Thursday, May 27, 2010

Morality is not Rational?

This is a snipit obtained by Delancyplace but ultimately comes from an excerpt from Jonah Lehrer.

"Psychopaths shed light on a crucial subset of decision-making that's referred to as morality. Morality can be a squishy, vague concept, and yet, at its simplest level, it's nothing but a series of choices about how we treat other people. When you act in a moral manner - when you recoil from violence, treat others fairly, and help strangers in need - you are making decisions that take people besides yourself into account. You are thinking about the feelings of others, sympathizing with their states of mind.

"This is what psychopaths can't do. ... They are missing the primal emotional cues that the rest of us use as guides when making moral decisions. The psychopath's brain is bored by expressions of terror. The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for propagating aversive emotions such as fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. ... Hurting someone else is just another way of getting what he wants, a perfectly reasonable way to satisfy desires. The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible. G. K. Chesterton was right: 'The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.'

"At first glance, the connection between morality and the emotions might be a little unnerving. Moral decisions are supposed to rest on a firm logical and legal foundation. Doing the right thing means carefully weighing competing claims, like a dispassionate judge. These aspirations have a long history. The luminaries of the Enlightenment, such as Leibniz and Descartes, tried to construct a moral system entirely free of feelings. Immanuel Kant argued that doing the right thing was merely a consequence of acting rationally. Immorality, he said, was a result of illogic. ... The modern legal system still subscribes to this antiquated set of assumptions and pardons anybody who demonstrates a 'defect in rationality' - these people are declared legally insane, since the rational brain is supposedly responsible for distinguishing between right and wrong. If you can't reason, then you shouldn't be punished.

"But all of these old conceptions of morality are based on a fundamental mistake. Neuroscience can now see the substrate of moral decisions, and there's nothing rational about it. 'Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment,' writes Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. 'When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate ... Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.'

"Kant and his followers thought the rational brain acted like a scientist: we used reason to arrive at an accurate view of the world. This meant that morality was based on objective values; moral judgments described moral facts. But the mind doesn't work this way. When you are confronted with an ethical dilemma, the unconscious automatically generates an emotional reaction. (This is what psychopaths can't do.) Within a few milliseconds, the brain has made up its mind; you know what is right and what is wrong. These moral instincts aren't rational. ...

"It's only after the emotions have already made the moral decision that those rational circuits in the prefrontal cortex are activated. People come up with persuasive reasons to justify their moral intuition. When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn't a scientist, it's a lawyer. This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make the automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a facade, an elaborate self- delusion. Benjamin Franklin said it best in his autobiography: 'So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'

"In other words, our standard view of morality - the philosophical consensus for thousands of years - has been exactly backward. We've assumed that our moral decisions are the byproducts of rational thought, that humanity's moral rules are founded in such things as the Ten Commandments and Kant's categorical imperative. Philosophers and theologians have spilled lots of ink arguing about the precise logic of certain ethical dilemmas. But these arguments miss the central reality of moral decisions, which is that logic and legality have little to do with anything."

Author: Jonah Lehrer
Title: How We Decide
Publisher: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
Date: Copyright 2009 by Jonah Lehrer
Pages: Kindle Loc. 1922-79


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing. Now I understand why my career was so frustrating.

Kaz Maslanka said...

Yeah Watashi, I have worked in many of those places. :)

iksigma said...

and who is Jonah Lehrer if i may ask? (ah a journalist...)

he may be right but then he will try to form his own synthesis i.e. selling

all those philosophers approximated the world at their current moment

todays phycho-philosopheres will do none better

I dont buy a bit

Kaz Maslanka said...

Thanks for your Comment Iksigma

Anonymous said...

Everyone from Callicles to Stirner knows this, some people just refuse to admit it. This is why most 'moral philosophy' is submoronic circular nonsense, it's not concerned with reason, it's concerned with apologetics for moral judgments - religious apologetics work the same way.

Jonah Lehrer himself is actually slipping into this himself: to say that lacking empathy is a loss or a bad thing at all is veiled moral judgment. Psychiatry is rife with such disguised moralizing.

Anonymous said...

Everyone from Callicles to Richard Joyce knows this. It's not remotely relevant from a really philosophical point of view. Moral 'philosophy' exists for the same reason Christian apologetics exist: because people want to project teleology on the world, and will rationalize these beliefs any way they can.

I have come to the conclusion that arguing with a moralizer is ineffective as arguing with a Creationist. You can defeat an argument, you can't defeat a disguised value judgment.

Kaz Maslanka said...

Thank you Horapollo,
Your thoughts remind me of my struggles defining aesthetic category without using aesthetic judgment. I am not sure that it is possible.


Anonymous said...

A reason why moral psychology is so powerful - effectively closing off amoral theories from being considered by most people - has to do with evolution. Morality is basically a pre-critical, pre-civilizational survival mechanism for tribal relations. This is also why I think so many moral notions - universalism and particularism, egalitarianism, fairness -are more detrimental than useful; they are a haphazard heuristic generated by evolutionary processes; trying to use them as a guide to modern life is like saying, "I see a face in the clouds, therefor, we will treat clouds as people." It's broken and pretty much inescapable within the context of modern human biology. Contrary to the mainstream view - even of moral noncognitivists like Joyce- who think that morality is useful for social cohesion, I think its macrosocial effects are incredibly deleterious, even when taking into account whatever personal antisocial behavior it discourages. After all, most Communists are not thieves, but it's hard to imagine Communism without morality. I think we'd be better off with private thieves and no communism.

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