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Monday, August 29, 2005

Does neuroscience refute ethics?

Fascinant article in Mises Institute, although I don't agree with its conclusions: Does Neuroscience Refute Ethics?:

moral dilemma: Should one smother a crying baby to death to protect the lives of many when enemy soldiers are approaching? Here they compared the activation patterns in the brains between those who approve (utilitarians) and those who do not (deontologists).

For those new to philosophical jargon, utilitarians believe that morality is a matter of promoting the greater good, while deontologists argue that there are absolute moral principles that can never be violated regardless of the consequences. Hence according to utilitarians, one should kill the baby to save everyone else, but according to deontologists, one should not, since murder is simply wrong.

Greene et al. observed greater activity in brain regions associated with emotion when subjects disapprove of baby killing in this case, and greater activity in brain regions associated with 'cognitive control' when utilitarian judgments prevail. Cognitive control processes, moreover, can work against the social-emotional response, resulting in more utilitarian judgments--greater tendency for baby smothering. In one brain region (right anterior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), activity increases for participants who made the utilitarian choice, but decreases for those who made the non-utilitarian judgment. Again, emotions drive individuals to reject choices that, while violating moral principles, result in more aggregate welfare.

The shock comes from the conclusion drawn by these authors: 'The social-emotional responses that we've inherited from our primate ancestors . . . undergird the absolute prohibitions that are central to deontology. In contrast, the 'moral calculus' that defines utilitarianism is made possible by more recently evolved structures in the frontal lobes that support abstract thinking and high-level cognitive control.' To put it bluntly, the old emotional brain represents the view of the deontologists, who believe in universal rules of morality, whereas the new rational brain embodies the utilitarian view.


Greene mentions with approval the fact that Peter Singer, the famed utilitarian professor, donates about 20% of his income to charity. But if we must act on utilitarian assumptions, why stop at modest contributions? Why only 20%, why not all? If we really must perform the moral calculus as the utilitarians urge us, the only rational thing to do is to donate everything we have and starve to death.

[...] it is often precisely the altruistic urges that are primitive, and drive the irrational behavior of so-called progressives. By contrast, universal principles derived from cultural selection avoid the individual bias that taints the utilitarian analysis. The instinctual altruism of doing visible good, for instance, is replaced by an impersonal system of coordinating resources, namely capitalism, which, not surprisingly, is the favorite target of those who can get no satisfaction of their primitive altruistic urges.

Maybe the answer is that we must be altruistic until reaching the Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, donating that money in the bank you don't need:

Under Pareto efficiency, an outcome is more efficient if at least one person is made better off and nobody is made worse off. This seems a reasonable way to determine whether an outcome is efficient or not but in practice, it is almost impossible to make any change without making at least one person worse off. Using Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, a more efficient outcome can leave some people worse off. Here, an outcome is more efficient if those that are made better off could in theory compensate those that are made worse off and lead to a Pareto optimal outcome.

Mmmm... but this apply when you are rich. What can you do now?

I think this is the best idea: Save 10% of what you earn for your future, for your retirement, for you, for being rich one day.

And also donate another 10% to charity.

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