Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality


I purposefully waited to read this book until after I had finished Sam Harris’ book. The similarities between the two are their shared ethical naturalism, while their differences lie in the focus of the work. Harris is primarily concerned with defending ethical naturalism in general, and sciences place in ethics specifically. He does spend some time talking about what science can tell us about morality, but this seems to be a secondary consideration for him.

These two elements are reversed in Churchland’s work, with the bulk of her book being devoted to what science can tell us about the foundations and development of morality. She does spend some of the first and last two chapters defending the idea that the information science is discovering actually does have a role to play in morality, but she seems content to allow science itself to make much of the argument in its behalf for the role she thinks it can and should play in ethics. And frankly speaking, I think she has the correct approach in this regard. It isn’t as though what philosophical arguments she offered were radically different or better (although I think her response to critics use of Hume and his is/ought problem is rhetorically superior for its clarity and simplicity), but the amount of evidence she offers for the role which neurochemistry and physiology plays in foundational elements of morality is a powerful tool for anyone wishing to argue for the efficacy of science in the field of ethics.

It is one thing to argue that values are indeed facts and that the fact/value divide is an artifice of rampant rationalism, but it is quite another to demonstrate the truth of this matter with neuroscience and psychological studies. The truth of the matter is that there is no tiny homunculus deciding things for me in my head, no distinct or independent “me” apart from my brain. Time and again we see proof of this, in studies of people who experience brain trauma to consistent results in various measures of brain activity to various stimuli and neurological responses. We are our brains, and our brains are a collection of neurons and their associated electro-chemical networks.

The confusion lies in our naive introspection which is incapable of penetrating the introspective illusion our minds set up and so peer into the background processes that form the basis for our thoughts and behavior. Evolution has not gifted us with this ability, in all likelihood because self-perception is tied to other perception, and so the foundations of our self-awareness is grounded in behavioral analysis and predictive models for states of intentionality that lead to potential behaviors. There is no benefit for a deeper analysis of cognition since what we interact with are not neural processes, but behavioral outcomes.

Morality then is found grounded in the instinct of me-care that has been extended by evolutionary pressures in social animals to mine-care. And while this is primarily directed towards offspring and (possibly) mates, it is highly extensible through both rational processes made possible due to increasing levels of intelligence in humans (and many other social animals) as well inculturation. In fact, it is particularly humans that are susceptible to this due to the highly undeveloped nature of the human brain upon birth which allows for such a large impact in the nurturing phase of their life. Churchland argues that morality is ultimately a constraint satisfaction process, the constraints being a combination of the external environment as well as the internal conditioning as shaped by evolution and upbringing. It seems to me that morality will eventually be encompasses by health science as neuroscience makes progress in diagnosing and treating the mind. Ultimately there is no divide between physical well-being and mental and social well-being since the mental is the physical.

Which is nothing more than what Sam Harris was arguing for. The shortcoming in his book, and the strength in Churchland’s, is precisely in how one ought to go about making this argument and where the focus of our efforts ought to lie. Science has been an extremely effective narrative for the expansion of human knowledge, and I see no better argument on its behalf, even in the area of morality, than the continuation of this success. Science does indeed have answers, and even where it doesn’t have answers, it can often offer help in what possible answers might look like (and might not look like). The science of the brain is indeed in its infancy, and so there is no justification for any wholesale rejection of traditional moral values, but there is also no reason why we shouldn’t begin the process of allowing science to inform our ethical beliefs and to subject said traditions to increasing levels of scientific scrutiny as our knowledge of the mind improves.

Analyzing a Moral Dilemma

  1. You are at the wheel of a runaway trolley quickly approaching a fork in the tracks. On the tracks extending to the left is a group of five railway workmen. On the tracks extending to the right is a single railway workman.
    If you do nothing the trolley will proceed to the left, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to avoid the deaths of these workmen is to hit the switch on your dashboard that will cause the trolley to proceed to the right, causing the death of the single workman.
    Is it appropriate for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the five workmen?
  2. A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the appro0aching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.
    The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.
    Is it appropriate for you to push the stranger onto the tracks in order to save the five workmen?

With this scenario, Harris seeks to demonstrate the significance that a personal versus impersonal act has on our moral thinking. While I don’t disagree with his point that the personal/impersonal divide does in fact influence our moral decision making, I don’t believe we need to resort to this in order to explain our willingness to act in the first example and our reticence in the second. Rather, there are some rather significant differences between the two that extend beyond the different levels of emotional attachment associated with the personal nature of the act.

The first issue is rather straight forward. In the first example, we are in a position of having only two choices. We either push the button or we don’t. In the second scenario, however, there are more options. We could choose to throw ourselves down in front of the trolley in the hopes that our lesser mass would still prove sufficient to either impede or redirect the trajectory of the trolley. There is a moral sense here that it is unjust to require of someone else what we are capable of doing ourselves. This intuition is strengthened further when we contrast this choice by realizing the involuntary nature of the other persons sacrifice in the second scenario.

But what if we changed the scenario so that it was us who was the large individual capable of stopping the trolley? To balance the two examples, it would have to be our death that was the outcome of pushing the button in the initial scenario. But even in this new dilemma, we would feel less confident in the second example than in the first, and this is for both logical and emotional reasons.

First, we have a rather straight forward risk-benefit analysis. Scenario one offers a guaranteed outcome, for if the trolley is diverted to one track, it is certain to not be on the other track. But in the second situation, even if we are confident that a large object could stop the trolley, it does not offer us the same certitude that the diverted trolley scenario gives us. If both of these were certain to result in death, the less than certain outcome of the second example ought to cause us pause, especially when the price of this act is our death. We have only one chance to effect this change, making the chances of success that much more important.

Additionally, there is the emotional reward of knowing the successful outcome of the altruistic act. The fact that you will enjoy at least a fleeting moment of pleasure in the knowledge that others benefited from your act can be very motivating. The opportunity for this in the second example is not there, depriving the individual of what motivational power these good feelings may have provided.

I want to say again that I think that there is something to the personal/impersonal analysis of moral intuition. I just found the particular example Harris uses to illustrate this divide to be less than helpful do to other differences creating some moral “static” so that the effect under analysis cannot be clearly viewed.

Well-being and Morality

All questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value. Without potential consequences at the level of experience – happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. – all talk of value is empty. Therefore, to say that an act is morally necessary, or evil, or blameless, is to make (tacit) claims about its consequences in the lives of conscious creatures (whether actual or potential).

I know I have been critical of Sam Harris and his book The Moral Landscape of late (1, 2), but I want to change tack and consider the merits of his central contention. This does seem like a rather thorough going ethic if one were looking for an organizing principle that allows for the vast majority of moral intuitions we carry with us while also allowing for improvements based on the progress of scientific knowledge in psychology, neuroscience and various other related fields. The two questions I suppose we need to ask of it are whether there isn’t a better principle we might use, and whether or not other moral theories are not in fact iterations of the well-being principle as Harris claims.

Regarding the second claim, Harris makes reference to what he considers one of the most common alternate theories, the religious perception of morality as being centered on divine fiat or the nature of the divine/creation relationship. Harris has his own scenarios in which he seeks to illustrate that even this is an example of well-being in operation, but I thought of my own. If God were to command obedience, but with the promise of eternal suffering for those who obeyed and everlasting happiness for those who disobeyed, what would we do? Are we even obligated to follow such a being, even if this god had created us? Harris seems to think, and I am inclined to agree with him, that even with religion the well-being criterion is the fundamental guiding principle of moral behavior. He would say that the main difference between the secular and religious consideration of well-being is that the religious believe conscious experience does not end with death.

As for the first question, I don’t know how to answer that other than to perhaps note the pervasiveness of sentiment among views held by humans. This has a lot of limitations, including the is-ought problem previously mentioned, as well as a limited survey base (humans are not coterminous with conscious beings), but it also has some practical benefits in that it will start with the moral intuitions already present and so not have to impose principles that are foreign to human thought. Additionally, humans are the easiest to analyze and verify the possible moral theories and their consequences. Finally, given the disproportionate impact humans have on other conscious beings (actual and potential) on this planet, it makes sense to develop a moral theory that will have its greatest effect on them. It makes sense to me to make an end run around the theoretical problems of asserting a organizing moral thesis by prioritizing pragmatic concerns in order to ensure progress is made. In other words, it is important to not make the best the enemy of the good.

More on Sam Harris

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have nothing meaningful to say about particle physics, cell physiology, epidemiology, linguistics, economic policy, etc.  How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well being?

I was considering my earlier criticisms of Harris’ project when I came across this comment and realized that there was another difficulty with his account. While Harris presents his argument for well-being in two parts, namely that morality resides within the domain of conscious beings, and second that it is the well-being of these beings that is the primary goal. However, as the above rhetorical red meat indicates, even if both of these are granted, it is insufficient to arrive at the conclusion Harris is promoting.

There is, in fact, a third element to Harris’ core well-being argument, and that is the scope of application. For even if one were willing to grant that morality lies within the domain of conscious beings and that it is their welfare that is the goal, one can still deny basic ethical considerations to a wide swath of conscious beings by simply proclaiming that they do not lie within the scope of your moral obligation. Many people do not grant non-human animals moral consideration, and it should be evident to many that the above Klan members have simply drawn their ethical circle a little tighter than that.

In fact, throughout history this has been much more the norm than the egalitarianism currently in vogue in the West. It seems to me that Harris is unknowingly projecting these egalitarian ideals into his central thesis without seriously considering the significance of it and what it means to his project that many do not share it. The problem of the Ku Klux Klan is not that they do not understand ethics to involve conscious beings, nor that the goal is promoting their welfare, but that they apply this theory selectively, based on various physical phenotypes. What does it matter to them what other conscious beings suffer so long as those humans who look like them maintain their socio-economic superiority?

This is not a matter that can be lightly dismissed, even in those cases that we would wish to (such as the above), for even if some of today’s grosser biases and prejudices find their audience diminishing, there are plenty of other limitations to moral recognition that commonly accepted and would easily find any number of respectable defenders if they were to be questioned. The question must be answered, to whom am I obligated to extend my ethical considerations? Without an answer, Harris’ thesis could just as easily fit the narcissist as it would the saint.

Sam Harris and the Foundations of Morality

Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.

This strikes me as the crux of Sam Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape, for if it is granted, much of everything else in the book naturally falls into place, but if it is contested, all of the other arguments fail to find any traction, irrespective of how engaging and attractive they may be. And Harris does write some engaging and attractive prose that is both interesting and entertaining. But in this, the most important linchpin idea of his book, he spends so little time and effort to develop the argument, that I can’t help but feel some frustration.

For all his calls to rationality, the above argument seems to me to be reducible to Sam Harris’ inability to see beyond his own bias in this matter. His conclusion seems blindingly obvious to him and he can’t imagine that anyone would have an alternative response to the question. But of course, coming up with an alternative response is fairly easy. One could simply reject his assertion of moral objectivity and state that there are no logically deducible objective values and simply and fall back on the moral relativism that Harris is wishing to do away with. Not that there are any shortage of available alternatives, from pure self-centered interest to the realization of some evolutionary jump in humans (ala the X-men). Every religionist has an answer to Harris’ question. It is in their sacred texts and traditions. Who would argue that they do not see this as a valid alternative that provides an equally intelligible domain of values?

The other issue is that much of what Harris rails against is the bifurcation of scientific knowledge from morality based upon the is/ought problem elucidated by David Hume. And yet his solution comes no closer to bridging the gap between facts and values than any other ethical system has. This has to be seen as a failing of monumental proportion for someone who spends so much energy arguing against this divide. The claim that morality is based on “facts about the well-being of conscious creatures” is not something that is discernible through scientific inquiry, nor is it deducible from facts derived from said investigation. Harris’ morality begins with an “ought”, namely that we ought to value the well-being of conscious beings, and not an “is”. He argues that we can know that this “well-being” imperative through reason alone, and yet fails to provide reasoning for it beyond the intuitions and biases he hopes the reader holds in common with him.

A Philosophy Revisited

I have been in a reflective mood today, thinking about my previous post on a personal moral philosophy, and I admit that I have allowed this to slip away in the busyness of life and laziness of will. I’d like to try and take some time this Summer to rediscover this and cultivate it in my behavior. I would like to have some time for reflection, so I need to find a way to carve this out of my day. It honestly shouldn’t be too difficult, but it means the sacrifice of some of my more petty forms of entertainment. Again, a laziness of the will is my main impediment.

I’ve been thinking about it, and it seems to me that of the Hellenistic philosophies, Epicureanism best reflects my own inclinations and thoughts, although I still find the four qualities outlined in my previous post to be sort of the means to my Epicurean ends. I think this can best be summed up with the following aphorism, “Seek a happiness that allows others to be happy.”

Neitzschean Ethics

Self-mastery is the root of all morality. To be controlled by neither external influences or internal compulsions, but rather to draw up a vision of who it is you want to be, and then to bring this vision to fruition. Which is not to say that the ethical man does not consider what these external and internal sources communicate to him, but they cannot dictate what it is he is supposed to do or be, only he can determine this. It does not matter that this vision of yourself changes over time, so long as the purpose of achieving it in oneself is maintained. And no pursuit undertaken in this manner should be regretted, even if it is later rejected in favor of a new goal, so long as it is performed in earnest. It is a part of you and the ground upon which you continue to the self. The only thing that should be regretted is the cowardice and laziness that prevents us from the earnest pursuit and achievement of our transformative vision.

The ethical man is an artist. And it is the canvas of the self upon which he works his art. A dull and unimaginative image is unworthy of an artist and must be rejected in favor of something that can capture the soul and essence of what it is to be alive and human, vital and imaginative. Each brush stroke must be bold and unhesitant, without a trace of regret or timidity. Each act is not a possible error, but an opportunity to explore some new avenue of thought or expression, a moment of discovery, whether it be of the self or of the world within which we are situated. This self-artist must be free to make these discoveries, which must mean that he is free from the constraints of habituation, whether it be the habit of society or the habit of the self, for both are well trod and known, and thus no longer fruitful for the type of discovery and creativity the artist needs. Only the fearful take refuge in the safety of the known, and no artistry can come from fear, for fear cannot express itself in any way but conformity and monotony, and it knows not beauty or inspiration.