Might there be a universal moral code? When we look around, we everywhere find bitter and seemingly interminable moral disagreements about abortion, or euthanasia, or animal rights, or social justice, and many other issues, not to mention the vast gulfs that separate the moral outlooks of different cultures. The idea that there is a universal moral code can thus sound farfetched. Yet the Harvard psychologists Marc Hauser, and several other scientists, have recently claimed that, contrary to appearances, there really is a universal moral code, and that this scientific discovery should change the way we think about ethics (see here, and here for a longer piece by John Mikhail. Hauser’s views are spelled out at length in his book Moral Minds.). Is this really so?
Stephen Hawking made some headlines when he recently argued that although it’s highly probable that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a grave mistake to try to actively try to establish contact with other intelligent beings. Reflection on our own history, on how European explorers dealt with technologically less advanced cultures they encountered, suggests that an encounter with technologically superior alien is likely to lead to a catastrophic outcome to us humans. So we should keep a low profile: enthusiastically sending signals to outer space (including statements by Kurt Waldheim!) is fatally foolish, and is also embarrassing, as it casts some doubt on our claim to be an intelligent life form.
Over at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert discusses some new books on the policy implications of so-called 'positive psychology'. Positive psychologists set out to use scientific methods to study, not suffering, depression and psychopatholoy, but the good things in life: what makes people happy, and what doesn't. The most remarkable set of findings of this growing body of research is that many of the things that we expect would make us happy — or unhappy — don't really, or not in the way we believe. For example, winning the lottery has a very short lasting positive effect on people's happiness levels; being seriously handicapped in a car accident only a short lasting negative effect. And above a certain level, economic growth and material wealth do not seem to have much of an effect on people's happiness or 'subjective well-being'. What are the policy implications? In one of the books discussed, Derek Bok makes suggestions that would make people on both the left and right unhappy (though probably not for very long). He concludes that relentlessly aiming at economic growth is a waste of time — but similarly that we should not worry much about growing inequality. It does not make people at the bottom of the scale unhappier, so why care about it?
Both within and outside ethics, people often worry about disagreements that are purely about value. Suppose that you and I completely agree about all the empirical facts about some case, yet you think that it’s absolutely forbidden to do something and I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It can seem hard to see how we could ever resolve our disagreement. If after I have carefully considered the case, and still see nothing wrong, what could you possibly say that would make me see things in a different light?
Things are often a bit more complicated than this. For example, even if we agree on all the empirical facts, our moral disagreement might be due to disagreement about some metaphysical matter—say, about whether a foetus is a person. Metaphysical disagreements are also extremely hard to resolve. Then there is the old point that the way we frame factual matters, or the way we interpret some empirical evidence, might itself be shaped by our values.
Anyway, this is a common worry. But when it comes to many heated disagreements about scientific or technological advances, this worry seems to me to get the situation exactly backwards.
Suppose that the people around repeatedly smile or shake their heads. Although you may not notice it, it is very likely that soon you too will begin to smile or shake your heard. And it is likely that this will affect how you feel and what you think. Or at least this is what social psychology tells us.
In one experiment that demonstrated this ‘chameleon effect’, subjects were recorded unconsciously imitating the movements of an experimenter. In another experiment, when subjects contorted their faces in a way that paralleled smiling, they felt happier. And when subjects were told to engage in tasks that required them to move their heads as if they nodding or shaking it, this affected how easy it was to persuade them of something—it was easier to persuade them if they were nodding their head, harder if they were shaking it! (though only if the argument was good—see here for details.) What’s all this got to do with botox?
Studies of the content of dreams confirm what most of us already suspect: dreams are more likely to be nasty than pleasant, or as the researchers put it, “negative dream contents are more frequent than corresponding positive dream contents”. A recent study reports that threatening experiences are more frequent and intense in dreams than in real life. All this is in line with the entertaining (and not implausible) ‘threat simulation theory’ of dreams, according to which the evolutionary function of dreams is to simulate threats so that our ancestors could spend their nights rehearsing attacks by enemies and predators.
So dreams have a serious negative bias. All of this might have been extremely useful back then. But an unwelcome consequence is that we spend a large portion of our life in pointless misery. Clinical depression is often understood as a disposition to obsessively accentuate the negative. It seems all of us are clinically depressed during certain hours of the night. Think of a human life and how many hours of sleep it contains. Of these, many are spent dreaming. And most of these dreams are unpleasant in different ways. If we add all this up, dreaming makes our lives significantly worse, on balance. Shouldn’t we do something about this?
In recent studies, neuroscientists have been able to use brain imaging to reliably predict inner states such as lying or intention. In a groundbreaking study published in a recent issue of Nature (and briefly summarised here, here and here), Kay and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to make predictions about what subjects were seeing. Using a complex mathematical model based on decades of research into the human visual cortex, measured brain activity to estimate which grayscale natural image the subject was seeing at a given point in time. This goes beyond prior attempts at ‘brain reading’ in that the analysis did not merely use simple artificial stimuli or generic statistical signal-processing methods to identify neural patterns but employed data about the early stages of visual processing to develop a model that was then able to accurately predict which of a large number of novel and complex natural images was seen by the subject.
Scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University made two amputees ‘feel’ their lost arms by rerouting to their chest the key nerves that transfer sensations from hand to brain. After several months, stimulation to the area of the nerves would produce rich sensations experienced as if occurring in the missing limbs. Interestingly, the patients could still distinguish between sensory stimulation of chest nerves and that of the rerouted arm nerves.
For a summary, see Yahoo News
For the original paper, see PNAS paper
In an interesting study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2006 but widely circulated earlier, Drew Westen and his colleagues at Emory University used fMRI to image the brains of committed Democrats and Republicans before the 2004 Presidential election. Although the subject matter was topical, the aim of the study was not to contribute to the political debate but to shed light on the neural processes involved in emotion-driven motivated reasoning. But an opinion piece published about a week ago in the New York Times goes quite a bit further. Authored by a group of neuroscientists, the piece reported the results of brain imaging scans of 20 registered voters who were showed still photos and video excerpt from speeches of the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for the upcoming presidential election. The piece included amusing remarks such as
Emotions about Hillary Clinton are mixed. Voters who rated Mrs. Clinton unfavorably on their questionnaire appeared not entirely comfortable with their assessment. When viewing images of her, these voters exhibited significant activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an emotional center of the brain that is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one. It looked as if they were battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.
Neuroscientists have now started playing political pundits and, as some might put it, are risking confusing solid science with something worryingly close to astrology. The confident, chatty interpretations given by the authors to activation in various areas of the brain in response to the image of a politician go well beyond anything backed by serious science. To be sure, there is plenty of evidence that the anterior cingulate cortex has a role to play in certain emotions, and in some forms of decision-making, but it’s a very big jump to conclude that the subjects in the study were ‘battling unacknowledged impulses’. It is a VERY big jump to suggest, on the basis of such responses from some of the twenty (presumably) Californian voters, that this is what American voters feel.
Such uses (or abuses) of science raise many ethical issues. Let me just draw attention to a few. The first of course has to do with the relation between science and the popular media. Should neuroscientists write such opinion pieces? It would be fat better if they didn’t. But whether we like it or not, we are likely to see more of such neuropunditry. Like many cultural-technological innovations, what is a curiosity today might be an obvious fact of life tomorrow.
The first thing to point out is that such an opinion piece, although written by scientists, is nothing like a peer-reviewed article in a major scientific journal. We are given interpretation but no data and little information about the methodology. We cannot say if the methodology is sound or rule out various forms of bias. The problem is, however, that such neuropunditry isn’t really compatible with the existing peer-review process. It needs to come out fairly quickly to be really relevant commentary on ongoing political events. The peer-review process is too cautious and slow. But perhaps a similar kind of scientific ‘quality control’ could be developed to serve a parallel role.
Another issue is that it not yet clear that using fMRI technology in this way can really teach us anything about the psychology of voters that we couldn’t learn using the traditional methods of questionnaires and polling. The public should be made aware of the limits to what brain imaging can tell us. Nevertheless, fMRI offers, at least in potential, a uniquely direct access to unconscious processes the subject may not even be aware of—as well as a way of spotting all too real responses some subjects do not acknowledge. Indeed it is possible that even some the loose empirical speculations in the New York Times piece do identify something real about the psychologies of many American voters. In any case brain imaging and our ability to interpret its findings is advancing fast—we will certainly know much more about the neuroscience of emotion or political judgment in four years—so it is also, finally, worth asking what good it would do to have such insight into the hidden psychology of voters. Unsurprisingly, the answer seems to be that very little. Perhaps brain imaging can reveal to us that some voters have mixed feelings about Senator Clinton, but it tells us little or nothing about their reasons for that, let alone whether these are good reasons. Brain imaging studies of emotional bias such as that mentioned above, could in principle be used to seek ways of increasing rationality in politics but, like what I called ‘neuropunditry’, are far more likely to be used in the service of psychological manipulation.
1. Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts and Stephan Hamann Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2006;18:1947-1958