Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Code Of Ethics

Is our legal code a formalization of an already existing moral code, or does the moral code develop from socialization of the legal code?

Neither, as it turns out. The code for our morality can be found in our genes.

Discussion over the why and whence of ethics in humans goes back to some of the earliest recorded history. In western civilization, discussions of values and ethics were regular fodder for Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and other philosophers of the time. Socrates separated two categories, facts and values, facts being things measurable and subject to objective agreement between two parties, and values being those things that two parties could disagree forever with no objective means to resolve who was correct. Aristotle believed ethics emerge from knowledge and rational thought.

Nothing much changed in the intervening years. In 1777, Philosopher David Hume wrote "There has been a controversy started of late...concerning the general foundation of morals; whether they be derived from reason, or from sentiment." Into the 20th century the arguments went back and forth: from the "Universal Principles" and rationalism found in Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, to the more emotionally based ethics of Anscome and Williams, back to the rationalist views of Piaget and Kohlberg, with some climbing out of the mud to try to define a forest with "meta ethics" that try to distinguish between metaphysical (moral objectivism and relativism) and psychological.

As you can see, although philosophers have made quite the study of ethics, the debate really hasn't moved from the "objective/universal/rational" vs. "subjective/relative/emotional" discussion.

It wasn't until the emergence of the brain sciences in the late 20th century that we finally started to break through this miscast paradigm and understand what truly drives human ethics and morality.

The answer - both, really, but it all starts with the emotions. Evolutionary biology has hardwired humans to have certain emotional responses to certain behaviors and concepts. Rational thought has help to rationalize these emotions into semi-logical frameworks of laws and ethics. But it is clear that it all begins with the hardwired, gut reactions that were selected for in humans because they offered a species survival advantage.

It's fascinating to read some of these studies and realize just how little we understand how we make decisions, and how much of our rational decision making is after-the-fact rationalization of decisions our brain (and gut, which has a semi-independent nerve structure) has already made.

A brother and sister, alone in a cabin, decide to experiment by having sex with each other. Both use contraception, so there is no chance of a pregnancy with a genetically inbred child. The never repeat the experiment and move on with their lives, and suffer no adverse psychological effects.

Is your reaction one of distaste or repugnance? Can you explain, rationally, why you feel this way? (This and other interesting "moral disgust" experiments - "He licked the dirty toilet", "He had sex with the carcass of an oven ready chicken" - have been performed by Jonathan Haidt, whose "intuitionist model" of moral decision making is backed by some good, sound science.1)

Joshua Green and others have also done fMRI on subjects while presenting clear moral dilemmas, with a twist - the scenarios have exactly the same results, but are presented differently. Here is an example.
A cable car breaks loose and is tearing down the tracks. Ahead on the track are five people who are stuck on the track, and will certainly die. Except you have a switch you can pull which will divert the car to a side track, where you see one person on the track. What do you do?

Most people pull the switch, trying to weigh the outcome of greater good, or good for the greater number.

Now try this one again with a slight twist.
Same cable car, same track. Same five people ahead who are about to die if the car continues on. But you are standing to the side, next to a very fat man, and realize if you push him onto the track in front of the car you could stop its advance and save the five people - but probably at the cost of the life of the fat man. Do you push him?

Most people's choice is to do nothing, letting events unfold without interference.

Looking at this as an equation, both scenarios have identical outcomes - either one person dies, or five people die, and it is your choice to decide which outcome. But each scenario results in different choices for most people.

Brain imaging has revealed that in the first scenario, the frontal lobes (associated eith "executive" decision-making) are engaged, but not the emotional centers. In the second scenario, a number of additional brain centers were engaged, including the anterior cingulate complex which is used to mediate conflicting mental states.2

Apparently pushing the fat man evokes too visceral of a response, which triggers some deep set emotional resistance to personally killing someone. Pushing the man with your own hands is much more of a personal murder than pulling a switch and watching the cable car do the killing - and as such, triggers the biological response wired into our brains.

Similar "moral" actions, such as biological altruism, moral outrage at unfair outcomes and behaviors, as well as many other tenets of moral decision making have been demonstrated in multiple experiments by a number of researchers to be the result of "unconscious" emotional decision making by particular brain centers.3 (A good article here as well but subscription required)

Why Should I Care?

Because a number of political and legal decisions are being made on the basis of "wisdom of repugnance"4 - the concept that if it "feels" wrong, it is, and should be outlawed. It is this standard that is being used to outlaw stem-cell research, Plan B (morning after pill), and abortion. By this "logic", mixed-race marriages and certain sexual acts between consenting adults would still be illegal. (See Nussbaum for a more detailed treatment on this subject).

Ignorance is not bliss.

We have a brain that has critical thinking faculties as well as emotional. Sure, let's take the input from the emotional - these responses got there for a reason. But lets use our critical faculties to decide if these responses are still appropriate for the culture and society in which we live today - not the one that existed 150,000 years ago.

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
Gallileo Galilei, 1562-1642

1 What's hilarious is some people just can't move on - they continue to try to force these new facts into their old paradigm, and argue about whether Haidt's theories place him in the objectivist camp or the relativist. C'mon, people - it's time to stop the mental masturbation that has defined the field of philosophy and move on to some good ol' testable science!

2 Actually, it's a bit more complicated than this, but this is the gist. If you're interested in the specifics, here is a good paper.

3 In fact, researchers like Antonio Damasio make a case that these "emotional" centers in the brain are necessary to be a conscious sentient being at all - that without them, we wouldn't be either self-aware or conscious.

4 This is a term coined by Leon Kass, a bioethicist and adviser to President Bush. I suppose it's good that he recognizes that his decision making is based upon pure emotional reaction. But I would have hoped that, recognizing that, he would make an attempt to develop some rational arguments for this positions.


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