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Common base of morality?
September 14, 2005 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Do the Right Thing
posted by Gyan (63 comments total)

 
I got it, I'm gone.
posted by Simon! at 11:35 AM on September 14, 2005


The article makes a very interesting point that, if someone needs help and no one offers help and he must then steal to get the help he needs then society has failed him.

Strange to think and important to recognize that "The Right Thing" isn't always the same thing across all cultures.
posted by fenriq at 11:42 AM on September 14, 2005


Good article. Here's a couple other references asserting the existence of universal moral standards.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The differences between those philosophers who hold that there is a universal morality is primarily about the foundation of morality, not about its content. Neither Kant nor Mill regarded themselves as inventing or creating a new morality. Rather both of them, like Hobbes, regarded themselves as providing a justification for the morality that is [already] accepted by all. ...

... morality, like all informal public systems, presupposes overwhelming agreement on most moral questions. No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. In the vast majority of moral situations, given agreement on the facts, no one disagrees, but for this very reason, these situations are never discussed. Thus, the overwhelming agreement on most moral matters is often overlooked.


Hans Morgenthau, "Epistle to the Columbians on the Meaning of Morality." Reprinted in The Purpose of American Politics.

You must have smiled indulgently or shrugged with impatience when you saw me refer to the sanctity of the moral law. Is not morality, so you might ask, a relative thing, the ever changing result of environment and circumstances? If this were so, let me ask you, how do you explain that we cannot only understand the moral relevance of the Ten Commandments, originating in a social environment and circumstances quite different from ours, but also make them the foundation for our moral life? How do you explain that the moral ideas of Plato and Pascal, of Buddha and Thomas Aquinas, are similarly acceptable to our intellectual understanding and moral sense? If the disparate historic systems of morality were not erected on a common foundation of moral understanding and valuation, impervious to the changing conditions of time and place, we could neither understand any other moral system but our own, nor could any other moral system but our own have any moral relevance for us. It is only because we as moral beings have something in common with all other men--past and present--that we are able to understand, and make our own, the core of the moral systems of others.
posted by russilwvong at 11:50 AM on September 14, 2005


Geesh, maybe I'm Indian. I think if I had the wedding rings, I would steal the ticket. I'd leave some way for him to contact me, so that I could pay him back later. And then I'd make the groom pay for the tickets in exchange for the totally awesome wedding toast I would give.

An ethics test that always seems to come up for me is the umbrella test. You go out to a restaurant and put your umbrella by the door, amongst the other umbrellas. When it's time to go, you go to get your umbrella and it's gone. It's still raining. Do you take someone else's umbrella, and if so under what conditions? I always want to take it, and the people I'm with never do, it seems.

*sits in corner by the evil square*
posted by 23skidoo at 11:53 AM on September 14, 2005


I don't see this case as a clear moral dilemma. While attending the wedding is clearly a moral obligation, I don't see how the Mike character is doing anything wrong by missing it. None of his actions contributed to the predicament that he was in.

He isn't the cause of the problem, how can he be held responsible?
posted by oddman at 11:53 AM on September 14, 2005


I would steal the ticket

Evil square indeed. You cannot know the effect your theft will have on the victim - say, for example, he was going to Maine for a job interview - a fresh start in a fantastic new career after a terrible slump. He misses the bus, looses the opportunity, falls into a slump of despair.
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:06 PM on September 14, 2005


I'm with the Indians too. It seems to me so obtuse to say he shouldn't pick up the ticket and use it when the story makes it clear the old man is wealthy and can get himself another ticket. It's not even a dilemma really.

23skidoo - er I have actually done that, not just speculated. Picked an umbrella at random. I guessed the person who had taken mine did it inadvertently because they forgot what theirs looked like. So I acted like I'd forgot too. I wouldn't have done it if it had already stopped pouring down, I'd just buy myself another one later. Umbrellas are cheap.

Aren't moral dilemmas usually about really heavy stuff like life or death decisions?
posted by funambulist at 12:06 PM on September 14, 2005


Duh, I just thought of the easiest solution that doesn't involve stealing - get on the train without a ticket, hope no one comes to check, if they do, just give your address to pay the fine. Everyone's happy, moralists included!
posted by funambulist at 12:08 PM on September 14, 2005


funambulist : "get on the train without a ticket, hope no one comes to check, if they do, just give your address to pay the fine."

Which country is this example set in?
posted by Gyan at 12:14 PM on September 14, 2005


If it's a bus, he's not getting on without a ticket (unless it's one of the buses with two doors, then he can try and sneak in the back). But I digress. There's no indication the old man can easily buy another ticket. He might not have a credit card on him or enough cash to purcase another ticket immediately. Alternately, he might not notice his ticket is gone until he tries to get on, and then he might not have enough time to purchase another one.
And, it turns out the old man was a friend of the bride's family who was also going to the wedding. In fact, he's a local judge who would administer the wedding. By stealing his ticket, you inadvertently ruined the wedding. How's your morality now, India?
posted by Crash at 12:20 PM on September 14, 2005


I like the points raised in this article, and I also like how it approaches the problem of morality - specifically, examining the notion of morality through scientific methods.

I'm continually surprised by how many people conflate "being moral" with "being religious"
posted by afroblanca at 12:20 PM on September 14, 2005


Our school's Evangelic Christian MinisterTM often talks about the threat our society faces from 'moral relativism,' the idea that there is not a single universal (i.e. Christian) morality. I think this article does a nice job describing that there is not a universal morality. Understanding this makes it a lot easier to deal with other cultures, IMO.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2005


An interesting post and article, thanks. Saxe makes an effort to tease out some of the caveats in the conclusions drawn by these three studies, but ultimately she demonstrates that these studies fall prey to a pretty sloppy positivist approach to these questions, the same approach that flaws so many of the conclusions that cognitive psychologists and neurologists make about the mind and the brain. It's clear that any theory of moral instinct has to judge that instinct to be biological a priori, and the studies are therefore flawed from the outset because they fail to grant to mind the same prominence that they grant to brain.

Saxe tries to be careful about this, but you can see that she hopes for a biological explanation for complex social interactions:
The appeal of the new methods is clear: if an aspect of reasoning is genuinely universal, part of the human genetic endowment, then such reasoning might be manifest in massive cross-cultural samples, in subjects not yet exposed to any culture, such as very young infants, and perhaps even in the biological structure of our reasoning organ, the brain.
Even when she dismisses the infant gaze experiments, she still holds out hope that they might one day yield real results. I guess that hope's ok, but the experiments are so stupid, and any conclusions so obviously read into them by the hopes of the researchers! It's one thing to draw conclusions about the cognition of sight through such experiments, but quite something else to presume to deduce infant thought processes from the gaze. There just is no way to exclude the researchers opinions. And of course, the notion that infants are not socialized is already ridiculous on its face.

And finally, the brain imaging stuff is just inane. I understand what fMRIs do, I just don't understand why otherwise intelligent people (cognitive scientists) think that watching the brain work is the same as watching the mind work. Saxe conflates the two, "the popularity of brain imaging is easy to understand: by studying the responses of live human brains, scientists seem to have a direct window into the operations of the mind." But then goes on to admit, although she seems not to want to, that actually we know nothing about what such images mean for something like moral reasoning. Even if "Many people share the intuition that the existence of a specialized brain region would provide prima facie evidence of the biological reality of the moral–conventional distinction," that's nothing more than intuition. A specialized region of the brain doesn't mean a damn thing about a biologically inherited function of higher reasoning in the mind.
posted by OmieWise at 12:24 PM on September 14, 2005


skidoo - it would depend on whether or not my umbrella was taken by someone who had left their umbrella.

If all of the remaining umbrellas belong to patrons currently at the restaurant, I take the loss and suck up the rain. If there is one (or more) unclaimed umbrellas, I have no problem taking one of the unclaimed ones.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:26 PM on September 14, 2005


"Moral relativism" is kind of a paradox, though. Even if you can prove that there is no single universal morality, try telling that to someone who is about to make a moral decision. Does it matter to an American what an Indian would do in that situation? No. The American will do what they think is right regardless.

I like the notion that morality works the same way that language does. In the same way that you can pick apart a sentence and decide whether or not it is REALLY a well constructed sentence, you can do the same with a moral decision. However, at the moment when you must make a moral decision or understand a sentence, you're not really thinking THAT analytically. You just do whatever is most natural.

In context of the example : In the ticket/wedding scenario, I wouldn't steal the ticket. Examining the situation later on after the fact, I may think, "I could have taken the ticket and it wouldn't have done much harm," but there is a good chance that at the time, I wouldn't have even considered stealing the ticket as an option.
posted by afroblanca at 12:29 PM on September 14, 2005


Metafilter: As long as people must have Internet access in order to participate, the sample will remain culturally biased.
posted by spock at 12:29 PM on September 14, 2005


The other thing interesting about morality being like language is that a language cannot be, in a word, wrong. Saying "the Indians are using the wrong morality" would be like saying "the Chinese are using the wrong language."

Anyhow, good article and very thought provoking. Best thing Metafilter has linked to in weeks!
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:33 PM on September 14, 2005


I actually like the moral dilemma about choosing which group of people to run over with the train better. Although the version I heard first asked you to choose between two children and ten Nazis (or rapists or Taliban or whatever).

But eventually I find that you start going around in circles with this one. The moral seems to be that human life is (or should be) so infinitely precious that you cannot trade one against the other like cattle. Which is of course no big help to people actually faced with such ethical decisions (such as just who will get that liver transplant).
So in the end, there is no "right" and no "wrong" decision, just different shades of gray.
posted by sour cream at 12:36 PM on September 14, 2005


"How's your morality now, India?"

That's clearly part of the problem with these moral experiments. You have to have intellectual blinders on. There is no further conceptualization or problem solving available it becomes a rigid one or the other question. Which, like Jim Kirk, I refuse to accept.
Given that the perception is accurate - which we have to do since we're basing "Mike's" decision on it - than the man is 'clearly' able to buy another ticket. That being the case they will be on the same bus. Mike could find out the man's contact information and make amends for the theft.
A harder problem I think would be stealing the money for the ticket. There is far less opportunity to remedy the theft.

I would suspect we are moral within our capacity for reason. To that degree I wholeheartedly agree with the Maisin village elder (it's a collective responsibility) since there is a wider range of perspective, reasoning capacity, and other resources available to a group than to an individual.
...of course, Mike is a dufus for getting his wallet stolen and only allowing 15 minutes to get on the bus.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:39 PM on September 14, 2005


My own moral philosophy is based on the principle of maximum expected good. In the example of Mike, I would weigh the effects of missing the wedding (my own guilt, the disappointment of the entire wedding party) vs. the expected effects of the stolen ticket (inconvenience and anger of the stranger, plus the possibility that the stranger might be missing an even more important event).

Scrolling down the list I would evaluate the morally correct decisions as:

Bob should let 1 worker die to save 5. Failure to act is in itself an action-- the decision to not throw the switch is as much a moral choice as the decision to throw the switch.

The Camilla example is absurd, how could she know that one body would provide precisely enough resistance to save the other workers? If the example were rewritten so that it was obvious the action would save the workers, it is reduced to the problem of Bob, above.

The surgeon example is more complicated for several reasons: Society has an expectation that doctors must do no harm. If surgeons started murdering random civilians to harvest their organs, society as a whole would suffer through fear and collapse of social norms. The net damage to the social fabric trumps saving five lives.
posted by justkevin at 12:40 PM on September 14, 2005


Looks like the key is the level of rationality that must be met by one's rationalizations, eh?

Many of the questions given also would seem to require foreknowledge (something we don't generally have in real life) - for example: "pushing one man down in front of the train will slow it enough to save the others."

The black/white options given seem to put one in the same position as requiring a "Yes/No" answer to the question of "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?".
posted by spock at 12:42 PM on September 14, 2005


Should Mike take the ticket?

Sin bravely lol
posted by sgt.serenity at 1:09 PM on September 14, 2005


In the Camilla example, the moral action would be for Camilla to jump in front of the train.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:12 PM on September 14, 2005


Mike fucked up. He planned badly and got himself caught in Nowhere with no time to spare. If he gave a damn about the wedding, he'd have planned better and gotten there already, or told his friend that his business plans meant that he couldn't serve as best man. Fucking up part of the way, by getting himself caught in this predicament, doesn't give him a license to fuck up even more by stealing someone's ticket.

Mike's friends aren't globally more important than the old man. More important to Mike, maybe, but so what? I'm more important to me than any number of old men are, but that doesn't give me a license to steal from them.

The harm the friends will suffer is utterly inconsequential, in any case, no more than hurt feelings. They'll still get just as married without him there, they'll just have to wait a short period to wear their rings and they'll miss out on his toast at the reception. Conversely, Mike can't know why that old man is going to Maine, or what concrete harm might befall him (or someone else) if he's delayed.

It's a stupid predicament anyway. Mike can call his friend collect, who can call back and buy him a ticket.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:22 PM on September 14, 2005


Which country is this example set in?

Here on the New York MTA commuter trains, you can get on a train with no ticket and no cash and they'll send you a bill, followed by court claims, I believe.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:24 PM on September 14, 2005


It seems that a moral dilemma survey would be more insightful if each example dilemma includes a factor of self-interest which a few of the questions in the Harvard survey lacked.

The ticket/wedding example is an insightful moral dilemma because the Mike character has to factor consequences to himself (the most-likely scorn his peers, not the least of which a very angry bride) as well as consequences to others.

The run-away trolley and the organ-harvesting surgeon on the other hand are not as insightful because the characters faced with these situations is being presented with consequences that have more effect on others than the character in which people answering the survey will most likely fallback on utilitarian greater-good reasoning.
posted by StarForce5 at 1:28 PM on September 14, 2005


Gyan: my bad, I confused bus/train. Boarding a bus with no ticket is decidedly more complicated.

I have trouble thinking in terms of pure hypotheticals so if I try and picture that example in a real life situation there's so many things that make that dilemma rather implausible to me. For one thing, if someone is all dressed up for a wedding rather than looking like a heroin addict, I don't think it'd be impossible to find someone sympathetic enough to lend the money, unless the station was deserted. Or even find a sympathetic bus driver.


Joey Michaels: The other thing interesting about morality being like language is that a language cannot be, in a word, wrong. Saying "the Indians are using the wrong morality" would be like saying "the Chinese are using the wrong language."

Yes when it comes to dealing with trivial things like stealing bus tickets or umbrellas. But there is a level where the known harm is greater and matters are no longer that relative.
posted by funambulist at 1:41 PM on September 14, 2005


The author of this paper is a colleague of mine. I did not know she was interested in moral psychology (which is what I study); most of her research focuses on theory of mind.
posted by mowglisambo at 1:42 PM on September 14, 2005


Fascinating article. Can anyone articulate a difference between Bob and Camilla. I have the strong feeling that Bob should pull the lever but Camilla should not push the guy in front of the train, but why?

As to the question of how she would know that pushing the guy will stop the train, let's assume for purposes of this question that the train has some sort of automatic breaking system that will be engaged when it hits the pushed guy thus slowing it down enough to save the other five--or something like that. I don't want to get hung up in hypotheticals I just want to know why I (and apparently most other people, at least here on MeFi) come to this conclusion.
posted by The Bellman at 2:16 PM on September 14, 2005


Evil square indeed. You cannot know the effect your theft will have on the victim - say, for example, he was going to Maine for a job interview - a fresh start in a fantastic new career after a terrible slump. He misses the bus, looses the opportunity, falls into a slump of despair.

For that matter, say the plane smashes into the side of a mountain after takeoff. He is the sole employed member of his family, which consists of his wife and two young children. Distraught and hopeless, the mother drowns the children and slits her wrists. Of course, stealing the ticket would prevent this, possibly causing a life-changing experience for the man and leading him to invent safer forms of transportation that end up saving millions of lives. Now which square are you in for stealing the ticket? (excluding the dead square) You really can't know the effect your theft will have on the victim, yourself, or on the future as a whole. So what do you judge the action by? Intentions?

I've always found it curious how people can attribute causation to some things - "Well, if he didn't race cars, this never would've happened"/"He was only chasing his dream of being a race car driver, who could've expected this!?" - and not to others - "He was just walking across the street, how could such a thing happen!?"/"That's what you get for leaving the house". At what point in probability of results do you draw the "They caused/deserved it" line?
posted by nTeleKy at 2:30 PM on September 14, 2005


I don't want to get hung up in hypotheticals I just want to know why I (and apparently most other people, at least here on MeFi) come to this conclusion.

I think it's a matter of involvement. It's easier to remove yourself from the death if you are Bob, because all you did is pull a lever, and normally pulling levers doesn't cause death. But for Camilla, she pushed a dude in front of a train, and that almost always is done to kill someone.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:48 PM on September 14, 2005


nTeleky - both intentions and known consequences. A decision cannot be judged based on unknown consequences or random events.
posted by funambulist at 3:10 PM on September 14, 2005


I think the inherent difference between Bob and Camilla is that Camilla is forced to physically coerce another person into another place, thus violating their physical freedom and incidentally causing their death. In Bob's case, while there is still cause of death, there is no physical violation of a person's freedoms.

Thinking this through, though, it becomes less apparent that this is correct. By flicking the switch, Bob changes the one person's status from guaranteed life to guranteed death just as surely as he does by hurling the person bodily. In relative terms, whether Bob redirects the train or redirects the person should be morally equivalent (IMHO) - Bob doesn't violate the person's physical freedom personally, but via the train that he controls. Is it more moral to kill with a gun than with your hands? I don't think so.
posted by Sparx at 3:14 PM on September 14, 2005


Omiewise: Interesting post. It is a problem that the cognitive science people have presupposed somethings about the human brain in order to have a scientific apporach. They run into the problems of science and positivism, but I don't think their conclusions are so easily dismissed. While their investigations into the brain ignore "the mind" I have yet to hear any real explaination as to what "the mind" might be. I don't mean to come off a materialist, in the pure sense, but as someone who wonders if a distinction between mind and brain is useful or even makes sense at all. Perhaps the brain is a sort of medium for intentions (thoughts.) This would make thoughts impossible without brains, and brains non-functional without thoughts. The two concepts cannot be seperated in any conceptually important sort of way. Cognitive science has many of the flaws of science in general, but stands on a philosophically solid position overall.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:15 PM on September 14, 2005


funambulist: But there is a level where the known harm is greater and matters are no longer that relative.

I would argue that the point at which the common good is damaged by a person's choices varies from society to society.

For example, the point of the Mike example is that if that scenario occured in India, different rules of morality apply. While we in the U.S. feel it is unthinkable to steal the old man's ticket, in India not taking the ticket is unthinkable (according to the article). Ergo, theft (in this case) is necessary to uphold the common good and is, thus, the morally superior choice.

Murder is obviously another area where socities are not as black and white as they seem. If our moral belief is "killing a human being is wrong," we clearly get around that belief in the case of war or the death penalty. Some cultures believe that honor killings (or honor rapes) are completely appropriate modes of behavior. While I, personally, would not want to live in those cultures, rape and murder are not considered wrong 100% of the time.

As a society, we believe that certain acts are wrong. For example, theft. Ask a typical American 14 year old if theft is wrong, they will tell you "yes." Ask them if they would turn in a friend for theft and they will probably say "no." The ethical belief that being loyal to your friends is more important than upholding the law in the USA is pretty powerful. Would they turn in that friend if they beat somebody up? What if that friend killed somebody? What if it was somebody who 'deserved' to be killed, like a sexually abusive adult?

The point at which loyalty is trumped by support for the law in American society varies from person to person and circumstance to circumstance. Ergo, even in a single culture, it is possible for even the most profound moral choices to be situational.

Anyhow, in my opinion, it strikes me as absurd to argue that there is absolute morality. However, there may well be a common base for morality. This article, as thought provoking as I found it, did not convince me that there is, in fact, a common basis. But, of, how I long for some sort of common basis. I feel like Ivan Karamazov in that sense, except not as smart.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:09 PM on September 14, 2005


I would argue that the point at which the common good is damaged by a person's choices varies from society to society.

Sure, but most moral questions are pretty straightforward; they're not as difficult as the examples you cite. Quoting the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy again: "No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. In the vast majority of moral situations, given agreement on the facts, no one disagrees, but for this very reason, these situations are never discussed."
posted by russilwvong at 4:49 PM on September 14, 2005


You example is situational, too. One might not cheat, deceive, injure, or kill for a great vacation, but one might well cheat, deceive, injure or kill in other situations.

I am arguing that the statement "Killing a human being is always wrong" does not reflect most society's actual practices. Indeed, I would argue that "stealing a bus ticket is always wrong in the U.S.A." doesn't necessarily hold true 100% of the time.

In so much as even the most important ethical choices are based on all the factors involved in a situation, I still propose that morality is not just a cultural construct, but a situational construct.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:21 PM on September 14, 2005


Bob should let 1 worker die to save 5. Failure to act is in itself an action-- the decision to not throw the switch is as much a moral choice as the decision to throw the switch.

Maybe it's my inner slacker getting the better of me, but I can't accept this at face value.

In practice, the magnitude of inaction does not seem to come close to the magnitude of action. One could argue that by not pulling the lever, Bob is merely allowing the train to kill the five. If he pulls the lever, he changes the equation, he kills the other.

Most people quickly convert themselves into passive observers when confronted with simple social dilemmas (dropped wallets on the subway, etc.) using a similar rationale.
posted by marlowe at 6:20 PM on September 14, 2005


elwoodwiles writes "The two concepts cannot be seperated in any conceptually important sort of way. Cognitive science has many of the flaws of science in general, but stands on a philosophically solid position overall."

But they are completely separated. Cognitive science has been busy mapping the mind-so far so good-and then claiming that they have information about the biological basis of mind. It isn't that I don't understand that the two are related, I just don't think that there is indeed any obvious connection between the two. These kinds of discussions about abstract morality are one thing, but this is operationalized as a problem in the mental health field all the time. Claims are made, without any substance, about the biological basis (and therefore the necessity of biological intervention) for mental disorders that simply have not been proved.
posted by OmieWise at 6:38 PM on September 14, 2005


Claims are made, without any substance, about the biological basis (and therefore the necessity of biological intervention) for mental disorders that simply have not been proved.

Would you, perhaps, suggest cleansing sufferers' engrams in a different way?

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. The article talks about new ways and tools being employed by researchers to understand how the brain works - it's a lay article, not something up for peer review, and it's detailing methods of investigation and possibilities, not conclusions.

You seem distressed that not everybody embraces your brand of dualism, a brand that would make such research a wild goose chase. Well, why should they? The researchers may be making hypotheses based on a smattering of initial evidence, but they're not making any claims otherwise, at least in this article. They're attempting to move towards greater understanding of what's involved (and learning what isn't involved is just as important). You seem to be attacking them based on your own philosophy of mind, and I'm not convinced that's a supportable, or even rational, position.

Of course, I could be misreading you, but it bears repeating - as has been noted previously on the blue - that the correct response to the overprescription of Prozac is not Scientology.
posted by Sparx at 7:23 PM on September 14, 2005


Great post, good discussion. Thank you, Gyan.

In re: physicalism vs. dualism, remember to mind the gap.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:16 PM on September 14, 2005


Fascinating article, and a provocative discussion. I deem this post to be morally good.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:05 PM on September 14, 2005


I am not at all sure that "No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation." Given certain other conditions, I would think this perfectly justified. For example, let's say that you received a whole bunch of spam related to a posting you made offering help after the tsunami. Let's further suppose that you respond to some Nigerian scam and manage to trick the scammer out of enough money to take a nice vacation.

Without saying that this is the optimal way to use that money, I think it could be perfectly justifiable. I am also not saying that the end result is that the scammer stops scamming, only that in this one instance he lost money. He may have so much scam-related money that this incident is a drop in the bucket to him.

I would also have no problem with Mike taking the ticket, by the way, as long as the conditions were as described and he made an attempt to make it up to the other man.
posted by lackutrol at 9:33 PM on September 14, 2005


Or what if you embezzled from say, Pol Pot's regime, even if all you want to do is take a nice vacation? There is a net good result there, even if your intentions aren't pure. The money is spent on vacation rather than arms.
posted by lackutrol at 9:39 PM on September 14, 2005


Joey: Anyhow, in my opinion, it strikes me as absurd to argue that there is absolute morality. However, there may well be a common base for morality.

Indeed, that's what I meant too.

This article, as thought provoking as I found it, did not convince me that there is, in fact, a common basis.

I think that's because it is more a matter for philosophy than for science.

Anyway, I really dislike the dichotomy relative/absolute as if it was only about one extreme or the other, like, either everything is relative or everything is absolute. I think there's a risk of falling into that trap when discussing what is relative, you know, equating relative with completely arbitrary.

Yes I think it is impossible to posit an absolute unchangeable morality that encompasses everything from picking up bus tickets to war. Obviously moral principles have constantly evolved through history and even when principles are pretty much established decisions are rarely based on principle alone, they depend also on situations, contexts, external factors, like the examples show; what the same person might consider inacceptable in situation a becomes acceptable in situation b. So morality is inherently relative, it is a matter of negotiation, at individual and social level. But it's also obvious there is a common basis for morality otherwise there could be no society. (Whether that basis is innate or learned is a question I don't think anyone will ever answer, and perhaps it's the wrong question, again, based on a dichotomy... not many things about human behaviour can be entirely one thing or the other, can they?)

The cultural differences even on far more serious matters like killing are not a negation of common principles, they're more like an exception based on different priorities established through closed systems of thought, rather than social negotiation about law and morality. Plus, there's a degree of relativity within specific moral systems too, no matter how authoritarian. Honour killings in a particular society don't mean that killing in that society is considered good and fine and ok and no killings get prosecuted. It's just that "dishonour" is considered more of an offense - it's a variation of the death penalty, applied to something that is not even considered a crime in other societies. Also, in countries where those honour killings are still practiced, they are not universally supported, there is internal opposition to the practice. So even the differences are more complex than a simple matter of culture x has this morality, culture y has this other one, like different languages. Languages change and evolve but they are neutral systems, they're not a matter of political dispute to the extent social norms are. Everything that has been recognised as a universal human right has been fought over for centuries. Certain principles have emerged as common through a series of social changes and historical events. They were never a given in any society. So, it's neither a matter of absolutism or of relativism as extremes.

When it comes to the more trivial examples, well, the different responses to the bus ticket "dilemma" seem to me to be less about differences between one culture and the other than about notions of how high are you going to place property as a concept above other things in life, like, friendship, honouring a commitment, the importance of a wedding - and the degree of flexibility and adaptation to circumstances in juggling all those different things, in real sitautions, rather than as abstract notions. I don't think it's just people from India that would have different priorities there, you'd find people in any society who wouldn't really see picking up that ticket as a moral problem (the example specifically said the old man had the means to get another ticket; anything else about him we cannot know, so it cannot be part of the question). But I think it's interesting that the question itself reveals a lot of its own premises about society. It implies no one will be willing to help a person who by no fault of their own finds himself without a ticket and without money to buy it. The dilemma is posited in a society where cooperation and sympathy are not even considered as an option. It's a paradox really because those are moral values in themselves.

The Camilla question gives away something of its premises too. Bashos_frog makes a good point: why not consider the possibility she throws herself under the train? why does she have to push someone else? why did those who came up with the question assume suicideis not an option but murder is? And why does anyone have to be compelled to act anyway? Doing nothing is also a decision that can have its moral basis. Why not just shout out a warning? The question already assumes that taking things in your own hand when events do not depend on you is always the only thing to do. I don't think that's a valid assumption. I may feel guilty I was not able to stop people being killed, but if the alternative is to kill one to save five, who am I to play with people's lives as if it was only a matter of numbers? (of course if the question was about killing someone who is directly attacking those people it'd be another matter)

So even the morality of the questions is debatable, not just the answers.
posted by funambulist at 2:50 AM on September 15, 2005


elwoodwiles- Sorry, I posted a sloppy response because I was completely distracted by something else. Your contention is that the philosophical basis of the kinds of cognitive research described in the article is sound because there is no functional way to distinguish between mind and brain since they are both clearly interconnected and inseparable. I'd agree with the second part of statement (I'm not a naive dualist), but disagree with the first part which legitimazes the research. I have two major objections.

The first is that such research is reductive, and at this point, the reduction seems inate to the research itself. Clearly certain functions of the brain are localized, and there has been some success in identifying some of those functions and locations, but wee really don't know how much. More importantly, we have no idea how that relates to higher brain functions, functions specifically like moral reasoning. The studies that have been done tend toward a most activity=evidence of localization model. This is fine as far as it goes, but as even one of the researchers in the present article points out, inadequate as science. Think of it this way. If one were to take a fMRI of a car driving down the road, the engine would show the most activity. Does this mean that a driving car's ability to drive can safely be reduced to it's engine working? What about turning, braking, lights, etc? Some of those things are crucial to safe and effective driving, yet the "most activity" model of localization has no mechanism for taking those things into account. Even if the brain (and mind) is less complex than a moving car, there may be mechanisms which are not measured (or ignored) which are crucial to the aspect of consciousness under consideration. Again, I'm not suggesting that fMRIs are not measuring activity, just that even a mechanistic model of the brain may have more things than proximate activity going on to measure.

The second is that the experiments, both the imaging and the gaze experiments, fail to account for culture adequately. Obviously our biology is influenced by our genetics, but that influence is mediated by our environment in countless ways. Just establishing a norm of reaction for cloned simple plant life shows how differently phenotypes are expressed across different environments. The kinds of experiments described, and this is a philosophical issue, choose to assume that biology is the first and most important component of the expression of complex cultural traits. I think that's simply incorrect. There is a huge philosophical problem with treating biology as the thing which consciousness, for instance, reduces to. As the critical realists would say, psychology is rooted in but not reducable to biology. Richard Lewontin has written about some of these problems in his book Biology as Ideology.
posted by OmieWise at 4:14 AM on September 15, 2005


Sparx-
See my above comment for an apology for my earlier sloppy response, and a more detailed response that is more nuanced.

My point about mental illness, while sloppy, was simply meant to stress that the abstract applications of this kind of reductive thinking about mind and brain are actually quickly converted into profit. Profit motive, while not the evil that some would paint it as, does lead to sloppy thinking of its own. Remember when circular reasoning was used to suggest that since SSRIs made more serotonin available in the brain, and since they sometimes relieve the symptoms of depression, depression must therefore be a problem of serotonin deficiency?

I support whatever interventions help people get better in terms of mental health. It is wrong to assume that if drugs are not supplied people will not get better. In fact 80% of people who seek psychotherapy for depression do better than those who don't, a number which far exceeds the relevant numbers for medications. Scientology I don't know anything about, but, as has also been said here on the blue before, simply because medications work for some people does not mean that they are the only form of effective treatment for mental illness.
posted by OmieWise at 4:24 AM on September 15, 2005


I suspect part of the blur in commonality is that everyone thinks they're doing or trying to do the 'right' thing.

It would be interesting to attempt to determine the most 'evil' outcome for each scenario.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:53 AM on September 15, 2005


I am not at all sure that "No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation." Given certain other conditions, I would think this perfectly justified.

In your examples, the justification includes other motivations, not only the fantastic vacation: namely, punishing evildoers (the scammer, Pol Pot).
posted by russilwvong at 11:25 AM on September 15, 2005


funambulist: Thank you for the insightful response. You've given me a lot to think about! Hurray!
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:38 AM on September 15, 2005


OmieWise said: psychology is rooted in but not reducible to biology.

Nicely put, there is a danger in wrongly applied experiments and theories. At the same time we must find a way to deal with the roots of our mental processes. It seems that cognitive science is asking the right questions and is bringing novel methods to bare in order to move the debate about human consciousness forward. We have yet to develop a methodology that goes beyond observing subjects directly or observing differing kinds of activities in the brain, but I'm confident these technologies will eventually develop into something useful.

I actually started to critique CS with many, but not all, of your objections. I don't think we should confidently fire ahead without considering the moral implications (this is why I deleted this the first time - it's a loop.) Since we are considering the moral implications of our scientific methodology, our theories, experiments, and interpretations are valenced by pre-existing moral concepts. It reminds me of something, someone said somewhere - that to think about thinking we have to think beyond thought, which we cannot do. Perhaps that applies to morality as well. I hope this second paragraph makes a lick of sense. I deleted something similar earlier because it wasn't clear. I post it now because I think it somewhat fits your objections to CS's approach to morality, which I sense is more your point than a theory of mind.

We probably agree more that we disagree.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:05 PM on September 15, 2005


Omiewise: thanks for the clarification - much clearer (and enjoyably chewy)
posted by Sparx at 2:09 PM on September 15, 2005


Russilwvong, they aren't motivations, they're results. Our vacation-taker is only motivated by the fantastic vacation, it's just that we perceive the morality of the action differently when we change the identity of the victim.

I guess I'm trying to point out that these moral dilemmas could be answered in many different ways if we tweak the details of the situation. It's hard for me to answer these questions when they are so abstracted from real-world situations.
posted by lackutrol at 2:13 PM on September 15, 2005


OmieWise, your thoughts on the limitations and dangers of fRMI are both interesting and informative. But I am curious that you haven't yet acknowledged the more profound implications of this technology.

While I agree that the issue of mental health is important, I feel compelled to suggest that the prospect of actually proving a common base of morality is much more exciting. If you were to, just for a moment, share elwoodwile's confidence that this technology could follow science's usual trend of further refinement and actually become sophisticated enough to show us the more intricate workings of our conscious (the indicators, sunroof, windscreen wipers- to borrow your metaphor) whats more, if these brain-imaging experiments were to include subjects of various cultures and (humor me with another leap of fancy here) the results were to show that human beings have common innate sense of morality hardwired into their brains... so moral reasoning could be proven to be universal.

Then by my reading world order would be turned upside down.

It is likely that I am jumping the gun, but is it not safe to suggest that considerable doubt would be cast on the cultural relativist position of warmongers such as Samuel Huntington? The political manifestation of cultural relativism is the West proving its dominance over other 'civilizations', to some this concept underpinned the western interference in the Middle East and many other clashes over so called cultural fault lines.

To me, the idea of such a doctrine sitting next to Fascism on history's shit heap, thanks to good old scientific progress, is really appealing.
posted by verisimilitude at 2:21 PM on September 15, 2005


verisimilitude : "if these brain-imaging experiments were to include subjects of various cultures and (humor me with another leap of fancy here) the results were to show that human beings have common innate sense of morality hardwired into their brains"

What would constitute such a result?
posted by Gyan at 3:34 PM on September 15, 2005


100 subjects. 50 natives of culture A, 50 from B. All given the same series of moral dilemmas and conventional violations to puzzle over while in an scanner.

Compare brain activity in the two groups.

Say cultural reasoning is signaled by cerebral activity, and innate reasoning is signaled by activity somewhere deeper, more primordial (crude I know but as long as the areas can be distinguished) Correlate activity from the various dilemmas in the two groups, apply some statistical magic... my hypothesis would be that moral dilemmas would cause similar activity across the whole field, whereas 'violations of convention' would vary across the two cultures.
posted by verisimilitude at 4:24 PM on September 15, 2005


verisimilitude : "Say cultural reasoning is signaled by cerebral activity, and innate reasoning is signaled by activity somewhere deeper, more primordial (crude I know but as long as the areas can be distinguished)"

How would you tell whether the morality developed because of nurture or nature, even ignoring this crude speculation on loci.
posted by Gyan at 4:27 PM on September 15, 2005


greater variation in loci = nurture
less variation in loci = nature

This assumes we agree that there are some aspects of morality that are innate. This experiment just distinguishes between the thought process in cultural reasoning from that of universal reason.

(By the way, I am speculating on far more than loci. do you think it is possible prove a universal basis of morality using fRMI type developments?)
posted by verisimilitude at 4:45 PM on September 15, 2005


Sorry: 'might be possible' rather than 'is possible'.
posted by verisimilitude at 4:48 PM on September 15, 2005


verisimilitude : "This assumes we agree that there are some aspects of morality that are innate."

Isn't it this assumption whose veracity we're testing in the first place?
posted by Gyan at 5:00 PM on September 15, 2005


No this just distinguishes between cultural and universal reasoning.

If the same activity was identified in response to a specific moral dilemma, in every single subject no matter how diverse the cultural background, would nature not be a more likely explanation than nurture?
posted by verisimilitude at 5:19 PM on September 15, 2005


Well, humans have similar minds, which have to interact with the shared world, of which culture is one part. Human-human interactions are shaped foremost by contact and observation and on top, by cultural aspects of these observations. So, a similar response, at most, will demonstrate a common core at work. To establish whether this core morality is a innate cause rather than a byproduct, you need to test these diverse cultures over diverse scenarios. Even then, it won't be clear. The clean, unethical and Nazi-way to test is to take lots of babies, separate them into groups exposed to radically different environments, and then observe them.
posted by Gyan at 5:54 PM on September 15, 2005


Even if it is proved that aspects of morality are hard-wired, wouldn't that merely show that certain behaviours are beneficial in particular environmental circumstances? 'Universal' seems too strong a term.
posted by Sparx at 2:58 AM on September 16, 2005


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