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Science of Morality and Ethics

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  • "As a classic text in moral philsophy concludes, 'Morality is, first and foremost, a matter of consulting reason.' ... This dominant perspective falls prey to an illusion: Just because we can consciously reason from explicit principles -- handed down from parents, teachers, lawyers, or religious leaders -- to judgements of right and wrong doesn't mean that these principles are the source of our moral decisions. On the contrary, I argue that moral judgements are mediated by an unconscious process, a hidden moral grammar that evaluates causes and consequences of our own and others' actions. This account shifts the burden of evidence from a philosophy of morality to a science of morality." (Emphasis mine, MMHN p2)
  • "Our evolved moral instincts do not make moral judgements inevitable. Rather they color our perceptions, constrain our moral options, and leave us dumbfounded because the guiding principles are inaccessible, tucked away in the mind's library of unconscious knowledge." (ibid)
    • Or what issues have a moral component at all. Why is incest a moral question but not tall people sleeping with short people? Evolved moral sensisibilities can answer, but moral realism (minus God) cannot.
  • "Bottom line: Reasoning and emotion play some role in our moral behavior, but neither can do complete justice to the process leading up to moral judgement. We haven't yet learned why we have particular emotions or specific principles for reasoning. We give reasons, but these are often insufficient. Even when they are sufficient, do our reasons cause our judgements or are they consequences of unconscious psychological machinations?" (Ibid p11)
  • Similarly, evolution provides an explanation of why would would spend $100 to get an injured child we come upon to the hospital, but not spend $50 to save the lives of 10 children overseas. Our moral sense evolved while we were only in position to help those in our immediate path.
  • Example of grammar that is known by all but never consciously taught: "Frank is more foolish than Tom is" is never couched in the form "Frank's more foolish than Tom's."
  • Will versus Grace:  "What makes people behave honestly when confronted with opportunities for dishonest gain? Research on the interplay between controlled and automatic processes in decision making suggests 2 hypotheses: According to the ‘‘Will’’ hypothesis, honesty results from the active resistance of temptation, comparable to the controlled cognitive processes that enable the delay of reward. According to the ‘‘Grace’’ hypothesis, honesty results from the absence of temptation, consistent with research emphasizing the determination of behavior by the presence or absence of automatic processes. To test these hypotheses, we examined neural activity in individuals confronted with opportunities for dishonest gain.  Subjects undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) gained money by accurately predicting the outcomes of computerized coin-flips. In some trials, subjects recorded their predictions in advance. In other trials, subjects were rewarded based on self-reported accuracy, allowing them to gain money dishonestly by lying about the accuracy of their predictions. Many subjects behaved dishonestly, as indicated by improbable levels of ‘‘accuracy.’’ Our findings support the Grace hypothesis. Individuals who behaved honestly exhibited no additional control-related activity (or other kind of activity) when choosing to behave honestly, as compared with a control condition in which there was no opportunity for dishonest gain. In contrast, individuals who behaved dishonestly exhibited increased activity in control-related regions of prefrontal cortex, both when choosing to behave dishonestly and on occasions when they refrained from dishonesty.  Levels of activity in these regions correlated with the frequency of dishonesty in individuals."  http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Paxton-Honesty-Dishonesty-PNAS09.pdf



Notes from The Moral Landscape - Sam Harris




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