[extropy-chat] [Trans-Spirit] Saletan, brain and morality

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Wed Apr 4 19:44:20 UTC 2007

On 4/4/07, Hughes, James J. <James.Hughes at trincoll.edu> wrote:

> http://www.slate.com/id/2162998
> Mind Makes Right
> Brain damage, evolution, and the future of  morality.By William  Saletan
> Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They're in your house,  and you and
> your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If  you had to press your
> hand over the baby's face till it stopped fighting—if you  had to smother it to save
> everyone else—would you do it?


> But there's the other catch: Once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can  no longer
> judge technology. Nor can human nature discredit the mentality that  shapes human
> nature. In a utilitarian world, what's neurologically fit is  utilitarianism. It'll become the
> norm, the standard of right and wrong. Sure, a  few mental relics of our primate ancestry
> will be lost. But it'll be worth it. I  think.

Thanks James for sharing this and the previous item(s).

It's another sad example of the present state of our understanding of
ethics, presenting a false dichotomy between moral decision-making
based on emotional indications of an innate sense of "right" versus
moral decision-making based on utilitarian calculation of perceived
desired ends.

As usual, the popular view appears to be completely ignorant of moral
decision-making based on principles, such that we remove the personal
(and changing) "I" from the evaluation process, and acknowledge the
inevitability of unanticipated consequences in an increasingly complex

Kohlberg, in his "Stages of Moral Development"[1] had the idea, but
couldn't find enough backing in current society to support research of
his sixth level.  The teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, etc.,
are famously focused on principles rather than ends, and their
teachings ring true but seem oh so difficult to live up to in
practice.  Indeed, because principled morality takes the "I" out of
the assessment, and disallows any concerns over immediate
consequences, it is quite contrary to our usual practices in the noisy
everyday world dominated by "I" and immediate consequences.

Kant came close, with his idea of a Categorical Imperative, but
neglected rather than worked with the inherent subjectivity of any
moral agent and the evolving framework of values and instrumental
knowledge in which moral decisions are made and carried out.

Within academia, many philosophers continue to construct elaborate
castles in the air as if isolation from reality were itself a virtue,
and the public flow mainly with the prevailing local current.

Only in the last two decades [generously] has an evolutionary
perspective begin to take root.  It's encouraging that in this year's
Edge Question[2] rising awareness can be detected among these
cognoscenti, and articles in the New York Times show that public
awareness is increasing in recent years.

There's reason for hope.  What works tends to persist and replicate.
In principle.

- Jef

[1] http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm
[2] <http://www.edge.org/q2007/q07_index.html>

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