Do We Reason? Do We Have Free Will? Does It Matter?
I’ve been reading lately a good bit of the social psychology and neuroscience literature devoted to human decision-making, especially as it applies to making moral judgments. It has been a humbling experience but not, I think, a necessarily disheartening one.
By and large, these studies in the science of morality conclude that we are not the rational creatures we think ourselves to be. We are not thoughtful in making moral judgments; our thought processes are not especially subtle or penetrating; our consciousness is not especially discerning or sophisticated. We do not carefully analyze a situation and, on the basis of that analysis, decide whether or not an action is wrong or right. Rather, it seems, our judgments occur beneath or behind or outside of conscious awareness, and are galvanized by emotions, intuitions, and physical sensations. Reason simply justifies decisions always already made by processes external to it. Perhaps Emerson is right: our “primary wisdom” is “Spontaneity or Instinct,”—an “Intuition, whilst all later teaching are tuitions.” And perhaps David Hume was right: reason is “the slave of passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Here is a quick summary of some representative studies:
· What we consider moral or immoral behavior is influenced by the cleanliness or dirtiness of the environment in which the decision is made. Simone Schnall, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, reports that people sitting at a dirty table in a room pervaded by a foul odor consider doctoring a resume to improve their employment prospects wrong; at a clean table in a pleasant-smelling room, they consider it acceptable. Evidently, the emotions aroused by the ambient surroundings transfer to moral judgments.
· Sitting in a comfortable or uncomfortable chair, holding a hold or cold beverage, or filling out a questionnaire with or without a clipboard influence assessments of other people. Holding a hot beverage, sitting in a comfortable chair, and filling out a questionnaire without a clipboard result in friendlier assessments of others.
· Seeing others perform a good deed for someone inspires the observers to feel morally elevated, and motivates them to lend assistance to others themselves, often going out of their way to do so. Thus, the secret of Oprah’s success. As Blaise Pacal noted, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not of.”
· Behavior can be “primed” by language. Given a task description containing some words referring to old age, test subjects performed the task more slowly than a control group whose task description did not include those words. Words that refer to higher education led to improved scores in games of Trivial Pursuits.
· On sunny days, people tend to be more satisfied with their lives than on rainy days.
· People who are politically conservative have a larger amygdale—an area in the center of the brain associated with anxiety—and a smaller anterior angulate—a front-brain area associated with optimism and fortitude. Though it is unknown whether these areas are shaped by experience or are inherent in brain structure, the finding suggests political outlooks are not reasoned choices. A “liberal gene”—DRD4—has been identified; its possessor tends to respond positively to unconventional perspectives.
· People seek a “moral equilibrium,” a self-satisfaction that they wish to maintain. Those who experience moral equilibrium are less likely, due to a “moral licensing effect” to help others, feeling that they are already good persons. Those who feel a moral disequilibrium are more likely to help others, thereby restoring a sense of moral balance.
· In his book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” neuroscientist Sam Harris asserts that free will is an illusion. He cites experiments in which the brains of subjects in an MRI machine display activity up to io seconds before consciously deciding to do something. Such findings, Harris says, “are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.”
It is difficult not to read this research as yet the latest instance of a 400 year history of human displacement from pride of place. First, Copernicus and Galileo removed earth, and its human inhabitants, from the center of the universe; then, Darwin stiffarmed the belief that we were created imago dei, in the image of God, by theorizing that we were produced from earlier forms of life; then, Freud informed us that we were quite unaware of the motivations for our actions, sequestered as they were in unlit cavern of the flamboyantly irrational id; then, linguists began a mugging of the distinguishing features of human language, finding the so-called “language gene,” Fox 2P, in birds and discovering grammatical complexity in the calls of certain nonhuman creatures; now, the “science of morality” suggests that moral decisions are either automatic mental subroutines or impulse-imbued intensities of feeling that masquerade as deliberative judgment. “It don’t seem natural,” as Huck Finn would say, but the research reckons “it’s so,” and it is tempting to see these findings as assaults on free will and human dignity, as grist for the mill of a despondent determinism or moral irresponsibility.
I think that would be a mistake.
I do not see the revelations of morality science as especially pernicious. If they indeed uncurtain fundamental conditions, then let’s accept them as such. If we know they are true, if we understand that we process our experience of the world through affect and hidden emotion, then we are in a fair way of exerting a governing control over it. Even if our actions spring largely from involuntary factors, taking responsibility for them decreases the lure of infatuated impulsivity. We may not have free will, but we can at least exert that neuroscientist Benjamin Libet calls “free won’t.” We can, like Odysseus, lash ourselves to the mast of restraint.
That reason is not the pure source of our action in the world changes nothing about what we are or what we do. We have always sought to be self-intelligible so we could assume responsibility for ourselves and the world we inhabit. We have always felt moral tugs and urgings. Where our sense of moral value comes from is less important than the fact that we have such a sense. Its origin in no way diminishes its significance, or the value we attach to our goals and intentions. We will still perform charitable acts, still feel compassion, still exhibit loyalty, still meet obligations, still practice self-denial, still entune ourselves with the melody of all the outward-reaching virtues that mark our humanity. We always have. We will still make things, things with design and function, things that incarnate our purposeful striving. We always have. We will still be remarkably, endlessly creative. We always have. Despite being an irreducibly messy bundle of qualities, we will still be adventurous, still feel a transcendent spirit, still be taken by wildly extravagant flashes of imagination. We always have. We have always been taken by courage and love and virtue and faith and wonder and beauty and justice, and we have always written the narrative of that captivity. We always have been, and will continue to be, subjects encountering other subjects, one moving among many, experiencing risk and conflict, and held accountable for what we are and what we do
I am not naive. I have not been Pollyannaed and Panglossed into believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I know that the history of human beings on this planet displays lavish cruelty, cruelty that too often bears compound interest. I know that people blink when staring down moral challenges, that hearts and minds have been adamantine, that in taking a long, backward glance, “one sees more devils than vast hell can hold.” Still, I do believe we need not fall into a kind of secular Calvinism, skeptical of the value or efficacy of human actions, simply because we may do things for no good reason. We still do good, in small ways and large. We too easily forget that. It is worth remembering that in the last 150 years we have abolished slavery, that labor unionized to guarantee workers’ rights, that consumers upended “buyer beware” in favor of “seller beware,” that we established civil and voting rights, addressed concerns about gender equality, proscribed environmental degradation, outlawed gay bashing, and asserted non-human animal rights.
Problems, highly vexing, perhaps indurate, problems, assuredly remain. But I choose to take heart from this: while Galileo’s book Sideries Nuncius, Starry Messenger, may have demoted humanity from its exalted perch in the order of things, it ironically promoted humanity as well, for it unveiled truths hidden behind dogma and superstition and unquestioned tradition and enshrined opinion, truths that set knowledge afoot in the world, truths that, finally, in the balance of things, made us, and our world, not the best we and it can be, but better.