Triune Ethics: On Neurobiology and Multiple Moralities

Darcia Narvaez
Editor’s Note: The following essay by Darcia Narvaez is based on her paper Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities, which was part of the Notre Dame Symposium on Character and Moral Personality. You can obtain all the conference papers online, including Daniel Cervone, Ross Thompson, Dan McAdams, and others.

Darcia Narvaez is associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame and executive director of the Notre Dame Collaboration for Ethical Education.

Triune Ethics: The Neurobiological Roots of Our Multiple Moral Personalities

By Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Triune Ethics is an interdisciplinary theory whose goals are to link moral psychology to affective neuroscience, help explain individual differences in moral functioning, and suggest some initial conditions for moral development. It is also an approach that can be linked to social relationships, conditions and situations, thus providing a biosocial view of moral action.

Three types of ethics can drive human morality, as I outline in this 2008 paper on neurobiology and our multiple moralities (pdf). These are based on different affectively-based moral stances that persons can take: one oriented to security (the Ethic of Security) and focused on self-preservation through safety, and personal and ingroup dominance. Another is oriented to emotional engagement with others (the Ethic of Engagement), particularly through caring relationships and social bonds. The third I call the Ethic of Imagination, which is focused on creative ways to think and act socially. While these labels are not all inclusive, they do seem to capture three different ways of co-existing with others in the social landscape.

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Raising IQ: Nicholas Kristof Meets Richard Nisbett

intelligence-and-how-to-get-it
Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed today, How to Raise Our I.Q. He opens with a standard version of the individual meritocracy argument, that IQ is largely inherited:

Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics. After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong.

Kristof cites Richard Nisbett’s new book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. I covered some of Nisbett’s work in the post IQ, Environment and Anthropology, and Jim Holt gave a strong review of the book recently in the NY Times. The publisher’s home page simply says that this book is a “bold refutation of the belief that genes determine intelligence.”

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Brain Books for Kids

your-brain-by-anita-ganeriMy eight year old son just wrapped up his science presentation project for school, a large poster that he’ll share with his class and then judges at the school’s version of a Science Fair. His topic? How the Brain Works.

A great topic, of course! Maybe a tad ambitious (!), but just the sort of question you want kids to ask. So I was excited to show off my Internet skills and get him hooked into some sites to help explain the brain to a growing boy. Paul outlined a bunch of them in his post Brain School.

But none of them did the trick! My son wasn’t particularly interested in them, the explanations and graphics didn’t always seem accessible, and I came away a little frustrated with the state of neuroscience for kids on the internet.

We had better luck at the local library, so I’m detailing the four most useful books below. If there are other books you like, please leave a comment! It would be great to build a resource. And if there is a great Internet site out there that your kid really hooked into, then tell us about that too.

Here are the boosk with Amazon links:

Anita Ganeri (2003). Your Brain. Gareth Stevens Publishing and part of the How Your Body Works series.
-This book was short, with vivid illustrations and language that my son got – it was the one he drew on the most to get the basics down for his presentation.

HP Newquist (2004). The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look at the Inside of Your Head. Scholastic Reference.
-A more encyclopediac book, covering history, evolution, the brain itself, treatment and more. It’s more text oriented, but does have good illustrations. Amazon plugs it for ages 9-12, but the School Library Review says Grade 7 and beyond.

Michael DiSpezio (2004). How Bright Is Your Brain? Amazing Games to Play with Your Mind. Sterling Publishing.
-It gets info across using kid-friendly drawings, but also focuses on activities kids can do to help understand their brains. Definitely some fun ones, and a good way to introduce some ideas about experiments.

Steve Parker (2006). Control Freak: Hormones, The Brain, and the Nervous System. Raintree.
-This book has more photos and focuses on what the brain does. Good stuff on the senses and movement.

How intelligent are intelligence tests?: Whitehead responds

Dear readers. Dr. Charles Whitehead wrote a long and thoughtful response to my earlier post on the Flynn Effect, but I worried that comments may not get read as often (or carefully) as the main posts, so I’m taking the liberty of giving Dr. Whitehead his own post. For more about Charles Whitehead’s work and his online activities, see Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors here at Neuroanthropology.

From an anthropological point of view cognitive scientists are being less than rational when they treat intelligence scales as though they are measuring something fundamental and innate in human beings. No doubt innate abilities are used by people when they tackle IQ tests, but it is unlikely that such abilities evolved under selection pressure for this kind of problem solving.

Intelligence scales are culturally embedded artifacts designed to meet the idiosyncratic needs of postindustrial western societies, and reflect the equally idiosyncratic assumptions found in the west – such as our habit of referring to someone as “brainy” when we mean “intelligent”, and the widely held assumption that brains got bigger during human evolution because of selection pressure for “intelligence” (and/or language: e.g. Deacon 1992). The idea that human intelligence is the ultimate pinnacle of biological evolution may be little more than colonialist propaganda, suggesting that “scientific” societies are the ultimate pinnacle of cultural evolution – and hence morally entitled to dominate others who formerly managed perfectly well without the blessings of “modernity”.

Sir Francis Galton devised the first intelligence test in the late 19th century and this was followed by the scale developed by Alfred Binet and Théophile Simon between 1905 and 1911 (Atkinson et al., 1993: 457-8). As early as 1884 Galton examined more than 9,000 visitors to the London exhibition and found to his chagrin that eminent British scientists could not be distinguished from ordinary citizens on the basis of head size (ibid: 458). From that point on the kind of assumptions made by Galton have continued to pervade scientific thinking with little or no empirical encouragement.

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Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone

mother-and-childBy James J. McKenna Ph.D.
Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Chair in Anthropology
Director, Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory
University of Notre Dame
Author of Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping

Where a baby sleeps is not as simple as current medical discourse and recommendations against cosleeping in some western societies want it to be. And there is good reason why. I write here to explain why the pediatric recommendations on forms of cosleeping such as bedsharing will and should remain mixed. I will also address why the majority of new parents practice intermittent bedsharing despite governmental and medical warnings against it.

Definitions are important here. The term cosleeping refers to any situation in which a committed adult caregiver, usually the mother, sleeps within close enough proximity to her infant so that each, the mother and infant, can respond to each other’s sensory signals and cues. Room sharing is a form of cosleeping, always considered safe and always considered protective. But it is not the room itself that it is protective. It is what goes on between the mother (or father) and the infant that is. Medical authorities seem to forget this fact. This form of cosleeping is not controversial and is recommended by all.

Unfortunately, the terms cosleeping, bedsharing and a well-known dangerous form of cosleeping, couch or sofa cosleeping, are mostly used interchangeably by medical authorities, even though these terms need to be kept separate. It is absolutely wrong to say, for example, that “cosleeping is dangerous” when roomsharing is a form of cosleeping and this form of cosleeping (as at least three epidemiological studies show) reduce an infant’s chances of dying by one half.

Bedsharing is another form of cosleeping which can be made either safe or unsafe, but it is not intrinsically one nor the other. Couch or sofa cosleeping is, however, intrinsically dangerous as babies can and do all too easily get pushed against the back of the couch by the adult, or flipped face down in the pillows, to suffocate.

Often news stories talk about “another baby dying while cosleeping” but they fail to distinguish between what type of cosleeping was involved and, worse, what specific dangerous factor might have actually been responsible for the baby dying. A specific example is whether the infant was sleeping prone next to their parent, which is an independent risk factor for death regardless of where the infant was sleeping. Such reports inappropriately suggest that all types of cosleeping are the same, dangerous, and all the practices around cosleeping carry the same high risks, and that no cosleeping environment can be made safe.

Nothing can be further from the truth. This is akin to suggesting that because some parents drive drunk with their infants in their cars, unstrapped into car seats, and because some of these babies die in car accidents that nobody can drive with babies in their cars because obviously car transportation for infants is fatal. You see the point.

One of the most important reasons why bedsharing occurs, and the reason why simple declarations against it will not eradicate it, is because sleeping next to one’s baby is biologically appropriate, unlike placing infants prone to sleep or putting an infant in a room to sleep by itself. This is particularly so when bedsharing is associated with breast feeding.

When done safely, mother-infant cosleeping saves infants lives and contributes to infant and maternal health and well being. Merely having an infant sleeping in a room with a committed adult caregiver (cosleeping) reduces the chances of an infant dying from SIDS or from an accident by one half!

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The Flynn Effect: Troubles with Intelligence 2

James R. Flynn

James R. Flynn

Since I’m in Dunedin, New Zealand, I thought I’d write on one of the University of Otago’s most neuroanthropological philosophers, Prof. James Flynn, and dive back into the maelstrom around average IQ scores in different social groups. Prof. Flynn famously pointed out to people outside the standardized testing industry that IQ tests had to be periodically recalibrated because average IQ scores in industrialized countries steadily inflated, suggesting either that people were growing smarter or something else was up with these tests.

Flynn gathered tests from Europe, North America and Asia, around thirty countries in all, and discovered that, for as far back as we had data in any case, average IQ test scores had risen about 3 points per decade and in some cases more. Only recently, in some Scandanavian countries, to the gains appear to be levelling off (see, for example, Sundet 2004; Teasdale and Owen 2005).

We’ve been down this road before at Neuroanthropology before, delving into the murky depths of group averages and tests scores. Back in December 2007, Agustín offered neuroanthropology and race- getting it straight, following up on a discussion sparked by Daniel’s post, IQ, Environment & Anthropology. I put in my two cents, and caught an ear-full, for Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1 (the first ‘part’ of this post). I’ve been wanting to re-enter this particular body of hot water since I read a story on Science Daily, Plastic Brain Outsmarts Experts: Training Can Increase Fluid Intelligence, Once Thought To Be Fixed At Birth, so against my better instincts, my shoes are off and I’m poking my toes in.

Ironically, in spite of the fact that children spend longer on average in school than in previous decades, the Flynn Effect does not show up on the parts of standardized tests that measure school-related subjects. That is, tests of vocabulary, arithmetic, or general knowledge (such as the sorts of facts one learns in school) have showed little increase, but scores have increased markedly on tests thought to measure ‘general intelligence’ (or ‘g’), such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices which require mental manipulation of objects, logical inference, or other abstract reasoning.

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Women on tests update: response to stress

A while ago, I posted an overly-long discussion of recent research on the ‘math gap’ between boys and girls on standardized testing (Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1). That posting discussed several studies published in Science that have shown the gap in average math scores between boys and girls is not set in stone. In one paper, an increase in the test pool brought on by the No Child Left Behind program, with mandatory universal tests instead of exams only for those wishing to go to college, caused the gap in average scores to disappear; in the other paper, a decrease in the ‘math gap’ was found to correlate with other measures of greater gender equality in European states.

As I pointed out in the previous post, however, many commentators suggest that it is not the gap in average test scores that really matters; rather, these critics argue that the different variance in boys’ and girls’ scores explains the disproportionate number of boys who produce exceptional scores (as well as exceptionally bad scores), and thus the marked gap of men and women in PhD math programs, in prestigious prizes for physics and related subjects, and in related fields like engineering. In the earlier post, I argued that even if this greater variance showed up reliably across all testing populations, what exactly was being illuminated was still not clear; that is, many other explanations–other than that men had better ‘math modules’ in their brains, or greater ‘innate’ mathematics ability, or something like that–could explain even very stable differences in math performance. At the time I suggested a number of other possibilities, such as sex differences in stress response during testing, as other possible explanations for even a universal ‘math gap’ (which still had to contend with studies like the two in Science which severely undermined the assertion of universality).

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a video and accompanying article in Science Daily on differences in stress responses among men and women: Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress (but don’t click on that link — keep reading!). Stress is a good candidate to explain a test-taking gap because the observable physiological processes offer abundant evidence that men and women don’t respond to stress in exactly the same way (although there are underlying commonalities). For example, stress causes different diseases in men and women, and some long-term psychological disorders that demonstrate sex-linked disparities seem to emerge from stress.

Unlike the ‘black box’ explanation that boys and simply better at math or evidence greater variability in innate ability, with no observable neural correlate or plausible explanatory mechanism, in variation in stress response we have a clear candidate for male-female difference that plausibly affects their performance and even physiology (for example, in different stress-related diseases).
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