Talk originally presented on 17 March 2017.
1. Is to Moral Ought
- Overview of the 3 major moral theories within normative ethics, Deontology, Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics.
- What is the purpose of morality?
2. The Cognitive Essence of Morality
- The essence of morality is the balancing the wants of oneself with those of others.
- Hence morality requires a faculty of reason and a ‘theory of mind’
3. Iterated Knowings
- The classic test for a theory of mind is the ‘Sally Anne Test’.
- James Cargile’s scale of ‘Iterated Knowings’ of information, beliefs, theory of mind, communicative intent, narratives and the understanding of worldviews.
4. Cognitive Theories of Moral Development
- In addition to rational intelligence and a theory of mind, we need social cognition and to care for others.
- The ‘Platinum Rule’ (‘Do unto others as they would want to be done by’) is at a higher level than the ‘Golden Rule’.
- Substitutes for social cognition and care are communication and reputation.
- Comparison with Lawrence Kohlberg‘s theory of moral development.
5. Up Close and Personal
- Peter Unger’s ‘$200 to charity’ and the ‘helping the hitch-hiker’ scenarios.
- Greene says we think there is ‘some good reason’ why our moral intuitions favour the ‘up close and personal’.
- Our caring stems from our need to identify between what is ourselves and what is not.
6. Oxytocin and Vasopressin
Patricia Smith Churchland highlights the very different behaviour between two very similar species of voles.
Prairie voles have much higher densities of neuromodulator receptors for Oxytocin and Vasopressin than montane voles.
Up to here
From this reproduction starting point, these neurotransmitters have evolved to control maternal care for offspring, pair-bonding and allo-parenting. Allo-parenting is maternal care for young that is not by its parents, typically the ‘aunties’ of orphans. There is not any (magical) genetic mechanism for allo-parenting. It is just a result of seeing young physically close by needing care – from them being ‘up close and personal’.
And from human tests, it has been shown that they improve social cognition (at the expense of other learning) – the memory of faces, the recognition of fear and the establishment of empathy and trust.
This improved social cognition has led to interest from the autism community. Autism is sometimes thought of as lacking a ‘theory of mind’ but this is extreme. It is better characterized as having impaired social cognition. Tests with Oxytocin on autistic people show an improvement in eye gaze and the interpretation of emotions and a reduction in repetitive behaviour.
Oxytocin has also been connected with generosity. In the ‘Ultimatum game’ psychological test, the subject of the experiment proposes a split of money potentially given to them with another. The other person decides whether to accept the deal or to punish unfair offers so that neither party get anything; deals generally get accepted where the subject offers more than 30% of the stake. Oxytocin nasal sprays increases the proportion offered.
The hype: Paul Zak’s ‘Moral Molecule’
Vasopressin has a conciliatory ‘tend-and-befriend’ effect on females but it will reduce ‘fight or flight’ anxiety in men and make them more aggressive in defence of the mate and of the young.
This may be the origin for behaviour that has been described as ethnocentric (even as ‘xenophobic’). For example, an early experiment based around Dutch, German and Muslim names found that German and Muslim names were less positively received when the Dutch subjects had been given Oxytocin.
Since we are considering morality as a balancing act, Oxytocin could be characterized as tilting the balance from ‘me’ more towards ‘you’ but also from ‘them’ towards ‘us’.
This and many practical matters means that we won’t be having our daily nasal sprays just yet.
So far, I have characterized morality as balancing the wants of oneself with those of others and looked at how Oxytocin tips the balance towards others and can increase generosity.
Paul Piff (Berkeley) has devised various experiments to judge the generosity of the affluent. One test considered car type as an indicator of wealth and monitored which cars stopped at pedestrian crossings. High status cars were less likely to stop than other makes.
Another indicator of generosity is charitable giving. Various studies show that the most generous regions of a country are not the most affluent. In the USA, Utah and the Bible Belt stand out for higher generosity. Research indicates that it is not religious beliefs that are important here but regular attendance at services. These services involve moral sermons, donations and meeting familiar people.
Other factors that improve charitable giving include
- being with a partner (‘pair-bonded’),
- living in a rural community and
- being less affluent (as suggested by Piff’s research).
There is a common theme here: being ‘up close and personal’ in meaningful relationships with others:
- There is anonymity in an urban environment.
- We are insulated from others in a car.
I have characterized morality as balancing the wants of oneself with those of others. Through psychology, we can understand why our preference for the ‘up close and personal’ has evolved. But this tells us nothing about how we should behave and this has nothing to do with neuroscience. But the neuroscience of Oxytocin & Vasopressin is one avenue towards a physical understanding of care and how it constrains us and how we might be able to control it in the future.
Reason vs Emotional Intuition
So, we emotionally feel a preference for the ‘up close and personal’ but our rational inclination is that this should not be. Just as there is the balance between self and others, there is a balance between emotion and reason – the two halves of psychology’s ‘dual process theory’. As described by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, ‘System 1’ is the fast, unconscious, emotional lower level and ‘System 2’ is the slower, conscious, reasoning higher level.
This split between rational and emotional decision-making corroborates well with Joshua Greene’s experiments in which his subjects answered trolleyology questions whilst in an fMRI scanner. Making decisions quickly was correlated with activity in the Amygdala and the Ventro-Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex (VM-PFC) whereas questions that caused longer deliberation was correlated with activity in the Dorso-lateral Pre-Frontal Cortex (DL-PFC). Both the Amygdala and the VM-PFC are associated with social decision-making and the regulation of emotion. In contrast, the DL-PFC is associated with ‘executive functions’, planning and abstract reasoning. We can say that the former regions are associated with ‘now’ and the latter region is associated with ‘later’.
The classic (Benthamite) form of Utilitarianism is ‘Act Utilitarianism’ in which an individual is supposed to determine the act which leads to the ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Such a determination is of course impossible but even practical deliberation to produce a reasonably good guess can often be too slow.
This has led to the ‘Rule Utilitarian’ approach of ‘pre-calculating’ the best response to typical situations to form rules. Then it is just a case of selecting the most applicable rule in a moral situation and applying that rule. That allows quite fast responses but these are often poor responses in retrospect.
Now, R. M. Hare proposed a ‘Two-Level Utilitarianism’ which is a synthesis of both Act- and Rule- Utilitarianism: apply the ‘intuitive’ rules but in the infrequent cases when there is a reduced confidence in the appropriate rules (such as more than one rule seeming to apply and those rules are in conflict), move on to ‘critical’ deliberation of the best action.
This looks a lot like ‘dual process theory’!
The Predictive Mind
We have a reasonable understanding of what goes on in the brain at the very low level of neurons, and we know what it is like at a very high level in the brain because we experience it from the inside every single day. But how we get from the small scale to the large scale is a rather difficult proposition!
‘Dual process theory’ is a crude but useful model upon which we can build psychological explanations but we now have a very promising theory of the brain that I have frequently mentioned elsewhere. Its most complete formulation is Karl Friston’s strangely-named ‘Variational Free Energy’ theory from as recently as 2005 but its pedigree can be traced back through Richard Gregory, William James to Hermann von Helmholtz in 1866, before the foundation of psychology as a discipline.
For the context here, I will not go over the details of this theory but the most basic behaviour of the brain is as a ‘hierarchy of predictors’, my preferred term for the theory that Jacob Hohwy calls ‘the Predictive Mind’, Andy Clark calls ‘predictive processing’ and yet others call ‘the Bayesian Brain’. All levels concurrently try to predict what is happening at the level below and provide prediction errors upwards on its confidence about its predictions. We then view the brain as multiple-level (more than 2) with lower levels dealing with the fast ‘small scale’ moving upwards to longer-term ‘larger scale’ levels. Psychology’s conceptual Dual Process theory becomes a subset of neuroscience’s physically-based Predictive Mind theory.
This can inspire us to imagine a ‘multi-level Utilitarian’ moral theory which is superior to Hare’s ‘2-level Utilitarianism’. Noting that the ‘hierarchy of predictors’ operates:
- concurrently, and
…we can produce a better moral theory…
Moral theories generally consider how to make a single decision based upon a particular moral situation, without revisiting it later.
We deal with the easy moral issues quickly, going back to the more complex that require more deliberation. This better consideration (prediction) of the consequences of possible actions may also be influenced by a change in circumstance since previously considered. And this change may be as a result of our (lower-level) actions previously made.
Eventually, the window of possible action upon a moral problem will pass and we can return to the ‘larger-scale’ problems which still linger. (When we have solved the injustices of inequality, poverty and violence in the Middle East, and have no more immediate problems to deliberate over, we can take a holiday.)
It automatically and dynamically determines the appropriate level of consideration for every problem we encounter.
I think this is a sensible moral theory. It is an intelligent theory. This is true almost by definition, because this Predictive Mind mechanism is how evolution has produced intelligence – an embodied general intelligence acting in a changing environment.
I somewhat provocatively point out an irony that:
- A moral philosopher sits in his armchair, proudly proposing a moral theory that is detached from the world of ‘is’.
- Inside his head is a bunch of neurons wired together in a particular way to produce a particular way of thinking.
- But his moral theory is an inferior description of the way his brain thinks!
So we end up with a cognitive theory in which moral problem solving isn’t really any different from any other type of problem solving! This is an Ethical Naturalist point of view.
From Dualism to Physicalism
For ordinary people of our grandparents’ generation, the dominant philosophical belief was of the separation of mind and matter. We had free will – the mind was free to make choices, unconstrained by the physical world.
In contrast, our grandchildrens’ generation will have grown up in an environment where the idea of the brain defining behaviour within what is essentially a deterministic world is commonplace. The concept of ‘free will’ is unlikely to survive this transition of worldviews intact and unmodified.
Now, there is no single fact of neuroscience that makes any Dualist suddenly switch over to being a Physicalist. People don’t change worldviews just like that. But the accumulation of coherent neuroscientific information over many years does cause a shift. As Greene says
“Neuroscience makes it even harder to be a dualist”
So, though we can always invoke the is/ought distinction to ensure that neuroscience and morality are disconnected, its influence on our metaphysics indirectly affects our concepts of morality.
With a Dualist worldview, we can say that if it is wrong for person A to do something in some precise situation, then it is also be wrong for person B to do that in that same precise situation. A and B can be substituted. It is the act that is moral.
However, with a Physicalist worldview, we have to accept that the physical state of an agent’s brain plays a part.
Consider the two classic case studies of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman:
- Whilst working on the railroads in 1848, an explosion blew an iron rod straight through Phineas Gage’s head, up under a cheekbone and out through his forehead, leaving a gaping hole in his brain. He miraculously survived but his personality was changed from that of a responsible foreman beforehand to an irreverent, drunken brawler.
- Charles Whitman personally fought his “unusual and irrational thoughts” and had sought help from doctors to no avail. Eventually he could hold them back no more whereupon he went on a killing spree killing 16. Beforehand, he had written “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any physical disorder.” The autopsy revealed a brain tumour.
It is not surprising to us that substantial changes to the physical brain cause it to behave substantially differently.
We can no longer say that it is equally blameworthy for persons A and B to do something in exactly the same situation because their brains are different.
Were I to find myself standing on the observation deck of the University of Texas tower with a rifle in my hand, I would not start shooting people at random as Whitman did. A major reason for this is that I don’t have the brain tumour he had. But if I were to have a brain like Whitman’s, then I would behave as he did! In shifting towards a physicalist position, we must move from thinking of acts being good or bad towards thinking of actors (the brains thereof) being good or bad. We move from Deontology or Consequentialism towards Virtue Ethics.
There is the concept of ‘flourishing’ within Virtue Ethics. We try to ‘grow’ people so that they are habitually good and fulfil their potential. To do this, we must design our environment so that they ‘grow’ well.
And when we talk of ‘bad brains’, we don’t blame Whitman for his behaviour. In fact, we feel sorry for him. We might actively strive to avoid such brains (by providing an environment in which doctors take notice, or take brain scans, when people complain to them about uncontrollable urges, for example). ‘Blame’ and ‘retribution’ no longer make sense. As others have said:
- ‘with determinism there is not blame, and, with not blame, there should be no retribution and punishment’ (Mike Gazzaniga)
- ‘Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot’ (David Eagleman)
- `We foresee, and recommend, a shift away from punishment aimed at retribution in favour of a more progressive, consequentialist approach to the criminal law’ (Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen)
I have defined the essence of morality as being the balancing the wants of oneself with those of others:
- As well involving reason, this means getting into someone else’s mind (rather than just getting into their shoes). On a scale of ‘iterated knowings’, we need at least a ‘theory of mind’. I have set out a theory of the moral development of a person in which there is progression up the scale of iterated knowings up to having a desire and ability to understand another’s entire epistemological framework, which is something relatively few people reach.
- Whilst we can act morally based on the selfish maintenance of reputationand a rather mechanical ability to communicate, it is better if we also have ‘social cognition’ (an ability to see how another feels and read what they want, more directly than verbal communication) and to actually care about the other.
- The origins of both social cognition and care lie in our basic cognitive need to be able to distinguish between self and non-self. In doing this, we can unconsciously relate the feelings of others back onto ourselves when we seethem, allowing us to empathize with them.
We can make a link from the actions of the neurotransmitters Oxytocin & Vasopressin up through social cognition and empathy to the shifting of the balance towards others in being more considerate and generous to others. A common factor in this behaviour is proximity – an unconscious emotional preference for those we know and see around us. This provides us with ‘some good reason’ why biasing towards the ‘up close and personal’ feels intuitively right even though we logically think there should be no bias.
The moral philosopher R. M. Hare proposes a sensible balancing of intuition and logic. But this ‘dual process’ psychology type of moral theory is just an inferior form of the more general neuroscientific theory of the ‘predictive mind’, advocated by Karl Friston, Jacob Hohwy, Andy Clark and others. The latter inspires an improved moral theory that:
- Generalizes to advocating more detailed slower deliberation for more complex moral dilemmas, rather than just offering a two-stop shop.
- Relates moral thinking to generalintelligent thinking of an agent embodied within an environment. This is an ethical naturalist position: moral problem solving is not distinct from other types of problem solving.
- Improves the theory in being dynamic. Moral decisions are not ‘fire and forget’. We should continue to deliberate on our more complex moral problems after we have made a decision and moved on to subsequent moral situations, particularly as circumstances change or we see the results of our actions.
So ‘is’ might inspire ‘ought’ but it still does not imply it. Not directly, anyway.
Neuroscientific knowledge pushes society further away from dualism, towards physicalism in which the moral actor is embedded within its own environment and hence physically determined in the same way. Our moral framework must then shift towards a Virtue Ethics position of trying to cultivate better moral actors rather than the Deontological or Consequentialist focus on correct moral acts.
This forces us to re-evaluate blame and praise, shifting us away from retribution. We must actively cultivate a society in which people can morally ‘flourish’.
Our new-found knowledge in neuroscience forces us recognize that our neural construction constrains but also increasingly allow us to overcome it – but at our peril.
This follows on from a long series of ‘From Neural ‘Is’ to Moral ‘Ought” posts…
Part I: Ethics 101: Laying some foundations for later parts of the talk.
- 1: Introduction: An overview of the whole talk.
- 2: Is and Ought: The problem of going from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’.
- 3: The Moral Landscape: Utilitarianism, an example of a consequentialist moral theory, as an (impossibly difficult) optimization problem.
- 4: The Absurdities of Utilitarianism: Some further problems with Utilitarianism
Part II: Prospectarianism: A Non-linear development of Utilitarianism
- 5: Utility Theory: A theory in economics
- 6: Prospect Theory: A better theory in economics
- 7: Proposing Prospectarianism: A moral theory inspired by Prospect theory
- 8: Popper’s Pinprick: Negative Utilitarianism. Pleasure and pain are asymmetric
- 9: Monsters and Lambs: Problems of Utilitarianism: ‘Utility Monsters’ and sacrificial lambs
- 10: Conclusion: A step in the right direction
Part III: Moral Equalization: Compensating for non-linearities
- 11: Some Good Reason: Joshua Greene’s distinction between neural is and moral ought
- 12: Trolleyology: We value some people more than others when we may well think we shouldn’t
- 13:Equalization: Compensating for our wrong intuitions
- 14: Conclusion
Part IV: Rules, Hierarchy and Prediction:
- 15: Angels and Proles: Act, Rule and Two-Level Utilitarianism
- 16: Acting Fast and Acting Slow: Dual Process Theory
- 17: Rules and Subrules: Increasing the order of a landscape
- 18: A Hierarchy of Rules: A Progression of Rules, in Series or Parallel
- 19: A Hierarchy of Predictors: Variational Free Energy Again!
Part V: Consequentialism for Idiots:
- 20: Deontology for Idiots: Introduction to Kant’s Categorical Imperative
- 21: Deontology as Consequentialism: Consequences are involved after all
- 22: The Moral Millpond: There is no moral landscape with Deontology
- 23: A Failure to Think: An unfailing duty to following rules leads to evil
- 24: The Sin of Absolutism: Pure reason as a source of morality closes down much inquiry about morals
- 25: Moral Creatures: Deontology is wilfully throwing much of our intelligence away
- 26: A Partisan Summary: Deontology as an unthinking Consequentialism
Part VI : Virtue Ethics:
- 27: Being versus Doing: Contrasting Virtue Ethics with Utilitarianism and Deontology
- 28: Virtues and Vices: Lists of virtues, and their opposites
- 29: Wisdom, Intention and Growth: Good intentions are not enough. Virtues must grow.
- 30: Choosing Virtues: Nothing definite but there is some commonality between societies.
- 31: The Neuro Ethic: William Casebeer.
Part VII : A Unified Morality:
- 32: Three Moral Theories: The Pros and Cons of Deontology, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics
- 33: A Unified Moral Theory: Merging Deontology, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics into One
Part VIII : Others, Orders and Oughts
- 34: The Purpose of Moral Theories: Moral theories need a purpose. To act morally means to think of others.
- 35: Orders of Intentionality: I know that you know that I know.
- 36: Morality and Reputation: Morality is 2nd-order intentionality; reputation is 3rd-order.
- 37: From Biological ‘Is’ To Moral ‘Ought’: Normative moral theories cannot divorce themselves from our biological makeup.
Part IX : Is/Ought/Like/Want/Can
- 38: Towards Ethical Naturalism: Some facts do determine our ethics, despite ethics being held as operating in a separate realm.
- 39: From Is to Like: Aesthetics can also be viewed as operating in a separate realm.
- 40: From Is to Want: Wants can also be viewed as operating in a separate realm.
- 41: From Is to Can: Engineering design can also be viewed as operating in a separate realm.
- 42: Likes, Wants and Cans are Like Oughts: Ethics is not unique in being able to be considered unique.
Part X : Ethical Physicalism
- 43: Ethical Naturalism: Moral reasoning is not unique and utterly distinct but just one among many types of reasoning
- 44: Ethical Physicalism: Ethics reduces to physics!
- 45: The fMRI Argument: Neuroscientific evidence supports a physicalist worldview but does not compel a dualist to change their mind.
- 46: From Dualism to Neuroscience: The relationship between developments in technology and the transition to physicalism.
Part XI : Caring
- 47: The Missing Component: Wanting to consider others is another prerequisite for morality
- 48: The Origins of Caring: Maternal care, pair-bonding and a ‘theory of mind’.
- 49: Oxytocin: For Her.
- 50: Vasopressin: For Him.
- 51: Of Voles and Men: How neurotransmitter receptor density influences our sociability.
Part XII : Anxiety and Well-Being
- 52: The Dark Room: An agent will tend to want to hide in a burrow for safety)
- 53: Anxiety: Life is continual worrying
- 54: Distress, Eustress and Well-Being: short-term mild threat good / prolonged threat bad
- 55: Oxytocin and Well-Being: Oxytocin improves well-being in a social environment)
- 56: Overcoming Anxiety: Well-Being is about overcoming anxiety; Utilitarianism is about maximizing well-being
Part XIII : The Mind of Society
- 57: Social Hierarchical Agents:A group of hierarchically-predicting agents and their shared local environment can be seen collectively as one larger hierarchically-predicting ‘super-agent’.
Part XIV : Trust
- 58: The Braintrust Thesis: Oxytocin is sufficient for the extension of care to modern moral communities.
- 59: Mothers and Others: Alloparenting.
- 60: On Aggression and Cooperation: Hierarchical groups.
- 61: Institutional Trust: Trusting strangers.
- 62: Ethics, Ethology and Ethnography: Summary.
Part XV : Empathy
- 63: Empathy, Psychopathy and Autism: Psychopathy is an emotional empathy deficit; autism is not
- 64: The Integration of Senses: Some people can literally feel the pain of others.
- 65: Empathy and Pain: Empathy and Sensitivity to pain are related, with most people between the two extremes, above.
Part XVI : The Learning Pyramid
- 66: Relearning Hierarchies of Predictors: Dynamic self-organization of knowledge
- 67: Integrating Pyramids of Predictors: Sensorimotor integration
Part XVII : Mirroring and Mimicry
- 68: Mimicry and Contagion: Unconscious mimicry leads to sensorimotor contagion
- 69: Emotions: emotions tie into other levels in the hierarchy and this leads to emotional contagion
- 70: Mirror Neurons: Mirror neurons are not needed to explain the emergence of mimicry, mirroring and empathy
Part XVIII : Guilt and Shame
- 71: Three Shades of Shame: The demarcation between shame and guilt can be made in various places.
- 72: Morality and Self-Regulation: Guilt (private) is better than shame (public) because it helps to self-regulate individuals’ behaviour in society.
- 73: Catholic Guilt and Protestant Shame: Most guilt not completely private and is therefore really shame.
- 74: Self Shame: Secular guilt is really shame with ‘other within’.
- 75: Act and Actor: Shame is about the defectiveness of the actor. Guilt is about the defectiveness of the act.
- 76: Dualist Deontology and Physicalist Virtue Ethics: Guilt is associated with dualism and act-based ethical positions. Shame is associated with physicalism and virtue ethics.
Part XIX : My Brain Made Me Do It
- 77: Crime and Punishment: The justice system is a blunt moral instrument that institutionalizes the cultivation of balancing the wants of the individual against that of others. Normally both a guilty mind and a guilty act are required for there to be a crime.
- 78: Bad Brains Cause Bad Acts: The justice system traditionally holds everyone equal before the law but it is starting to take physical exceptions like brain tumors into account.
- 79: Good Brains Cause Bad Acts: Clarence Darrow’s argument that it is the defendant’s environment that is to be blamed.
- 80: Corpus Reus: Dualist ‘guilty mind’ and a ‘guilty act’ must be replaced by a unified physicalist ‘guilty body’.
- 81: Responsibility: Responsibility is about identifying causation, not about free will.
- 82: Risk: We evaluate the risk of recurrence without blame.83: Prevention and Deterrence: We sanction transgressors not for retribution but as a pragmatic way to deter similar action to prevent the recurrence.
- 84: Treatment not Punishment: Anyone convicted should be treated rather then convicted.
- 85: Executive Responsibility: In everyday life, people are held responsible for things that are out of their control, to motivate them to behave well.
- 86: Moral Luck: In evaluating risk, the moral luck of whether something bad actually happens or not should not be relevant.
- 87: Moving Away from Mens Rea and Actus Reus: A physicalist justice is less blameworthy and more compassionate than a dualist one. It is more compatible with virtue ethics.
- 88: Getting Rid of Blame: The likes of Gazzaniga, Eagleman and Greene agree so.
- 89: The Return of Blame: But, as with guilt and shame, blame may still have a pragmatic role to play in society.
Part XX : The Great and the Good
- 90: Albert Loeb: With a physicalist worldview, the successful cannot be praised for their achievements.
- 91: How the Rich Behave: The rich act more selfishly and have less empathy for others.
- 92: Charitable Giving: The inverse relationship between wealth and generosity is weak. Social connectedness, religious attendance and habits are more significant factors.
- 93: Affluent Societies: There are many factors in modern Western society which results in individuals being more selfish and less empathetic.
- 94: Entitlement and Narcissism : In the extreme, this leads to narcissism and a feeling of the entitlement to act beyond normal constraints.
And more to come. Including:
- The ethics of pharmocological stimulation of the brain, of neural observation and of neural stimulation.
- Revisiting Joshua Greene