Iain McGilchrist in The Matter With Things refers to a study where subjects were asked to evaluate two scenarios. One described a woman giving a friend a cup of tea to which she had accidentally added poison, thinking it was sugar. In the other scenario, the woman gave her friend what she thought was poisoned tea, but it actually only had sugar added to it.
Any normal person would consider attempting to poison a friend as being morally worse than accidentally poisoning her. This is based on the person’s intentions, which our legal system also emphasizes. However, when a part of the right hemisphere (the right temporoparietal junction) is suppressed using transcranial magnetic stimulation, the same person will say that accidentally killing the friend with poison is morally worse. This is because not having a functioning right temporoparietal junction turns someone into a consequentialist. An unkind way of putting it would be to say that consequentialists resemble those with brain damage. Schizophrenics, those with autism and psychopaths share this consequentialist tendency. All of those conditions involve having trouble accessing the abilities which the right hemisphere provides such as emotions, moral intuitions, and thinking about the animate.
Moral theory, such as Kantianism and utilitarianism, which attempts to provide rules and maxims for moral decision making, is an invention of the left hemisphere. The LH tends to be consequentialist and consequentialism abandons moral considerations in favor of preferred outcomes whether the means for achieving them are moral or not. Some years ago, I asked a convinced utilitarian whether he would prefer to be the victim of torture or to be the torturer, a scenario mentioned by Plato in The Gorgias. Plato’s character Socrates answers that both people would be miserable and unhappy, but, if he had to choose, he would rather be the victim than the despicable and malignant torturer. The utilitarian stated that both sides of the equation are morally equivalent because the outcome is the same – someone being tortured. He literally stated that guilt and innocence have no place in his “moral” viewpoint. A supposedly moral viewpoint that has no categories of guilt and innocence is a completely amoral perspective.
Aristotelian ethics, on the other hand, provides no rules or maxims. It involves inculcating the right habits in children through reward and punishment, praise and blame, to produce children who have a habitual tendency in the direction of being generous, brave, moderate and just. These habits then are improved with practical wisdom attained by cultivating a careful attention to the actual concrete circumstances in which one is acting, including the abilities of the people involved. What is brave for a mountain climber would be foolhardy for the non-climber. Paying attention to the concrete, and non-abstract, is a right hemisphere activity, the same location as moral intuition. Only the Aristotelian, out of the three options mentioned here, has not had his sense of morality perverted by abstractions, theory, and the merely conceptual.
The relative virtues or deficiencies of moral theories must be assessed vis-à-vis our moral intuitions. Since our moral intuitions preexist moral theories and are their arbiters, moral theories are useless and unnecessary. If someone has in his hands the official iron rod used as the standard to determine whether something is a meter long or not, it makes no sense to bother with sticks/rulers that may or may not be equal in length to the rod. The rulers certainly cannot be used to verify the rod. So, the utilitarian cannot turn around and claim that his theory represents “real” morality. Doing so would invalidate the method the utilitarian used to select his theory in the first place.
The trolley problem, proposed by Philippa Foot, is an invitation to murderous sacrifice of an innocent individual and tends to throw our moral intuitions into confusion. People are invited to pull a lever on a train track that would kill one innocent man instead of the five that would otherwise be killed. McGilchrist points out that our intuitions develop in realistic and naturalistic settings. Highly artificial scenarios like the trolley problem damage moral insight. This can have the nihilistic consequence of getting people to regard their moral intuitions as fundamentally unreliable when they are not, assuming someone is not schizophrenic, autistic, or a psychopath. Part of the artificiality is the attribution of what amounts to omniscience on the part of the moral subject. Students will sometimes ask, “What if the person tied up on the tracks is a rapist?” Or, “What if he goes on to find a cure for cancer?” “What if he were a rapist cancer curer?” The other scenario involves pushing a fat man off a bridge to get wedged under the trolley’s wheels and stopping the five people being killed that way. In real life, McGilchrist points out, we do not know if pushing the fat man will actually stop the runaway trolley or whether he will just die a horrible death or be permanently disabled. If he is disabled, should we then be his lifelong caregiver?
How would anyone know any of that? Kant rejected utilitarianism in The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals partly for this reason, that it requires the ability to predict how much happiness various courses of action will produce and no one has this ability. Omniscience is so different from the actual human condition that life with it would be unimaginable. We would never bother talking to anyone ever again because we would know what the other person will say and he will know what we will say. We would know the ending of every movie, rendering spoiler alerts useless, every discovery that will ever be made will be made right now, the answers to every test, and the outcome of every endeavor. No more elections, soccer matches, nothing. The result of anything that will ever happen and could ever happen would be known. This ability is so far from our actual lives, it is no wonder the trolley problem is confusing.
Stepping away from realism means that even McGilchrist seems to temporarily forget that nobody would want his caregiver to be the person responsible for trying to kill him and who in fact mutilated him. And, since we would be convicted of murder or manslaughter in any country on earth, if we pulled the lever or pushed the fat man, we could not nurse the maimed person from prison. Perhaps those proposing to push the fat man or pull the lever should be reminded that in the real world, and not merely a hypothetical thinking exercise, that imprisonment would be his fate.
Those who are literate are used to being asked purely fanciful questions in the classroom, designed to teach a logical skill or demonstrate that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and so on. Oral culture individuals remain much more concrete in their approach to questions. If asked, “Which two things out of three items go together? Saws, wood, or screwdrivers?” The oral culture person is likely to say saws and wood. The literate person is more likely to say saws and screwdrivers since they both belong the category of tools. They have been taught to favor abstract categories over concrete associations. And this is why they will temporarily forget the consequences of murdering people for themselves. Artificial and conceptually oriented “classroom” questions are not good at all for eliciting high quality moral appraisals.
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