“Making moral decisions: Are ‘you’ really in charge?”

Heard Graham Bell talk again last week, this time a LAAG event entitled: “Making moral decisions: Are ‘you’ really in charge?” (With scare quotes around the ‘you’ in the original.) Obviously with that title presented that way, I was prejudiced to expect the usual “You and your free-will are illusions” line of denial.

In fact, although the whole thing came too close for me to denying ourselves and our free will (because it couldn’t be compatible with scientific determinism and therefore science couldn’t logically “prove it”), it was better that I expected. Good because it aired some important sources on the topic(s) – all expounded previously here at some length.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow from his “Prospect Theory” economics psychology work with Tversky. Good stuff, but purely labels for empirical psychology rather than any explanatory theory of what’s really going on with Fast and Slow thinking. Not mentioned by Graham, Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” model builds on explaining the basic phenomenon in terms of how the deeply divided brain has evolved to work that way and why both halves are valuable – need to value, and be valued by, each other. The fast processes are intuitive, more “hard-wired” – almost reflex – responses necessary for flexible behaviour in broad contexts. The slow processes are reflective, more “rational” where time permits and context requires more specific targeted decisions or actions. The key process differences lie in how the divided brain communicates with itself.

Jonathan Haidt too was cited positively, though interestingly Graham backed-off from wholeheartedly recommending him as a reference – too “woo” for the scientistic. Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” comes close to life-style self-help as I’ve noted before, but his empirically backed psychological explanations are nevertheless good. And Haidt’s call for “conservatism” as a restraint on “freedom” is an important message – albeit a non-PC message for those for whom freedom is the mantra. A message reinforced by Julian Baggini’s latest Freedom Regained – freedom is better if it runs on rails.

Joshua Greene is cited because it appears he too uses “empirical science” to back his decision-making – brain scans to see what’s going on in the brain as decisions are made. Problem here is that whilst these measurements are empirical, the “trolleyology” surveys his subjects take are still nevertheless “thought experiments” – not very real. In fact trolleyology and its variants are a whole industry for some in moral philosophy – but there are two real points these cases make, particularly “proximity” (how close the potentially “harmed” subjects are to you) and “instrumentality” (the extent to which your positive action “causes” the harm). The other aspect not mentioned is “historicity” or context in general, and the whole history of moral development of the subject(s) up to the decision point and their future of living with the consequences thereafter. (PS can find no references to trolleyology having anything to do with super-market trolleys, before the runaway rail-trolleys on which the cases are generally built.) Simon Blackburn, Michael Sandel, Peter Singer and others are good sources of understanding what trolleyology really tells us about moral dilemmas and their limits in reality. (In terms of limits to freedom Julian Baggini’s latest is highly recommended.)

Libet is perhaps the most famous brain-scan correlation with decision-making, and consequently the most mis-interpreted. Graham didn’t mention him. It appears to reinforce the idea that most of our decisions are made before we have any conscious part in making them. In a sense that’s true – most of it is – but the small bit in reserve is the executive override, the “free-wont” as it’s been called. I always suggest people think of the tennis player (after Daniel Wegner) returning a fast serve and how much is “pre-programmed” by experience and practice, and whether the player still has any choice in the return shot. The point is however small any physical measure of our actual free-will it’s the important – most significant – bit we retain in influencing the outcome. It’s purely a matter of efficiency evolved for maximising fitness to our environment (as indeed is the McGilchrist view earlier). We focus on what matters in the moment and delegate the rest (walking, talking and chewing gum) to subsidiary systems and “tools”.

Sadly, Graham (and LAAG generally) are too quick to dismiss – with easy ridicule – philosophy and philosophers. They’re in good company with Larry Krauss there, but no less ignorant. Which is sad, because one person with a great deal to give in the debates on what free will and our self, wielding that free will, and how they evolved to be what they really are, is Dan Dennett, a philosopher who’s has more than a little fun with his philosophy denying scientist colleagues.

Basically too simplistic a view of determinism and too greedy a view of reductionism misleads us into seeing the physical machinery of the brain as incompatible with ourselves as our minds and our free-will built on that substrate. In order to avoid some mystical dualism of independent mind-stuff incompatibilists choose(!) to deny our free will. If that logic were correct, compatibilists would be misguided too. In fact the best response is to question the causation assumed in determinism and reductionism, since ourselves and our free-will are THE most directly empirical things we can know, even accepting that knowledge can be imperfect and illusory in aspects we can know. Certainly everyone – everyone at the talk – talks about moral choices as if they are able to make choices that (a) make a difference, and (b) they can be seen as responsible for.

Sam Harris is often cited within the new-atheist movement as a fellow denier of free-will. But of course, he isn’t, as I’ve discussed before. (See also Baggini’s quotes re Sam Harris).

The whole topic is really about what our minds are – are our minds “us” and how do “we” make choices that affect the physical world. As Graham described, the moral angle of this is really a sliding scale (onion-skins) on consequential harm and how we as social animals value relative harm and benefit. Like all such topics nothing is fundamentally absolute or universal, but the result of evolution and development. Evolution of our “species” genetically and culturally, and development historically from egg to fully formed forward-thinking “individual” in the moment, and all points between. Graham is certainly a strong advocate of the “naturalistic” standpoint and, on that, he’s right.

I side with Dennett – we are our minds and our minds are collections of memes – thinking tools – and we / they are real patterns of information. But that’s another story. Looking forward to Alan Duval’s talk next month – he appears to pick-up on more sophisticated philosophical views of the “compatibilism” debate.

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