Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Moral Instinct: Genetics and Brain Damage

For the last couple of days I have been writing about the information presented in a New York Times article, “The Moral Instinct”.

One of the claims made in that article is this:

Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist. The character traits called “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” are far more correlated in identical twins separated at birth (who share their genes but not their environment) than in adoptive siblings raised together (who share their environment but not their genes).

However, an essential part of morality is that it concerns cases in which people are worthy of praise or condemnation – when they are deserving of punishment or reward. If we link morality with genetic dispositions, then we are saying that people with one set of genes deserves to be harmed and those with another set deserve to be rewarded. Yet, how can it possibly make sense to say that a person deserves reward or punishment based on their genetic makeup?

Any time a ‘moral sense’ theorist starts talking about a genetic basis of morality, ask him what his morality says about locking people up in prison for the crime of having the wrong genetic sequence.

In fact, morality is concerned with things that we have the capacity to choose. Since we do not have the capacity to choose our genetic makeup, questions of genetic makeup lie outside of the realm where moral concepts apply. We are as capable of finding “genes for morality” as we are of finding “round squares” or “married bachelors”.

I am not denying that there are any genetic influences governing our conscientiousness, agreeableness, or altruism. However, no matter how much agreeableness we get through genetics, we still have some important questions that we need to ask and answer.

Is this the right amount of agreeableness? Could we use more agreeableness, or less? Could we use more agreeableness in these circumstances, and less agreeableness in those?

If our genetic dispositions were good enough – if they left us with no characteristic that we have reason to change – then we simply would not have a need for moral institutions. Morality exists because we have reasons to add to or subtract from our genetic dispositions, or to alter the objects of those dispositions.

Other parts of the article discussed the sections of the brain used when people consider moral problems, and the effects of brain damage on the conclusions people come to when faced with moral questions. Psychopathy, the article states, may have genetic dispositions. Damage to the frontal lobes makes one more utilitarian.

Of course moral reasoning is a brain function. That’s not the question. The question is whether a particular instance of moral reasoning is good or bad – is it helping people reach accurate conclusions, or are their conclusions mistaken?

Assume that researchers discover that most people when they engage in moral reasoning activate area A of their brain. Damage to Area A leads to a different set of moral conclusions. Are those conclusions better than, or worse than, those of an average person.

It may well be that area A is doing nothing but adding a bunch of noise to our moral decision-making, clouding our judgment. Area A, for example, might be responsible for rationalization – the ability to see arguments when they support our desired position that we are blind to when they oppose our desired position. It may be the ‘hypocrisy center’ of the brain that blocks the proper universalization of moral principles. In these cases, those with brain damage would be better moral reasoners than those without.

There is no way that a researcher can determine whether a particular form of reasoning is better or worse than another without an independent standard of good or bad moral reasoning. You cannot get ‘better’ and ‘worse’ reasoning from a brain scan. All the brain scan will tell you is ‘different’.

More importantly, the relevance of brain damage to behavior lies in the distinction between morality and illness. Blaming or praising people in virtue of whether they have received a blow to the head is as nonsensical as blaming or praising people for their genetic makeup. The distinction we are talking about here is the distinction between ‘mental illness’ and ‘immorality’. In order for behavior to be immoral, it has to be something that we can talk about in the context of praise and blame. Brain damage is not in that area.

Even if a person suffers brain damage that disposes him to behave less morally than he would have otherwise behaved, moral concepts can still apply. This is the same issue we faced when discussing the amount of agreeableness or altruism one gets as a result of genetics. We can still ask whether the levels obtained as a result of a brain injury are too high or too low, or if they pick out the right objects. Even for a brain-damaged person, it may be possible for social factors (moral institutions) to improve upon the dispositions that they acquire from the brain injury, making a person less likely to do harm and more likely to help, then the brain damage alone would have accounted for.

So, I am not denying the validity of any of the empirical research. I am also not denying the importance of the empirical research. I am, however, pointing out the fact that the researcher who reports that he has discovered round squares (for example) is doing his field a disservice. People who link morality (or immorality) to genetics or brain structure are like researchers who discover round circles. Since the things that they claim to have discovered are logically impossible, these researchers clearly do not understand what they are studying.

This, of course, leads to the thorny issue of ‘choice’ in morality. If morality has to do with choice, and choice itself does not exist (in a determined or random world), then morality does not and never has had anything to do with the real world.

I do not have space to go into that issue in detail here. However, I can still provide an outline of a response.

Morality has to do with determined choice. A chess playing computer engages in determined choice. It considers every possible move as if it can actually make that move. It measures the value of each option. Then, it takes the option with the highest value. A person with perfect knowledge of the computer’s program can reliably predict the computer’s choice. However, the computer still makes a choice. The computer still weighs competing alternatives and selects the alternative with the greatest value.

Moral institutions seek to influence the values that we give to different outcomes as a way of influencing our determined choices. Praise and reward are used to encourage people to assign higher value to some sets of moves. Condemnation and punishment are used to encourage people to assign lower value to other moves – or even negative value (to acquire aversions to) other moves. In doing so, we can influence how others behave. We can get them to behave in ways that tend to better fulfill our desires (values). At the same time, others have reasn to use the same tools to get us to adopt particular values, thus influencing how we behave.

Praise and reward, condemnation and punishment, have no effect on our genetic makeup or on the strictly determined results of a brain injury. It is only relevant where our innate dispositions, whatever they happen to be, can be molded by social forces. This is why we can never have a moral genes or immorality grounded on brain damage. It is because it does not make sense to praise or condemn people on the basis of their genetic makeup or aspects of our brain states that are immune from social influence.

1 comment:

martino said...

@Alonzo:However, an essential part of morality is that it concerns cases in which people are worthy of praise or condemnation – when they are deserving of punishment or reward. If we link morality with genetic dispositions, then we are saying that people with one set of genes deserves to be harmed and those with another set deserve to be rewarded. Yet, how can it possibly make sense to say that a person deserves reward or punishment based on their genetic makeup?
This looks like a genetic determinist argument and, indeed, might be being implied by the original authors but not necessarily. Just because there is a genetic basis to these does not mean they are not still socially malleable. Specifically Hauser uses Chomsky's third Principles and Parameters model to explain this. And one cannot conclude from that that just any parameter will do. That is where something like DU comes in. Some socially set parameters we can now objectively show are wrong.

Still referring to your recent post on the "thought police" given a set of social praise and condemnation conditions some will, possibly due to genetics - "psychopaths"? - be caught in the legal systems and so punished. The question here is what type of punishment? Do we want to focus on retribution, rehabilitation, protection (of the rest of society) or some combination. Apart from an argument on the death penalty, which I agree with, I seem to have missed your views on the type of punishments that are acceptable within a DU framework - and that should work regardless of the origins of the problematic desires?