Archive for the ‘neuroethics’ Category

Kudos to Thomas at Brain Ethics for reminding me of a case before the Austrian courts, which – contrary to the 2005 ruling about a chimp in Brazil – has now decided a chimp is not a legal person.

He says,

What I find particularly interesting is that whether or not we have a reason to reserve basic rights to humans, an increasingly stronger scientific literature demonstrates a huge similarity in mental functions between humans and non-human primates as well as mammals.

In the coming days, I’ll try to find a link to news items and commentary with more information about the decision.

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Hopping on the moral psychology press is this Washington Post article, If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. It leads with a short description of research on volunteers by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman that showed why generosity feels satisfying: it involves the same region of the brain which responds to sex and food.

Here’s their paper:

The Post’s story is a light survey of modern moral psychology, and includes interviews from Jean Decety (empathy), Antonio Damasio (moral decision-making), Adrian Raine (crime as mental illness), Joshua Greene (intuitions and biological origins of moral philosophy) and Marc Hauser (morality is innate like language).

It also does a decent job of stirring up the set of worries created by this research, and – like every other piece I’ve read in the press – doesn’t know where to go with them:

Psychopaths often feel no empathy or remorse. Without that awareness, people relying exclusively on reasoning seem to find it harder to sort their way through moral thickets. Does that mean they should be held to different standards of accountability?

Particularly nice is this quote from Cohen, who wrestles with how we should respond to learning about moral intuitions:

It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you.

Moral obligations about moral feelings. Wonderful.

More recent work on altruism can be found here…

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It’s no secret I was excited by word of Jonathan Haidt’s latest publication. His work with Joshua Greene first caught my attention during a law school course in Health Law, where it made an appearance in my critique of the wisdom of repugnance promoted by Leon Kass. Their research introduced me to moral psychology, neuroethics, and experimental philosophy; thanks to their work, the political and legal ramifications of moral disgust and moral intuition has since become one of my primary research interests.

So today, I dived into Haidt’s new paper expecting something great. I got it. You can too, although it is locked behind a subscription.

Rather than covering Haidt’s review in detail, I’ll distill three insights from the paper that make a theoretical foundation for any further work in the fields of moral psychology and moral ideology.

  1. Moral reasoning is driven by affective responses like moral disgust. Gut reactions are immediate, and bias or distort subsequent processes of reasoning and justification.
  2. Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration—constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown.

  3. Humans have five classes of moral intuitions, which each have unique evolutionary origins in the behaviour of individuals within gossiping moral communities. These are intuitions about…
    1. protection from harm – altruism
    2. fairness – rights, reciprocity, and justice
    3. loyalty – ingroup and outgroup relationships
    4. authority – respect and obedience
    5. purity of body and spirit – sanctified, not carnal
  4. In Western societies, conservatives make use of all five intuitions, but liberals pay more attention to harm and fairness. (Coincidentally, most research so far also focuses on harm and fairness – is research being driven by liberals, or are these easier to study?)

This is a rather dense package, so I encourage you to read the paper to unpack it.

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Where’s a researcher to go if they are interested in neuroethics, neurolaw and moral cognition? Follow the publications, of course.

I’ve assembled a quick list, in no particular order. So far, it has heavy emphasis on the places where empirical research is being conducted.

In the USA:

In Canada:

Note: In Canada, neuroethics is principally concerned with legal and bioethical evaluations of neurotechnology. To my knowledge, these centers are not conducting research on the neurobiology of moral decision-making.

This list isn’t comprehensive, so make known in the comments any neuroethics or neurolaw programs.

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From the Wall Street Journal’s science pages today: Scientists Draw Link Between Morality And Brain’s Wiring, by Robert Lee Hotz.

Bringing medical tools to bear on moral questions, cognitive scientists are invading the territory of philosophers, theologians and clerics…

The article covers a lot of ground, with mention of Marc Hauser, John Mikhail, Michael Koenigs, Joshua Greene, Antonio Damasio, and Liane Young. While much of it will be familiar to anyone interested in neuroethics, the following caught my eye:

Trust is a measure of neuropeptide levels, while fairness is an electromagnetic pattern in the right prefrontal cortex. Disrupt it with a strong magnet, as did University of Zurich researchers in 2006, and any sense of fair-dealing fades away like a radio station subsumed by static.

And I thought magnets were only good for creating feelings akin to religious experience

Looking for background on this piece led me to a good set of papers, archived at Liane Young’s list of publications – essential reading for anyone interested in empirical studies of moral decision-making.

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