significantly to an understanding of moral reasoning across different cultures. Among Hauser’s most interesting findings: People who don’t adhere to a specific religion and people who do are remarkably similar in the way they make moral decisions.

“This is independent of the benefits that people obtain from being associated with religion; I have nothing to say about that,” he insists. “This is more a question of … does having a religious background really change the nature of these intuitive judgments. The evidence we’ve accumulated suggests, no.” His research shows that people who are religious and people who claim to be atheists show the same moral patterns and answer the same way when they’re presented with a whole host of moral dilemmas. Where they diverge, says Hauser, is when the question touches on political or topical issues about which people are likely to have pre-formed and not necessarily educated opinions.

This is one area where he hopes moral science can make a real difference.

“If you ask most people, Do you think stem-cell research is morally good or morally bad, many people will say bad,” says Hauser. “But then you ask, what is a stem cell? Most people won’t have a clue. What they’ve often done, they’ve masted stem-cell research onto something else, [such as] killing a baby. If killing a baby is bad then stem-cell research is bad. So that’s a matter of using a moral problem one is familiar with and using it to judge a new case that one is not familiar with. We do that all the time…. What science should be doing is trying to educate us, and say Look, the blastocyst is a cluster of cells that stem-cell research is focusing on … nothing like a baby. It’s the potential, with lots of change and development, to become a baby. But it’s not a baby. There’s an onus on researchers to educate. In the absence of education, what people do is examine moral cases in terms of what they’re familiar with.”

He’s received a mixed reaction to his findings. Some people, he says, see the work as artificial, that what morality is really about is how we behave. In other words, according to some, morality can’t be judged on the basis of how a person answers a survey, but on what that person does in real life.

In the future, new technologies like virtual reality will test this hypothesis. But first, researchers need to learn more about how the process plays out in the brain.

Read the rest of the article.

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