Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trolleyology and Rawlsian Moral Grammar

                                                               Trolley Problem 1: Spur

                                                          Trolley Problem 2:  Footbridge

You are walking along the tracks of a trolley in San Francisco.  You notice that there is a runaway trolley that will kill five people who have become somehow bound to the tracks.  You also notice that there is a switch that will turn the trolley onto a side track, a spur, and thus save the lives of the five people.  Unfortunately, however, there is one person bound to the side track, and so if you throw the switch, he will be killed.  Should you throw the switch?

On another day, you are walking on a footbridge over the tracks.  You see another runaway trolley speeding toward five people bound to the track.  This time, there is no possibility of switching the trolley to a side track.  You could jump onto the track to try to stop it, but you are such a small person that you probably could not stop the trolley.  You notice that there's a big fat man on the bridge who is big enough to stop the train if you push him onto the track.  Should you push the fat man?

These stories might seem too cartoonish to be taken seriously as moral dilemmas.  But in recent decades, ever since they were first proposed by philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, they have become some of the most debated thought experiments among moral philosophers.  They have also been introduced into scientific experimentation conducted by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists to test whether our moral intuitions about the trolley problem manifest an innate and universal moral sense shaped by human evolution and written into the neural circuitry of the brain.  This shows how a fundamental question in moral and political philosophy can be translated into experimentally testable propositions.  This trolleyology (as it has been called) has become a crucial part of the recent movement towards "experimental philosophy."

An engaging survey of this research has recently been published--Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds (Princeton University Press, 2014).  The book elaborates an article by Edmonds that is available online.  A book by John Mikhail--Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment (Cambridge University Press, 2011)--shows how this research might confirm Rawls's account of moral knowledge as an innate moral sense analogous to what Noam Chomsky in linguistics has identified as the Universal Grammar that is innate in the minds of all normal human beings and allows them to learn any language.  This research has provoked a lot of criticism.  One of the most interesting lines of criticism comes from the Kantian utilitarian Peter Singer--in "Ethics and Intuitions," The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005): 331-52, which is available online.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people all around the world who have participated in formal trolley problem surveys, most people (up to 90% in some studies) would divert the trolley in the Spur case, but they would not push the fat man in the Footbridge case.  What is most striking about this is that most people react differently to the two cases although pulling the switch and pushing the fat man have identical consequences--one person dies to save five.

Joshua Greene and his colleagues have used brain scanning (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of people as they think about trolley problems.  He found that there was a kind of neural wrestling between the calculating and emotional parts of the brain.  Responding to the Spur problem, most people decide to pull the switch, and the more calculating areas of the brain are active (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe), suggesting that they are calculating costs and benefits.  But in response to the Footbridge problem, most people decide that they cannot push the fat man, and the more emotional areas of the brain are active (amygdala, posterior cingulate cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex), suggesting that the idea of pushing the fat man is triggering emotional alarms.  For centuries, moral philosophers have argued about the relationship between moral reason and moral emotion in moral judgments.  Now, it seems, we can see that complex interaction between reason and emotion in the human brain.

For a Kantian utilitarian like Singer, the relevant moral principle in the trolley problem--that five deaths are worse than one death--is the same in both cases, and therefore Singer would pull the switch and push the fat man.  For Singer, the 10% of the people who would push the fat man are rightly following pure moral reason, while the other 90% are allowing their emotions to override their reason, because from the viewpoint of pure reason, there is no morally relevant difference between the two cases. 

Singer concedes that the reluctance to push the fat man probably shows a naturally evolved emotional predisposition against intentionally and directly killing an innocent person, even when such killing will save more lives.  But for Singer that only shows that moral reason should overcome the irrationality of our evolved psychology.  The fact that most people would not push the fat man is irrelevant to the normative question of what they ought to do.  Unlike the empirical sciences (such as the evolutionary science and neuroscience of human nature), normative moral and political philosophy belongs to a realm of pure reason that transcends the natural world of observable experience.  For these reasons, Singer rejects Rawls's claim that moral theory must be rooted in a moral psychology of moral intuitions.

In Section 9 ("Some Remarks About Moral Theory")  of A Theory of Justice, Rawls compared moral theory to Chomsky's linguistic theory that acquiring language depends on a Universal Grammar innate in all human beings.  Just as there might be an innate "sense of grammaticalness" that makes language possible, Rawls suggested, there might be an innate "sense of justice" that makes the practice and theory of justice possible (46-47).  And just as scientific linguists like Chomsky judge the truth of their linguistic theories by how well they explain the data of our linguistic practices, likewise moral philosophers can judge the truth of their moral theories by how well they explain the data of our moral judgments.  We must strive for "reflective equilibrium," Rawls argues, in which our general principles and our individual judgments about particular cases are in harmony.  We might have to revise our principles or revise our judgments until we reach some coherence between them, just as scientists revise their theories or reconsider their data until they reach sufficient harmony between theory and data.

Mikhail argues that Rawls was right to assert that moral theory can be rightly modeled on aspects of Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar, and that the experimental study of how people solve trolley problems can uncover the Universal Moral Grammar that is innate in the minds of all normal human beings.  Just as there are some general principles of grammar innate in the minds of all normal language users making linguistic judgments, there are some general principles of justice innate in the minds of all normal moral agents making moral judgments.

Rawls argues that this moral grammar supports "justice as fairness" as grounded on the two principles of justice, including the difference principle.  Mikhail, however, is completely silent about these Rawlsian principles; and in place of these principles, Mikhail substitutes the legal norms of homicide and battery as manifested in the trolley problems and in legal tradition.

The trolley problems involve both homicide (the killing of one person to save five people) and battery (the pushing of the fat man).  Mikhail claims that the general principle that accounts for how most people solve the trolley problems is the principle of double effect as stated by Thomas Aquinas.  While the killing of innocent people is generally prohibited, killing can be permissible if the deaths are foreseen but not directly intended and if there are good effects from this that outweigh the bad effects.  So, for example, if I kill in self-defense or in defense of the lives of others, and if the death of the victim is only a side-effect of my actions rather than a directly intended end, then the killing might be permissible.  Mikhail generalizes this principle to cover homicide and battery: "the principle holds that an otherwise prohibited action, such as battery or homicide, which has both good and bad effects may be permissible if the prohibited act itself is not directly intended, the good but not the bad effects are directly intended, the good effects outweigh the bad effects, and no morally preferable alternative is available" (149).  To apply this principle, we need to distinguish means, ends, and side-effects.

This allows Mikhail to explain the morally relevant distinction between the Spur case and the Footbridge case.  In the Spur case, the bystander creates a bad effect (the killing of the man on the spur) only as a side effect.  We know this, because we assume that if the man on the spur were able to free himself before he was hit by train, the bystander would prefer this.  The bystander directly intends to save the five people, but he does not directly intend to kill the man on the spur, although this is a foreseeable consequence.  The bystander must also assume that the bad effect of killing the man is outweighed by saving the five, and that there is no morally preferable alternative (such as throwing some object on the tracks to stop the trolley).

By contrast, Mikhail notes, if we suspected that the bystander was looking for a chance to murder the man on the spur, and so he used the runaway train as an excuse for switching the train towards his intended victim, then this might be considered intentional homicide.

The Footbridge case differs from the Spur case in one respect.  The bystander's pushing of the fat man is a directly intended battery and not just a foreseeable side effect, which most people judge to be forbidden.

But what should we say to Singer's objection to all this, which Mikhail calls "the objection from insufficient normativity" (188)?  The descriptive adequacy of Mikhail's account of how people respond to trolley problems says nothing, Singer complains, about the normative adequacy of our principles in deciding how people ought to respond to trolley problems.  Justifying moral principles is not the same as describing moral intuitions.  Normative moral theory is looking for universal and eternal principles of what is morally right or wrong that are true independently of what human individuals or human cultures believe to be right or wrong.  When Rawls appeals to the moral intuitions that are common among people who live in liberal democratic societies, Singer observes, he becomes a cultural relativist, so that liberal principles of justice are regarded as true only because they happen to be accepted in liberal cultures.  When Rawls suggests that there might be a universal moral sense that is expressed in liberal moral intuitions, and when Mikhail provides empirical evidence for this, this might escape the charge of cultural relativism; but this universal moral sense as imprinted in human psychology by human evolution is still only subjective, lacking in any objective truth, because it's a psychological projection of the evolved human mind rather than an objective truth about the universe.

Mikhail's response to Singer's objection is to admit that, yes, the moral grammar of human nature as a product of evolutionary history imprinted on the human brain is a projection of human psychology that has no mind-independent reality outside of the human mind.  If human beings did not exist as the kind of moral animals that they are, then their human morality would not exist.  Thus, there is no sharp distinction between the normative and the empirical, because normative morality is a projection of our empirical psychology.

The evolved rules of morality are more like the rules of baseball than the laws of physics:  the rules of baseball must be created by human beings, but the laws of physics exist independently of human beings.

What alternative is there?  Singer says that we need a cosmic morality--eternal and universal principles of right and wrong that are somehow woven into the frame of the universe and discoverable by human reason just as we discover principles of mathematics as somehow inherent in the structure of the cosmos.  But Singer never gives a clear explanation or proof of how this could be the case.  Notice that in his essay on "Ethics and Intuitions," he says that we need to prove the objective truth of morality as based on "pure reason" without intuition or emotion, but he indicates that no philosopher has ever successfully done this, and he will not do it himself.

In fact, as I have indicated in a previous post, Singer now admits that after many years of trying to prove that morality can be objectively true and rationally based, without any necessary foundation in evolved human psychology, he has failed, and so he doubts his previous arguments for a Kantian utilitarianism.  But, amazingly, after making this admission, he reaffirms "the existence of objective moral truths."  Although his Platonic longing for an eternal Idea of the Good has been frustrated, he still cannot give it up.

I say--better to be a satisfied Darwinian than a dissatisfied Platonist.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts here, here, and here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Experimental Testing of the Rawlsian Difference Principle

I have often argued on this blog that political philosophy is ultimately an empirical science that makes falsifiable claims about human nature and human history.  In arguing for Darwinian natural right, I am making falsifiable claims about Darwinian moral psychology that can be tested.

One can see this empirical falsifiability of political philosophy in John Rawls's Theory of Justice.  He makes a general claim that our capacity for justice requires a natural sense of justice or moral nature, which is comparable to what Noam Chomsky has identified in linguistics as the instinctive universal grammar that makes the acquisition of language possible (46-53).  He also makes a specific claim that under the conditions of the "original position" that are designed to ensure impartiality, human beings would unanimously choose certain principles of justice, including the "difference principle" that social and economic inequalities are justified only when they maximize the benefits for those who are worst off (60, 302). 

There is, I believe, some empirical evidence supporting Rawls's general claim for an evolved innate moral grammar or moral sense.  I will write about that in my next post.  His specific claim for the difference principle, however, has been empirically falsified.

Although it is impossible to replicate Rawls's original position completely, and thus it must remain a hypothetical thought experiment, it is possible to devise experimental conditions that approximate the original position.  Norman Frohlich, Joe Oppenheimer, and others have organized behavioral experiments in which people are put in conditions that approximate the procedures of the original condition.  Participants come together in small groups, and in choosing from a list of principles of justice for allocating resources in their group, they must reach unanimous agreement on their choice, without the participants knowing what their class position will be in that society.  They are then randomly assigned to high or low social positions, and they receive monetary payoffs based on the principle they have chosen.  Experiments of this sort have been conducted with university students in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Japan, and communist Poland.

Remarkably, the outcome is uniform across all of these cultures.  Rawls's difference principle is almost never chosen.  By far the most common choice (in over three-fourths of the cases) is a floor constraint without a ceiling--that is, there is a minimum income guaranteed for the worst off, but there is no limit on the income that can be earned by the richest.  The next most common choice (in about 12% of the cases) is the principle of maximum income (no floor, no ceiling).  The third most common choice (in about 8% of the cases) is the principle of a range constraint--there could be economic inequality, but the gap between the richest and the poorest would be limited.  The difference principle--that no person's income can go up unless it increases the income of the people at the bottom--was chosen in only 1% of the cases, and they were all in communist Poland.

When participants are asked to explain their choices, they indicate that are trying to balance three distinct ethical claims--need, just deserts, and efficiency.  They think it's fair that those who are least well-off should have their minimal needs secured.  But they also think that those who earn higher incomes deserve this reward.  And they think that higher incomes for those who succeed is economically efficient in providing incentives for productivity that benefits everyone.

The most commonly chosen principle--floor constraint without a ceiling--looks a lot like what Friedrich von Hayek proposes in Part Three of The Constitution of Liberty: a largely free market economy combined with a welfare state that provides a minimal standard of security for all.

This seems to weaken Thomas Piketty's appeal to the Rawlsian difference principle as justifying confiscatory tax rates on high incomes and wealth for the sake of reducing inequality.

Remarkably, towards the end of his life, Rawls conceded what Frohlich and Oppenheimer had revealed in their experiments--that in circumstances of impartiality approximating the Rawlsian original condition, reasonable people would not all choose the difference principle but would rather choose the principle of a floor constraint without a ceiling.  In 1995, in his introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, Rawls admitted that while he still thought that "justice as fairness"--with its two principles of justice, including the difference principle--was the most reasonable conception of liberalism, there were other reasonable conceptions of liberal justice, including, for example, "one that substitutes for the difference principle, a principle to improve social well-being subject to a constraint guaranteeing for everyone a sufficient level of adequate all-purpose means" (xlvii).


Frohlich, Norman, Joe A. Oppenheimer, and Cheryl Eavey, "Laboratory Results on Rawls's Distributive Justice," British Journal of Political Science 7 (1987): 1-21.

Frohlich, Norman, and Joe A. Oppenheimer, Choosing Justice: An Experimental Approach to Ethical Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Lissowski, Grzegorz, Tadeusz Tyszka, and Wlodzimierz Okrasa, "Principles of Distributive Justice Experiements in Poland and America," Journal of Conflict Resolution 35 (1991): 98-119.

Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, expanded edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Platonic Utopianism of Rawls's "Social Union of Social Unions"

A few weeks ago, I responded to the claim--in Jon Anstein Olsen's dissertation--that my criticism of the utopian Left is a straw-man argument, because the Left today no longer advances a utopian vision of human perfectibility that denies the constraints of human nature. 

I was reminded of that recently while rereading John Rawls, as part of my work on the revisions for the 4th edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.  Rawls's Theory of Justice is the most influential work of political philosophy in the 20th century; and it has been particularly influential as the major philosophical statement of left liberalism.  Rawls himself acknowledged this (in 1987) when he spoke about where his conception of "justice as fairness" might be placed on the political spectrum.  "In the United States this conception has been referred to as liberal, sometimes as left-liberal; in England it has been seen as social democratic, and in some ways as Labour. . . . But these descriptions are for others to make" (Collected Papers, 416).  Since Rawls identified his conception of justice as a "realistic utopia," his left-liberal political philosophy is a good expression of the utopian Left.

In his defense, the Rawlsians might stress that his utopia is a realistic utopia.  It is a utopia because it has never been achieved, and Rawls admited that it might not ever be achieved.  But still it is possible, if we believe, as Rawls did, that human beings have a moral nature that makes justice possible.

Rawls thought that all of "the great evils of human history--unjust war and oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder--follow from political injustice."  Consequently, if human beings were to follow the principles of political justice as taught by Rawls, "these evils will eventually disappear" (The Law of Peoples, 6-7). 

One can see here the moral passion that moved Rawls throughout his life.  That moral passion is first expressed in his undergraduate honors thesis at Princeton that he submitted in December of 1942, which was a theological study of the "origin of evil" as the egoistic denial of community--"A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community."  He claimed that only human beings and God can experience themselves as persons--rather than objects or things--and persons fulfill themselves in community with other persons.  Justice arises in the full community of persons, while evil arises as individuals or groups fight to dominate others and thus destroy community.  He had intended to attend Princeton's Divinity School and become an Episcopalian minister.  But his war experiences as a US soldier in the Pacific, in 1943-1945, forced him to change his mind.  He saw bloody fighting in the Philippines and elsewhere, and he served in Japan after the surrender, where he saw the devastation from the fire-bombing of Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  He was also deeply disturbed during movie nights for the soldiers when he saw newsreel films about the allied soldiers entering the death camps of the Holocaust in Europe.

Later in life, in "On My Religion" (1990), Rawls explained why he had given up most of his orthodox Christian beliefs by June of 1945:
"How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?  When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God's punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly.  But the Holocaust can't be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read of are hideous and evil.  To interpret history as expressing God's will, God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them.  For what else can the most basic justice be?"
Throughout his career, Rawls struggled over the question of evil and strived to show that human beings were capable of justice.  He had to assume that "human beings must have a moral nature," which makes it possible to achieve justice (Theory of Justice, 494-95, 580).  But he worried about this.  "If a reasonably just society that subordinates power to its aims is not possible and people are largely amoral, if not incurably cynical and self-centered, one might ask with Kant whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth?" (Political Liberalism, lx; The Law of Peoples, 128).

So to make human life on earth worth living, we must embrace the correct standard of a reasonably just society.  For Rawls, this required a realistically utopian conception of justice.  Although it's utopian, Rawls thought his liberal conception of justice was realistic insofar as it satisfied two conditions.  "The first is that it must rely on the actual laws of nature and achieve the kind of stability those laws allow, that is, stability for the right reasons.  It takes people as they are (by the laws of nature), and constitutional and civil laws as they might be."  The second condition is that "its first principles and precepts be workable and applicable to ongoing political and social arrangements" (The Law of Peoples, 12-13).

The problem, however, is that Rawls actually embraced two contradictory conceptions of liberal justice, and while one is realistic in conforming to the limits of human nature, the other is not.  Both of these conceptions can be found in Plato's Republic.

Rawls himself recognized this problem in Political Liberalism.  In most of A Theory of Justice, he had argued for a liberal theory of justice that left people free to disagree about their comprehensive conceptions of the good life, as long as these conceptions did not interfere with the equal liberty of others to live by their comprehensive conceptions of the good.  But in Part Three ("Ends") of the book, he had implied that liberal justice required a comprehensive liberal conception of the good to shape a single liberal way of life for all members of the society.  In Political Liberalism, he rejected this latter position as "comprehensive liberalism" in favor of a "political liberalism" that was consistent with the "fact of a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines" in a modern democratic society.  The comprehensive liberalism of Part Three of A Theory of Justice was unrealistically utopian in denying this fact of reasonable pluralism (Political Liberalism, xv-xx).  It was also illiberal, because any attempt to enforce a continuing shared understanding of one comprehensive doctrine in a society would require the oppressive use of state power (37).  And yet, oddly enough, even in Political Liberalism, Rawls fell into the same contradiction that he had identified in A Theory of Justice, because he could not give up his utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism in a society united as one cohesive community with one shared understanding of the good.

In Part Three of A Theory of Justice, Rawls has a section on "The Idea of Social Union."  Here he explains how "the congruence of the right and the good depends in large part upon whether a well-ordered society achieves the good of community" (520).  Achieving this good of community requires more than what Rawls calls "private society," which corresponds to what Plato (Republic 369-372) identifies as a society based on the division of labor in the "city of pigs," or what Hegel identified as "civil society" (521).  In such a society, there are many different types of social union--families, friendships, and larger associations.  But the full good of community requires "a social union of social unions" based on a "shared final end."  "When this end is achieved, all find satisfaction in the very same thing; and this fact together with the complementarity of the good of individuals affirms the tie of community" (526).  He stresses this point by repeating it: "when everyone acts justly, all find satisfaction in the very same thing" (527).

This restates the utopian claim of Plato's Socrates that in the perfectly just city, the city will be most like a single human being, with a "community of pleasure and pain," and most people will say "my own" and "not my own" about the same thing and in the same way (Republic, 462c-d).  In this communized conception of humanity, the individual has no identity outside of the social whole to which he belongs.  Because of such communal unity of interests and a single shared conception of the good, the truly just city will be free from all factional conflict (Republic, 464c-65b).  (Of course, the Straussians would tell us that this is all a joke!)

The flaw in such a conception is that it is contrary to the human nature of individual diversity and self-love.  As naturally social animals, we do indeed find our fulfillment in social groups--in families, friendships, and social associations of various kinds.  But there can never be an absolute social unity in which "all find satisfaction in the very same thing."

Plato recognizes this when he considers the alternatives to his best city and identifies democracy as the "fairest of the regimes," because it secures the freedom that makes it open to all kinds of regimes, all kinds of human life, including the philosophic life.  Because of this freedom, "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 557a-562c).  Some readers of Plato (like Will Altman, for example) have seen this as Plato's argument for liberal democracy.

Rawls seems to agree with this when he argues in Political Liberalism that political liberalism is superior to comprehensive liberalism, because political liberalism secures the freedom for the expression of all reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines about the good life.  This openness is limited, however, to the "reasonable" conceptions of the good--that is, those conceptions that are compatible with the equal liberty for the expression of all other conceptions.  Liberal tolerance cannot tolerate intolerant doctrines.  In a liberal regime, people are free to form associations to enforce common beliefs and practices among all the members.  But the membership must be voluntary, and so groups that teach that their doctrines can be enforced by violent coercion will be excluded from a liberal regime.  "No society can include within itself all forms of life" (Political Liberalism, 197).  We might say that while a politically liberal regime cannot be a completely open society, it can be a largely open society. 

Even in Political Liberalism, however, Rawls endorses the comprehensive liberalism of A Theory of Justice, because he still affirms the "social union of social unions" as based on "a far more comprehensive good than the determinate good of individuals when left to their own devices or limited to smaller associations" (320-23).  This "more comprehensive good" seems to point to the unrealistically utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism.  And thus Rawls never frees himself from the contradiction of embracing both political liberalism and comprehensive liberalism, because he cannot fully give up his utopian longing for a perfectly cohesive community free from any natural conflicts of interest.

While Rawls's political liberalism is often criticized as radically relativistic, one could see it as recognizing human nature in both its unity and diversity.  There is a natural standard insofar as there is range of natural desires that constitute the universal human good, but the deliberate ranking of those desires over a whole life must vary to conform to the natural diversity of individuals.  An Aristotelian liberalism would recognize those natural desires as setting the generic human good, while also recognizing the need for freedom in expressing the variation in individual nature.

Some related posts can be found here, here., here, and here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hume, Smith, and the Myth of Mirror Neurons

For both David Hume and Adam Smith, sympathy or "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" is the psychological ground of our moral experience.  From his reading of Hume and Smith, Charles Darwin adopted this idea of sympathy in explaining the evolution of human morality.

Hume and Smith explained sympathy as a process of "mirroring."  "In general we may remark," Hume observed, "that the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each others emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay by insensible degrees."

In 1996, some Italian neuroscientists reported a remarkable discovery in their study of neural activity in the brains of macaque monkeys.  They found neurons that would fire when the monkeys executed an action (like picking up a raisin with their hands) or when observing the same action executed by someone else (as when the human experimenters picked up a raisin with their hands).  They called these "mirror neurons," and they identified them as the neural mechanism by which both monkeys and human beings understand the actions of others by simulating those actions within their own minds.

Since 2006, I have written a series of posts--here, here, here, and  here--suggesting that this theory of mirror neurons provides a neuroscientific confirmation for this Humean, Smithian, and Darwinian account of sympathy as the natural ground of morality and social life generally.  Other commentators have made the same suggestion.  For example, Russell Hardin has done this in his account of "mirroring" in Hume's moral psychology in David Hume: Moral & Political Theorist (Oxford University Press, 2007) (pp. 41-45).

In recent years, however, I have become increasingly suspicious of the mirror neuron theory as the claims of its scientific proponents have become ever more exaggerated and as these exaggerated claims have entered into popular culture.  This has become the new theory of everything about the mind, because it has been invoked to explain everything from empathy and language to stuttering and business leadership.

So I was pleased to see Gregory Hickok's new book--The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition (Norton, 2014)--which surveys the theoretical and empirical weaknesses of the mirror neuron theory.  Hickok is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.  (Hickok has a blog where he comments on some of his research.) 

As he has indicated in a short essay in The New York Times, the myth of mirror neurons follows the pattern of other myths about the brain.  First, there's an interesting discovery.  Then, this discovery is expanded into a grand theory of the human mind.  Finally, this extravagant theory enters pop culture so that people casually appeal to it to explain more and more of human psychology without any awareness of how dubious the theory has become.  In addition to the myth of mirror neurons, Hickok identifies three other such myths about the brain:  the belief that we only use 10 percent of our brain (see the movie "Lucy"), the belief in the left brain/right brain dichotomy, and the belief that mapping the circuitry of the brain will give us a complete understanding of the mind.

Hickok does not doubt that mirror neurons exist in the brains of monkeys and human beings.  But he does doubt that mirror neurons alone can explain how an animal understands the meaning of the actions of other animals.  The great appeal of the mirror neuron theory is that it's so simple in explaining the complexity of the mind.  But that's just the problem--it's too simple.  The system of mirror neurons does whatever it does only in complex interactions with other neural systems throughout the brain.

Hickok points out many problems with the mirror neuron theory.  First of all, we can understand many actions that we ourselves cannot perform.  Smith observed that men can sympathize with women's labor during childbirth despite the fact that men have no direct experience of that themselves.  Moreover, Hickok points out that people suffering disorders of the motor system that make it impossible for them to move can still understand action.  People with damage to motor speech centers cannot speak, but they can still understand the speech of others.  Individuals with cerebral palsy who cannot speak or control their bodies can still understand human social life.  Most dramatically, Christopher Nolan became a successful novelist--showing an acute understanding of human life--although he had been quadriplegic from birth.

Apparently, people like Nolan can gain a conceptual ability for understanding actions that they themselves cannot execute.  This indicates that understanding action must depend on conceptual reasoning that goes beyond physical enactment of the action.  As Hume and Smith recognize, a sympathetic understanding of what others are experiencing requires a conceptual projection of oneself through imagination.

Information is certainly stored in the motor system of the brain, but this is motoric information and not meaningful (semantic) information.  This is indicated by the fact that people who suffer "semantic dementia"--who cannot name objects or understand certain words--have suffered damage to parts of the temporal lobes that do not involve the motor system.

Understanding actions is a complicated cognitive activity that arises from the interaction of many neural systems and not just the motor system.  We can reach this general conclusion even though no one understands yet how exactly this happens in the brain.

Hume, Smith, and Darwin were right to see that social understanding and moral judgment require that the brain mirror or simulate the experiences of others, but this cannot be reduced to a simple activity of the motor system, and the complexity of the neural processes by which the brain does this is not yet fully explained.

In his review of Hickok's book, Christian Keysers complains that Hickok is attacking a straw man ("The Straw Man in the Brain," Science 343 [16 January 2015]: 240).  Hickok rightly disputes the exaggerated claims about mirror neurons made in popular culture, Keysers observes, but these exaggerated claims are not made by the scientists engaged in studying mirror neurons.  Giacomo Rizzolatti and others in this field of research have conceded that mirror neurons are not sufficient for language or action understanding, because mirror neurons are only part of a complex circuitry that is not yet fully understood.

Friday, August 01, 2014

How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Two men keeping a "fire-bomb watch" at a Freedom School's community library in Holmes County, Mississippi, during the 1964 Freedom Summer.  (Photograph by Matt Herron)

A young man guarding a Black Panther billboard in Lowndes County, Alabama (a place so violent that it was known as "Bloody Lowndes").  This photograph was taken during the 1966 election for county offices.  The year before, only one black person was registered to vote in this majority-black county.  Now black registered voters outnumbered white registered voters and had formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party whose symbol was a black panther.

A video on the Deacons for Defense and Justice, formed in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the summer of 1964.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of a critical period in the history of the American civil rights movement.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provoked many white Southerners into angry resistance, which included renewed violence from the Ku Klux Klan and the white Citizen's Councils.  The major civil rights organizations formed a coalition to support "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi.  Organizers moved throughout Mississippi to register black voters, in a state with the lowest percentage of registered black voters.  Organizers also set up "Freedom Schools" to provide blacks some of the education that they were not receiving in their segregated schools--including reading, mathematics, science, and American history with an emphasis on black history.  The violence against the "Freedom Summer" organizers included the Klan killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, whose bodies were found on August 4th.

During this same summer of 1964, some black leaders in Jonesboro, Louisiana, formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was an organization of men trained to provide armed protection for civil rights workers in the South.  As was true for much of the civil rights movement in the South, the leaders were black military veterans who had served in World War II and the Korean War.  Chapters of the Deacons for Defense spread throughout the South over the next few years.

This armed self-defense might seem to be oddly contradictory to the widely professed nonviolence of the civil rights movement.  The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) all had formally adopted the policy of nonviolence.  Although it had no formal policy on it, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was understood also as committed to nonviolence.  And, of course, Martin Luther King used his prominent position in the movement to preach Christian nonviolence.

Within the movement, however, there was debate over King's message of nonviolence.  In 1964, Hartman Turnbow, a black Mississippi farmer and community leader, warned King:  "This nonviolent stuff ain't no good.  It'll get ya killed."  Hartman was known for driving away Klan night riders attacking his home by returning their gunfire, until the Klan retreated.  The morning after one exchange of gunfire, Turnbow told some civil rights organizers, "I wasn't being non-nonviolent.  I was just protecting my family."

Actually, King himself was known to have been well-armed for self-defense.  After an attack on his home in 1956, his friends noticed that guns were scattered all around his house.  Even when he was not carrying a gun himself, he was surrounded by people who were armed.  In 1966, when he and Stokely Carmichael led a march through Mississippi, they disagreed about the policy of nonviolence; but King allowed the Deacons for Defense to provide armed protection for the marchers.

The importance of armed self-defense for the civil rights movement has been largely ignored, because it contradicts the popular image of civil rights workers as Christ-like martyrs ready to be killed without defending themselves.  Charles Cobb Jr. has set the record straight in his new book--This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014).  Cobb is a journalist, and he was a field secretary for SNCC in Mississippi, so some of his writing is based on his experience.

As the title of his book indicates, Cobb's claim is that despite the commitment to nonviolent resistance as a tactic for the civil rights movement, the movement would have failed if participants had not been able to defend themselves with arms.  Another way of putting this is that when American blacks demanded their "civil rights," one of the most important right was the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  Cobb quotes one civil rights leader--John R. "Hunter Bear" Salter--as saying in 1994: "I'm alive today because of the Second Amendment and the natural right to keep and bear arms." 

Moreover, as this remark suggests, this right was understood as not just a constitutional right but also a natural or human right rooted in the natural human desire to protect one's life, one's family, and one's property from violent attack.  This is not necessarily contradictory to nonviolence if one understands that this is a right to exercise defensive violence rather than offensive violence as a deterrent to aggressive violence.  Richard Haley, CORE's southern regional director, defended the arrangement by which the Deacons for Defense provided armed escorts for CORE organizers as a way of supporting the policy of nonviolence.  "Protected nonviolence," he observed, "is apt to be more popular with the participants than unprotected."

One can also see here the natural ground of all human rights in what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature" as rooted in the naturally evolved animal inclination to ward off attacks and the resentment against unjust aggression.

Here is one of many good stories in Cobb's book illustrating the need for "protected nonviolence":
"[Margaret Block] stayed with eighty-six-year-old Janie Brewer, the matriarch of a large black family who lived with some of her children and grandchildren on the family farm. . . . 'Mrs. Brewer asked me what did SNCC mean,' Block would later recall, 'and I told her the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  And she stopped me.  [She said] 'You said nonviolent.  If somebody come at you, you ain't gonna do nothing.' . . . She pulled up a big ole rifle. . . . She kept a big rifle behind the chair. . . . [Mrs. Brewer said,] 'Shit, we ain't nonviolent.'  Ideas like this shaped Block's own feelings about nonviolence.  'Since I was living with [the Brewers],' she later explained, 'I had to be what the family was.'"
". . . One night in August 1964, after four of Mrs. Brewer's sons and another local resident tried to register to vote at the county courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, whites in cars began circling the family's farmhouse.  This was not the first time such harassment had occurred; when SNCC staff took local people to attempt to register to vote, whites often followed the groups back home.  On this night, Janie Brewer had already been warned by her local sources of a possible attack, and she instructed her children, grandchildren, and SNCC guests to arm themselves and hide in the cotton fields.  Meanwhile she and Margaret Block began making Molotov cocktails in the kitchen, 'spilling gas everywhere,' Block remembered.  'And I'm like 'Damn if we get burned up in here, everyone was going to swear the Klan did it, and it's going to be Mrs. Brewer blowing us up.'  As the sheriff and a truckload of Klansmen approached the farmhouse, Brewer family members and some of the SNCC workers were still in the fields with rifles and shotguns.  Before the raiders reached the house, someone shone a floodlight on them.  Others fired into the air.  Brewer stood on the front porch ready to hurl a Molotov cocktail.  Everyone, including the sheriff, fled.  Night riders never returned to the Brewer farm."
Of course, armed self-defense cannot prevent people from being killed by hidden assassins.  King was assassinated in 1968 by a shooter hiding in a room across a street from King's motel.  Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 by a hidden killer who shot him as he stepped out of his car in the driveway of his home, and so he had no chance to get to the guns that he kept in his car and in his home.

                                                  Charlie Cobb Speaks About His Book

Some other posts on these themes can be found  here, here, here, and here.