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The Moral Brain: Day Two Afternoon (J.‘s Notes)
J. Hughes   Mar 31, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Day Two of the Moral Brain conference at New York University, co-sponsored by the IEET, is largely devoted to a review of the last ten years of research on the neuroscience of moral sentiments and decision-making, with talks by Jonathan Haidt among others.

“Is, Ought, and the Brain” Guy Kahane, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Although we can’t and shouldn’t try to infer what we should do from neuroscience research on how we think about morality, we can infer what moral obligations we can or can’t have from facts about what we are and aren’t capable of.  Few think we could have a moral obligation to do something that is impossible for human beings like us. We can’t have to moral obligation to do moral things on the basis of things which it is impossible to believe in (Heaven or Hell). Facts can also lead us to normative conclusions if they reveal that certain moral intuitions are inconsistent and shaped by factors that we don’t rationally believe have moral significance. If we find our moral intuitions generally track morally insignificant facts then we have reason to reject them. If our moral intuitions were shaped by evolutionary circumstances, and those circumstances no longer prevail, then we have an empirical reason to be suspicious of all our moral intuitions. 

(See also Guy Kahane “Neuro Ergo Sum” Prospect 2010
and “The armchair and the trolley: an argument for experimental ethics” Philosophical Studies 2011)

“A More Groupish Morality Needs a More Groupish Brain”  Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia; Henry Kaufman Visiting Professor of Business Ethics, New York University

Most psychology is based on research on WEIRD people: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic college students. Most moral psychology disparages or marginalizes the moral perspectives of people outside this Enlightenment paradigm. Haidt says he agrees with Hume, that reason is not the tool to suppress the passions, but rather it is the servant of passions. Haidt’s social intuitionist model argues that we reason backwards from our beliefs and intuitions. The times in which our rational reflection actually suppresses or shapes our intuitions are rare. 

Liberals have moral intuitions about the importance of care/harm and fairness/justice, and are deaf to the significance of conservative moral intuitions about taboos, authority and community/loyalty/betrayal.  Haidt has recently added a sixth moral dimension of liberty/oppression/equality, the monkey brain moral intuition that we should band together to take down alpha male bullies. So it is a hatred of oppressors not a love of equality. This moral intuition is strong on Left as well as on Right, just focusing it on different oppressors - Obama, the state, ZOG. The consequence of this liberal-conservative division is that liberal are constitutionally unable to speak about politics and policy in a moral language that touches as many of the moral intuitions as the offered by the right. The Right offers a complex moral cuisine and the Left just offers sugar and salt.

Haidt then briefly outlined his functionalist social selection argument for the moral intuitions, that the capacity to imbue social institutions with sacredness, and be deferential to social authority and loyal to a social group, are essential to the survival of social groups, and have therefore been selected for.  In the natural sciences reductionism is a very powerful analytical strategy. But in the social sciences reductionims needs to be accompanied by emergentism, by the explanatory power of seeing the collective logic and utility of practices, not just their utility for individuals. Culture is a collective illusion, and moral systems are emergent in all societies. Loyalty, authority and sanctity are functionally necessary, and people can’t thrive without them. As Durkheim argued large social groups require increasing reliance on norms and traditions that preserve social trust and moral community.

Public policy has to be based on consequentialist arguments, and not on conservative deontology. But one of the consequences that have to be taken into account is the social utility of loyalty, authority and sanctity, and liberals never value them in consequentialist thinking. Haidt proposes Durkheimian consequentialism as a alternative public policy metric. (Although this argument appeals to me as a sociologist, and in fact I made a very similar argument for the functional role and evolved utility of altered states of consciousness in my bachelors thesis on Pentecostalism. But it strikes me that neo-conservatives of the post-Trotskyist, Straussian, Commentary sort have been proposing and fighting for precisely this kind of secular argument for conservative politics for forty years. It doesn’t have a great track record. Apologize for the Christian Right and American military interventionism as an antidote to post-Vietnam liberal erosion of moral authority and you end up having to apologize for the Iraq War, Rick Santorum and the Birthers. I think Haidt needs to talk to the now repentent Frank Fukuyama.)

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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