Archive for March, 2007

Law reviews are broken. So say judges and lawyers, who have stopped using them. Their complaints are simple. Articles are:

  • irrelevant (i.e. too esoteric to be topical)
  • poorly written
  • too long
  • too heavy on background (and bloated with citations)
  • not needed, now that online databases make it easier to find the law
  • a last resort, signaling official statements of the law are unavailable

You don’t have to take my word for it. The stir raised by the New York Times article on this subject can be characterized as a collective sneer by the legal profession. Bloggers are not pulling any punches, either; witness the post and comments at The Volokh Conspiracy. Law professors who write the papers and the law students who edit the journals are under attack.

I have an easy fix.  Stop publishing law reviews.

We don’t need them any more. Save the scholarly stuff for retrospective academic monographs and collections of essays.

Instead, print law prospectives. Such legal journals would publish papers dedicated to advancing the law. Doing so would involve providing jurists two things:

  1. recommendations for lawyers and judges, about real cases under review and on matters of law expected to be before the courts
  2. recommendations for legislators

For both sorts, the criterion is simple: is the paper a forward-looking application of the law to existing problems?

Tah dah. Problem solved. If only law review editors were listening…

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When deciding difficult questions, we often rely on intuitions in the form of ‘gut instinct’. The emotions involved in moral decision-making can be connected to a visceral sensation that clenches the torso or tingles the appendages. Our bodies are involved in our moral choices.

Sometimes, the sensation we feel is disgust. If you want to feel it for yourself, try the Taboo game at Butterflies & Wheels. I’d be amazed if you didn’t say ‘Ick!’ at least once.

Martha Nussbaum, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt and others have written about the authority we should give this type of feeling about transgressions: whether you call it abhorrence, revulsion, repugnance or horror, we give these feelings great power over ourselves and our societies. They buttress taboos, and influence law and policy.

This became a live issue in bioethics, where the phrase ‘yuk factor’ was used to describe how some issues are capable of stirring public emotions against cloning and related biotechnologies. For a while the idea was involved in a lot of public debate, ranking up there with the ubiquitous ‘playing god’ objection – a precautionary principle intended to restrain the hubris of mad scientists.

Now, like the fuss over ‘human dignity’, ‘yuk factor’ politics has waned. Perhaps the recent work in human-animal chimeras and genetic mosaics will reinvigorate talk about the topic.

If so, bioethicists can revisit research into the biological origins of disgust by looking at the work by Daniel Fessler. When he isn’t looking at how different cultures use foot size to evaluate physical attractiveness (among other fascinating anthropological topics), he is inquiring into the evolutionary origins of disgust. His papers are available for download via his website, and I hope to write in a future post about his research into the disgust moral vegetarians feel toward meat eating.

In his present work, he is evaluating the evolutionary advantage of disgust. Since disgust is connected with behavioural taboos and injunctions, it makes sense to wonder if there is an evolutionary advantage to moral feelings of revulsion, and how this changes brain structures over time.

This led me to ponder if other animal species experience neurological phenomena similar to the type we associate with disgust and moral feelings. So I now have two questions for people in the know:

  1. What neurological mechanisms might make us capable of thinking away feelings of moral revulsion?
  2. Do other species exhibit the neurological phenomena we see in human moral judgements? What species even have the requisite brain structures?

I’m not enough of an experimentalist to even begin to wonder how that last topic might be answered, so I would value any comments directing me to papers in this area. It would be nice to know what makes Flipper go ‘eww’ instead of ‘eee’.

The behavioural psychology related to this is widely available in publications for a popular audience. Just in the last year months we have:

The growing body of literature would be complemented by cross-species neuroimaging studies, but on a trivial level I’m having difficulty getting the image of elephants racing along a track out of my head. Who knows how pachyderms would respond to the trolley problem? I suspect they’d sympathize with the fat guy.

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Richard Rorty thinks not. Last summer he wrote a damning New York Times book review of Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds in which he took issue with the entire research program.

Rorty has several problems with the book, such as the way Hauser fails to adequately distinguish morality from etiquette, and how Hauser’s conclusions are unsupported by his own empirical evidence. But stripped of all the argumentative extras, his core objection is that neuroscience can’t help us distinguish right from wrong.

It’s a ‘So what?’ type of response, which understandably irritated those who think neuroethics is pretty keen. The blogosphere was ripe with commentary, but I’ll not chart it except to mention in passing John Mikhail’s complaint and Jim Chen’s answer, which illustrate legal scholars are taking an interest in this topic. And since legal scholars can’t go anywhere without a wagon-train of citations, these also provide lots of good links to critical scholarship.

That was almost a year ago, and with new things to talk about the debate has settled down a bit. But the question remains: is Rawls wrong? The general consensus among those working in neuroethics seems to be that he was missing the point. Upon reflection, I think they are missing his.

Philosophers deal in the business of puzzling over and evaluating moral choices. It’s their stock in trade. The problem is that neuroscience says nothing about particular moral propositions. We can’t use brain scans to tell us if our moral beliefs are true or false. We have yet to invent microscopes which can see moral truths.

As such, this fledgling discipline at the intersection of science and morality seems to be mostly useless to applied ethicists, clinical ethicists, and moral theorists. That is where Rawls’ skepticism gets traction, and good for him for pointing it out.

However, to evaluate neuroethics only on Rawls’ terms is to miss out on something important. It is to ignore the implications which follow from learning more about human nature and the world in which we live.

Neuroscience is a lens through which we might be able to see and explain the history of moral and political philosophy. It has consequences for how we look at moral responsibility. It may even instruct us in how to go about assessing the political utility of certain moral beliefs

Even if neuroethics can’t tell us much about ethical principles, it can tell us a lot about the people who believe in them. As such, it is an indispensable part of any moral epistemology.

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In The neurobiology of punishment, the authors believe it is now possible to “sketch the beginnings of a neurobiological model of punishment.” The research so far focuses on economic games, so neuroeconomists will be delighted.

If you have not been introduced to that field, the Wikipedia article is a good first exposure with usable references, and a look at the comments to the blog entry Neuroeconomics explained reveals the perils of defining a new discipline. Neuroethicists be warned.

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Even though the post by Chris on Emotion, Reason, and Moral Judgment over at Mixing Memory violates some of the golden rules of blog writing (tip: small bites are easier to chew), I highly recommend you take a look at it. It is the best precis I have read of the recent scientific paper about moral judgements made by damaged brains.

What is so good about it?

  1. It assumes no previous knowledge of brain science. This means philosophers without a background in neuroscience can get on board. Quickly.
  2. It avoids science jargon, the hallmark of unreadable scientific papers.
  3. The pretty picture of the brain is useful to the reader, because Chris explains in one glorious paragraph why researchers think proximity matters.
  4. He cleanly maps the experimental method with good examples, and ties it to the results.
  5. Alternative interpretations of the results are presented!
  6. The post ends with a discussion of what we should take from this research.

All of this means the post is easier to digest than the paper, and more on-point than the mainstream press coverage.

Where could it improve? Shorter paragraphs would be a start. That penultimate paragraph is a killer, though it’s clear this is where Chris is warming to the topic.

(It would be nice if blogging text-editors gave warnings when paragraph and post lengths exceeded 5 lines and 3 screens, respectively.)

As for content, only three things are missing:

  1. Connectivity in the conclusion. Quickly relating his interpretation of the research to other commentary would be valuable to readers of all sorts.
  2. An up-front hint what “the reward system” means. While this gets explained a few sentences later, providing meaning when it is first mentioned would make for cleaner reading. To keep focus on the main point, any definition should remain short and tangential. Off-site links or footnotes are good second options.
  3. A quick copy edit: “and brain’s the reward system” shouldn’t make it to press.

None of that should deter readers from popping over to read the post. It’s enlightening reading, and a good mix of well-presented fact and educated opinion. Science writers take heed.

Here is the paper which stirred this up:

Koenigs, M., Young, L., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., Hauser, M., & Damasion, A. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements. Nature.

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