Determining and Developing Virtues
“Living is not a matter of executing an algorithm, or if it is, we are clueless as to what algorithm we are executing. A good life is a matter of living and being a certain way, or more likely, living and being in one of the multifarious ways that are worthy, which lead to flourishing and, if we are lucky, to happiness.” – Owen Flanagan
Josh Greene asks an important ethical question: are moral judgments perceptions of external truths, or projections of internal attitudes? David Hume said that we cannot derive and “aught” from an “is”. The world is, and we have experiences of this world, but we cannot derive our morals analytically from such observances. But Hume also instructs us that a wise man proportions his beliefs according to the facts, suggesting that there are dispositions – Humean virtues, if you will – that are good to posses, and specifically that these are informed by facts. Patricia Churchland argues along similar lines when she says that science will not tell us what is right or wrong, but that in the domain of moral affairs, empirical observations can guide the understanding of human nature (Brain Based Values). This, says Churchland, will allow us to deal with such moral issues, which arise along a moral continuum, from greater depth, and with more clarity (“…a deeper understanding of what it is that makes us humans…may lead us to a greater understanding of how to cope with social problems” – Brain Based Values). These philosophers help us understand that the study of neuroscience will not relieve us of the burden of deciding what is good and virtuous. However, like the four noble truths in Buddhist philosophy, science may give us truths to use as foundations for morality.
Many moral philosophers (including those mentioned in this essay: Hume, Aristotle and Buddhist ethicists) acknowledge that human nature will often conflict with the moral principles we hold. Therefore, in order to live morally (however that is defined for the individual), one needs to cultivate appropriate dispositions (virtues), and this practice allows one to live a moral life. For Aristotle and the Buddhists (that is, virtue theorists), virtues are constructed with the end goal in mind, which, for Aristotle and the Buddhists, is eudaimonia (wellbeing or flourishing). Since this is the highest good (summum bonum), it follows that the function of the person is to practice the virtues that achieve this end: whatever supports flourishing. In sum, for these philosophers, virtues are defined as the best way to achieve eudaimonia. Therefore, virtues depend on two further things: a correct understanding of what eudaimonia is (meta ethics), and discovering the best ways to achieve it (normative ethics). Since this theory involves working with human nature to possess the habitual actions that bring about eudaimonia, if neuroscience has anything to say about human nature, then it may inform virtue theory ethics. We require such knowledge in order to develop practical wisdom (phronesis). For example, if evidence from neuroscience supports a “no self” theory, then some of our human nature (say, selfishness) may conflict with the reality of existence, and wisdom about this will inform our practice of developing virtue (depending on its relation to the summum bonum). For this reason, thinking about the nature of personhood is an excellent foundation for determining what is virtuous (indeed, Farah & Heberlein).
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” – Albert Einstein
Farah and Heberlein argue that there is a genetically pre-programmed network in our brains for distinguishing humans from other objects in the world. This system, comprising primarily of the fusiform gyrus and the medial prefrontal cortex, becomes activated by any stimuli similar to prototypical human display (physical or behavioral). The system activates in such a way as to create mental representations that form a basis for the distinction between “persons” and other material objects. Given that it is a separate system that represents persons, Farah and Heberlein argue furthermore for the mental distinction between these types of representations, which implicates a natural tendency towards dualism. The reason why it implicates a dualistic view of reality is that the attempted references of the representations of persons are inherently nonmaterial (“…reflects the child’s assumption that the important part of a person is the nonmaterial part and the resultant difficulty of thinking of people as physical objects”).
Attributes of an object that activate the person network invoke the human observer to assign intentionality to that object (Farah & Heberlein). To what part of the object does such intentionality become assigned? It is assigned specifically to the nonmaterial mental representation of the identity of that object! This is part of an uninformed attempt to find the sine qua non of the person. However, since the reference of this representation does not exist in the external world, it is an illusion to be convinced that it does. However, although the “person” identity might not exist in reality, it may still be sensible to think in terms of persons. Certainly it was evolutionarily adaptive to be able to assign intentions to the acts of others (Personhood). Here the dualistic view of self and other seems to be an implication of this attempt to assign intentions to an immaterial sine qua non. What reason could there be for the supposition that the person identity, as represented by some pattern of activation in the person network of the brain, exists outside of the mind? There is at least one considerable answer. Without the understanding of the functioning of the brain, how else could we predict the behaviors of others without assigning intentionality to some nonmaterial aspect of them? If it is adaptive to assign intentionality to other humans, the already existing identity of the body (based on statistical similarity for continuity) seems a likely place to assign such intentionality. It would make sense then that the intention-assigning function of the brain developed after the identity-assigning function, with the former being a social function for interpreting human behavior, and the latter for identifying objects in general. Would we have had a better understanding of cognitive neuroscience, we would have had a better foundation for understanding and predicting the behavior of others. But we did not, and so we assigned traits to a nonexistent aspect of the human. Farah and Heberlein argue that since the ascription of a person to a human is not a “matter of fact” (not an empirical question), there is “no point to the philosophical or bioethical program of seeking objective criteria for personhood more generally because there are none”. Of course, this is an objectionable claim. Since personhood is indeed a technical philosophical term, with many ethical consequences to its definition, it is precisely the preceding reasons that may make it important to seek criteria for personhood. There seems to be two proceeding options after we integrate this information: either there should be no definition of person and self at all (since persons is an unhelpful illusion), as Farah & Heberlein suggest, or we should define persons and the self as some emerging aspect of neurological and social processes (because, after all, persons is still a meaningful concept).
If persons are illusions created by a uniquely human network in the brain, what is our relation to animals? Of course, the substantive difference that was thought to make humans uniquely superior to other animals, as presumed by those such as Descartes, is precisely the illusion just explored. Humans are different to other animals in the same way that all animals are different to other animals, but not for the reason of personhood in the folk-psychological view. As a technical philosophical term, Person can substantiate this difference, however. One might say that that there is a unique structure in the human brain that allows for civility and “moral sensibility” (Kollek). There is mutual benefit (emerging from the division of labor) among humans to assign rights to one another, while no direct benefit exists for assigning these rights to animals, since they cannot contribute to our civilization. One problem with this sort of reasoning, and variations of this idea, is that it excludes many humans from the category of persons, whom we may like to think of as persons but who cannot contribute in this way. Another way to substantiate the category of persons is to ask if a being can reason, as humans are reasoning animals. However, it is highly problematic to make ethical decisions, such as those involving the treatment of animals, based on this claim. For instance, is it any more permissible to allow the suffering of an animal because it cannot reason in the way that humans can? Since pain processing is a lower level brain function, it differs little between humans and other animals (Farah). This leads us to examine a rather radical (even today) statement by Farah, “If a being is capable of suffering, then it deserves protection from suffering” (Animal Neuroethics). If this statement goes through on the basis of one’s moral reasoning then it implies the necessity for animal rights. The focus in this case moves away from the qualification of beings as persons as the means to protection, towards a radical utilitarian idea of maximizing wellbeing for all sentient beings: compassion dilates. If personhood is not an ontological category that implies a unique ability to experience suffering, then surely this is a defendable conclusion to reach regarding our relation to other animals.
Death of the Person
Thus far, this paper has argued strongly that personhood is not a natural kind, but that the idea of a self might be useful for social reasons. One of these reasons might be the meaning in life that we receive from ascribing such identities, symbolic representations though they might be, to those we love and to ourselves. One question that arises from this, then, is what defines the death of a person. When do we close the final chapter in our minds, so to speak, of our representation of a friend? One thing we know for certain is that the activation of that person’s pattern in our person network is no longer grounds for asserting that the person still exists (since, trivially, even the face will continue to activate the pattern until that face decays beyond recognition). The emphasis must shift from the symbolic to the natural; there is a potential for action of the person involved that is dependent on the empirical state of its body. An intuitive answer to the question might be this: since intentions are formed and executed in the brain, when the brain of the body that is represented by the activation pattern in the person network is no longer active, then the person is dead. Indeed, this is similar to the current criteria for brain death in the U.S. (the permanent cessation of integrated function of the entire brain, including brainstem). However, perhaps we can improve upon the “whole brain” theory of brain death. Since the brain stem is what makes human behavior stereotypical, while other parts of the brain serve to distinguish us (particularly: emotions, memories, etc.), it only follows that the death of the person is not at the inactivation of the brain stem, in exactly the same way that a person is not dead if they are paralyzed. It is precisely the higher functions of the brain that bring about the dispositions we refer to when reflecting on the personality traits of the individual. Nobody says, “When I think of John, I will always remember the profound regularity of his circadian cycles. When his hypothalamus gave out, we knew that we had lost our friend.” We remember our friends that have past for our shared memories, the knowledge that they had and their generosity to share it, their sense of humor, perhaps even the quirks they had due to some emotional conditioning. If the areas of the brain that produce these traits were still alive, with the potential to evoke the traits again (which requires consciousness), then to me, my friend would still be alive (psychological relations are sufficient for persistence of the person). Steven Laureys argues against this view of death, for two reasons. Currently, there is no accurate way to know whether such higher brain regions are still functioning, since, as in the case of consciousness, the neural correlates are not necessarily known (Death, Unconsciousness, and the Brain). Moreover, we are irreducibly closed to knowing whether another being is conscious (Chalmers, 1998). Furthermore, studies have shown it difficult to differentiate between “willful” movement and “automatic” movement, and therefore behavioral hints of consciousness do not reveal the integrity of higher functions. The vegetative state is often misdiagnosed due to this fact, since these behaviors, when performed by those in the minimally conscious state, are underestimated (Laureys). Therefore, such a definition of death, impossible as it is to access accurately, would imply the “burial of breathing ‘corpses’.” We would inevitably declare many living persons dead, simply because we cannot accurately judge the activity of such higher brain functions; this is especially true if islands of cortex were still active. This would necessitate further distinguishing which of the higher order functions are active in a living person. Indeed also, as Kollek argues, “it would be extremely difficult…to assess which mechanical, chemical or genetic intervention into the human brain…would interfere with or alter the self of the human person,” suggesting that defining the localized functions of the self might not be possible. Given the strength of both of these arguments, for neocortical death, and for whole brain death, the decision to be made is clearly one of practical concern. Since it is impractical at the current time to define the death of the person as the loss of those traits that we agree to be salient to the person, we require using the whole brain definition. This seems to involve casuistry in the argument for this definition of death, however practical or necessary it may be.
Revisiting Virtue Theory
“This delusion [of personhood] is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
“Goodie-goodies are the thieves of virtue” – Lao Tzu
Another definition of the self might include that which is responsible for the survival of one’s consciousness. Since there are specific functions of one’s body that involved in this process, one may identify with those features. This is also a radical departure from a traditional view of the self: it is to say that I beat my own heart; it is self as the body as opposed in in the body. However, this too breaks down under analysis. For instance, are there really any boundaries to this self? If I breathe in the air around me, or if “I am what I eat,” as the expression goes, then the separation of the body from the environment is merely a statistical, probabilistic calculation (“…the criteria by which we reidentify plants, animals, and persons involve similarity, not exact sameness” – Flanagan paraphrasing Aristotle). The “no self” philosophical view is more radical than this: if there is to be any identification at all, then I am either nothing, or I am everything. What effect would this have on our moral judgments? The cognitive movement of identification to encompass more of existence necessitates one to feel more deeply and broadly compassionate. In this way, the virtues of compassion and equanimity follow from right view in Buddhism (which includes this no self conception as wisdom; Flanagan). Anatman, as a sort of axiom to that philosophy, provides the rational basis for these virtues. What other insights might provide a basis for virtue? The fact that there is suffering in the world is another candidate. After wisdom has been reached regarding identity, then the suffering of the world becomes one’s own. Accepting anatman, although the suffering of others does not reach my consciousness directly, it is because I am identified with more than my consciousness and no less that the entirety of existence that I am inspired and compelled to act compassionately, in lovingkindness, towards all sentient life (since all sentient life does not want to suffer – H.H. The Dalai Lama). This is in line with Farah’s philosophical views, as already discussed in this paper. The practice in this case thus involves two aspects: perfecting right view (which would mean fully understanding anatman so as to achieve phronesis), as well as developing compassion (through meditation, etc.)
This moral foundation, to decrease suffering in the world, implicates the development of other virtues, too (a synthesis of utilitarianism and virtue theory ethics, perhaps) While distinguishing definitions of equanimity, Flanagan uses the idea that “my being more calm and serene might make me more pleasant to be around” in contrasting a western conception of equanimity to the Buddhist meaning: equal love. However, both meanings denote virtue in the context of relieving suffering from the world. All dispositions that improve the state of the world, then, are virtues that should be cultivated – a rather heavy statement to make. If we accept the anatman doctrine, it follows that developing such virtues would become one’s natural inclination, due to the arising compassion for that with which one identifies (all existence). This inclination can be contrasted to Paul Churchland’s view of virtues as a set of social skills that are socially adaptive, similar to the prototypical social behaviors observed in the culture: social norms, essentially (as in Towards a Cognitive Neurobiology of Moral Values). In terms of what we have discussed in class about virtue theory ethics, this seems to be exactly what the development of virtue for the achievement of eudaimonia is not. It is difficult to see how following social norms will encourage any kind of unique flourishing. What would EudaimoniaChurchland entail, through the conformity to prototypical, socially adaptive behavior?
There is another argument for identity that could be proposed. Since it would seem that consciousness floats, as it were, as seats of perspective in a material existence, there is something to grasp onto for personal identity. I might identify with consciousness, a passive function of the brain though it may be. However, since consciousness, using a meaning in this case more closely resembling awareness, has no inherent content, there might be little reason to support this hypothesis over self as any other function the body. If we identify with existence more broadly however, our understanding of consciousness might broaden, too. Our understanding of consciousness might go from the limited individual awareness of sensory stimuli and other internal perceptions, to a global embodied experience of knowledge and feeling: an intersubjective phenomenon among all sentient bodies (Rose).