Monday, November 26, 2012

Right and Wrong: All In Our Brains?

When I was teaching an engineering ethics module for a few semesters, one of the first things I asked the students to do was to spend five minutes writing an answer to this question: “How do you tell the difference between right and wrong conduct?”  The responses usually fell into three categories.

Many people would say that they rely on what amounts to intuition, a “gut feeling” that a course of action is right or wrong.  Nearly as popular was the response that they look to how other people would act in similar circumstances.  Very rarely, a student would say that he relies on religious guidelines such as the Ten Commandments or the Quran.  These results are consistent with a claim by neuroscientist Josh Greene that many of our moral decisions are guided, if not determined, by the way our brains are wired.  But we can rise above our instinctive moral habits by consciously thinking about our ethical dilemmas and applying reason to them.

An article in Discover magazine outlines the research Greene and others have done with sophisticated brain imaging techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining), which indicates spots in the brain that get more active when the mind is engaged in certain activities.  Greene finds that routine ethical choices such as whether to get up in the morning are handled by lower-level parts of the brain that we share with other less-developed animals.  But when he poses hard ethical dilemmas to people, it is clear that the more sophisticated reasoning areas of the brain go to work to deal with reasoning about probabilities, for example, as well as the parts that control simpler instinctive actions.

One of the ethical dilemmas Greene uses is a form of the “trolley problem” conceived by some philosophers as a test of our ethical reasoning abilities.  As Philippa  Foot posed the problem in 1967, you are asked to assume that you are the driver of a tram or trolley that is out of control, and the only choice of action you have is which track to follow at an upcoming switch.  There is one man working on the section of track following one branch of the switch, and five men on the other branch.  Which branch do you choose, given that someone is going to be killed either way?

Greene has found that these and similar hard-choice ethical problems cause the brain to light up in objectively different ways than it does when a simpler question is posed such as, “Is it right to kill an innocent person?”  Whether or not these findings make a difference in how you approach ethical decision-making depends on things that go much deeper than Greene’s experiments with brain analysis.

But first, let me agree with Greene when he says that the world’s increasing complexity means that we often have to take more thought than we are used to when making ethical decisions.  One reason I favor formal instruction in engineering ethics is that the typical gut-reaction or peer-pressure methods of ethical decision-making that many students use coming into an ethics class, are not adequate when the students find themselves dealing after graduation with complex organizations, multiple parties affected by engineering decisions, and complicated technology that can be used in a huge number of different ways.  Instinct is a poor guide in such situations, and that is why I encourage students to learn basic steps of ethical analysis so that they are at least prepared to think about such situations with at least as much brain power as they would use to solve a technical problem.  This is a novel idea to most of them, but it’s necessary in today’s complex engineering world.

That being said, I believe Greene, and many others who take a materialist view of the human person, are leaving out an essential fact about moral reasoning and the brain.  The reigning assumption made by most neuroscientists is that the self-conscious thing we call the mind is simply a superficial effect of what is really going on in the brain.  Once we figure out how the brain works, they believe, we will also understand how the mind works.  While it is important to study the brain, I am convinced that the mind is a non-material entity which uses the brain, but is not reducible to the brain.  And I also believe we cannot base moral decisions upon pure reason, because reason always has to start somewhere.  And where you start has an immense influence on where you end up.

As a Christian supernaturalist, I maintain that God has put into every rational person’s heart a copy, if you will, of the natural laws of morality.  This is largely, but not exclusively, what Greene and other neuroscientists would refer to as instinctive moral inclinations, and they would trace them back to the brain structures they claim were devised by evolution to cope with the simpler days our ancestors lived in.  (If they really think ancient times were simpler, try living in the jungle by your wits for a week and see how simple it is.)  God has also made man the one rational animal, giving him the ability to reason and think, and God intends us to use our minds to make the best possible ethical decisions in keeping with what we know about God and His revealed truth.  This is a very different approach to ethics from the secular neuroscience view, but I am trying to make vividly clear what the differences are in our respective foundational beliefs.

So both Greene and I think there are moral decisions that can be made instinctively, and those that require higher thought processes.  But what those higher thought processes use, and the assumptions they start from, are very different in the two cases.  I applaud Greene for the insights he and his fellow scientists have obtained about how the mind uses the brain to reach moral decisions.  But I radically disagree with him about what the outcomes of some of those decisions should be, and about the very nature of the mind itself.

Sources:  The Discovery magazine online version of the article on Josh Greene’s research can be found in the July-August 2011 edition at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on “Trolley problem.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment