Moral­ity: All In Your Mind

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By William Sale­tan

IImag­ine that killers have in­vaded your neigh­bor­hood. They’re in your house, and you and your neigh­bors are hid­ing in the cel­lar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over its face till it stopped fight­ing — if you had to smother it to save ev­ery­one else — would you do it?

If you’re nor­mal, you wouldn’t, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished last month in Na­ture. But if part of your brain — the ven­tro­me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex (VMPC) — were dam­aged, you would. In the study, peo­ple were given hy­po­thet­i­cal dilem­mas: Would you throw a fa­tally in­jured per­son off a lifeboat to save ev­ery­one else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most nor­mal peo­ple said no. Most peo­ple with VMPC dam­age said yes.

It’s easy to dis­miss the dam­aged peo­ple as freaks. But the study isn’t re­ally about them. It’s about us. Neu­ro­science is dis­cov­er­ing that the brain isn’t a sin­gle or­gan. It’s an as­sem­bly of mod­ules that some­times co­op­er­ate and some­times com­pete. If you of­ten feel as though two parts of your brain are fight­ing it out, that’s be­cause, in fact, they are.

Some of those fights are about moral­ity. Maybe abor­tion grosses you out, but you’d rather keep it safe and le­gal. Or maybe ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity sounds icky, but you fig­ure it’s no­body’s busi­ness. Emo­tion tells you one thing, rea­son an­other. Of­ten, the rea­son­ing side makes cal­cu­la­tions: Throw­ing the wounded guy off the lifeboat feels bad, but if it will save ev­ery­one else, do it.

Philoso­phers have a name for this cal­cu­lat­ing logic: util­i­tar­i­an­ism. They’ve been de­bat­ing it for 200 years. Some say it’s sen­si­ble; oth­ers say it’s ruth­less. Lately, how­ever, the de­bate has been over­run by neu­ro­science. Ac­cord­ing to the neu­ro­sci­en­tists, philoso­phers on both sides are wrong, be­cause moral­ity doesn’t come from God or tran­scen­dent rea­son. It comes from the brain.

Three years ago in the jour­nal Neu­ron, the neu­ro­sci­en­tists il­lus­trated their point. They showed that util­i­tar­ian de­ci­sions in­volved “in­creased ac­tiv­ity in brain re­gions as­so­ci­ated with cog­ni­tive con­trol.” From this and other data, they sur­mised that the moral de­bate re­flects “ten­sion be­tween com­pet­ing sub­sys­tems in the brain.” On one side are “the so­cial-emo­tional re­sponses that we’ve in­her­ited from our pri­mate an­ces­tors.” On the other is a util­i­tar­ian cal­cu­lus “made pos­si­ble by more re­cently evolved struc­tures in the frontal lobes.” The war of ideas is a war of neu­rons.

That’s where the new study comes in. The idea was to find out what hap­pens when the emo­tional side, through the VMPC, gets knocked out. As pre­dicted, cal­cu­la­tion takes over. Take a kid­ney? Push a guy in front of a trol­ley? If it’ll save more lives, sure.

Some of the study’s au­thors think this find­ing vin­di­cates emo­tions. Since peo­ple with VMPC dam­age are “ab­nor­mally ‘util­i­tar­ian,’ ” they ar­gue, emo­tions are nec­es­sary to pro­duce “nor­mal judg­ments of right and wrong.” In fact, the au­thors add, “By show­ing that hu­mans are neu­ro­log­i­cally un­fit for strict util­i­tar­ian think­ing, the study sug­gests that neu­ro­science may be able to test dif­fer­ent philoso­phies for com­pat­i­bil­ity with hu­man na­ture.”

So brain science has dis­cred­ited re­li­gion and phi­los­o­phy, but don’t worry: Moral­ity won’t dis­ap­pear. Brain science is of­fer­ing it­self as the new author­ity. What’s moral in the new world is what’s nor­mal, nat­u­ral, nec­es­sary and neu­ro­log­i­cally fit.

The catch is that what’s nor­mal, nat­u­ral, nec­es­sary and neu­ro­log­i­cally fit can change. In fact, it has been chang­ing through­out his­tory. As our an­ces­tors adapted from small, kin-based groups to elab­o­rate na­tion-states, the brain evolved from re­flex­ive emo­tions to­ward the ab­stract rea­son­ing power that gave birth to util­i­tar­i­an­ism. The full story is a lot more com­pli­cated, but that’s the rough out­line.

And evo­lu­tion doesn’t stop here. Look around you. The world of touch, tribe and taboo is fad­ing. Ac­cep­tance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is spread­ing at an amaz­ing pace. Trade is sup­plant­ing war. Democ­racy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy are forc­ing gov­ern­ments to pro­mote the gen­eral wel­fare. Util­i­tar­i­ans wel­come th­ese changes, and so do I.

But util­ity unchecked can be­come a mon­ster. The In­ter­net is lib­er­at­ing us from phys­i­cal con­tact. Eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion is crush­ing re­sis­tance to the bot­tom line. Com­pa­nies are send­ing em­ploy­ees abroad for cheap med­i­cal care. Bro­kers are buy­ing or­gans from slum-dwellers. In a util­i­tar­ian world, you do what it takes. It’s all about help­ing peo­ple. f you’re out of step with this world — too squea­mish to slash the pay­roll or pull the plug — we can help. Books by neu­ro­sci­en­tists will teach you the ap­peal of util­i­tar­i­an­ism and the il­logic of your aver­sion to it. If that doesn’t work, maybe we can tweak your brain. Two months ago, when re­search showed that dam­age to an­other area of the brain could help peo­ple quit smok­ing, sci­en­tists in­ferred that ther­apy in that area might achieve the same happy re­sult with­out the dam­age. Why not tar­get the VMPC in a sim­i­lar way? We won’t even need drugs. Last year, psy­chol­o­gists proved they could boost will­ing­ness to kill in a util­i­tar­ian dilemma just by show­ing peo­ple a clip from “Satur­day Night Live.”

Not that we want you to go around killing peo­ple. At least, not un­til you join the mil­i­tary. Five years ago, in a gov­ern­ment re­port, sci­en­tists pro­posed us­ing mi­cro­scopic tech­nol­ogy to screen sol­diers’ brains for emo­tional in­ter­fer­ence. To­day, the Neu­rotech­nol­ogy In­dus­try Or­ga­ni­za­tion is lob­by­ing for a fed­eral ini­tia­tive to study the ethics as well as the me­chan­ics of brain science. “Right now, we’re dis­cov­er­ing the seat of moral­ity,” warns NIO Di­rec­tor Zack Lynch. “In 10 to 15 years, we’ll have the tech­nolo­gies to ma­nip­u­late it.”

But there’s the other catch: Once tech­nol­ogy ma­nip­u­lates ethics, ethics can no longer judge tech­nol­ogy. Nor can hu­man na­ture dis­credit the men­tal­ity that shapes hu­man na­ture. In a util­i­tar­ian world, what’s neu­ro­log­i­cally fit is util­i­tar­i­an­ism. It’ll be­come the norm, the stan­dard of right and wrong. Sure, a few men­tal relics of our pri­mate an­ces­try will be lost. But it’ll be worth it. I think.

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