Thursday, May 19, 2016

Morality in a Determined Universe

In preparation for going to graduate school, I have been reviewing some general philosophy. Specifically, I have been going through the lectures in, "The Big Questions in Philosophy" taught by King's College professor Dr. David K. Johnson.

It prompted another of these letters I have been writing as my studies have caused me to imagine that I might have something useful to say on some subject.

Lecture 18 in this series had to do with free will. Dr. Johnson ended the lecture by suggesting that admitting we do not have free will would imply replacing a system of moral responsibility and punishment with a system that viewed criminal behavior as a mental disorder to be cured.

I thought I would suggest to him that these might not be mutually exclusive options.

Dr. Johnson

I hope that you will pardon this intrusion.

I have been going through your lectures on "The Big Questions in Philosophy" from "The Great Courses" (which I find extremely valuable and interesting).

At the end of Episode 18, in which you discuss free will, you end the lecture imagining a future society in which neuroscience was so far advanced that the notion of free will is no longer defensible.

You suggested that, in such a case, we would no longer "punish" people who engaged in criminal behavior "because they deserved it". Instead, you said, "We would simply discover the way they were neurally miswired, and then correct it so that they no longer behaved that way."

I would like to suggest that morality itself is, and always has been, a tool for rewiring the brain in a manner substantially like what you have described above.

I am assuming that you do not intend to limit the list of acceptable procedures specifically to surgery - you were simply using this as an illustrative example. If the "rewiring" can be done by the use of chemicals - anti-psychotic drugs, lithium, or hormones - then this would also fit your model. Similarly, if we could rewire the brain through, for example, a non-invasive procedure such as sonic waves or magnetic fields, that would also count. What matters is not the method used, but the effect that method has on rewiring the brain and, thus, altering behavior.

Well, then, what if the rewiring were to be caused by subjecting a population to rewards and punishments?

I want to suggest that moral rewards and punishments - including moral praise and condemnation - actually works to rewire the brain in ways that tend to reduce dispositions to behave in ways harmful to others and increase dispositions to behave in ways helpful to others (or, at least, in ways that are harmless).

Rewards and punishments act to change behavior in two main ways.

One of these ways is not relevant to the idea that I would like to present here. Rewards provide incentives for engaging in certain behaviors ($25 million reward for information leading to the death or capture of a known terrorist leader) while punishments - or the threat of punishment - provide a deterrence ($500 fine for speeding in a school zone).

These functions do not involve rewiring the brain, and are not the functions that I am concerned with here.

The effect that I am interested in is the effect that rewards and punishments have in changing what an agent actually comes to like and dislike.

Punish a child who tells a lie and the child learns not only to tell the truth to avoid punishment, but acquires an aversion to lying for its own sake. The child then tells the truth, even when there is no chance if getting caught and punished, because the child has become averse to lying. She simply does not want to lie.

Note that the child is not punished because we consider her morally responsible in any robust way. The child is punished to "teach her a (moral) lesson" - a lesson that is learned as the punishment rewrites a portion of the child's pre-frontal cortex.

In your lecture, you spoke of Phineas Gage, the unfortunate railroad worker who had a tamping rod driven through his brain, destroying a large portion of his pre-frontal cortex. What he lost as a result of this brain damage was the ability to conform his behavior to social norms.

This illustrates the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that interprets rewards and punishments, extrapolates from them a set of social norms, and then conforms behavior to fit those norms. By analogy, it seems to work in the same way that the auditory parts of the brain take sounds and extrapolates from them the meanings and grammar of language, allowing the agent to communicate with others.

If we are going to correct a person's wiring to prevent criminal behavior, it seems that we are going to be looking for a way to rewire the pre-frontal lobe, at least in many cases.

One way we have for rewiring the pre-frontal cortex is through rewards and punishments.

Rewards and punishments are processed in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens has a direct connection to the pre-frontal lobe. One of the effects of reward and punishment is to send signals to the pre-frontal robe, where it initiates this rewiring. As I mentioned above, the brain takes these rewards and punishments and extrapolates from them a set of behavioral rules to generate behavior that makes rewards more likely and punishments less likely.

Please note, I am using rewards and punishments in their biological sense - not their social sense. An animal is "punished" if an action results in an electrical shock (for example) - even though the animal is not being blamed for that action. In other words, the claims about rewards and punishments I made above are just as applicable to an animal living alone in the wild where natural rewards and punishments also generate rules of behavior.

For us social creatures, this process extrapolates and promotes conformity to the social rules that we teach through a system of rewards and punishments.

There are two more relevant claims to add to this hypothesis.

(1) Praise acts on the brain as a reward, and condemnation acts on the brain as punishment. Consequently, praise and condemnation can also be used to rewire the prefrontal cortex.

(2) Rewards/praise and punishment/condemnation work not only on those who are rewarded or punished, but on others who consider even the possibility of being rewarded or punished. Through the faculty of empathy, we can put ourselves in the position of those who are rewarded or punished and, in experiencing the reward or punishment this way, have our own pre-frontal cortex rewired without actually being the person rewarded or punished.

This "someone else" does not even have to be a real person. It could be a character in a story.

If this is correct, morality as a tool for rewiring the pre-frontal cortex of people within a community, to inhibit behavior that tends to cause harm and promote behavior that tends to produce benefits.

We could say that "ought to have done otherwise" implies "could have done otherwise" has to do with distinguishing that which reward/praise and punishment/condemnation can influence and that which is outside of its influence.

We do not condemn/punish the person who failed to teleport a child out of a burning building because no amount of condemnation or punishment can create in people an ability to teleport a child out of a burning building.

On the other hand, we praise/reward those who go into a burning building to rescue a child because praise/reward has the capacity to rewire the pre-frontal cortex, not only in the person doing the rescuing but in others as well, to promote generally a disposition to take risks to save others. Thus is something we each have reason to want others to be disposed to do if we should end up in such a dire situation.

In our day to day lives we use rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) to cause people to acquire (for example) an aversion to lying or to taking the property of others without their consent. We promote an interest in helping those in dire need and an interest in upholding and defending certain political and social institutions.

In other words, even in a determined world, people have reasons to reward, to praise, to condemn, and to punish. These are the scalpels we use to perform brain surgery - to rewire the pre-frontal cortex and, in doing so, generate behavior that conforms to social rules.

The future world you imagine, where neuroscience has reached such a state of advancement to show that there is no room for free will, may well continue to be a world where rewards and punishments are used because of their determined effects on rewiring the brain.

In fact, this is what morality has been doing all along.

Well, this is just an idea that I thought I would toss your way for your consideration. I do hope that you find some value in this and that it was worth a bit of your time.


Alonzo Fyfe

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