Minds, Magnets and Morals

by Jon Mandle on March 30, 2010

MIT researchers have shown that people’s moral judgments change when the functioning of a certain part of the brain is suppressed using magnetic stimulation. Here’s the abstract:

When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor’s mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor’s mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.

So basically, they have identified a part of the brain that is important in attributing mental states to others. And the moral judgments of normal adults depend on attributing mental states – intentions, specifically – to others. When they suppress the functioning of this part of the brain, moral judgments alter.

“We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” [Liane] Young says. But, she says, a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.
[The resulting judgments are] the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says.

Interesting. The researchers themselves seem to be fairly careful in stating their results, but Joshua Greene – psychology professor at Harvard, Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton – swings for the fences (although note that this is mostly a reporter’s paraphrase):

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.
[According to Greene,] The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

But of course the scientists are not adjusting morality with a magnet, they’re affecting people’s moral judgments. I don’t think anyone ever doubted that manipulating the brain in various ways can lead people to alter their judgments – moral and otherwise. This is obvious to anyone who has observed the results of alcohol, for example, or – much more indirectly – framing effects.

The experiment really doesn’t have much to say one way or the other about souls, meta-ethics, or the justification of any ground-level moral judgments. (Actually, it might suggest that you shouldn’t rely on your interpersonal judgments when the neural activity in your right temporoparietal junction is being disrupted by transcranial magnetic stimulation, or perhaps just when you’ve volunteered as a subject in an MIT lab.) Rather, it highlights the importance of attribution of intention in the moral judgment of normal adults, shows how localized in the brain this function is, and demonstrates how easily it can be suppressed in isolation from other functions. A plausible next step:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a brain expert at University College London, said the findings were insightful.
“The study suggests that this region – the RTPJ – is necessary for moral reasoning.
“What is interesting is that this is a region that is very late developing – into adolescence and beyond right into the 20s.
“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

I did a “bloggingheads with Dan Drezner”:http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/27062 last Friday discussing, among other things, the organizational problems of the Catholic church, which seem to me to be (a) enormous, and (b) reasonably well understood in terms of Albert Hirschman’s “famous book”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674276604?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0674276604). If the Catholic church were a normal organization that was even moderately responsive to external feedback, one would have expected that the Pope would have resigned by now. As Duncan Black “notes”:http://www.eschatonblog.com/2010/03/petty-gossip.html, the issues are quite straightforward, and have nothing to do with questions of theology. At the least he’s presided over an organization that has systematically covered up for child abusers, and it seems quite plausible that he’s been actively involved in said cover-up. The problem is that there is no very good way to force him to resign, or indeed to exert significant internal pressure on the Catholic church (which is constituted so as to be highly resistant to bottom-up pressures). In Hirschman’s terms, the Catholic church has never been particularly keen on voice (it is notable that the organization tried ruthlessly to stamp out the first stirrings of protest among lay-Catholics in the US against child abusers. Nor does it seem likely to be stirred to radical reform by the threat of exit. Clearly, the church is worried that Catholics will drop away – equally clearly, it wants to respond in ways that reinforce the current hierarchy rather than modifying it (e.g. by sending an Apostolic Visitation – a class of a senior inquisitorial team – to inspect the Irish Catholic church). Hence, it is forced to rely on a kind of loyalty which rests on specifically pre-modern ideas of authority. But loyalty is likely only to go so far, even when it’s larded with “substantial dollops of conspiracy theorizing”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/641ab494-3905-11df-8970-00144feabdc0.html.

bq. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, an aide to the Pope, set the tone, telling reporters on Thursday: “This is a pretext for attacking the church. . . There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.” This theme was pursued by Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, in an editorial accusing the media of neglecting facts with the “evident and despicable intent to get to and strike Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators, regardless of everything”. People close to the Vatican have been speaking in ominous tones of a conspiracy by masonic lodges and big business to undermine the church.

The church is faced with a very tricky set of organizational trade-offs. It seems to be opting for a bare minimum of external accountability (acknowledging that there is a problem, and apologizing for it, while refusing to undertake substantial reforms or to admit that the rot has spread to the top), combined with an appeal to the loyalty of the faithful. This plausibly shores up the position of those at the top – but at the risk of provoking mass exit (at least among churchgoers in industrialized democracies – I don’t know enough about the church in the developing world to speculate). Senior figures in the church have been muttering for years that, if it comes down to it, they would prefer a smaller and more orthodox church to one which had more members but had to accommodate greater heterodoxy. I suspect they are about to get their wish, although I imagine that they would prefer that it occurred under somewhat different circumstances.