Friday, June 30, 2006

Moral intuitions & the evolution of cognition   posted by Razib @ 6/30/2006 06:32:00 PM

Over at The American Scene Ross posts about the conundrum that many couples face when having to discard their excess embryos in the context of in vitro fertilization. He states:

Intuitions are unreliable and changeable, and they're shaped by cultural factors as much as they shape them.

I have basically argued before that the axiomatic arguments made by both sides are a sham. I do not deny that pro-life individuals sincerley believe that life begins at conception, but, I do question why if abortion is a "genocide" equivalent to the "holocaust" they not take up arms in a just war against this murder? Yes, I know there are ways you can "reason" against such violence in the name of a good cause, but I find such reasoning as persuasive as "penumbras" which suggest a "right" to "privacy" in the American Constitution.

Ross is correct to note that couples do not view embryos as a "clump of cells," but neither does this imply that such attachment is equivalent to that that they would feel toward a 3 year old child. I would argue that "pro-life" sentiment is roughly proportional to the degree of resemblence of the embryo/fetus to a conventional human physiognomy. And I do not believe that all such sentiment derives from socialization, much of it is hard-wired into us. Over the past generation cognitive science has suggested that there are powerful biases in our mental hardware which constrains and shapes how we perceive the world. For example, it seems clear that we have primed hardware geared toward facial recognition. And, this might have moral implications. I offer this research to illustrate the thrust of my point:

Over 10 weeks, the researchers placed a sign above the box. Each week, they alternated pictures of eyes with flowers. The eyes were male or female and had various expressions.

On average, people paid nearly three times as much for their drinks on the weeks when the poster featured eyes, the team reports in Wednesday's issue of the journal Biology Letters.

"Our brains are programmed to respond to eyes and faces whether we are consciously aware of it or not," the study's lead author, Melissa Bateson, said in a release.

Two points:

  1. Eyes matter, it seems just as we have face recognition hardwire preloaded, we have an ability and competence to detect and process information in regards to eyes. You don't have to be a cognitive psychologist to figure out why this is relevant to our day to day interactions with other human beings.

  2. To a great extent processing of information about eyes is not conscious, in other words, many individuals claimed to not have noticed the eyes, but it effected their behavior.

My rough argument is that unconscious intuitional inputs shape how people "reason" about moral questions. I am certain that pro-life activists can give you rational, cogent and axiomatically precise1 reasons for why they stand and protest outside clinics which they consider dens of murder as opposed to entering and tearing the doctors away from their death devices, by force if necessary. But, I believe that mental subprocesses in regards to analyzing and categorizing inputs as "human" or "non-human" have a strong role to play underlying the persuasiveness of a chain of reasoning. This argument can be inverted, there are obvious reasons then why pro-choice people flinch and are offended when they see photographs of aborted fetuses. They may intellectually assert that they were just a cluster of cells, but clearly they are made uncomfortable by the resemeblence between the fetus and a nenonate. By logic alone I would hold that pro-life individuals should kill all those who deal in death in the name of a greater good (the lives of innocents), while those who argue that fetuses are just a "clump of cells" should have no hesitation in using such tissue for dog food and the like.

Does this speak to Ross' implication that we need to look beyond intuition and rely on reason? I guess I would say that in this case the reasoning is rather specious, insofar as a plain reading of personhood beginning at conception would imply rather drastic action which only a few pro-life individuals are willing to commit. The rhetoric and averred positions are, I believe, far more distinct than what you would excavate from their moral guts.

Addendum: It is well known that many pre-Christian European cultures practiced infanticide. This is a human universal, there is a tendency for genuine emotional attachment in cultures where infant mortality is high and infanticide not unknown to be delayed until a considerable time after birth and even into toddlerhood. Sometimes this is explicated in the idea that personhood only emerges at a fixed point after birth (e.g., at age 3). One might make an analogy to the common conventions of when individuals have free will and are responsible for their actions. In Mormonism that age is 7. Among many Muslims it is believed that small children are like angels and incapable of genuine sin because they know not what they do.

But in any case, my point is that Christianity banished infanticide. Or did it? In the 18th century many poor families in France sent their children to "orphanages." The mortality rates at these "orphanages" by the age of 5 could be as high as 95% (source: Mother Nature). So clearly, the Catholic French, no longer pagans, and in fact subjects of the most Christian King, believed that their children had souls and that their lives were sacred, so they did not kill them when they could not support them. The simply sent them to the orphanage where they would almost certainly die of neglect. My point is that Christian ideals were enforced while the brutish realities of human "rationality" continued.

Also, check out Ross debating Matthew Yglesias debating on abortion. Go 2/3 ahead, I liked that Yglesias didn't concoct a fake a priori chain of reasoning. Though I think he would look more seemly with a shorter buzz cut.

1 - Please note that I mean mostly Catholics here. By the time evangelicals "noticed" the abortion issue the Catholics had elucidated most of the reasoned arguments against abortion so there was no need for them to generate their own. Please note in the book Catholicism and American Freedom there is documentation of the fact that the evangelical flagship magazine, Christianity Today, an article was published in the late 1960s that was cautiously hopeful about the trend toward reproductive freedom in the United States. Remember, Ronald Reagan was the one who signed legislation which decriminalized abortion in California in the 1960s.