Panel Two: Neuroscience of Ethics

Chair: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Respondents: Mustafa Husain, Geoff Ling, João Ascenso
Researchers: Meghana Vagwala, Jesse Summers

Panel Brief

Since the first fMRI study of ethics in Brazil in 2001, neuroscientists have published an increasing number of sophisticated experiments on various aspects of moral judgments, decisions, and emotions. However, almost all of these studies have drawn their subjects from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries. This skewed sample is bound to affect findings on a topic as culturally sensitive as morality. Our panel will discuss the best ways to promote and pursue research on a wider and more representative sample of humans.

This extension of previous studies is particularly important because moral views affect people’s lives in developing countries. If we can understand these moral judgments more precisely, then we might be able to develop better ways of dealing with them. For example, how can child soldiers believe that it is morally acceptable to commit atrocities? If we understood their moral views, we might be able to figure out how to counteract their training. Again, some developing countries impose the death penalty for homosexuality and blame women for being raped. Better understanding of such cultures could help us deal with these issues. And how do moral views about inequality and bribery affect the future of developing countries? Finally, how will developing countries react to new technologies that raise challenging moral issues? Our panel will address these and other ways in which moral judgments affect developing countries and will propose studies that might increase our understanding of alternative moral views.

Panel Two Cases

A. Abdi was born in 1988 in Somalia, and has experienced civil war his entire life. As a child he was forced to work as an armed soldier; during this time, his family were killed and his little sisters were abducted. He became an orphan and has never seen his sisters again. Abdi began to take drugs to ease his pain and to make it easier not to feel the effects of bloodshed and loss. As an adult, Abdi joined the Somali military forces and is a capable member of the militia. He does not experience compassion for others nor remorse for the killing he does on the job. He believes that groups like Al-Shabaab must be punished severely and that he owes it to his family to fight against them.

  • what is the impact of Abdi’s childhood on his neural capacity for compassion and remorse? Can neuroscience help us disaggregate risk and resilience factors, and to model pathways to (better) outcomes?
  • Is Abdi’s lack of remorse and compassion part of a ‘disorder’? Should he be ‘treated’ so that he can experience these emotions? Or should we consider Abdi’s lack of these emotions to be a positive adaptation to his circumstances?
  • What moral force does/should Abdi’s desire for retribution on behalf of his family have in shaping our evaluation of his character?
  • Isn’t the key predictive factor in Abdi’s outcome the fact that he grew up in a violent warzone? Shouldn’t this be the primary target of intervention, and the primary object of our understanding?

B. Jyoti Singh was a physiotherapy intern in Delhi. On 16 December 2012, she and a male friend boarded a bus at 9:30 p.m. in order to get home from a movie. The six people on the bus beat up her friend and gang raped her. She died thirteen days later from her wounds. This case led to widespread protests and some legal reforms in India and other countries. The defendants were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, except for one juvenile who was 17 years and six months old.

Despite the public outcry, the defendants and their lawyers expressed no remorse. The bus driver, Mukesh Singh, said, “A decent girl does not roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” He suggested that “The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her.” One of their lawyers said, “Our culture is the best. In our culture there is no place for a woman.” Another lawyer said, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” At a later date, he confirmed, “I still today stand on that reply.”

These moral attitudes seem widespread in certain groups. As a result, only one of 706 rape cases filed in Delhi in 2012 ended in conviction. Despite more open discussion and some legal reforms, in 2014 one protester said that there had been “absolutely no change in the rape culture and related brutality.” She admitted, “The police may be a little more receptive, but it is not out of a sense of duty but out of a fear of censure.”

Questions for discussion:

  • Where did these rapists and others like them get their moral attitudes towards women? What is the role of culture? What is the role of biology?
  • How could a person who cares about his friends and family not show any remorse for such a horrific rape? What enables people to behave morally in some areas but not others?
  • How are such explicit beliefs about women affected by implicit attitudes towards women even in people who explicitly denounce such rape? How are such explicit beliefs and implicit attitudes lodged in brains?
  • What can we do to change such explicit beliefs and implicit attitudes? Should outsiders to a culture intervene to change such moral beliefs and attitudes? Are such attitudes a “disorder” that needs to be treated?
  • Should the adult defendants have received the death penalty because their victim died? Should rapists ever receive the death penalty in extreme cases where their victims do not die?
  • Should the juvenile defendant have been tried as an adult? Is he just as responsible as the others? Should he receive the death penalty?

C. Vojislav Šešelj was a Serbian political leader who was tried in The Hague for instigating murder, torture, and deportation of Croat civilians in the early 1990s by issuing public calls for persecution of Croats in Serbia. Transcripts of his speeches reveal that his propaganda used dehumanizing language, negative stereotyping of the other groups, warnings of direct threats from the other groups, extreme nationalist sentiments, and calls for revenge with references to past atrocities and victimization of his own group. In the ensuing genocide, over 100,000 Croatians and Bosnian Muslims were killed.

Questions for discussion:

  • Should Šešelj be punished even though he has not been convicted of or even charged with any material acts of murder or deportation?
  • Should governments pass and enforce laws that prohibit the kind of propaganda that Šešelj used to instigate hatred and genocide? Would such laws violate a universal human right to free speech?
  • Which aspects of Šešelj’s propaganda were the most effective at stirring up hatred and violence against his enemies?
  • Did Šešelj’s propaganda change people’s explicit beliefs or their implicit attitudes or both? How did his propaganda change their brain functions?
  • What can be done to make people more resistant to such dangerous propaganda? Which types of educational programs or laws would help?
  • How could governments and NGOs best respond to such propaganda when it is promulgated?