Saturday, July 28, 2007

Morality and Torture - Thanks to Mo, @ Neurophilosophy for the link. . .

As I seem to be getting quite a few hits, from Neurophilosophy, I expect that it would behoove me to write a post on torture. I have been rather considering doing so anyways, in the context of the discussion about morality that seems to be floating about the blogosphere for more than a week now. I am going to go beyond the parameters of morality, but I am curious about your thoughts;

Is objection to torture, a universal moral axiom? Is there such a thing as universal moral axioms?

I tend to think that there isn't, but my views on the nature of morality seem to be rather minority. Personally, I have an extreme objection to violence of any sort. The few times in my life that situations have forced me to use it, I have literally gotten sick to my stomach, as a response to inflicting pain on other people. Mind, each of the three times I have used violence, it was inflicting pain on others to stop them from inflicting it on someone else. I just seem to have a pathological response to using violence. I know a lot of people who have a similar response. So it seems to me that while I don't think that morality is ever universal, it is likely that there can be a deep seated cognitive response, that makes it extremely hard for some to commit any acts of violence.

This makes me curious about whether most people have this response as a baseline, requiring fairly serious conditioning to defeat it - such as training soldiers, or if response itself conditioned into us. Or is it possible that people who do not have this response are suffering some cognitive malfunction? I am going to do some reading and ask some questions, to try to find a reasonable answer to some or all of these questions. If you have an idea or suggested reading, please feel free to drop them in comments or send me an email. Any and all help would be appreciated.

By and by, I have a lot of ideas for posts in the works. Many will go up, soem may fall to the wayside. I apologize, but that is the way it goes with ADHD, especially when it's coupled with bipolar disorder (however mild it's expression) and parenting.


Beth said...

I would think if we look at children we find the answer because even at a young age you can see tendencies. Some are prone to violence I am afraid without any compassion for the pain they inflict. Others wouldn't hurt a fly. I don't know if a child with a tendency towards violence or towards passiveness can be trained to be the opposite.

Mark said...

I recently listened to this radio lab episode on Morality:

It mentioned studies done in which people were presented with the moral dilemma of choosing between allowing 5 people to die vs. allowing 1 to die. It seems that, for most people, the choice is not a difficult one when they act indirectly (the example used was pulling a lever to redirect an approaching train). However, when the 5 people could only be spared by *pushing* someone else onto the tracks, most people balked.

The conclusion (supported by other studies) was that some responses are driven by emotion (do not kill!) and others by logic (5 vs. 1), and so yes, we do have certain baseline responses. But exactly how those baselines responses interact with learned ones. Well, that's not so clear...

So the universal moral axioms could be those inherent, evolutionary ones. But they can be overridden by others, hence abhorrence towards killing another person is not a universal axiom even though most people feel that way...

Beth: I suspect inherent tendencies (or temperament) *can* be overruled through training. As an example children there have been studies done on children from Romanian orphanages. Once fearful and unpredictable, many became wonderful little people when given appropriate care.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Hi Mark, thanks for stopping.

I think that (at least for me) this really boils down to semantics. I have no real problem with the notion that evolution/genetics affect many aspects of our personalities. Indeed, having been adopted by my dad when I was two, before he married my mom, I never met my biological father until I was eighteen. Keeping it short, I was amazed by the similarities in our personalities, down to the similarities in our style of writing music. There were many more similarities to be found when I finally met some of my paternal half sibs.

The thing is, that I see morality as something more than mere external pressure. To me, morality is something that is certainly shaped by external forces, but is an inherently internal process. It is far too easy to break past external pressures, even pressures that are inherent to our genetics. Morality is what we deeply believe to be wrong and right. It is when we depend on external forces to formulate that, that it is all to easy to ignore or bypass it.

This is not to say that circumstances can't break through even our internally processed beliefs, but to do so breaks us in a way that breaking moral rules that are shaped externally would not. Sorry, I am not being as clear as I would like. I am realizing more and more that this discussion is very appropriate to the discussion of human rights. I am going to attempt to get some more posts up on the topic. Hopefully I will be able to include some cross-posts, from other bloggers that have pretty decent takes on the notion of evolutionary pressures as moral axioms.

I should note though, that even if one accepts that these pressures are a legitimate definition for morality, they are still not universal. I tend to believe that rather than making the assumption that those who are different are inherently mentally defective, is very presumptuous on our parts. This is definitely an interesting topic that I look forward to exploring.