20 April 2010


'Morality' and brain science

This follows from the end-point of the thread on the ‘morality of war’, picking up on Sam Harris’s views about ‘morality’ having a scientifically factual grounding in ‘the maximization of human flourishing’.

A few paraphrased quotes from Harris:

“That science can’t tell us about human values is an illusion. Values are a certain type of fact. Separation between science and human values is a dangerous illusion. Science can tell us how the world ought to be. Why no ethical obligations to rocks? – because they cannot suffer. We have concerns about other living things because they can suffer. All versions of human morality are reducible to a concern with conscious experience. Even religion that focuses on the life-after-death experience is similarly concerned. Failed states can be improved. We know there are right and wrong answers to how to move along the continuum – would adding cholera to the water help things? No. Would blaming things on the ‘evil eye’ help? No. Experience is realised in the brain. Personality is the product of the brain. Culture changes us by changing the brain. Mind science has a way in to conscious experience. A moral landscape. States of human wellbeing that we rarely access. Maybe some are mystical or spiritual. Can’t guarantee that science can map this space. If questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers and maybe we can find the scientific answers to them. Just admitting this would affect the way we work together in the future. How have we convinced ourselves that every ‘moral’ point of view is worth considering? There are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing and morality relates to that fact.”

I go along with placing ‘human flourishing’ high up on the list of considerations in matters of choice of public policy but, unfortunately, brain science does not provide all the answers, or all the answers that we might be happy with, for identifying exactly what that means in practice. Sam Harris deals with the issue of the burkha as an example of where he feels a concern with human flourishing is quite clearly contradicted by a particular cultural practice – and where, consequently, he believes the obligatory wearing of the veil worthy of moral condemnation. The host, at the end of the talk, puts a different slant on things and it is worth exploring one eventuality that could be consequenct on Sam Harris's opinion that brain science will soon allow us to see what the brain is actually doing in different circumstances as a guide to what is best for human welfare.

I do not want to start a re-run of the debate about the burkha so please don’t go there for I am only using this as an illustration of the difficulties with laying down universals on the basis of alleged discoveries of brain science. The typical western view currently is that the burkha is a bad thing for women, ie is not a ‘morally’ good thing to do to women because it inhibits their freedom to participate in society, have 'normal' human interactions with others, etc., and marks them out as subordinates to males who are the ones that enforce the practice.

But what if brain science discovers that in fact men are more significantly sexually aroused by the sight of a woman's face and flesh unshrouded than we in the West are currently aware? Those eyes, lips, noses (only one, hopefully!), smooth shiny hair, arms, legs, the sway of hips, curve of buttocks etc.? And suppose brain science shows that this is a major contributory factor in the number of rapes and murders of women because many men find this sexual arousal very difficult to manage within the bounds of acceptable behaviour? The alleged universal concern for human welfare, Harris’s assumed scientific basis for ‘morality’, would then scientifically dictate that men must not be allowed to see women's faces or other exposed flesh or the shape of their bodies, except when unavoidable. This could be achieved by men being forced to wear blinkers or sleep masks, true, but these could probably in turn be scientifically proven to be even worse for human welfare owing to the fall in economic wellbeing, accidents, etc. that followed. So, let us say that it is possible that the burkha could be scientifically shown to be the best solution to adopt to minimise human harm and maximise human flourishing. Therefore, women should be ‘morally’ obliged, nay forced, to wear it, for the good of the human race as a whole.

At the very least this would require a rewriting of the Universal Declaration and some fundamental rethinking of practices right across modern western democracies: equal employment rights, segregation of the sexes, etc., etc. In fact the UK would have to be a lot more like Saudi Arabia than most of us would care to contemplate. The negative consequences might even lead the majority of women to accept that a certain level of rapes and murders would be an acceptable price to pay for the liberties most of them wish to enjoy – much like a certain number of road deaths is widely considered an acceptable price for the liberty of driving cars.

What I believe I am showing here is that the idea that brain science (or any other method) of establishing universal ‘moral’ rules/values is in itself inadequate to prescribe what we should do in terms of public policy – the writing of rules and laws. (And remember, alleged ‘moral’ concerns are a common precursor to the writing of laws.) What we do, and what we can only do in a pluralist democratic state, is consider matters in a practical way and arrive at conclusions on the basis of majority judgements as a result of an interplay and struggle between sectional interests, economic wellbeing of different groups, rights, freedoms, values etc, etc. Introducing some ‘universal’ ground rules like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can only set out a majority view (as shown by the Islamic Conference’s attempts to rewrite them) but there will always be differences of opinion on how best to achieve the ends – even after discounting the delusionary notions of religious believers who have been convinced that only certain rules of conduct can prevent a person’s soul from being condemned to eternal torment in ‘the hellfire’ (views also derived from a concern with human wellbeing, albeit wellbeing in the afterlife).

So, contra Sam Harris, even were brain science to identify that certain practices reduce individual human flourishing in terms of physical and mental health this would by no means lead directly to rules or laws that all would accept for public and state enforcement as self-evidently ‘moral’. This example may do no more than illustrate the conventional rule in moral philosophy that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ without introducing an additional (value-laden) term into the argument.

More generally I have a beef with the current vogue for evolutionary psychologists to claim they have discovered the basis for ‘morality’ in the altruistic behaviours of certain species in certain circumstances. These ‘discoveries’ show that many humans have some natural tendency to care for each other and promote each others’ welfare which is a little in tension with the original Darwinian view that the key to natural selection is the chance suitability of an individual’s traits to reproduction in their given environment (later known as the way in which better adapted genes are passed on to future generations replacing less well-adapted genes). The discoveries indicate that selection can work at the level of the species not just at the level of the individual. From this, it is argued, we have the basis for a naturalistic ‘morality’ - humans caring for each other as part of a human nature. That is, these altruistic traits are said to underpin human progress and the evolution of social concerns that manifest in ‘moral codes’ placing human welfare at the apex of human social objectives. It is therefore assumed that being altruistic is the fundamental ‘moral’ imperative.

But altruism is not ‘morality’. Not only is it all too rare, or at best balanced by as many hostile self-centred traits as altruistic ones, but neither does it provide the basis for anything at all. It is just altruism. While altruism may be one ingredient in the mix of biological drives, aspirations and sectional interests etc. that produce ways of living it is not the be-all and end-all of the process.

We invent ‘morality’. By ‘we’ I mean the succession of human generations living in different places, in different circumstances, with different traditions and different power structures. In my humble opinion what we now call ‘morality’ began hundreds of thousands of years ago, possibly millions, as sets of behaviours that were established in early human clans. These, in turn, probably emerged from semi-instinctive behaviours like the pre-eminence of the alpha male or alpha female. Behaviours that paralleled what goes on today in other species like lions, meerkats, chimpanzees, etc. (These behaviours have obvious Darwinian origins in that that the genes of aggressive, jealous, physically larger males are more likely to be passed on to offspring as they frighten other males off from the available females.) Individuals who transgress the behavioural conventions of the species or clan are physically punished, killed or banished from the group. This has been observed frequently. When there is a kill to devour there is a pecking order, etc. These practices evolved to function as social rules. As time passed the brain grew larger and language developed, the position of the alpha male gradually became overtaken by collectives of elders, or the close kinsmen of the alpha male, though even now an alpha male occasionally pops up who is able to gain considerable power to lay down social rules through brute force. In the era of kingship this was the norm across the world.

With further social evolution and the accumulation of knowledge more widely across societies kingship practices were widely overtaken by other forms of rule making. Priestly castes, prophets, economically dominant classes, etc., were able to influence or establish new rules of social conduct that suited them or were the brainchild of particular individuals, sometimes on no more than a whim – eg that certain foods are not to be eaten, or certain parts of the body not exposed, or certain sexual relationships forbidden, or dead bodies disposed of with certain rituals.

In more recent times, with the development of representative institutions, political parties, pressure groups, organized religions, etc, almost anyone can establish a new rule, eg that blood sports are ‘immoral’ and should be abolished by the adoption of new legally enforced rules.

So what we have now is a huge, turbulent and chaotic ‘marketplace’ of ideas about human behavior with numerous individuals and groups, power-centres, trade bodies, churches, parties, pressure groups, etc, clamouring to get their opinions enshrined in law. The inspiration for the ideas promoted sometimes hark back to earlier times, to practices that have been and gone in human history, or are taken from alien cultures, or they claim to be expressions of natural urges of human nature. Others refer to their conscience and ‘natural’ emotional reactions.

And more often than not the proponents of new rules or the re-establishment of old rules claim that their proposals are ‘moral’ when current practice is ‘immoral’. Owing to the confusion around the origins and meaning of the terms these claims often cause others to stop and think because they seem to have some additional persuasive power, not dependent solely on the practical pros and cons of the proposal. It is possible, for example, that animal rights campaigners (who believe it is ‘immoral’ to farm meat) at some time in the future will succeed in making vegetarianism the rule and anyone caught eating meat will be punished for perpetrating an evil act.

But it is all illusion. There is no abstract right and wrong or good and evil. No scientific guide, no read-across from brain activity to rules that people are willing to make themselves subject to. Indeed, as soon as a new rule is established you can guarantee that others, who don’t like it (for whatever reason) will start to campaign against it as it is, in their eyes, ‘immoral’.

Hence my aversion to using the term ‘morality’ in any other than a sociological sense and I hope you never catch me making an argument for or against any practice on the basis that it is ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’.

My argument is a species of cultural relativism as far as the derivation of rules is concerned but I am not one of those who go that step further and say that anything goes, that rules produced from different cultures all have equivalent status and equal value. Far from it, for I argue myself that only the rules emerging victorious from vigorous debate of options, taking into account consequences, gains and losses, etc, etc, have what it takes to become respected ways of managing a society. This does not mean I will humbly submit to anything that emerges, however, for I too may feel something goes against the grain of my worldview, my ‘conscience’ or my personal interest. But I will not say it is ‘immoral’.

Harry Perry

April 2010

Are you trying to get me looking up my existential nihilistic rectum again.

Dave Ray
You can derive an ought from an is provided you are clear what objective is to be aimed for. The question is then what objectives "ought" to be aimed for. Since we are humans, and living beings, is it not logical that we should aim for the flourishing of human beings and the continued survival of life?

There are of course those, like John Gray perhaps, who argue that humans are the scum of the earth and should be eliminated, for the benefit of the rest of nature, and there are questions about what it will mean to be "human" in the future when artificial intelligences are developed or alien life is discovered.

Science has an important part to play in providing the evidence upon which to make decisions about what we ought to do to achieve these objectives. But, as you indicate, there is also a role for struggle. That is how ideas are shown to be correct.

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