26 November 2007

Mirror neurons, theory of morality and Adam Smith

Spotted over at Retrospectacle, an interesting piece in Reason magazine that aims to tie together studies of mirror neurons, humans' moral sense, and Adam Smith.

The article, entitled "The Theory of Moral Neuroscience", kicks off with a few lines from Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he argues that one's ability to empathize is directly tied to our moral sense.

Here's the quote:
"Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator."

In the body of the article, the author posits that modern brain research (specifically the study of mirror neurons in "normal" individuals, the autistic, and monkeys) confirms Smith's observation that the two are directly linked. Now, I'm not a neuroscientist nor a philosopher, but I'm left slightly skeptical (what else is new). The author's explanation as to how these all are woven together serves as some good food-for-thought, though.

A few bits to highlight:
- Mirror neurons, first discovered allegedly in monkeys, can best be described as when an animal / humans neurons fire while observing an activity as if the animal was itself engaged in that activity - hence the "mirroring" aspect to all this.
- This was then tested with normal individuals and those with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) to see if autistic individuals had a dysfunctional mirror neuron system. This was proven to be true, at least in high-performing ASD individuals.
- The tie has been made between empathy and our "pre-reflective moral values". Experiment was done by a Harvard psychologist to test the limits of this.

Here's where the argument gets a little weak. At least to me ...
So, Harvard psychologist conducts the following experiment. He presented the following two situations to his test set, simultaneously conducting fMRI brain scans to watch their responses.

Situation #1 - "[W]hile driving, you see a bleeding hiker lying by the roadside. You must decide between taking the man to the hospital or refuse to do so because the injured man would bleed all over your expensive upholstery."

(KT: really? don't bleed on my upholstery? c'mon now. anyways, back to the article ...)

Situation #2 - "[Y]ou receive a letter from an international charity that promises to lift a poor family in Africa out of abject misery at the cost of a $200 contribution from you."

Greene's results: Empathy works to get people to help their neighbor (aka guy I physically pass on the side of the road bleeding to death) but significantly weakens with social distance (aka the fact that I don't see dying African children face-to-face and only have a letter in my hands).

And because of this experiment (I sure hope there are others to strengthen this), modern science is said to have confirmed the assumptions from a text published in 1759, by an economist no less. The end.

Like I said, good food-for-thought.

1 comment:

  1. here's one that a friend presented to me recently (not original content - adlibbed from my friend who adlibbed it from a social psychologist or something)

    scenario 1: you're standing at a railroad junction and notice a train is bearing down upon 4 unsuspecting men (the women are home cooking and cleaning). the only possible course of action to save the men is to throw a switch that diverts the train onto a different track which will result in the train killing the one and only unsuspecting plebian on the track. in this case, is it moral to actively kill one man to save four?

    (make up your mind before proceeding)

    scenario 2: you're the resident dictator of surgery at a hospital (yes i KNOW there aren't real "dictators of surgery," bear with me). there are four dying babies in the hospital, each needing a different organ. the option exists, with a 100% assured rate of success, (come on, you don't get to be dictator of surgery if you aren't good) for you to pluck a healthy baby from its mother, and use its organs to save the other four babies, thereby killing the donor baby. would that be a moral act? what makes the situations different?


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