Can morality be modified in the lab?

“To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing” – Dr Liane Young, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Thanks to Perry for the link.

20 Replies to “Can morality be modified in the lab?”

  1. I think the title of this post is misleading. No one is claiming that they can modify morality. It’s people’s moral judgments which are being changed in these experiments. And that is quite easy to do. Just ask any member of MADD.

    Perry, could you clarify your comment a bit? Are you arguing that no one should be responsible for their choices since morality itself appears to be somewhat fluid, or relative?

  2. What is fluid is the article’s use of the word morality. The author seems to equate morality with moral judgement and moral principle. It also speaks of moral reasoning, moral development and sense of morality.

  3. @Bobmo – no I’m not saying that. People should be responsible for what they do.

    This research just demonstrates they don’t really have much choice in the matter. Even the most horrific behavior should be met with empathy. Thoughts, choices, your sense of self are all just illusions created in the brain. They can be easily manipulated by simply exposing your brain to a magnetic field.

  4. Perry, these two statements appear to contradict each other…

    1) How can anyone be responsible for their choices?
    2) People should be responsible for what they do.

    …unless what you are saying is that people are not responsible for their behavior, but should be held responsible for it.

    And if we were to meet the most horrific behavior with empathy, how would that manifest itself practically?

  5. I can see your confusion but you’ve almost got my meaning.

    People can’t control their behavior, but still should be held responsible for the consequences.

    How would we be empathetic practically…I don’t know. I’d start with banning the death penalty.

    Any horrific behavior you hear about could have easily been done by you given the right chemical reactions in your brain.

  6. @Perry
    On what basis should society hold a person responsible for actions entirely out of his or her control?

    Do you believe that capital punishment is wrong, or is it just your preference that we not practice it?

    I think it is a mistake for the author to equate moral judgments with moral facts, but doing so is certainly consistent with materialist presuppositions.

    However, I do believe that there is a difference between moral judgments and moral facts, and societies acknowledge this by, for example, not holding mentally incapacitated persons accountable for wrongdoing. We have concluded that some people are not capable of making certain moral judgments, but that implies that there are moral judgments to be made. That, in turn, assumes that moral facts do indeed exist. I also believe that most people know that certain things are indeed wrong and are not just matters of preference.

  7. It is my opinion that society’s purpose is to enable the maximum level of happiness for the maximum number of people. The best strategies to achieve this goal are debatable. What do you think is the purpose of society?

    Removing some people from society (e.g. into jail or mental institutions) ensures greater happiness for the rest of society so it’s worth doing even if the person who committed the act had little choice in the matter.

    The notion of right or wrong is not applicable to capital punishment when not accompanied by some context. In what specific circumstance do you want to know if capital punishment is wrong/right?

  8. Let’s say that I were to disagree with your opinion and state that I believe society’s purpose is to achieve the maximum level of happiness for me and me alone. Now, of course, by force, you and others could easily hinder my attempts at achieving this purpose, but on what basis would I be wrong? Why is the statement, “Society’s purpose is to make Bobmo happy” an incorrect statement?

    (To answer your question directly, I agree with the Bible which says, in Romans 13:4, that the purpose of human government (society) is to punish evil and reward good. That does require context, however, in that it assumes leaders are good and not evil.)

    You also asked, “In what specific circumstance do you want to know if capital punishment is wrong/right?” But you mentioned banning it outright which implies that context is not relevant. So, my question to you is do you believe that capital punishment is ever right or wrong.

  9. You can disagree with my opinion. By definition, opinions are neither correct or incorrect. There are opinions that are supported by facts and others that aren’t but this doesn’t make the opinion right or wrong.

    I can’t say capital punishment is ever right or wrong because I can’t imagine all future possibilities. Banning it only reflects my current ignorance of future possibilities. There are no instances in the past that support capital punishment but this says nothing about future circumstances. If you could provide a specific instance in which you wonder if capital punishment is right or wrong I could answer. But devoid of context, an adequate answer is not possible.

  10. I disagree that opinions can never be shown to be correct or incorrect. They are shown to be so all the time. Just ask any football fan. For example, it is many people’s opinion that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl. That opinion is either correct or incorrect, and we’ll know for sure on February 6th.

    But why say that society’s purpose is to achieve maximum happiness if you don’t actually believe it’s true? Does it make sense to have an opinion, but then not believe it’s correct?

    You must have some reason for wanting to ban capital punishment. Apparently it violates some standard you hold dear or you wouldn’t want to ban it. Since you correctly doubt your ability to predict the future, can you at least answer why you believe capital punishment should be banned today?

    You asked for a specific instance that you could answer. OK, here’s one: would it be wrong to execute a child for stealing a piece of bubble gum?

  11. You missed my meaning in the previous post or perhaps I wasn’t clear. Opinions can be supported by facts (e.g. the planet is warming) or not supported by facts (e.g. God exists). They have a characteristic that transcends the truthiness of the opinion since they reflect facts, experiences and emotions. So in this way they are neither correct or incorrect even if they are not true.

    Your opinion about who wins a football game can only be shown true or false because you can run a test and find the answer. An opinion about the purpose of society can not be tested in such a way.

    I believe my opinions are true but I’m also open to the possibility that they are not true. It would take an incredible amount of hubris for a person to believe that everything they believe is true.

    My desire for banning capital punishment is likely an emotional response to my internal sense of morality. Ultimately, the result of chemical reactions in my brain. It makes me happier to live in a society that does not kill people. Why would you be in favor of capital punishment?

    It would not make me happy if society killed a child for stealing a piece of gum.

  12. I think you are conflating the ability to demonstrate the correctness of an opinion with the correctness of the opinion itself. Many opinions are correct or incorrect regardless of our ability to prove them to be so.

    I was a bit taken aback by your response to the example I gave of what is obviously an unjust use of capital punishment. Since you cannot think of any case where capital punishment is justified, I thought you could give an argument for a case where it is not justified.

    But you said it would not make you happy. Is that your argument against capital punishment? It would not make you happy?

    But, this assumes that that society’s purpose really is to enable the maximum level of happiness for the maximum number of people. So, given that assumption, if it had made the majority of Southerners happy to enslave blacks, was slavery then OK? (“OK” meaning that other societies would have no rational grounds for saying that particular society should have banned it.) Or, do we agree that slavery was morally wrong?

    If a dictator somewhere were to execute thousands of children for stealing gum — in opposition to the happiness of the majority, of course — would they be guilty of nothing more than spreading unhappiness?

    If it made the majority of the citizens of Nazi Germany happy to exterminate the Jews, can we then say that they were simply fulfilling society’s purpose?

    Do you really believe these actions are morally neutral? And that there’s nothing really wrong with executing a child for stealing a piece of gum?

    But why should society care if you are happy? Do you have any arguments to support your position?

    And if these are just opinions — neither correct or incorrect — why should anyone else hold those same opinions? Presumably it’s your opinion that anyone who favors capital punishment is wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t desire to ban it.

  13. If you can’t prove something to be so, how can you say it is correct or incorrect?

    I think slavery is morally wrong. (Unlike the writers of the Old Testament.) But my sense of it being immoral is an emotional response to my biological programming.

    Letting the Southerners enslave people would not have led to the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. Even if it made the majority happy to do it, preventing them from doing it increases the happiness of the rest of society without inhibiting their happiness. History has proven people can be happy without slavery. There is no basis by which slavery is OK (at least that I know of right now). Perhaps in the future we might equate animals to humans and will determine that the way we lock animals up and slaughter them for food is immoral. Morality changes.

    I do not believe that those actions are morally neutral & I said executing a child for stealing gum is wrong.

    Ultimately, the morality of any action can be determined scientifically. The equation is that which leads to the maximum amount of happiness for all. Making the majority happy while making a minority unhappy will not lead to the ‘maximum amount of happiness for all’ goal.

  14. I can’t prove my Super Bowl prediction today, but it most definitely has a truth value today. My inability to prove it does not change that. To say that all opinions are by definition neither correct or incorrect is simply not true.

    What evidence do you have that whatever leads to the maximum amount of happiness for all is moral and whatever leads to less than the maximum happiness is immoral?

    And how much unhappiness is required before something becomes immoral? If the behavior of 90 people toward 10 people leads to 90 units of happiness and 10 units of unhappiness, is that immoral since some other behavior could have led to 91 units of happiness and 9 units of unhappiness? Why should I consider this anything other than an arbitrary standard of morality?

  15. I just disagree. Truth is not an inherent quality of opinion.

    I have no evidence, it’s merely my opinion about how the world should work. Show me a more reasonable strategy and I might change my opinion.

    “Why should I consider this anything other than an arbitrary standard of morality?”

    All standards of morality are arbitrary. Name one that’s not.

  16. Not all opinions have a truth value (“chocolate tastes better than vanilla”), but I think it’s quite obvious that many of them do (“either the Packers or the Steelers will win the Super Bowl”) regardless of our ability to prove it (“Oswald acted alone”). Furthermore, your statement, “Truth is not an inherent quality of opinion” is self-defeating since, if it’s your opinion, then it’s not true that truth is not an inherent quality of opinion!

    You said you have no evidence to support your opinion about how the world should work. But surely you have some reason for believing it. You don’t base your opinions on nothing at all.

    You said that the actions I cited are not morally neutral, yet you acknowledge that your standard is arbitrary. These are contradictory statements. If the standard is arbitrary, then what meaning is there in the statement, “X is morally superior to Y”? Or, “Slavery is morally wrong”? And if you respond, “X is morally superior to Y based on my arbitrary standard,” then X it isn’t really morally superior to Y, is it?

    And, by this same standard, executing a child for stealing a piece of gum isn’t really wrong either. How could something be wrong that is based on a non-true opinion for which there is no evidence?

    Furthermore, you stated that the morality of any action can be determined scientifically, but how can that possibly be true if it’s an arbitrary standard? And how can something which is the result of chemical reactions be morally wrong anyway? Are certain chemical reactions right and others wrong?

    Also, on what basis does your arbitrary standard apply to anyone else? You are obviously willing to force your morality on others by outlawing capital punishment.

    Finally, you asked me to name a standard of morality that is not arbitrary. I believe that there is such a standard, because I believe that certain things are really right and others are really wrong. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you agree with me! And if there is such a standard, I don’t know of any possible source other than God. We may not be perfect in our discernment or application of right and wrong, but that’s a very different matter from the existence of right and wrong itself.

  17. What’s the point of saying “there is an objective, universal standard for right and wrong” if the process by which we discern and apply this standard is not objective and universal.

  18. I think on some level that the process by which we discern and apply this standard is objective and universal. We may have differences, but we all acknowledge that some things are indeed wrong, even if we do so unintentionally. For example, hard core materialists like Dawkins and Hitchens tip their hat to objective morality (and contradict their previous statements) when they describe as immoral certain acts committed by religious persons. If the standard is truly arbitrary, then nothing is really immoral.

    We can also recognize when a someone cannot discern right from wrong. In fact, we have a name for these people. We call them psychopaths. When a person tortures and kills a child for fun and shows no sign of remorse, we don’t say they are simply being unsociable or non-conformists (that would be consistent with arbitrary societal norms produced by evolution). We recognize that there is something truly wrong with these people, that they need help.

    We could debate about how we come to know what is right and wrong, but that misses the point. My argument is that we all know that right and wrong do indeed exist. And when you suggest that not all actions are morally equivalent, you are also making the case that morality is not arbitrary. And that is itself an argument for God’s existence.

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