Friday, July 15, 2011

A Clockwork Orange

Age of science fiction quickly, but it has an afterlife in length. Over the past decade, has an army of psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists have been busy trying to discover the neural "clock" that underlie human morality. They began to trace the evolutionary origins of pro-social emotions like empathy, and began to find genes that predispose certain individuals to the senseless violence and other acts of altruism, and pathways of the brain that shape our ethical decisions. And to understand how something works is also starting to see opportunities for change and even control it.

In fact, scientists are not only to identify some of the brain pathways that form the ethical decisions, but also chemicals that alter neural activity in this. A recent study has shown that the antidepressant citalopram answers can change individuals' to hypothetical scenarios of moral dilemma. People who have medication were less willing to sacrifice the individual to save many others. Another series of studies have shown that when the hormone oxytocin nasal spray is administered, is a more confident and cooperative behavior in social groups, but also reduces the collaboration of those who are perceived as foreigners. Neuroscientists are also magnetically "zapping" carefully targeted areas of the brains of people with their moral judgments in a surprising way - for example, facilitating them to lie.

Of course, nobody is developing a "moral pill" that makes us holy. But research is advancing rapidly, and almost certainly suggest new ways to reform our moral intuitions, feelings and motivations.

If we use more and more scientific understanding of human morality is based on trying to make people morally better?

A Clockwork Orange has been accused of glorifying violence, and some of its scenes are always difficult to see. But, as Burgess himself said that history has an almost Christian message: What makes us human is our freedom to choose both good and evil, and society to crush the people in slavish conformity is evil as, and perhaps even worse than the sadistic psychopaths like Alex.

I suspect that many agree with this. I agree that our ability to distinguish good from evil is something precious, that we must protect, broken clock, researchers should be repaired.

Of course, most of us must not be subordinated to feel repelled by rape or torture. But this does not mean that we are morally good or sufficient. As you read this, ordinary people around the world do unspeakable things to others. Even the most advanced and wealthy society, a huge effort is required to maintain even minimal decency: think about the locks, security alarms, police, courts and prisons. And it is unlikely that we really care enough or give enough to others less fortunate.

Humans are born with the ability to be moral, but a limited capacity that is ill-equipped to deal with the ethical complexities of the modern world. For thousands of years, humans have relied on education, persuasion, social institutions, and the threat of real (or supernatural) The punishment for people behave decently. We can all be morally better, but it is clear that this traditional approach can not take us further. It's not like people suddenly start behaving better and gave more precise statistics, or better arguments.

So it should not be too quick to distinguish the hypothesis that science could help - in the first place, helping to design institutions more effective, more stimulating moral education, ethical or a convincing argument. But science can also provide more direct ways of influencing our brain.

Science fiction rather than limiting sometimes expands our sense of what is possible. That would fail, or worse, trying to promote morality by brute coercion. Governments should have the power to control the moral code of their citizens - they know that if I had such power, they abuse it.

It would be ideal if people could freely explore ways to improve, either through the practice of careful reading of moral philosophy, or, yes, take a "morality" of pills. It is also true that while some people are willing to take the pills make them feel better or think faster, not so obvious that people really want to take pills that make it morally better. It is not clear that people really want to be morally better. And those who, like the psychopathic Alex, most need help are probably those who want less.

These are, of course, hypothetical questions. We do not yet know what is possible. But it is better to start a discussion of ethics too early than too late. And even though the "moral pills" are only fiction, but they raise profound questions. We will take them, if they ever become available? And what they say about us if we do not?


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