Friday, March 12, 2004

"evil doesn't exist on a neuronal level"

Long, fascinating, very worthwhile Carl Zimmer article on neuromorality as revealed by fMRI on people faced with moral quandaries:
Most of us would like to believe that when we say something is right or wrong, we are using our powers of reason alone. But Greene argues that our emotions also play a powerful role in our moral judgments, triggering instinctive responses that are the product of millions of years of evolution. "A lot of our deeply felt moral convictions may be quirks of our evolutionary history," he says.

[Hume said] people call an act good not because they rationally determine it to be so, but because it makes them feel good. They call an act bad because it fills them with disgust.
[Greene:] "[In contrast, when we do logical thinking] We're using our brains [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] to make decisions about things that evolution hasn't wired us up for"

..."When you have this understanding, you have a bit of distance between yourself and your gut reaction," he says. "You may not abandon your core values, but it makes you a more reasonable person. Instead of saying, 'I am just right and you are just nuts,' you say, 'This is what I care about, and we have a conflict of interest we have to work around.'"
In his weblog The Loom, Zimmer applies this info to Bush's Council on Bioethics:
Kass [the head] has written in the past about how we should base our moral judgments in part on what he calls "the wisdom of repugnance." In other words, the feeling you get in your bones that something is wrong is a reliable guide to what really is wrong. The Council on Bioethics ...have declared that happiness exists to let us recognize what is good in life, while real anger and sadness reveal to us what is evil and unjust.
...Jonathan Cohen...suggested that we need to understand that moral intuitions are not automatically moral truths--particularly when they're applied to complicated ethical quandaries about science and technology that our ancestors never had to confront.
and a commenter draws an excellent parallel.

Update: it also fits with this from Alterman:
A professor once asked my class to assume he could prove that more lives would be saved if we took all the money spent on coal mine rescue equipment and spent it on preventing cave-ins in the first place. Would we do it? The answer was no -- "there's a peculiar kind of horror" (his phrase) of being buried alive with no hope of rescue. There's a not-happy medium between pure utilitarianism in what research we fund and the need to "do something" and provide some hope.

It also sheds light on thePuzzle of Imaginative Resistance-[from Tamar Gendler paper]: the puzzle of explaining our comparative difficulty in imagining fictional worlds that we take to be morally deviant

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