Just Say No? September 8, 2007Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Another break-through by neuroscientists concerning ethics and the brain: Marcel Brass from Germany’s Max Planck Institute and Patrick Haggard from University College of London (yes, the place where Jeremy Bentham is still sitting in his mahogany closet) have just published their findings that a center in the brain acts as a “second thought” or self-control mechanism that allows us to stop what we were doing or intended to do. This looks like evidence that we have freedom to choose, as a scientific fact! This area is in the dorsal fronto-median cortex—the area just above and between your eyes—and has been documented through a series of brain scans of 15 young healthy adults.
Now whether localized brain activity actually proves free will, or a “free won’t” (like it is being dubbed), is a matter for philosophers to decide, not neuroscientists, because it is a philosophical question whether what feels like a free decision is, in the final end, exclusively a result of environmental and hereditary causes. But it seems to me that now we have at least clear evidence that we are not automata, and that if our actions are determined by environmental and hereditary factors, these factors are so complex that we are justified in assuming that our decision process is real. In other words, soft determinism is looking better all the time.
But that is not the only fun stuff coming out of this research. For one thing, we should compare it with that other ground-breaking announcement last spring by Michael Koenigs, Antonio Damasio and others (see previous blogs) that our natural tendency goes toward not hurting other human beings. Their findings pretty much stated that if you’re capable of overriding your natural empathy, there must be something wrong with you (in other words, people who choose to hurt a few to save the many must be morally deficient. This upset a lot of utilitarians, including Peter Singer. Even I, who only consider myself a part-time utilitarian, was disturbed). But now compare this to the newly discovered stop-mechanism: Neuroscientists can tell us we have a natural tendency to act out of empathy, and now that we also have a built-in self-control mechanism. At first glance it looks like they go hand in hand: If we happen to be about to act in a way that may harm others, something between our eyes makes us stop! Or we’re about to do something that may harm ourselves, such as smoking after we’ve tried to stop, and the self-control kicks in, so we stop—sometimes. That’s the reason researchers call this mechanism our conscience, and it’s certainly fascinating all by itself.
But wait a minute—what if it is the other way around? What if we are about to act with empathy, as our instinct bids us—and all of a sudden the self-control mechanism makes us stop? Two answers here: (1) it could be because we’re selfish, and realize the risk we may be exposing ourselves to, so we don’t run into the burning building to save the child after all, but call 9-1-1 instead. But that assumes that it is the selfish act that make us feel fulfilled, and Koenigs and Damasio have showed that our brain actually enjoys helping others! Let’s look at (2) which is even more interesting: Perhaps we realize that as much as it may make us feel good to act with empathy, instinctively, sometimes it may be the wrong thing to do (because we’re mistaken, or because acting with empathy now will create a greater risk later—remember the Nazi sniper they let live in Saving Private Ryan?), and our self-control mechanism makes us stop. And what is really interesting, the “stop” act makes us feel frustrated, not good, according to the scientists—but we do it, anyway. Now that’s the real revelation: We have a brain mechanism that does not make us feel good, but it is highly active in the brain even so. So sometimes we may stop a harmful act because we realize it is wrong. Fine. And sometimes we may stop doing a benevolent act because we, in the last moment, just don’t want to. Okay. But sometimes we may stop ourselves from doing a benevolent act because, in the greater scheme of things, it will have undesirable consequences (utilitarianism), or possibly because we can’t universalize the act (deontology). And it doesn’t make us feel good to make that decision, at least not right then and there. My preliminary conclusion? We may have found Socrates’ little Daimon who told him what to do…The seat of morality may well be this stop mechanism rather than the warm and fuzzy empathy. But that of course leads to other classical questions such as, are there universally right reasons for the stop-mechanism to be engaged?
Besides, I got a real kick out of reading that the key brain area is above and between our eyes. Asian mysticism, anyone? The “Third Eye”? The Little Golden Egg? Hmmm……
Thanks to my student Tiffany for telling me about this research and e-mailing me the article!