Brain Lateralization and the Limits of Kant’s Moral Theory
Iain McGilchrist is a philosopher, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist with a key interest in brain lateralization, the division of the brain into right and left hemispheres and the different tasks and roles of each. He draws out the implications of this for philosophy, life, science, and the culture at large. In a normal healthy person, the… The post Brain Lateralization and the Limits of Kant’s Moral Theory appeared first on VoegelinView.




Iain McGilchrist is a philosopher, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist with a key interest in brain lateralization, the division of the brain into right and left hemispheres and the different tasks and roles of each. He draws out the implications of this for philosophy, life, science, and the culture at large. In a normal healthy person, the right hemisphere is dominant and the left hemisphere is subservient, and this understanding of the brain from science has deep implications for moral theory.
The right hemisphere (RH) is primarily responsible for our direct experience of reality with a broad focus and general situational awareness. It deals with emotions and understanding the emotions of others in tone of voice and facial expression. The RH is where problem-solving takes place. It is responsible for the appreciation of uniqueness, for humor, metaphor, poetry, appreciation of beauty, following narratives, music, perceiving Gestalts, our sense of time, attention to the animate and organic, creativity, imagination, and intuition. The RH is everything that makes us distinctively human rather than robotic. The left hemisphere (LH) has a narrow focus associated with grasping things. It governs the right hand that does the grasping for most people and the LH is the realm of concepts, relatively automated skills, re-presentations, analysis, logic, dealing with inanimate things, and language. It is the explicit and the light of day. It is knowledge that, (Wissen) while the RH is knowledge of; experience and familiarity. (Kennen) The LH is easy to talk about and it is, in fact, what is primarily generating the “talking.” The LH is very useful for practical purposes but is parasitic on the RH. With its concepts and maps of reality, it simplifies and restrains our perception of the larger sprawling reality and makes it more manageable for practical purposes. If, however, we mistake the representation of things for how they actually are, then we end up with a stunted and quite erroneous conception of actuality. As John Dewey and Martin Heidegger pointed out, first we find ourselves in the world (RH), then we start trying to figure things out (LH). Being in the world is not the product of deductive reasoning, and cannot, in fact, be so deduced.
If only the LH is damaged and the RH is intact, all the person’s personality and emotional abilities remain. The RH knows the LH exists, but the LH does not know the RH exists. So, when someone suffers LH deficiencies, the RH is keenly aware of what it is missing. However, RH related problems often go unnoticed.
If anything goes wrong with the brain developmentally or due to brain damage caused by strokes, surgery, etc., then the proper balance of the brain can be disturbed. If it is the RH that is supposed to be dominant, brain pathologies are likely to interfere with this and give the LH too much prominence. This is the case with schizophrenia and autism which, as a result, share features in common. In particular, the immediate and intuitive access to reality of the world around us, the reality of time for the schizophrenic, and the reality of oneself and other people are all typically compromised. Those are all things the RH is supposed to be responsible for.
An analogy could be made with bipedal locomotion in humans. We know what walking well looks like. Any deviation from this can have multiple causes but they will all involve limping or some other similar aberration of gait.
RH experience is not primarily mediated by thoughts, concepts, words, theories, or representations. It is direct and intuitive. There is immediate experience of reality, but if someone is asked to describe this, or to come up with a theory about it, then he will be in the greatest difficulty. Only poetry is suitable for such things. As a result, the LH centered person will likely seem smart and will perhaps laugh at the inarticulateness of someone gesturing at RH phenomena. However, we know that schizophrenia is a miserable disease. Time is experienced as broken into chunks, or one is just in the eternal now, any change is troubling, the fact that someone’s face looks different for whatever reason is disliked. Schizophrenics have trouble with Gestalts and can be unable to follow a narrative, or to recognize a face or a street except by identifying some one item like a nose or a particular letter box. RH damage can mean that a farmer can no longer tell his cows apart, since RH deals with uniqueness. The ability to appreciate beautiful landscapes or flowers can be lost and great painters have been reduced to painting abstract geometric shapes not found in nature, like the cubists, since this is what the LH prefers.
Morality and moral intuitions reside firmly in the RH where we make direct contact with reality. LH damage does not impair one’s moral sense and ability to make decent moral assessments and decisions, but RH damage does. RH damage, depending on its exact nature, results in someone ceasing to be moral. Tellingly, the person becomes a consequentialist. This means determining whether something is good or not solely by reference to its consequences. Jeremy Bentham, a major utilitarian theorist and thus a consequentialist, was, in fact, autistic. He should be the last person to be consulted on moral matters. Psychopathy is a problem also associated with RH deficiencies and psychopaths are also consequentialists. The original psychiatric name for a psychopath was “moral imbecile.” If this were a matter of teams, the consequentialist “team” would consist of schizophrenics, a bunch of analytic philosophers, those suffering from autism, and psychopaths. On the other team would be the rest of us. Since the RH deals with what is unique, the LH viewpoint encourages treating people as interchangeable, replaceable, and having no special intrinsic worth. Consequentialists are moral monsters and should never be trusted. They will sacrifice you or anyone else if they think this will produce the most benefits. The LH deals with inanimate and mechanical things and that is how it treats people in its pseudo-moral reasonings.
McGilchrist cites a study involving inhibiting the function of first one brain hemisphere and then the other. Normal consciousness blends the contributions of both hemispheres, like a river being divided by an island and then rejoining itself. In the experiment, the same person is asked to evaluate two different moral scenarios. One is one in which someone accidentally poisons someone’s tea, thinking he is adding sugar when in fact it was poison. In the other scenario, someone tries to kill another person by poisoning him, but he unwittingly uses sugar and the intended victim remains unharmed. When the LH is rendered inoperable, the person will correctly say that intending to kill someone but failing is the most immoral. When the RH is inhibited using a magnetic device, the same person will answer that killing someone accidentally is morally worse than trying and failing to kill him. This is because without the contributions of the RH they turn into a consequentialist who assesses action not by what was intended but by the actual result. Every normal person knows that trying to kill someone is morally worse than accidentally killing someone. This seems excellent evidence that the RH is the preeminently moral hemisphere and that the LH is not good at all concerning such matters.
Some analytic philosophers have been so perverted by the LH emphasis of its school of thought that they are not fazed by such considerations. One in particular thinks that getting rid of fellow-feeling, empathy, compassion, and love from moral considerations would be a great boon. By eliminating the RH, he imagines that moral agents will finally be fully rational and this rationality will actually improve moral reasoning. Interestingly, Kant too wrote along these lines; one modern Kantian noted approvingly that Kant was interested in putting morality on a more rational basis. The contemporary person who expressed this same hope about becoming more rational actually favored consequentialism. Such a consequentialist would be more ruthless and immune to moral considerations than a Kantian, but both schools of thought suggest someone with a severe mental disorder. Both imagine that eliminating the part of the human brain and mind that makes us distinctively human would be a great improvement precisely for moral topics; and moral topics concern how we treat other people and why. The idea that deadening fellow feeling and treating other people as inanimate objects, as the LH does in fact do, would actually enhance moral outcomes is completely implausible. A normal person, one would hope, would, on the contrary, realize that this “rational” person will be a moral monster, so callous about human life that he would wipe out tens of millions of individual people without a second thought if he thought it would help his “moral” calculations. By using only the LH and focusing on consequences one is coming to resemble a morally imbecilic psychopath.
Since it is only the RH that deals with reality, and not mere categories, concepts and abstractions, the analytic philosopher who imagines divorce from emotions would be an improvement thinks that a man living in a world of abstractions, mental representations, and concepts, cut off from direct experience and familiarity with reality, will make a more moral agent. The chances of this being true are zero. Moral realism, which this person also embraces, like all perception of reality, requires a functioning and prioritized RH.
This pro-consequentialist analytic philosopher thinks removing emotions from decision making will result in improved choices. However, we know that people with brain damage that prevents them from accessing their emotions are rendered nearly incapable of making choices. The brain damaged person can stand at a Starbucks confronted with two dozen coffee choices and is simply paralyzed with indecision. The impetus to action and not merely contemplation has a connection to feelings and emotions. We literally feel a preference for one thing or course of action over another. Without this embodied drive we are immobilized. So, this philosopher is simply wrong.
One reason why killing someone is immoral is that he is unique and irreplaceable. The LH is unable to process uniqueness and thinks only in generic terms and categories. This is another reason the consequentialist with his suppression of the RH will be immoral.
Utilitarianism is supposed to involve trying to do that which will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. While promoting the scapegoating and sacrifice of the innocent few to benefit the many, at least the desire to help the great mass of people necessarily involves a benevolent impulse. And benevolent impulses reside exclusively in the RH. Without the RH, the supposedly new and improved consequentialist, made more rational by excluding emotion and feeling, has no practical motive for trying to increase happiness. Once we are considering other human beings as inanimate objects and things of no value, there can be no justification for promoting their welfare. In fact, “value” is a RH affair. Analytic philosophers love to point out the fact/value, is/ought distinction. The fact that something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. Trapped as most of them are on the fact side of the equation, analytic philosophers can only peer longingly over the divide to the RH realm wishing they could access value and normative considerations. It has been pointed out that while there are prodigies in mathematics and music, there are no moral prodigies. Facts are generally easier to ascertain in youth than judgments of value. Do not ask a ten-year old to give his views on which author might be considered the best ever. Parents will not say to their young children, “We’re thinking of getting divorced. What do you think?” Matters of morality require maturity and life experience, not some idiotic formula dreamt up by an autistic person. Aristotle correctly noted that theories and knowledge involve generalizations, while action is always particular. One acts in a concrete situation involving particular people with particular characteristics; all things that require RH activation. What is appropriate in one case may not be in another instance.
The RH provides material for consideration to the LH which then examines it. The LH is wholly parasitic on the RH. The brilliant mathematician has a sudden insight into a new mathematical truth – which is in fact the most common way new profound mathematical truths are discovered often after years pondering a problem – and then has to subject this insight to analysis. Similarly, the RH provides the fundamental moral intuitions which the LH can then analyze if necessary. Only the RH has a motive for caring about other people enough to be moral concerning them. It is not necessarily enough to have a good and friendly impulse and motive, it might be necessary to evaluate different courses of action using the LH. The suggested courses of action that the LH makes must then be sent back to the RH to be morally evaluated and to make sure it feels right. And that is the way things are supposed to work: RH experience of reality involving intuition and emotion, like the experience of beauty, potentially examined by the LH to critique or enhance this experience, and then returned to the RH for reintegration. There is nothing foolproof in any of this. Being infallible is not a human characteristic.
Moral theories reside in the LH and thus, they are never in fact moral. Utilitarianism abandons morality and advocates whatever is convenient, leading to the paradox that the best thing a utilitarian could do is not to follow utilitarianism. Doing that which will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people would be not to do that which will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. No one should wish to live in a society where the intrinsic and sacred value of the individual will always be sacrificed to the mob as a matter of principle.
The sacred value of the individual can only be perceived or recognized as a RH affair. Without emotions, compassion, basic fellow feeling, a sense of your uniqueness and irreplaceable nature, and most importantly, a recognition of a person’s actual reality (schizophrenics do not think you or they are fully real), someone does not stand a chance of being treated morally well.
Moral theory by definition turns morality into a matter of abstractions and theory. The best it can do is come with a crude heuristic – such as the greatest happiness for the greatest number – which treats humanity as a great mass. Originally, the theory equated “happiness” with pleasure. The utilitarian calculation meant determining how many “hedons” (units of pleasure) or “dolors” (units of pain) a proposed course of action was supposed to generate. This would require God-like omniscience and for the future to be predictable, which it is not, and it is also entirely imaginary. There are no hedons or dolors to be measured. Pleasure and pain do not come in units. They are a pure theoretical abstraction with no reality whatsoever. If there were to be a disagreement about the number of hedons and dolors, and there should surely would, there would be no way to resolve it.
Moral theories of the sort that are supposed to resolve moral dilemmas are redundant. The undergraduate student is typically given a choice between Kant and Mill; deontology or utilitarianism. Which theory one chooses is determined by one’s moral intuitions and preferences. The person asks himself which theory seems to be the most consistent with morality? Since RH moral intuitions of necessity play the key role in deciding which moral theory to adopt, the LH moral theory itself is redundant. If one were to claim that utilitarianism is in fact superior to moral intuitions, on what basis could that claim be made? One would be using the criteria of utilitarianism to show that utilitarianism is better than any method used to evaluate its morality. Before becoming a consequentialist, a person must convince himself that this viewpoint is also the most moral by criteria not embedded in the theory itself.
Immanuel Kant is a very odd duck indeed. Ultimately, he is nearly as schizophrenic-autistic-psychopath-like as the consequentialists, though his moral theory is expressly opposed to consequentialism and is very much its opposite. There are no guarantees in life, but if one were to find oneself at the mercy of another person who could do what he wills, then one would want him not to resemble a psychopath as much as possible. One would hope that he allows his emotions to inform his decision-making on messy organic matters like how to treat other people, with an intact moral intuitive sense and Kant, or so he seems in his writings, is not such a man. In fact, he does everything he can to eliminate emotion and intuition from his moral theory. Instead of LH consequences, his focus is on LH rules. The trouble is, morality cannot be reduced to a set of rules. What the right thing to do is dependent on the exact situation and the precise people involved in it. Theories and knowledge (Wissen) are abstractions and ethical decisions take place in concrete circumstances. Aristotle accurately explained this over two thousand years ago. He was right then, and he is still right.
If someone were to hire a front-desk manager for a hotel, he would be looking for someone smart, agreeable, with a nice manner, diplomatic, but stern when needed, and a bucket load of common sense. Such a person would be rare and thus expensive, thanks to supply and demand, but worth every penny. The nonworkable alternative would be to hire a below-average, or even average, relative simpleton and provide him with a giant book of rules. The book would be simple enough. It would anticipate every single problem and dilemma that the manager might encounter and it would provide step by step instructions for how to resolve each one of them. No thinking would be required. The trouble is the book would be infinitely large. But it would still not be able to anticipate every problem that might need resolving. It would also have to particularize the patrons. What works for one patron will not necessarily work for another. And then, when two patrons get into a conflict that the manager is asked to resolve, the solution must be satisfactory to both of them. As to how to anticipate what two particular patrons will find to fight about and how a solution might make these particular two people happy, not abstract and generic people, that is unknown. It is unknown because there is no way to anticipate and thus there is no rule to govern.
Kant complains that consequentialism requires predicting the future and guessing the possible consequences of actions and that this is not possible. Well, reducing morality to a set of LH rules is likewise impossible. One can only have a rule for predictable situations. An algorithm is an answer to a known question. Even if the universe were deterministic, organisms could not be deterministic because they cannot predict the future regardless. So, organisms need the freedom to improvise an answer to a question they did not know would occur, and that is a RH matter for organisms with brains. And then, rules conflict; just as there are different goods in competition with each other. Infrastructure, education, and healthcare all compete with each other for finite funds. A desire for safety (a good) or order (a good) can conflict with a desire for freedom of action (a good) and some compromise may be necessary. Since rules conflict, there would need to be an infinite regress of rules about how to resolves those clashes. Matters of RH judgment enter the picture in determining whether the rule about being honest is more important than the rule about not endangering innocent life in a particular circumstance.
Software engineers are trying to figure out how to program morality into self-driving cars. Since it is impossible to program emotion, moral intuition, compassion, and life experience into a computer, the best they can do is to try to come up with a set of rules. They can save themselves the trouble. There are no satisfactory and complete set of rules to produce moral behavior. The RH deals with novelty and problem solving, the particular and unique, emotion and morality, the creativity and imagination needed to resolve conflicting issues and none of that can be programmed. All the “people” in the program will be generic and reduced to a set of numbers which is inherently dehumanizing and not conducive to morality.
Kant is skeptical about emotion because it is unreliable, cannot be commanded if it is absent, and comes and goes. Better to base morality on duty than feelings, he thinks. This desire for certainty and regularity is itself a LH desire and certainty is just not attainable. As such, the desire is pathological. Watching someone trying to decide whether to puncture your heart with a knife by getting out a rulebook and consulting it would be disconcerting. And then, misreading the rulebook is a possibility. “Whoops! Wrong chapter. Hey, Mike, would you mind cleaning up all that blood? I didn’t notice the caveat about “in wartime conditions only.””
Kant refers to a Kingdom of Ends. Each person is supposed to be a member of the Kingdom of Ends. He is both legislator, determining the moral law, and subject to the law. As an end, he is not to be used as a means to an end, but to be treated only as an end. He gets to be in the Kingdom of Ends as a rational subject. This is still all very LH. The capacity to be rational is generic, not unique. All these “ends” are deracinated and thus interchangeable. Only the RH deals with the organic and unique. The LH focuses on the inanimate and generic. The LH treats organic life as inanimate “things.” That is simply not going to be a helpful focus in morality. Kant’s concept of humans as Ends is an abstraction based on a generic capacity to be rational.
One must be careful because there is a problem with language that McGilchrist notes. It is that the word “concrete” denotes an abstract concept and the word “unique” is generic. It applies to nearly everything. The actually concrete and unique is not a matter of concepts, but experience. It is experienced “intuitively.” Given the tone and thrust of Kant’s writing and thinking and his apparent desire to avoid the RH, it seems like Kant’s “ends” will lack these qualities.
Kant famously wrote: “Two things fill the mind [Das Gemüt] with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.” Admiration and awe, like all emotions, are connected with the RH. The usual English translation of Das Gemüt as “mind” is misleading. Gemüt is a much more expansive, and in this context, satisfactory word than merely “mind.” Gemüt means “feeling, heart, soul, and mind.” Kant is not referring to a purely intellectual matter. Kant connects with the starry heavens and the moral law immediately, on the level of his consciousness of existence, not representationally. What he is describing exactly correlates with RH experience. This apprehension includes the heart and soul.
However, while the starry heavens are indeed awe-inspiring, the moral law does not exist. What exists instead is an intuitive awareness of the full reality of good and evil. We know that when we feel guilty about making a moral mistake that this feeling is a direct apprehension of reality. And if good and evil exist, the world cannot be as the materialists imagine it. For them, it is all just atoms and molecules banging into each other, governed by natural laws and chance at the subatomic level. All our hopes, dreams, desires, loves, purposive action are meaningless items in an indifferent universe. If good and evil exist, then reality must include mental and spiritual components which are just as real, or more real, than the physical elements. As Berdyaev points out, the existence of evil proves God exists. He is needed to provide intrinsic value without which morality cannot function. Instrumental goods can only exist if intrinsic goods exist, since an instrumental good is not good at all if it does not contribute to something of genuine value. The fact that we are made in God’s image provides that intrinsic value.
Intuitive awareness of the reality of morality should indeed fill Das Gemüt, one’s heart, feelings, soul, and mind, with awe and admiration. By making the moral law an item in the left hemisphere, Kant condemns his theory to inadequacy as surely as utilitarianism is inadequate. The key word there is “theory.” Moral theory is unworkable for reasons that Aristotle identified. It is the difference between the actual perception of beauty (RH) and merely theorizing about it (LH). A theory of beauty is not beautiful. On the other hand, a story told about beauty that uses poetic and spiritual language might be beautiful. A theory that tries to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for beauty will be ugly and misleading. And a theory of morality is not morality. In fact, when it is used to try to make moral decisions, as it is intended to do, it typically makes our moral decision-making ever so much worse.

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