Thursday, May 31, 2007

Morality is Not Hard Wired

The Atheist Jew, in an article titled, “For the 50th time, morality is hardwired,” has pointed to an article in the Washington Post that purports to show further evidence that morality is hard-wired.

In this case, researchers asked subjects to imagine donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves. They reported that the thought of giving money "activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex."

According to the author of the article, this suggests that morality is “basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.”

Desire utilitarianism holds that all actions, even moral actions, aim to fulfill the desires of the agent. The difference between moral and immoral actions is grounded on whether those actions would fulfill good or bad desires (which are desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires respectively). As such, it gives an important role to play for structures that are “basic to the brain”, including states associated with pleasure.

However, hard-wired?

Nothing in the experiment suggests that these traits, insofar as the concept of morality applies to them, are hard-wired (as opposed to soft-wired or programmed through social conditioning). In order to determine this, the authors would have to know how those states came into existence, and that they could not have been altered (redirected, strengthened, or weakened) through social factors.

It is interesting that the researchers would compare what they call moral behavior to eating and sex. They claim that they have discovered something about these three realms that make them similar. However, they also need to explain what makes them different. Why is altruism ‘moral’, but sex and eating typically ‘amoral’ and sometimes ‘immoral’?

If one of their subjects obtained the same pleasure in thinking about keeping the money for herself rather than donating it, what would prevent that from being moral?

In addition, if morality is hard-wired, then how do we account for the link between right and wrong actions, and praise and condemnation? The way that I link them is by saying that morality is concerned with desires that can be altered (created, destroyed, strengthened, weakened) by praise and condemnation. What do the advocates of a hard-wired morality offer as an explanation for this relationship?

I find it interesting that, towards the end of the article, the author investigates the option that knowing how the brain works could open up new moral possibilities. Specifically, it looks at the fact that we may be hard-wired with a preference to help those who are close to us, and be apathetic towards the fate of others who are distant. The suggestion is that this research may provide a way to give us a more general sense of altruism that extends to distant others.

This creates a problem for the thesis that morality is hardwired. If morality is hardwired, then a preference for those who are near to us is moral, and extending altruism to include those who are not next to us would be immoral.

Alternatively, if morality recommends some sort of altruism for those who are not near to us, and this general altruism is not hard-wired, then this shows that morality is not hard-wired.

Either way, the suggestion that we need to alter what is hardwired to do that which is moral creates serious problems for the thesis that morality is hardwired.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass.

Before we go about trying to discover whether the brain has a built-in moral compass, let us first give some thought to the type of experiment that would reveal these facts?

If you find a metal rod with a point on one end laying on the ground, this would not be enough to argue that you have found a ‘compass’ of some type. Even if the rod was pointing north as it lay on the ground, this would not justify calling it a compass. Even if you pick it up, let it dangle from a rope, whereby you note that as it spins about it sometimes points north, it would be absurd to argue, “Here is an instant in which the rod is pointing north; therefore, it is a compass.”

In order for something to be a compass it has to reliably point north. This means that you have to know where north is by means of some other source, and you have to show that this alleged compass points in the same direction.

In order to determine if we have a moral compass, we have to know what moral is. In addition, we have to know the answer to this question by some means other than knowing the direction in which the alleged compass is pointing.

What these researchers are doing is comparable to a scientist dangling a metal rod from a string and saying, “This is a compass. It always points north.” Then, when they are asked what ‘north’ is, they answer, “North is whatever direction the rod points to at the time that you ask the question.” In this case, the claim that the compass always points north (or that we have a mental faculty for pointing out what is moral) is empty. It has been made true only by virtue of a very tight question-begging definition.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears the foundation of morality is empathy.

What is it that makes empathy moral?

Why is it not the case that empathy is immoral?

[S]ome wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

First, my objections have nothing to do with the idea that morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be an evolutionary tool. Somebody might be just as tempted to argue that morality is degraded if it is described as relationships between malleable desires and other desires, which I defend. However, to say that something is ‘degraded’ is to make a value judgment. Making a value judgment requires a theory of value. Theories of value are what this whole debate is about. At best, such an argument begs the question.

Second, morality will never come down to “a tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.” This is because it cannot make it past a Euthyphro dilemma for hard-wired morality. If morality is hard-wired, then whatever helps a species to survive (or, more accurately, genes within that species, since genes are the natural units of selection, not species) is moral. If slaughtering those who do not share a particular gene helps that gene to survive, then reducing morality to what helps genes survive would argue for that this slaughter is morally justified, perhaps even obligatory.

When I read articles such as this, I call to mind an image of a group of scientists huddled around a table studying a grapefruit. Yet, when I listen to them speak, they keep talking about grapes. As they study their grapefruit, they say things like, “Grapes are about six inches in diameter,” and “Grapes grow individually on grape trees”.

I think that they are mistaken. However, I am not going to say, "By studying grapes you will lose the mystery and awe that we should hold towards grapes."

I’m going to say something like, “Um . . . doc . . . you know that round fruit you are studying? Well, I hate to tell you this, but that’s not a grape. That’s a grapefruit. Grapes are . . . well . . . something a bit different from what you are looking at.”

Or, in this case, “Um . . . doc . . . you know those basic brain states that you are studying? Well, I hate to tell you this, but that’s not morality. Those are desires. Morality is . . . well . . . something a bit different from what you’re looking at.”

[One] implication is that society might have to rethink how it judges immoral people.

The same objection applies here. This time, imagine a group of scientists studying a grapefruit, discovering that grapefruits are about 6 inches in diameter and grow individually on trees, telling us, “Society might have to rethink what it believes about grapes.”

How about, “You need to rethink the idea that what you are studying are grapes. If you were actually studying grapes, then you would discover that we do not have to rethink our beliefs about grapes at all – or very little.”

In fact, this claim suggests that these scientists are engaging in a bit of cherry-picking. They look at the grapefruit, notice the things that the grapefruit have in common with grapes. After all, they are both fruits. They ignore the differences between grapefruits and grapes. Then they proclaim, “Look at what we have discovered about grapes!” When others point out the differences between what they are studying and the common concept of ‘grape’, instead of making a mistake, these researchers claim, “This is all your fault. Obviously, you do not understand grapes as well as you thought you did.”

In another experiment . . . patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "ends-justifies-the-means" answers.

And by what moral theory do you hold that ends do not justify the means?

Maybe ends do justify the means, and this ‘brain damage’ that you are studying unlocks a natural barrier that prevents people from doing that which is right. Maybe we evolved a basic disposition towards immorality – towards ‘feelings’ that get in the way of our making sound means-ends moral calculations.

How do you researchers know that this is not the better explanation?

Researchers cannot do this without having an independent standard for determining right from wrong. Do they want to trust instinct and natural inclinations? If they did this, then they would end up defending the morality of whatever prejudices exist in a society at the time.

Among a society of slave-owners, they would be able to show how the disposition to enslave others was wired into the brain – because, certainly, there is something going on in the brain of those who condone slavery.

In a racist society they would be able to look into the brain and see that there is something going on in the brain whenever people make racist judgments, and from this be able to conclude how the morality of racism was wired into the brain.

In a society where women are treated as property, there is almost certainly some brain state that can be measured associated with treating women as property, allowing researchers using this method to conclude that the morality of treating women as property is wired into the brain.

If we take the assumptions of those who claim to have found morality wired into the brain to their logical conclusions, these would be the types of conclusions that these researchers would end up defending.


Randy said...

Might I suggest, "firm-wired"? By analogy with the hardware-firmware-software distinction. Firmware comes from the factory with a program written in it, but that program can be overwritten by the owner (usually).

Alonzo Fyfe said...


"firm-wired" is going to run into the same problems as "hard-wired".

Ultimately, the theory that makes the most sense of the institution of morality is that it is an institution for making changes to firmware for the purposes of promoting network compatibility.

It uses praise and condemnation to make changes (where changes are possible) in malleable desires.

As a back-up, it also uses reward and punishment to give people reason to behave in ways that their firm-wiring would not otherwise cause them to behave. There is no reason to use reward and punishment to get people to do things they will do anyway, only to get them to do things they would not - or some would not - otherwise do.

If morality is "firm-wired", one will still encounter the euthyphero problem, "Is X moral because we are firm-wired to approve of X, or are we firm-wired to approve of X because it is moral?"

If the former, then, if we came firm-wired for predatory behavior - for slaughtering members of an out-group for example, or for rape - then these things would be moral.

If the latter, then we need a standard of goodness that is independent of that which is firm-wired - one that allows at least for the possibility that what is firm-wired is not good and we have reason to modify after shipment.

What is this "standard of goodness"?

Naturally, I will answer that question by pointing to desire utilitarianism as this standard of goodness. However, I do not need desire utilitarianism to be true to point out that the concepts of 'hard-wired' and 'firm-wired' morality run into problems addressing the euthyphro dilemma.

olvlzl said...

Hate to sound like a broken record but none of these terms are sufficiently defined to even come up with a hard definition of what's being talked about, nevermind turning the words into hard flesh. All of this is guess work pretending to be science. My guess is that all of these things, in the making for 3+billion years with an enormous and cumulative development will not be known in their full complexity, certainly not in the few decades the effort has been going on. And that's only the observable physical aspects of it. Any possible non-physical part (we are getting towards the phenomenon of consciousness as seen and personally experienced, after all) would seem to be out of the range of science. But, that's my guess, you don't have to believe it just as I don't have to believe in the materialist speculations, guesses and props for their predetermined ideology.

Hume's Ghost said...

I'd focus on addressing the distinction between a moral sense being "hard-wired" and equivocating that moral sense with ethics or moral behavior.

And it might also be fair to note that the field is a relatively new one. Here's a old (2004) article from Carl Zimmer about research being done into moral intuition.

If I'm understanding Alonzo correctly, I think the paradoxes that the researcher demonstrates show that simply relying on a moral "sense" is not sufficient to rest an ethical system upon.

Baconeater said...

I really think a definition of morality is needed long before discussing whether it is hard wired or firm wired in the brain.
Do apes act morally or sometimes immorally? If so, how specifically.
By defining morality and comparing it to animals other than humans, it is most likely very probable whether we can determine if morality is nature or nurture or a combination.
To me, an immoral act is anything that affects someone else, where guilt is felt by the person doing it, or harm is done unlawfully (societal laws mostly) to the "victim"
Some acts are way more immoral than others depending on the degree of hurt and/or guilt.

Sheldon said...

"Do apes act morally or sometimes immorally? If so, how specifically.
By defining morality and comparing it to animals other than humans, it is most likely very probable whether we can determine if morality is nature or nurture or a combination."

Although an interesting question, I don't it correct to say that apes or other non-human animals act morally or immorally. This might lead to the absurd proposition that the lion is an immoral animal for killing gazelles. Apes for example may have similar emotional responses such regret or empathy. Yet to properly be a moral agent would seem to require higher cognitive functions of reason and self-reflection/awareness.

Perhaps we can think of two levels of ethical-moral response and reason. The "hard-wired" equipment of emotional response which leads to either positive or negative emotions in response to behaviours (Alonzo's brain states). Second the more flexible level that is shaped by both human capacities for culture and reason. The latter being what Alonzo sees as what should properly be referred to as morality?

Baconeater said...

Sheldon, humans kill for food all the time. If we killed our own for food, I think most would consider that immoral.
Apes are self aware, we don't give them enough credit.
Chimps are territorial and will murder even babies to keep their territory (but what about humans and war?), but for some reason they know not to kill within their tribe.
Lions will kill a potential mates cubs if the father of the cubs shows weakness. This is evolutionary, and may seem immoral to us, but not totally immoral within the lion community.
If we state morality can only be associated with humans, then of course, we can eliminate the idea that it is hardwired in us, because by definition one is restricting morality to nurture.

Sheldon said...


Yes, of course humans kill for food, as do many other animals. Does the question of the morality of this practice revolve around killing one's own kind? Some might say so, others might not. Anyway, perhaps a bad example.

While I know that apes are aware to certain limited extent, the self awareness and ability of humans to reason and create culture is on a qualitatively greater capacity than that of apes. The point I was trying to get to in my first comment, was that I think there is a component of morality that may be thought of as "hard-wired". You actually assist me in this point.

"Chimps are territorial and will murder even babies to keep their territory (but what about humans and war?), but for some reason they know not to kill within their tribe."

This would rightly be considered a fairly primitive form of "morality". An evolutionary animal behaviourist would argue that this is likely based on kin selection. Perhaps rightly seen as an anolog to early hominid capacity for morality. But taken to its logical conclusion, if this were the extent of human morality, then we could see the justification for the enslavement of people who are far less related to another group (i.e. chattel slavery in the U.S.). Yet, back in the day there were white abolitionist who argued for the immorality of this practice. Are there chimps within a group that argue against the bad treatment of the chimps in the out-group? And if so, do they do so with language as complex as human language?

However, I think that what we really call morality in human terms does depend on more explicit human reasoning and cultural transmission.