Monday, December 29, 2014


178. Moral instinct

The analysis of morality according to the causality of action, discussed in the preceding items in this blog, may suggest that moral conduct is a conscious, deliberate affair. It may suggest that there is a deliberate matching of perceived situations with conscious moral principles, to be confronted, next, with interests and motives of the agent in question, in some rational trade-off. But while this may occur, morality is largely subconscious and driven by emotions.

In item 119 I proposed that even animals could exhibit moral conduct, in particular in altruism, as demonstrated in Frans de Waal’s experiments with apes. This claim was based on an analysis, in item 46, of how altruism may have survived in evolution, to evolve into an instinct, in tension with a rival instinct for survival and self-interest.

The drive to survive as an individual and the drive to be a loyal member of a community, in give and take, in some degree of altruism, are both deep instincts of human conduct, and constitute rival mental frames of action. Depending on the situation one may be in one frame or the other, and events may trigger a shift between them. One may be in a benevolent frame until one feels threatened in one’s existence.

I discussed this earlier in my treatment of trust, in items 68-73.

How would all this be embodied in the brain? How do cognitive habits form, even in competition with each other? Cognitive scientist Gerald Edelman proposed neural Darwinism. Associations in thought arise from more or less random tentative connections between parallel neural networks, triggered when those are active simultaneously in specific conditions. Such tentative connections are reinforced as a function of experienced success (presumably arising on an in some sense ‘higher’ level of neural circuitry). There may be competing emerging circuits, selected according to success, as a function of conditions. Hence the notion of neural ‘Darwinism’. This is how I read Edelman.

Much, if not most, of this goes on subconsciously, and this explains how much of our thought and action is subconscious, limiting the scope of free will, as discussed in item 5 of this blog.

So, the morality of action, and the perception of moral action, may shift according to conditions, triggering one mental frame or the other.

How does all this work out in terms of the causality of action discussed before? The mental frame one is in, loaded with feelings of threat or safety, self-interest or benevolence, depends on conditions (conditional cause) and on one’s position as an agent (efficient cause), and will determine what motives (final cause) are salient, and will colour or select the moral sense one attaches to observed situations (formal cause), or even those observations themselves (material cause). In this, one may be driven by emotions such as those of fear or bliss.

Actual conduct may then be in conflict with what one would rationally see as morally justified action. The resulting tension will evoke excuses in terms of the causes of conduct. One claims not to have seen, not to have judged appropriately, to have been unable to act appropriately, or to have had competing obligations.