Sunday, October 2, 2011

The essence of moral reasoning, part 3: informed decisions

In my previous post in this series on morality, I talked about the biological underpinnings of our moral judgments, and argued that variances in the development of "empathy circuits" in various regions of the brain can powerfully shape the manner in which we make moral decisions, and that in our natural environment we may experience a conflict between the emotional circuitry in our brains and our rational faculties, which makes moral reasoning more complex. For the final post, I want to turn to the rational component of moral judgments.

There's a question regarding morality that is commonly posed to non-believers: "If you don't believe in an objective, transcendent and absolute moral authority, how can you say that the behavior of the Nazis was wrong?"

False morals

There are really two components here. The first is that what the Nazis did – treat people as mere objects – requires an erosion of our empathetic circuitry. Save those who suffer from abnormalities in various brain regions affecting empathy, it is simply not in our nature to be cruel to others; in fact, we have very specific, involuntary biological responses to seeing others in distress in which we experience many of the same symptoms that the other is showing. This response, however, can be temporarily eroded – we can be "de-conditioned" of our natural empathy.

The second component has to do with the more rational component of moral reasoning. Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

A Nazi cold-water immersion experiment
And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject "Nazi morality": the beliefs underpinning the Nazi's attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior "race" of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany's economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That's how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It's quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

Since we recently passed the 10th anniversary of the 9.11 attacks, they will serve as a similar example. The bombers were not, in their own minds, villains; on the contrary, they viewed themselves as righteous soldiers in God's army. How can we say they were morally wrong? Easy: because they were factually wrong. False beliefs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism can be flatly rejected as immoral precisely because they are indeed false.

I'll provide one more example. The journalism show Vanguard recently documented the anti-gay culture in Uganda, and showed that evangelical pastors were spreading false information about the behavior of homosexuals that incited outrage from congregants (view the full episode here). It's entirely plausible that such people are true believers and are not knowingly spreading false information, but it highlights a central point to my post: sound moral reasoning is dependent on accurate information.

Making informed judgments

It is for this reason that the pursuit of science is so important to our moral development. Many who treat others cruelly may not be abnormally low on the "empathy bell curve" I mentioned in the previous post; instead, they may sincerely believe that they are acting in the best interest of those they love; any erosion of their empathy circuitry, such as when Nigerian pastors cruelly exile children under accusations of witchcraft, is most likely temporary and reversible since those suffering from abnormalities in the brain comprise a relatively small portion of the population. Many such African nations are bereft of good science education, which will powerfully and adversely affect its people's ability to form rational moral judgments.

It's important to note that rooting our moral reasoning in accurate information provides a sound, non-arbitrary means of making moral judgments. By understanding how empathy works at the level of the brain, we can understand how our emotions inform our behavior and mitigate our rational judgments; and by valuing accurate information about the world around us, we can root our moral reasoning in objective truths, rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of ideological falsehoods.

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