Archive for February 10th, 2010

10/02/2010

Short Review. J. Haidt. The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review. 108, 814-834

Theses

  • Haidt’s social intuitionist approach offers a descriptive theory of moral judgements, drawing on the findings of neuroscience to posit a greater role for the emotions than, or so Haidt maintains, they have previously been afforded.
  • A series of thought experiments concerning  societal taboos (incest, bestiality etc) finds that they result in what he terms moral dumbfounding – the attractive and ‘intuitively’ appealing idea that in some ethical discussions we reach a point where we run out of reasons, that an action is simply ‘wrong’. Haidt posits that “moral intuition is a kind of cognition, but it is not a kind of reasoning”.
  • For Haidt, the majority of reasoning is post hoc i.e. we have an intuition and then we seek to rationalize it. Haidt draws on the findings of neuroscience (particularly Damasio) to show that the ventro-medial area of the prefrontal cortex effectively houses these moral intuitions.
  • Haidt explains the existence of these intuitions as the result of enculturation experienced during a critical period of mental development. Morality then, for Haidt, is “an evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species…that is best described as emergent than as learned”.
  • The importance of the dog/tail metaphor is not to be underestimated – for Haidt, we are essentially emotional dogs who only communicate ‘rationally’ via our tails (dogs use their tails to communicate the majority of their emotions) but it is our emotional body which causes the tail to wag.

Commentary

  • Haidt, however, fails to address the issue of non-conformists who reject the enculturated values which stem from their society. As a result, it is hard to see how he can explain the actions of those who reject the enculturated morality yet do something ‘right’.
  • Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex findings have subsequently been questioned by other researchers and Haidt also fails to address the possibility that intuitions may be previously stored rational judgments. In much the same way as language is learned, an initial stage of focused attention or rational ‘learning’ leads to linguistics knowledge passing from short term to long term memory and becoming internalized, so too could rational judgments become intuitions.
  • The examples of moral dumbfounding that he offers could be explained by the fact that they are all societal taboos – prior reasoning has dictated that they are wrong and they have subsequently become encoded.
  • Finally, Haidt seems to confuse reasoning with rationalizing, the latter being what he calls post hoc reasoning.
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10/02/2010

Short Review – D. Narvaez. The Social-Intuitionist Model: Some Counter-Intuitions.

Narvaez, D. (2008). The Social-Intuitionist Model: Some Counter-Intuitions. In W. A. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology, Vol. 2, The Cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity

Theses

  • Praises Haidt’s corrective to the notion that we are essentially rational beings which make fully conscious decisions, agreeing that we are ‘largely influenced by unconscious systems’.
  • Also follows Haidt in acknowledging a greater role for socialisation on human cognition.
  • Critiques H for limiting ‘their discussion of moral judgment to the cognitive appraisal of the action or character of a person’. Claims that it is not clear how the SIT can address human cognition beyond this scope.
  • Disagrees that moral judgements are similar to aesthetic ones since they are more complex and draw on a wider range of information. Moral judgements often involve a whole gamut of issues ranging from principles, weighing up goals and objectives as well as consciously resigning from previously held beliefs – not just gut feelings.
  • Questions the neuroscientific basis of Haidt’s theory – from the fact that the existence of modules in the brain ‘are more rooted in creative thinking than in empirical evidence (Panksepp & Panksepp, 2000)’ to the fact that the frontal cortex is more something which is determined by experience rather than explicitly hard wired.
  • Rejects that enculturation and morality are one and the same, citing the case of MLK as someone who rejected the values of their culture in favour of a higher morality.

Commentary

  • Perhaps does not give rationality and rational thought the credit it deserves – although fairer than Haidt.
  • A good point – especially since it is grounded in the findings of Panksepp & Panksepp).
  • Another fair criticism – I would also argue that he overlooks the possibility that these ‘intuitions’ are actually previously ‘learned’ rational judgements. In the same manner in which learners of a language overextend words beyond their concepts, we may also overextend prior rational judgements (e.g. concerning incest) to slightly different situations.
  • Undoubtedly true – yet Narvaez fails to show how we decide and deliberate between these (often) conflicting conscious and subconscious motivations – arguably a stage for the return of (with a deliberate capital R) Reason?
  • A valuable contribution – we might just as easily posit the existence of a soul
  • Another fair point but fails to show exactly why this is the case.
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10/02/2010

Short Review – P. Singer. Ethics and Intuitions.

Ethics and Intuitions. Peter Singer.  Source: The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3/4, Devoted to James Rachels (2005)

Theses

  • After Rachels, holds that intuitions should not be the basis for a normative moral theory.
  • Justifies this with reference to Greene’s Trolley Dilemma, ultimately showing that whilst there may be an emotional difference in throwing a switch or pushing a fat man off an overpass, there is no moral difference.
  • Does hold, however, that ‘the single most important advantage we have over the great moral philosophers of the past is our understanding of evolution and its application to ethics’ but that ‘the direction of evolution neither follows, nor has any connection with, the path of moral progress’.
  • The application of neuroscience and neurobiology is, for Singer, not in that they offer new conceptions of ethics but that ‘undermine some conceptions of ethics which themselves have normative conclusions’. Furthermore, it has helped to explain the causes of previously observed attitudes.
  • Offers two potential directions for future study: firstly, that we can accept that moral intuitions ‘are and always will be emotionally based intuitive responses’, potentially leading to a form of moral scepticism, or we can try to disentangle the emotional responses which we owe to our evolutionary and cultural history from those with a rational foundation.

Commentary

  • A case of the philosophers strike back. Placing intuitions at the heart of morality surely leads to relativism and, as the Trolley Dilemma shows, ‘there is no point trying to find moral principles that justify differing intuitions’.
  • Seemingly sound but doesn’t question the fundamental presuppositions of Greene’s work – how do we know which emotions are triggered in this experiment?
  • Although could we not regard morality itself as an evolving set of competing (sub) systems? As Singer himself notes ‘there is little point in constructing a moral theory designed to match considered moral judgements that themselves stem from our evolved responses to the situations in which we and our ancestors lived during the period of our evolution as social mammals, primates and finally human beings’.
  • A useful strategy to apply in fields such as human nature, free will, epistemology… almost any aspect of philosophy which deals with a human agent.
  • It is a little unclear as to how the second approach could work, something which Singer himself acknowledges.
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10/02/2010

Short Review – C. Allen and M. Bekoff. Animal Play and the Evolution of Morality: An Ethological Approach

Animal Play and the Evolution of Morality: An Ethological Approach Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff.  Topoi, Volume 24, Number 2 / September, 2005

Theses

  • Ethology, whether via the study of laboratory animals or their observation in their natural habitat, can offer considerable food for thought in outlining the origin of morality.
  • An analysis of animal play patterns (particularly amongst canids) reveals a number of interesting proto-moral features. Young animals use play to develop a “foundation of fairness” which allows and furthers future cooperation in the group.
  • Playing fair, as with humans, may also result in the release of endorphins, effectively rewarding fair play.
  • They argue that contemporary research should be diversified away from nonhuman primates in order to widen the scope of the examination of morality amongst animals.
  • Fair play in groups is rewarded by groups and those who do not abide by the “rules” tend to be excluded from the social group – with severe consequences. Coyotes who were seen to break the rules of fair play leave the main group, with 55% dying within a year (compared with an in group mortality rate of 20%).
  • Bekoff further contends that much of morality consists of basic emotional responses and the distribution of resources fairly, things which “have analogues in animal behaviour”.

Commentary

  • Undoubtedly poses some interesting questions as to the potential origins of morality – even though, as Bekoff admits, “animals don’t theorize on the level of the Kantian categorical imperative”, neither do most humans.
  • Perhaps the most intriguing aspect concerning the evolution of morality – as Bekoff puts it, “to say that the roots of morality can be found in animal behaviour is not necessarily to say that morality itself is a characteristic of those animals”. In other words, we can use the findings of ethology to (potentially) shed light on the roots of our own moral activity without the need to consider the obvious differences between humans and non-humans.
  • Places social relationships at the core of morality.
  • Unfortunately, ethology can only offer us insights into the origins of morality, not its evolution and, particularly, its complexity.
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10/02/2010

Short Review – G. Kahane & N. Shackel. Do Abnormal Responses Show Utilitarian Bias?

DO ABNORMAL RESPONSES SHOW UTILITARIAN BIAS?

G. Kahane and N. Shackel, Nature, 452, 7185, 2008

Theses

  • Outlines Greene’s study and findings that “non utilitarian” responses stem from one part of the brain, “utilitarian” from another. Introduces Koenig’s development of Greene’s original research with patients with damage to their VMPC in order to ‘add causation to neuroscientific findings”.
  • Shows that the ‘personal’ dilemmas chosen by Koenig et al are not really utilitarian. Gave situations to a panel of moral philosophers and asked them to classify them. They found that they were far from being simple utilitarian dilemmas and issues.
  • Credits Green for causing an explosion of interest in the field and believes that neuroscience has much to offer.
  • Calls for philosophers to be more careful in adopting conclusions from neuroscience and for more input from philosophers in devising and developing experiments – Greene’s initial research with classic thought experiments – e.g. trolley dilemmas – are interesting but later variants lack rigour.

Commentary

  • Undoubtedly interesting and confirms an unease felt by many philosophers towards Koenig’s ‘utilitarian’ dilemmas. Arguably shows a viable role for philosophers and philosophy in tandem with neuroscience – in the methodology and objectives of experiments.
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