Essay: Defining morality

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  • Defining morality
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Philosophers have tried to define morality for a very long time now. Some are still trying today. There are three most well-known ethics that deal with morality. The first type is Nicomachean/Virtue ethics and is associated with Aristotle. That type of ethics is about the highest good that is happiness. Another ethics is Deontological, linked with Immanuel Kant. In that type, the moral principle is based on a categorical imperative, which is a supreme principle by which an action can be determined good or bad. Its’ essence is to act as you want others to act towards you. In that type of ethics, the human being is an end in himself not a mean for an action. The last ethics is Consequentialism, in which the aim is the best consequence, no matter the means to reach that. Therefore, the end justifies the means. Nowadays, science has evolved to such an extent nowadays, that questions that used to be a concern of the philosophers and their ethics only, are now scientifically possible to research and answer. The question of this paper can be broken down to four major aspects. Numerous comprehensions can be found on the aspects of morality, cooperation, homeostasis, and society. How do we connect all of them together and put them under one umbrella of human characteristics? This paper will examine why humans are as social beings and what follows from that. Also, how their morality is intertwined with neurosciences. What is more, it will answer the question of whether the notorious David Hume was in the right track of understanding human relationships, and more particularly human morality. First Hume’s philosophy will be presented. The focus will be on his ethics, which includes Hume’s understanding of morality. After that, general concepts will be defined, such as what is: society, morality and cooperation. Then an explanation of homeostasis will be provided. Concluding with how all the mentioned terms are intertwined and the way morality is explained by the neuro-ethics of Patricia Churchland.
 
David Hume was Scottish Philosopher that lived in the period of the Enlightenment, from 1711 to 1776. During his quest of knowledge, David Hume realized that ‘human knowledge is only very limited ‘. Nonetheless, he came to establish a very intriguing philosophy that is being referred to even today. Interesting fact about him is that unlike most of his contemporaries he had a rather negative view towards Religion. His philosophy of Religion argued that ‘it is unreasonable to believe in testimonies of alleged miraculous events. ‘ Moreover, he rejected the idea of proving the existence of God through a design or causal argument. Hume disagreed with the notion that God is connected to the creation and reinforcement of our moral values. Furthermore, he coined the term ‘utility’, which was later on expanded by the theory of Jeremy Bentham. Important from his philosophy for the paper is that he believed moral judgements were a consequence of our feelings. What this paper is trying to see is whether Hume’s belief that in the hypothetical situation where there is no society, people would not be at war with one another, however, they would only cooperate with a small group of friends and family. This can be explained by his philosophy.

Hume was a firm believer that the most powerful capacity in human nature was not his reason. It is passions that rule humans’ reason . Furthermore, he thought that human reason would fail in almost every case and what is guiding us through life are nothing more than our habits. Our reason is not only ruled by passion, but it is also ‘subordinate to our habits and customs, the result of a learning process instigated by the interaction between us and the world, which makes us anticipate the future and believe that one thing is the cause of something else .’ Habit formation is why people have certain beliefs about things. For instance, the idea of God, as mentioned above, is a result of a habit formation. This chain of thought is important and will be connected to the neuro-ethics of Patricia Churchland later on. Hume followed Naturalism, which is a philosophical belief that natural properties and causes is the reason for everything happening in our lives. In this belief he bases his understanding of morality, or in other words the question of what is and ought in moral views. He established the idea that we simply cannot deduce the truth from empirical thinking, thus we cannot presume an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ . Meaning that, an action whatever it is, is simply an action. It is not necessarily a moral or immoral action. In Hume’s philosophy, ‘morality is a natural phenomenon arising from human psychology ‘. Therefore, it is not something visible as an action would be. It is something humans understand, in order to meet the needs and interests of the society . Morality is based on what benefits us or pleases us. Therefore, he might have concluded that if there was no society, people would communicate with their closest people, such as friends and family, because this would benefit them the most. Strangers and people who are further apart from us would be of less utility to us, however this would not mean a war between them would occur. Simply, that cooperation would be limited. What is more, morality is ‘entirely relative to the sentiment or mental taste of each particular being. ‘ Therefore, morality as whole is something that is different from person to person, but we perceive it as something universal. Essential is that morality is driven by emotions. More recent scientific research however has an insight on this statement and explains how morality is closely related to sociality.

Society, according to Oxford English Dictionaries, is ‘senses relating to connection, participation, or partnership ‘. Therefore, society consists of people who are connected and work together in some way. They are united. Utility is in the core of society. Members of a society, depend on each other for help, and are therefore vulnerable when harm occurs . What this implies, is whatever happens within the members of the society affects the society as a whole. Moreover, society ‘can stay alive among different men, as it can among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any love or affection .’ Therefore, close relations are not needed in order for a society to function; it can function, for example, only because of trade. Trade is based on trust, and trust is a concept that will be discussed later. In a society trade is inevitable to occur, therefore it is accepted for people to build relationships outside of their closest kin and family. However, what Hume says that, if there is no society, people would not communicate outside of their own circles. However, it is widely agreed upon that, humans are social animals. Arnhart, L. (1998) understands this as ‘human beings are by nature social and political animals, because the species-specific behavioural repertoire of Homo Sapiens includes inborn desires and cognitive capacities that are fulfilled in social and political life .’ Thus, for the purpose of this paper, we need to distinguish between being part of a society and being social. The reason for that is, that the statement given by Hume, is supposing a situation where there is no society, however people are still cooperating with each other, and therefore the social aspect of them is present nonetheless. From there, we need to define what cooperation is and how is it possible. First, however, more about morality will be explained.

This paper began with a quote by the infamous Albert Einstein, who firmly stood behind the idea of morality as a crucial part of our lives. What then is so special about morality? How do we even gain access to it? Morality in the most general sense is the sum of values and norms of an individual or a group. Values are things regarded as important and worth aiming for. Norms are the things that make morality possible, because it is the rules that constitute our behaviour. Without the combination of norms and values we cannot have morality. Morality in its essence is what we ought to do in certain situations. And what we ought to do is derived by the norms and values one has. Research on the subject of morality has been done by Turiel, E. (1998), in which it has been concluded that morality is ’embedded in cultural contexts and in social relationships; it is neither biologically predetermined nor entirely socialized. ‘ The connection between morality and social life is that, morality is part of social life. Based on one’s morality he/she interacts with others in the social group. According to David Hume, our morals influence our actions and affections, from which he concludes that morals are not derivative of reason. Hume saw morals as something that excite passions, and then either produce or prevent actions . This idea of Hume was later proven to be somewhat correct. Overall, morality is all about asking what is right and what is wrong. In order to answer from where do we derive this sense of right or wrong we need to go from philosophy into neuro-ethics.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defined neuro-ethics as an ‘interdisciplinary research area that focuses on ethical issues raised by our increased and constantly improving understanding of the brain and our ability to monitor and influence it, as well as on ethical issues that emerge from out concomitant deepening understanding of the biological bases of agency and ethical decision-making .’ The philosophical and ethical question of morality is dealt with through the sphere of brain sciences and the research that has been done so far. Casebeer, W. D. (2003) notes the importance of reasoning well in order to flourish in our social environment. Moral reasoning constitutes of reasoning well about what one should do in the social environment. The main argument used for this paper is provided by Patricia Churchland. Her neuro-ethics is trying to answer problems that are at the same time moral and social. The way she does that is by examining a connection of care chain tha
t starts from our brain and its self care to care towards an offspring and distant affiliates. Defending the idea of attachment, that can be explained by neurology, as the platform for morality . In this idea, attachment is referring to the ‘dispositions to extend care to others, to want to be with them, and to be distressed by separation. ‘ The first important aspect in this theory is about what she titles ‘caring and caring for’. As mentioned above, morality comes with values, those values come from our brain. Patricia Churchland connects values and carrying together. Our brain cares for itself, in order to survive. This caring is expressed in the desire of well-being. However, this well-being of oneself has evolved into the care of well-being of others as well. Concluding that the ‘widening of other-caring in social behaviour marks the emergence of what eventually flowers into morality. ‘ The main agent behind this social behaviour and morality is believed to be oxytocin (OXT). This is a peptide is associated with social bonding and caring for others than ourselves. Moreover, throughout evolution another two important processes took place with our brains. The first one is a change that made it possible for the rise of negative feelings, such as fear or anxiety which would occur when a separation of the offspring or the threat towards it happened. Also, the motivation to take corrective actions also evolved. The second important change is that our ability to learn increased, and this was connected to emotions such as pain and pleasure. All this had to do with the evolution of mammals; however humans are very alike in that aspect to them. With us, humans, oxytocin plays a leading role in our social skills and our attachment. Which leads to morality, because morality is about deciding between good or bad and our social skills are based on our feelings about certain things. As mentioned above, we can feel bitter when separated from someone we love or when this someone is being hurt. How does that happen can be explained by homeostasis.

Living beings have a very peculiar skill to maintain their own stability. This ability has been taken into consideration for a very long time. People who have worked in the field of medicine have taken interest in the topic, however they did not have the knowledge we know today. For instance, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates thought ‘that disease is cured by natural powers, by a vis medicatrix naturae. ‘ What was meant by that is when a person was sick, there are agencies in the organism that would correct it to its normal state. In other words, the organism has a self-regulatory system. Later, closer to what we know explanation on homeostasis was given by Claude Bernard. He was a 19th century French physician,who noted that ‘in animals with complex organization the living parts exist in the fluids which bathe them. ‘ Those fluids constitute what is the internal environment of the body. This environment is also referred to as the fluid matrix of the body and is such a matrix that it is made and also controlled by the organism itself (Cannon, W. B., 1932, p.400). Bernard also introduced the term for internal environment known as ‘le milieu int”rieur ‘. Following the steps of Claude Bernard, in the 20th century, Walter B. Cannon, American physicologist, continued the research on homeostasis . He was also the first one to coin the word. He used a prefix derived from Greek ‘homeo’, which stood for ‘like/similar’ and stasis , which is an English word for equilibrium. That brings us to the definition of homeostasis that we know today. For the purpose of this paper, the definition of Patricia Churchland will be used. She wrote a book on what neuroscience tells us about morality. The definition goes as follows: ‘homeostasis is the process whereby by internal environment of the organism is regulated to stay close to the range needed for survival .’ So the main argument is: our brain cares for itself and its well-being, then throughout evolution, our brain has begun caring for close kin, such as offspring, and later on to even affiliates. The self-care part is self-explanatory, because it is a necessity in order for survival. Caring for offspring, however, is due to the release of OXT while the mother is pregnant with the offspring. When the mother is pregnant, her brain releases more OXT, which activates complete maternal behaviour, including ‘preoccupation with the infant’s, suckling, and keeping the infants warm, clean and safe ‘ What is more, the release of OXT comes with the feeling of pleasure. Opposite to that is the feeling of pain. This is something that one experiences when there is a threat to one’s being in any way, however, this has evolved not only to protecting oneself but to protecting what is yours, namely, offspring. As mentioned earlier, this negative feeling occurs when someone is separated from their loved one. When this happens, a reaction occurs. This reaction is connected to the concept of homeostasis.

Oxytocin is clearly an important aspect towards caring between humans. This caring chain has moved from self-care, to care for kin and later to even caring for strangers. What is more, this positive emotion of caring can be threatened by pain, which is a negative emotion as mentioned already. Pain has also been labelled as a ‘homeostatic emotion ‘ and the reason for that is that it has to do with the homeostasis of a certain human being. This label has been given by Bud Craig, and it can be understood again by the effect of OXT that has on us. Again in the example of a mother and a child, in a case where the child is in pain, this affects the mother. Mothers are connected to their offspring, and when this bond is created a larger amount of oxytocin hormone is produced. When the offspring is experiencing a negative emotion, the mother (who is usually a caring being) experiences distress on her side. This leads not only to misbalance in the homeostasis of the child, but in the mother’s as well. This happens because our brains work in order to seek well-being and if there is ill-being, they find a way to relieve this negative effect. Pain processing depends heavily on two cortical parts, the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The insula is important for the qualitative negative aspects of pain and ACC-for the motivational feature, or the reaction to the pain (Churchland, 2011, p.37). To conclude with, pain is important in building up social relationship, even if it is a close kin or distant one, because pain causes damage to the homeostasis of humans in the sense of anxiety for example, and our organisms try to keep our self-maintenance and equilibrium as best as possible. In that way, when there is pain, homeostasis is dealing with this negative emotion.

We have defined so far, society, morality and homeostasis, yet we are missing cooperation, which is an essential role in the process of morality. It is important because this is the last step of the caring chain that leads people to care or trust others. Cooperation is something that has evolved mainly beyond kinship and closer members of our societies, after the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago (Churchland, P. S.,2011, p.64). According to Cambridge Dictionary cooperation stands for ‘the act of working together with someone or doing what they ask you for.’ Hence, cooperation is a joint effort, it is a social behaviour. If cooperation exists, then social skills exist as well. Moreover, cooperation can begin between close kin to distant acquaintances. How? According to Churchland, P. S. (2011), cooperation is a social phenomenon, which depends on OXT and Vasopressin (AVP), both released in the hypothalamus in the brain. AVP is arginine vasopressin and is similar to OXT; however its role is to maintain blood pressure and water balance in our brain. Moreover, it has to do with regulation of sexual behaviour and parenting, on the negative side AVP can be associated with anxiety and aggression, for instance in mate defense (Churchland, P. S.,2011, p.49). How is cooperation and trust inco
rporated into morality however? Cooperation is to a big extent based on trust. The peptide that we attribute to trust is OXT, since it raises ‘the threshold for tolerance of others, and to its down-regulation of fear and avoidance responses .’ The levels of OXT tend to rise when the human individual is feeling good, thus when OXT is released, also endogenous opiates are released which leads to the conclusion of ‘doing good feels good-at least sometimes .’ The purpose of this paper, once again, is to see where morality comes from and how is it connected to our social skills. As explained already, because of OXT we have social bonding that has extended from self-care to care to others. Based on that, a research has been done to determine the role of OXT levels in human cooperative behaviour. Numerous experiments have been done, such as games of trust, which shows that in most cases, the higher the level of OXT the greater the cooperation between the participants is . The trust game is about mutual cooperation between two players, which is a joint effort in a problem solving situation. The latter part of this sentence is very important in connecting it to morality.

Churchland, P. S. (2011) believes the roots of morality can be found in the neurobiology of attachment and bonding. Feeling good is connected with high levels of OXT, this high level causes certain social behaviour, which triggers the release of more OXT, we feel good, and social behaviour triggers a certain social problem. This problem appears to be moral and we ask ourselves what would feel right to do. Then an action is undertaken, which leads back to the beginning, where in certain conditions OXT levels are higher than normal and we simply feel good. All this is possible because of our brain and the way it works. Therefore, solving the problem was a moral decision. What is more, feeling good or bad are emotions. An emotion is ‘a positive or negative feeling in response to an internal or external stimulus which is characterized by psychological changes and species-typical behaviour’ (Preece, 2012, p.120). As explained already, pain is a homeostatic emotion that people aim to avoid. Thus, doing good or morally is a way in which this negative emotion is avoided efficiently. Also, humans are social beings, and ‘our brains are wired to constantly restore homeostasis’ (Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015, p.37). Hence, in order for us to have a stable internal environment we have to feel good. Feeling good is connected to OXT release and this emotion of good, is perceived by us as something morally good or right. Therefore, morality is not about certain rules that we must follow in order to be moral, but it is based on our emotions and homeostasis. Hume, then, was on the right track of thinking about morality as a consequence of our passions. However, in the case of no society, and the suggestion of humans not being at war but only cooperating with small group of family and friends is rather naive. The reason for this is that people extent their care circles throughout evolution, by means of agriculture or simple trade. Leading to the conclusion, that if there are people there must be a society, because human beings are wired in such way that they tend to cooperate with others for whatever benefits there are. Those benefits can be either for trade or simply social interest/welfare. As long as the feeling of doing good exists, morality will also, and people will therefore cooperate with wider than close circle family and friends. Another important connection between Hume’s philosophy and Churchland’s neuro-ethics is the idea of habit formation Hume thought that reason was not only ruled by what he called passions, but also our reason is subordinate to our habits. Based on those habits we derive our beliefs. Churchland is connected to this idea, by her understanding of morality also as a product of habit formation. She ties this to cooperation, saying that ‘cooperation systems that extend beyond that small group of kin and familiars are thus likely to be highly dependent on culture- on the belief, and attitudes, and learned habits that are widely adopted in a community, and on the institutional arrangements for reducing the risk of cooperating with strangers.’ Additionally, habits are a reflection of our social understanding about right and wrong or our knowledge about the physical world (Churchland, P.S., 2011, p.165). Concluding, those emotions and habits both play role acquiring our social habits, and our social habits are based on what we judge as moral. Chuchland, P.S (2011) goes further, by saying that childhood is important in the development of good habits, therefore good morals. Yet, in order to make moral decision it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to have our habits established in early childhood, but maybe simply in the earlier development of our habits. This is connected to our capacity to reason about social issues in a specific way. That being the case, morality is a natural phenomenon that is connected to our homeostasis, emotions and habits. That makes Hume on the right track, in thinking about this complex subject that has puzzled people’s minds for ages. Though, he was not completely right that cooperation of people will be limited to kin and close friends. Since humans are social beings and that naturally leads to trade and other distant cooperation.

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