Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality

Edge has just posted a new seminar, The New Science of Morality. You get lots of access to interviews, links to papers, videos, exchange of views, reactions from the press, and more. Quite stimulating.

What proved interesting to me is the inherent duality in the discussion. There is a marked division between the assumed basis for this research and what many of the main researchers are actually saying. The assumed basis is in evolution and functional biology:

A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials… For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature… Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, fMRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences.

But the researchers themselves often sound a lot more like neuroanthropologists, taking into account culture, relying on cross-cultural research, thinking about the dynamics of development and the interaction of nature and nurture. There’s no ethnography yet, which would really help in getting at how people and institutions think and act morally in reality. Still, the researchers’ work shows that many of these people are not in the “morality as a naturalistic brain module that simply acts on the world” camp.

Here are some examples:

Jonathan Haidt: “Morality is a social construction, but it is constructed out of evolved raw materials provided by five (or more) innate “psychological” foundations… Each culture’s morality is unique, but an aspect shared by all five-foundation moralities is that they do not regard society as a social contract created for the benefit of individuals. Rather, they see society in more organic terms, as an entity that is of value in and of itself, and they think the building blocks of society are not individuals but rather groups and institutions.”

Sam Harris: “I propose that answers to questions of human value can be visualized on a “moral landscape” — a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to states of the greatest possible wellbeing and whose valleys represent the deepest depths of suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving — different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc. — translate into movements across this landscape. Such changes can be analyzed objectively on many levels — ranging from biochemistry to economics — but they have their crucial realization as states and capacities of the human brain.”

Roy Baumeister: “The human being was designed by nature for culture: That is, the distinctively human traits are those that enable us to participate in this new kind of social life, namely culture. Culture is humankind’s biological strategy. To understand human traits, therefore, it is useful to ask how each trait would have been selected for as a way of helping an individual flourish in this new kind of social environment.”

David Pizzaro: One of my primary interests is in how people arrive at judgments about moral responsibility. Most people seem to have intuitions about what sorts of things matter when determining whether a person deserves blame (or praise) for any given act. In another ongoing set of studies, we have demonstrated that moral reasoning can be influenced by motivations that may have nothing to do with moral concerns… I am particularly interested in specific emotions (anger, disgust, fear, etc.), and on “visceral” affective states (e.g., thirst, hunger, sexual arousal) and their impact on how we process information, how we remember events, and how these emotions impact our moral judgments.”

Elizabeth Phelps: “My primary focus has been to understand how human learning and memory are changed by emotion and to investigate the neural systems mediating their interactions. I have approached this topic from a number of different perspectives, with an aim of achieving a more global understanding of the complex relations between emotion and memory. As much as possible, I have tried to let the questions drive the research, not the techniques or traditional definitions of research areas… It is my belief that having focused questions and a broad approach to answering these questions has enhanced the overall quality of my research program and the cross-disciplinary relevance and appeal of my work.”

Joshua Knobe: “Over the past few years, a series of recent experimental studies have reexamined the ways in which people answer seemingly ordinary questions about human behavior. Did this person act intentionally? What did her actions cause? Did she make people happy or unhappy? It had long been assumed that people’s answers to these questions somehow preceded all moral thinking, but the latest research has been moving in a radically different direction. It is beginning to appear that people’s whole way of making sense of the world might be suffused with moral judgment, so that people’s moral beliefs can actually transform their most basic understanding of what is happening in a situation.”

To be sure, there were researchers at the Edge seminar who are fully in the evolution/innatist camp. But nonetheless, the younger researchers seem to embrace a wider and more natural approach to studying morality. And by natural I mean understanding that we are biological and cultural beings, individual and social, with the interaction between the developing person and a rich social and material environment central to how we understand our own nature.

I would encourage more serious thinking about culture, and not just the brain and psychology. Take Knobe’s statements, about “people’s whole way of makign sense of the world might be suffused with moral judgment.” That’s a statement familiar to most cultural anthropologists. The question becomes, How? It’s not as simple as saying culture imprints it on people, not at all. Pizarro’s work on disgust and visceral experiences points to embodiment and complex interactions to understanding how moral thinking gets developed inside a person.

Baumeister indicates that we are actually cultural animals, not moral ones, and that we have mechanisms designed to interact with our social-cultural milieu. But what sorts of mechanisms? And how do complex interactions among groups of people and environments create the sort of social construction of morality that Jonathan Haidt advocates (construction albeit with biological and psychological components!)? These sorts of questions need to also be part of the new science of morality.

The moral consequences of this sort of research is also important. It is something I critiqued a couple years back in the post Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct, writing:

To help you make a final decision [about what he is selling], a linguist like Pinker will surely appreciate a little content analysis of his New York Times essay, “The Moral Instinct.” The word “science” appears ten times in the article, often in close association with “moral” or “morality.” How about Bill Gates helping out? “Help” appears six times, four of those times about how selfish genes can get ahead through reciprocal altruism. And justice? You guessed it. Zero, zilch, nada.

Also, I can’t resist this final quote from Robert Trivers, posted way, way at the bottom of the Edge seminar:

“If i fuck a goat i may feel ashamed if someone saw it, but absent harm to the goat, not clear how i should respond if i alone witness it.”

Link to Edge’s The New Science of Morality Seminar

Link to my critique of Steven Pinker’s The Moral Instinct

8 thoughts on “Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality

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