Monday, January 14, 2008

Did Morality Evolve? Part 1

Every now and then I like to ruminate on the paradox of engineering ethics. Modern engineering is founded on the principles of objectivity, the scientific method, and the rule of accepting only ideas that can be defended by logical arguments based on observations and measurements. But the foundations of ethics and morality look very different, to say the least. So how can you do engineering ethics without betraying the principles of either engineering or ethics?

The latest stimulus to re-examine this topic came in the form of an article in the Jan. 13 online edition of the New York Times Magazine by Steven Pinker. Pinker holds a chair in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a comparative rarity among academic psychologists in that he writes clearly and actually listens to the arguments of his opponents. In "The Moral Instinct," Pinker surveys the rapidly advancing science of studying moral behavior by using the tools of experimental psychology.

One of the most interesting recent findings is that the brain has a kind of morality switch built into it. Psychologists can study the activity of particular areas of the brain by using a technique called functional MRI, which shows a picture of brain regions that are taking up more oxygen and presumably working harder. A region called the "dorsolateral surface of the frontal lobes" handles rational thinking such as trying to balance your checkbook without a calculator. On the other hand, the medial frontal-lobe regions deal with emotions about other people—a morality switch that gets turned on some times but not other times.

In one study, the researchers posed a series of moral dilemmas to the subjects and asked them to decide what to do. One question—call it the utilitarian question—involved throwing a streetcar-track switch to save five workers' lives by sending a runaway train to run over a sixth worker. Another question—call it the emotional question—was basically the same dilemma, but instead of throwing a switch, the subject had to decide whether to throw a fat man off a bridge. Of the tests that were not spoiled when the subject laughed so hard at the questions that he fell out of the chair and away from the fMRI machine, the researchers found that only the rational part of the brain got involved when the critical act was just throwing a switch. But when the subject had to imagine walking up to a living, breathing man and throwing him to his death, even if it would save five other lives, the emotional part of the brain lit up and got into a fight with the rational part, which also woke up a third part of the brain that acts as a kind of referee between conflicting signals.

The point of this is that psychologists can now use fMRI and other techniques to distinguish between questions and issues that we use mainly rational thinking to answer, and ones which we respond to by appealing to a more basic, non-rational process that Pinker calls the "moral instinct." And Pinker says some very interesting things about this instinct.

For one thing, studies of people from all walks of life and from a variety of cultures all indicate that there may be a core of instinctive moral beliefs that we all have in common. The very fact that Pinker is willing to admit this shows that he is not captive to the "morality-is-subjective" school of thought which has flourished in academia in recent years. Pinker says what he says, not because of any ideological conviction, but because survey and laboratory data from all over the world confirm it. He cites the work of another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who says there are basically five categories of moral principles that cover most of the ground for everybody. What are they?

Without going into too much detail, here's the list: (1) Harm—don't hurt other people and help them if you can. (2) Fairness—people in comparable situations should be treated comparably. (3) Group loyalty—other things being equal, take care of your own (family, friends, city, nation) first. (4) Authority—there are rules, rulers, and rulemakers who should be respected and deferred to. (5) Purity—Saintliness, cleanliness, and being without spot or blemish are good things, and grubbiness, filth, and disorder are bad ones.

Pinker says a lot more, but perhaps I will save some of it for next week. I'd like to stop right there and note that what Pinker and his psychological colleagues are doing is searching for experimental validation of something called natural law. And it looks to me like they've found it.

Natural law is the idea that certain principles of morality are not simply agreed upon by mutual consent, but somehow inhere in the nature of things. And not only that, but in some sense these principles of natural law are built into human nature. The idea of natural law goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who saw it as something God put into all human beings, whether or not they believed in God. It was viewed as a strong basis for human laws until the Enlightenment, when other philosophies of law became more popular. But natural law still has its defenders in the legal profession, political science, and religion.

One of the most articulate defenses of natural law was written in 1947 by C. S. Lewis, the Oxford literary scholar and author. In a small book called The Abolition of Man, Lewis appended a list of what he discerned to be the central principles of what he called the "Tao" or universal laws of morality. Lewis's "Law of General Beneficence" and his "Law of Mercy" look a lot like the moral principle pertaining to Harm above. His "Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors" pertain to the principle of Authority, and you can link Lewis's "Duties to Children and Posterity" and his "Law of Special Beneficence" (that is, to family, country, etc.) to the Group Loyalty principle above.

How did Lewis come up with a list that overlaps in so many ways with the product of the latest modern psychological research? By studying the writings of ancient cultures: Babylonia, Egypt, China, and the Norsemen, among others. Pretty good for a guy with no research funding or graduate assistants, way back in the dark ages of 1947.

The point of this little lesson is that ethics and morality, far from being founded on criteria that are purely subjective, and therefore culturally bound and changeable, seems to come from a source that is pretty constant in its basic outlines across time, space, and cultures. And the latest deliverances of modern experimental psychology back up that idea. We will say more about Pinker's article next week, but this point is worth pondering till then.

Sources: Pinker's article appeared at Besides Lewis and his The Abolition of Man, another highly readable proponent of natural law is J. Budziszewski, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Written On the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997).

1 comment:

  1. Don't know if you'll see this, but you may be interested in reading this book, "Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics"

    Free downloads are here:

    This book is a proof of secular objective ethics without ties to gods or governments.

    The author of this book provides a method to test ethical theories in the same way scientific theories are tested with the scientific method.