Hume was a Neuroscientist

I think that David Hume is one of the most brilliant philosophers.  In his moral philosophy (back in the 18th Century!) Hume’s understanding of typical moral decisions was much more accurate than the view of neo-Kantian rationalists.  Hume provided a useful vocabulary for understanding human actions.  First, we have passions, upon which our judgments can act.  Hume argues that reason alone cannot create an action, and that reason is and ought be the slave of the passions.  Neo-Kantians believe that through some understanding of morality, we cannot only understand what is moral, but what should make us act in a moral fashion.  But, as Hume noted, a should implies a could, and judgment alone cannot bring about action.  This is supported by a recent Jonah Lehrer article which shows that

“A new paper demonstrates, once again, that the human brain is the ultimate category buster, blurring the lines of good and bad, black and white, until everything is gray. The reason is that our behavior is deeply contextual, profoundly influenced by our surroundings and immediate situations. Whether or not we’re able to resist sin, then, might depend more on the details of the sin – and whether or not it triggers our automatic urges – then on the strength of our moral fiber.”

Greene and Paxton tested this hypothesis by creating a coin flip game where contestants could lie about their original guesses, and receive reward.  So, if I originally guessed all heads, but only tails showed up, I could simply tell the proctor I guessed 4/5 correctly, and receive a larger reward.  The fMRI machine checked for activity in various brain regions, especially the parts where “self control” exists (like the prefrontal cortex).  If there was more activity in those who told the truth, the tester would be “willing” their moral stance.  If there was more activity in those who lied, they were trying to overcome their urge to cheat, and failed.  The results were clear: “those who acted honestly (who guessed wrong and self-reported as much) showed no increased activity in control-related areas relative to others who guessed wrong but did not have the opportunity to cheat.”  In other words, being an honest soul wasn’t a sign of moral prowess, but rather, a lack of an urge to steal.

Lehrer asks, “Why might such a state of temporary moral grace exist? The answer returns us to evolution, and to our history as social primates. One possibility is that we come pre-programmed for certain kinds of ethical behavior, as it might be more important to have an honest reputation within the group than to have a few extra dollars.”  I agree, but I think Lehrer is forgetting something important.  People probably didn’t have small valuables that could be taken until recent history.  Stealing someone’s cow, or plow, or something large and valuable was much easier to tell, and therefore evolution could select for “honesty,” in most individuals, before most easy temptations had been created.

Assuming that evolution has created some sort of general moral traits in most humans, then it seems that universal prescriptivism provides a fairly useful way to understand human conceptions of morality.  The universal prescriptivism believes two things.  First, that ethical proclamations do not express propositions (a proposition is something that can be true or false), and second, that ethical declarations function very similarly to imperatives that are universal.  So, for example, when someone exclaims “abortion is wrong,” they might be stating their preference that they would prefer no actions like abortions be taken, assuming that all relevant facts are the same.  In light of Lehrer’s article, it might be even more accurate to say that this preference is based on some sort of genetic or cultural predisposition towards certain actions.  It seems like this helps “resolve” many moral dilemmas.  When a mother’s life is at risk, the sentence “abortion is wrong” doesn’t apply, because now, a new relevant fact is in place.

On page xii of Peter Singer’s preface to Practical Ethics, he expresses his sympathy towards R. M. Hare’s (the founder of universal prescriptivism) philosophy.  Singer argues that Hare distinguishes between “two distinct levels of moral reasoning—the everyday intuitive level and the more reflective critical level.”  I think that Hare’s philosophy is useful for understanding the everyday intuitive level, placing most unargued moral intuitions into a framework for discussion.  We can evaluate unargued moral assertions as a reflection of contingent preference—a reflection of time and place, rather than an appeal to objectivity.  The benefit to a universal-prescriptivist stance is that it offers a clear starting ground on which unjustified moral declarations can be judged, disregarded, or embraced.  It grants the ability to analyze moral statements from sociological, or genetic perspectives, and places the burden on the asserter to justify their moral declarations as something more than mere whim.

This leaves open the possibility, as Singer explains, for a “more reflective critical level” in which judgments alone could, perhaps, guide action.  But, this theory contextualizes the importance of Hume’s theory.  For discussions sake, I think it is more useful to assume Hume is correct, and assume that saying “murder is wrong” only necessitates that “I prefer no actions like murder to be taken, given relevant contexts,” until something further is established and agreed upon.  Otherwise, discussions can become very confused.

I now want to examine how one might examine a claim like “murder is wrong” after these realizations have been made. Granting my argument thus far, Mourner argues that a moral declaration commits us to a duty to explicate those contexts, or else it lacks content and pragmatic value.  I certainly agree that if an appeal is made to “objectivity” in defense of something’s right or wrongness, but no theory for objectivity is offered, I think it is coherent to embrace Richard Rorty’s view that the word objectivity only serves as an empty rhetorical gesture—mere pounding on the podium.  I almost entirely agree, I would just add that there is probably some content in the declaration that murder is wrong.  It, most likely, isn’t a random assortment of words, but as the Lehrer anaylsis explains, the ethical proposition most likely contains the existence of a certain sociological or genetic predisposition.  But, I would agree that the claim lacks any objective ethical content, or anything of the like.

This essay then, is a call to anyone to explain a system of moral reasoning that takes place on a more reflective critical level.  I would greatly appreciate it.


One Response to Hume was a Neuroscientist

  1. Ross says:

    I basically agree. This dissertation informed a lot of my views on morality and explains prescriptivism (he calls it “revisionism”) pretty clearly:

    It’s long, but I cut it for debate so I have most of the important stuff in card format. A few of the more science-based examples:

    “Under ordinary circumstances reasoning comes into play after the judgment has already been reached in order to find rational support for the preordained judgment. “When faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth,” (2001, pg. 814). Haidt notes that subjects who have condemned a victimless action as immoral often set out to find a victim, sometimes attempting to change the facts of the story in order to create one. For example, when asked about whether or not it is okay to clean a toilet with the national flag, many people who said that this action was wrong supported their judgment by claiming that this action might prove harmful to the agent. Such efforts are instances of a more general phenomenon that Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding,” which is defined as “the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a judgment in the absence of supporting reasons,” (Haidt, Bjorklund, and Murphy, 2000). As Haidt points out, the very existence of moral dumbfounding indicates that, at least in some cases, the judgment comes first while the reasons for that judgment are made up afterwards. Are these isolated phenomena? Perhaps people’s responses to stories such as these tell us about the psychology of sexual taboo violation, but not about moral psychology in general. For all we’ve said here, it’s possible that most moral judgments are caused by moral reasoning and that only moral judgments with respect to a few isolated topics are produced by intuition. There are, however, good reasons to think that this is not the case. To begin, the picture of moral judgment as an intuitive process is part of a more general pattern observed by social psychologists. Haidt (2001, pg. 819) explains that, “The emerging view in social cognition is that most of our behaviors and judgments are in fact made automatically (i.e. without intention, effort, or awareness of process).””

    “Further support for the idea that moral judgment is largely intuitive comes from research in primatology. In summarizing the moral (or proto-moral) tendencies and capacities of non-human primates, Frans de Waal cites the prevalence of sympathy-related traits such as attachment, emotional contagion, special treatment of the disabled and injured, and cognitive empathy (the ability to trade places mentally with others); norm-related characteristics such as the following of prescriptive social-rules, internalization of rules, and anticipation of punishment; an understanding of reciprocity exhibited in concepts of giving, trading, and revenge as well as moralistic aggression against violators of reciprocity rules; and characteristics related to the maintenance of community life such as peace-making, the avoidance of conflicts, community concern, and negotiation (de Waal, 1996, pg. 211). Human morality appears to be an outgrowth of primate morality.8 But primates, as far as anyone can tell, do not make moral (or proto-moral) judgments by means of effortful and deliberate reasoning involving a series of introspectively accessible steps. It’s much closer to the truth (if not perfectly accurate) to say that sophisticated non-human primates such as chimpanzees produce their moral judgments intuitively. It seems unlikely that the psychological mechanisms at work in human morality should be radically different from those that play a strikingly similar role in the social lives of our closest relatives.”

    “If moral reasoning is primarily responsible for the production of moral judgment and behavior, then we would expect those who exhibit diminished reasoning capacities to be the ones who make the most “moral mistakes.” If, on the other hand, moral judgment and behavior are primarily the products of emotional response, then we would expect those with diminished emotional capacities (of the relevant kind) to exhibit the most morally abysmal behavior. While there can be no doubt that normal moral life is shaped by both reason and emotion, the study of society’s most recalcitrant moral offenders points to a very clear answer. Blair’s psychopaths, Damasio’s prefrontal patients, and the legendary Phineas Gage, each social disasters in spite of their intact reasoning abilities”

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