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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Neuroscientist alters moral judgments

Neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe of Saxelab at
MIT discusses her discoveries.
Rebecca Saxe has discovered a specific location in the brain that is used when we think about other people's minds. By disrupting this region with magnetic waves, she can make it more difficult to see things from other people's point of view, which had the effect in one experiment of changing people's judgments as to the moral blame assigned to one a hypothetical case of accidental murder.

This is not the only revelation in her talk, given for the TED conference. Listen to it very carefully:

[Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other's minds]

I mention her presentation not only because it is fascinating as a matter of brain science, but also because of the hypothetical moral dilemma she uses in her experiment...

Grace and her friend are on a tour of a chemical factory, and they take a break for coffee. Grace's friend asks for some sugar in her coffee. Grace goes to make the coffee, and finds by the coffee a pot containing a white powder which is sugar. But the pot is labeled "deadly poison". So grace thinks that the powder is a deadly poison, and she puts it in her friend's coffee, and her friend drinks the coffee and is fine.

Of course, when asked, no one thought it was 'morally permissible' for Grace to put the powder in the coffee. They asked subjects "how much should Grace be blamed" in this case, which they called a "failed attempt to harm". The blame they assigned to Grace was high.

In another case, the story is the same except for what Grace thinks. In this case, Grace thinks the powder is sugar (and it is). Here, people thought she deserved no blame at all, even though the outcomes were identical.

However, in a third case, which they called "accident", the powder was labeled "sugar" and Grace thought it was sugar, but it was actually poison, and her friend died. In this case, the average amount of blame assigned to Grace was lower than in the case where she thinks sugar is poison and puts it in the coffee, but was (amazingly) still higher than the case where she correctly thinks the powder is sugar.

Saxe goes forward in her talk, to explain how disrupting that special region of the brain made people even more likely to assign blame to Grace in the "accidental" case. In fact, she shows a chart whereby people who displayed more activity in the brain region used to consider other people's thoughts were less likely to assign blame to Grace.

What the talk didn't mention specifically is that there is a right answer - and that is that Grace should receive absolutely no blame whatsoever in the "accident" case. While there is such a thing as negligence and being responsible, in the case of a white powder near the coffee labeled "sugar", one should be expected to assume the powder is indeed sugar. To hold them accountable is to fail to understand what a person knows and does not know, and judge the moral blame of their actions accordingly. In an earlier example in the video she uses a simpler example on children and shows how those below a certain age haven't yet developed the cognitive capacity to understand another's perspective yet. The adult study shows that the false judgment of assigning blame to Grace is due to similar under-utilized brain function. The answer that Grace deserves blame is as objectively incorrect as if they had stated that 2+2=5.

This highlights the shortcomings of ethical systems based on consequentialism. It has seemed to me that systems which really "get" what ethics is all about, refer to the inner motivations of the moral agent as the ultimate measure of moral praiseworthiness or blame. While we can't always know these in pragmatic terms, we can know them about ourselves, and understanding that point has an impact on how we self regulate our own moral behavior such that ends do not justify means (or intent).

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