Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Pathology Problem

I. Morals, Empathy, and the Brain

Larry the Bum recently linked to an article in the Los Angeles Times regarding a study recently published in the prestigious “first tier” scientific journal Nature by researchers from the University of Iowa, Harvard, USC, and CalTech, funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke. This study, he contended, provided empirical evidence for his theory of Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism. While the jury may still be out on such a sweeping contention, what the study does do is lend research-based credence to a crucial foundational principle to all theories of moral subjectivity, including MESR: That morality is ultimately based more on emotion than reason.

The study’s authors found that individuals with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) of the brain (which comprises areas of the brain responsible for autonomic (i.e. physical) emotional responses) exhibit “generally diminished emotional responsivity and generally reduced social emotions (for example, compassion, shame, and guilt) that are closely associated with moral values.” All of the subjects with damage to the VMPC exhibited “severely diminished empathy, embarrassment, and guilt.”

When confronted with a hypothetical dilemma of whether or not to sacrifice the good of a few for the good of many (a utilitarian moral judgment) or not (an emotional judgment), the experimental subjects consistently made the utilitarian choice, where the control subjects (who were physically intact) did not consistently do so. The hypothesis – if moral judgments are governed by emotion, the experimental group would exhibit increased utilitarian judgments – was confirmed. In the words of the authors:
“If emotional responses mediated by VMPC are indeed a critical influence on moral judgment, individuals with VMPC lesions should exhibit an abnormally high rate of utilitarian judgments on the emotionally salient, or ‘personal,’ moral scenarios... but a normal pattern of judgments on the less emotional, or ‘impersonal,’ moral scenarios... If, alternatively, emotion does not play a causal role in the generation of moral judgments but instead follows from the judgments, then individuals with emotion defects due to VMPC lesions should show a normal pattern of judgments on all scenarios.” [Italics mine]
The VMPC patients followed the control groups on the “low-conflict”(i.e. give up a baby to make things easier on themselves) moral scenarios in both judgment and reaction time. In the “high-conflict” (i.e. push one person in front of a bus to save five other people) utilitarian scenarios, the VMPC group was more likely (P=0.05 and P=0.02 versus each control group) to endorse the proposed action. No such statistically significant variance occurred between the control groups (P = 0.77). For those not steeped in statistics, the low P-values for the VMPC group are astonishingly good, indicating that the data is very reliable and the authors’ conclusions on firm ground. There is a 5% and 2% respectively, that their conclusions are based on some form of statistical error. This is damned solid stuff.

All of which is to say that we now have empirical evidence that moral judgments are bound up in the parts of our brain controlling social emotional responses, like empathy. This appearing to be the case (and one must be careful about taking this first-of-its-kind study too much as gospel), then the implications for moral objectivism, and therefore natural law (and thereby theism), are – for their proponents – problematic.

[This is the first in a series of posts. I had originally intended this to be one essay, but its length is rapidly becoming unwieldy for the blog-publishing format. Consequently, I am dividing it into easily-digestible thematic chunks. I will be re-publishing them later own my own site, but for now, they are exclusive to The Barefoot Bum’s audience. –James]


  1. While the jury may still be out on such a sweeping contention...

    Well, I did say only it was evidence, not proof.


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