top of page
  • Parth Pruthi

A Puppet or a Free Actor: On Origins of Morality

Would you be able to strangle this child to death? What if you are told that this child is Adolf Hitler? Moral evil of murder vs Moral good of saving 6 million lives. Will the moral considerations change if a more painful/painless method is an option?

When is an act of taking life justified? In self defence? In defence of family members? In defence of fellow countrymen in a war?

The questions are endless and the answers are messy, the point of this inquiry though is to explore how these moral considerations originate.

Nature, Nurture and Moral Development

There is a lot of variance in what one society considers as 'good'. Morality is subject to a lot of factors including religion, culture, politics, etc. Some religions might teach that killing any life is evil while others might include animal sacrifice in their rituals. Clearly, a person's morality depends on things learned after birth. How much of it is innate though?

Yale researchers Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn in a study in 2010 showed babies as young as three months old have some grasp of fairness. They found that while watching a live show of different shaped wooden blocks on a hill where the shapes corresponded to different characters that would either help or hinder each other, babies preferred looking at helpful characters for longer durations.

The results were consistent for different shapes and colours, so it was not that infants preferred some shapes or colours over others. This indicates that some preference for altruistic social behaviour is present even as early as 3 months after birth, when the scope for learning is not much.

Conventionally, morality is thought to be something that can be reasoned. Law tries to hold agents who can reason more accountable than those who can't. Our formative years have a strong emphasis on our moral education and rightly so. These observations also happen to be those that align with standard models of moral development in psychology. The current dominant model for this was given by a psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.

Kohlberg's theory formulates that moral development takes place in 6 stages, each successive stage more adequate to deal with moral dilemmas. These stages are the result of cognitive development, showing that as we age to become better reasoners, we also become better moral reasoners. Not surprising.

The assumption of rationality is implicit here and runs supreme in many other popular models of moral development as well. If given the "right" reasons, people will make the "right" decisions. However, evidence and developments in the field of moral psychology suggest that the rationality assumption doesn't hold as strongly as previously thought.

Much of the evidence indicates that our introspection is unreliable. Kohlberg and his contemporaries in the field conducted experiments that would typically involve describing situations and moral dilemmas to people and would record their responses and reasonings in questionnaires. However, the evidence later emerged that we are champions of backward reasoning.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Moral psychologists, not completely satisfied with previous models, showed in their experiments how moral judgements preceded reasoning, contrary to earlier claims that people would think carefully and make moral decisions. Proponents of this view argue that the reasons that people give for their judgments in response to moral dilemmas are not the reasons they use to make moral judgments, rather they make moral judgements according to their innate intuitions, and then come up with reasons in an effort to minimise cognitive dissonance so that those reasons are coherent with previously held beliefs or what is expected of them.

Jonathan Haidt, one of the popular psychologists who back this view illustrated this in one of his studies. Subjects involved in his experiments were described situations of incest where the chance of pregnancy was zero. Subjects were repulsed and said that the situation was wrong. Interestingly, when they were asked why they found the situation so repulsive and wrong, they were dumbfounded. They would initially say that incest causes birth defects or it will cause pain and awkwardness to friends or family, but the zero pregnancy condition took care of that. When pressed further, the responses could be summed up as "it just feels wrong". Haidt argues, “The emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is right and what is wrong… The rational brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides reason, but those reasons all come after the fact.”

Insular cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in processing disgust. Show people under fMRI machines, images of rotten food or dead carcasses, insular cortex lights up and there is increased metabolic and electrical activity in this region. When subjects are described instances of incest, this region again shows increased activity. This explains why subjects were repulsed, but could not tell rationally, why so. Many animal species have evolved mechanisms to prevent incest, our's happen to be one that makes us feel disgusted by it.

Now, it is more or less accepted that morality is a function of both intuition and deliberate reasoning, the debate in the field is of how much weights do we need to assign to them. The debate certainly is not a new one, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, the famous enlightenment philosophers argued along similar lines. Hume stated radically, "We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them", Kant in an effort to refute him came up with his rationalist ethical theory, trying to rationally deduce foundations of ethics.

The age of enlightenment, known for highly influential debates in philosophy and science can also be credited to have carefully dissected an important presupposition of any moral discussion and common understanding of moral behaviour - ‘free will’. What happens when this assumption is taken away?

Ontological attack on Free Will

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a U.S. marines veteran, opened fire in the university of Texas, killing 14 people. He was taken down by police after 96 minutes of open firing. Before this, he also murdered his wife and mother despite explicitly stating in a note, that he loved both woman deeply. Whitman maintained a daily diary, in his last notes, he requested an autopsy of his remains, for he couldn't understand what was wrong with him.

Autopsy of his brain later revealed a brain tumour pressing near his amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for flight and fight responses, fear and aggression. A reason thought to be behind his aggressive anti-social behaviour.

In a hypothetical world, where Whitman is caught alive and his brain tumour has been detected, he would be sent to an asylum or medical facility instead of prison. In many parts of the world, this is the standard procedure for criminals having some underlying condition known to have a causal connection to their crime or related triggers. Menstruation, brain tumour, eating junk food and taking anabolic steroids are many of the reasons that lawyers have successfully used to get less severe convictions for their clients.

How harshly should Whitman and many like him be punished when underlying causes of their behaviours are known and are not in their control? Do they have as much control on their behaviour as we have?

Morality presumes free will, freedom to act or not. Any discussion of morality is only applicable to those who have agency. Hence, animals, infants, robots(so far) etc. are not considered moral actors.

We understand that many like Whitman don't have much control on their behaviour, they should be held accountable not to make them feel guilty but because they are a threat to society. It is less about morality and more about pragmatic choices. The scope of discussion gets constrained by their condition.

Physical and biological determinism claim that people who don't have any such condition are equally not responsible for their actions, that free will doesn't exist and try to eliminate it from our ontology, the set of things we believe exist.

As far as agency is confirmed, determinists argue that no one is ever responsible for their actions.

Consider a thought experiment, where a man is holding someone at gunpoint, with fingers on the trigger. If we could know all the laws of physics, current position and momentum of all particles in nature, we could in theory predict whether he would pull the trigger or not. Determinism argues that every event is causally linked with an event in the previous instance which is determined by previous instance and so on till the beginning of time. The causal link can in theory be established at a molecular level as well but that's not necessary, the causation in terms of events is sufficient to show that there is no freedom whatsoever at any point in the timeline.

Biological determinism claims that we don't even have to know all the laws of nature, what we know of the brain and neurobiology is enough to show the incompatibility of free will. The rationale is that every behaviour is determined by electrical impulses in our nervous system, these impulses are transmitted with the help of neurotransmitters, the neurotransmitters are mediated and determined by hormonal activity, which is further determined by immediate environment, upbringing, prenatal environment, and genes. Genes are then influenced by evolutionary pressures over a million years and so on.

Reversing the time clock, if we alter any point in the timeline, we can change whether the man will pull the trigger or not. If he pulls the trigger, we all will be inclined to think that he could have done otherwise, but determinism shows he couldn't have.

If no one is ever responsible for their behaviour, what happens to constructs of guilt, reward and punishment?

This ontological attack on free will transforms discussions on morality, it only gets more complex. This discussion is not just philosophical, if determinism is true, there are serious ramifications for the legal systems and our understanding of punishment and retribution. How should law punish a person who doesn't have any ailment, is healthy by all standards, but commits a crime because their genes and early environment makes them predisposed to certain behaviours?

So who should be blamed? Do we need to redefine the concepts of blame and responsibility? How would societies function then? I would let the readers ponder on these questions, for I myself don't have any answers.

By Parth Pruthi

bottom of page