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Is empathy an only driving force for morality?
Posted: 11 August 2011 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Hi everyone, this is my first post here, I hope there will be many more.

I mailed this Mr. Harris, but I am aware that he can’t reply to every mail he gets, so I would like to hear your thoughts. Because English isn’t my native language, I’ll just c/p it here from that mail, so I don’t have to write it all over again because it wasn’t easy…

After reading The God Delusion (the part about the roots of morality), I remembered that I was thinking about it some time before, after hearing one of your speeches about the subject. I have my own hypothesis about it, and would be very pleased if you could comment on it. I hope that my hypothesis isn’t already well known, or rejected (I tried to find it described somewhere, but I found nothing close to it). I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.
I think that the only thing we need for morality is empathy. Roots of empathy can be explained easily by all the Darwinian mechanisms concerning the in-group gene survival. This is all well known so far.  The thing that interests me is what exactly empathy is (concerning the brain itself, not the effects it has on ones behavior). So I remembered reading something about amputees feeling their lost limbs and amputee itch. As I’m sure you know, it is a phenomenon where amputees feel an itch in lost extremities (for example hand) , and solve it by looking at someone scratching their hand. So scientists looked at the brain function in those cases, and found that, when seeing someone scratching their hand, the same parts of brain work as if the person was scratching themselves.
It is logical then to think that, if we see (or think about) someone who is in pain, we will feel that pain (subconsciously). And adding that to our natural (evolutionary created) fear of pain, I think we have full morality (what we could call a „gut morality“, subconscious feel of right and wrong).
Main goal of any theory about roots of morality is to explain why there is a global equality concerning moral questions, and also why are there some disagreements.
For example, if we look at the famous train track dilemma (first with two tracks (one with five people, second with one), and then with only one track and a fat man), we can easily see why almost everyone will steer the train into that one man, but won’t push the fat man in front of it. It is merely a difference of to whom empathy is directed. In first case, all six people are the same, so we tend to be statistical. But focusing the story on the fat man, we empathize with him, and his pain becomes our pain.
If we look at disagreements, one good example is pro life vs. pro choice. Pro life empathy is focused on the child, and pro choice is focused on the family. I know that this seems like something completely self-evident, but I don’t think it is. All of the arguments tend to rationalize that feeling of empathy towards some entity (depending on the discussion it can be an animal, child, parents, homosexual, dying human etc.), when in fact they are completely a matter of choice (a subconscious one). 
My hypothesis is that empathy (feeling others’ emotions and physical stimulation as our own)  is not something that a moral human has, it is something that makes him moral.

Also, we can explain the Good Samaritan with this theory, simply by understanding that it is not really the other person that we are helping, but ourselves, wanting to get rid of the negative feeling that would be caused if we didn’t help them.
The last thing I’d like to say is an assumption of another Darwinian way how empathy could have evolved. The ability to feel others’ emotions and exchange goods is not only useful for a group (like it is for vampire bats, e.g.), but it can maybe be useful in combat? Maybe it helps to predict (subconsciously) enemies moves, reducing possible damage.

This is it, I hope you understood my English. Thank you very much for your attention.

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Posted: 12 August 2011 08:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Welcome, Ivan.  smile  Your English is just fine.


My gut reaction is to agree with you that empathy is prerequisite to morality.  It’s not a new theory, true.  Still, i try to play devil’s advocate with this one and imagine an ‘emotionless’ morality.  If it’s strictly a matter of practical social need does that change the ‘golden rule’ equation?  Can i argue that the real reason we need ‘good manners’ is to keep us from slaughtering each other on sight and free up that time and energy for more constructive survival pursuits like finding other planets to colonize?


On a side note, i do take issue with the use of abortion as an example of the ‘rail dilemma’.  If we were talking about human eggs in a nest, or embryos growing in tanks, the comparison would be appropriate (and there would be no abortion “debate”), but as long as humans still gestate in utero, the choice to terminate or not belongs only to the pregnant adult who has sole ownership of the womb.

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Posted: 13 August 2011 06:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Hi!
Thank you for commenting!
I’m not sure if I understood what you wanted to say. I don’t understand what you mean by “change of the ‘golden rule’ equation”?

I agree that morality is needed for better and more productive life. But this theory is only concerned about the origin of morality. It has nothing to say about the answer to any moral dilemma (if it was, I would post it in the philosophy forum).

Your post seems interesting, but I can’t fully grasp it, so I would be very happy if you could clarify the questions you asked, and the problems you see with my first post. smile

edit: I had to vote in order to see results of the poll, so I voted interesting. It’s odd for me to vote like that, so everyone interested in the poll should just count one vote less for interesting…

[ Edited: 13 August 2011 09:19 AM by ivanb]
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Posted: 13 August 2011 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Not only is your English spot on, ivanb, but so are your ideas, at least as I see things. I’m trying to put together an OP for the Project Reason forum that will meld perfectly with your above words. So we’ll shake hands with each other, and I hope to see any elaborations you might have. It may be a while before I find time, unfortunately. Maybe you’ll stay tuned to that forum, as you’re already signed on there with the screen name you have here, if I understand it right.

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Posted: 14 August 2011 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I must say, your kind words made me very happy!
But I’m not a member of a PR forum.
I will send you my email in a PM, so we can continue conversation by mail smile

edit: your inbox is full so I cant send you PM. Please send me yours to my PM.

[ Edited: 14 August 2011 05:34 AM by ivanb]
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Posted: 14 August 2011 06:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Feel free to e-mail me, as I’ve just updated the eddress in my control panel. But conversing more publicly has its appeal, too. When you know that various people will be watching what you say, you’re more careful in your word choices or idea choices. There’s no hurry, though, right? I have no free time now, but I probably will soon. Thanks much.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 14 August 2011 06:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Of course there’s no hurry, because I have no plans which I could hurry…
I’m on holidays now, but I wouldn’t have much free time either when school starts (I am in final grade now in high school (I’m 18, hope that isn’t too young for collaborating)). In next few weeks, I will put this whole hypothesis on paper in details (whit examples of mirror neurons experiments etc.), and post it here.

I will send you my email to yours, just in case you want to contact me directly.

[ Edited: 14 August 2011 08:06 AM by ivanb]
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Posted: 14 August 2011 07:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Well, the topic title, ‘Is empathy the only driving force for morality?’, was the main question i tried to address.  My negative assertion was that necessity may be the root of morality as opposed to the higher emotion empathy.  So i’ll rephrase this,

If it’s strictly a matter of practical social need does that change the ‘golden rule’ equation?

, to read:  If a person is incapable of being empathetic, or incapable of any higher emotion (obviously we’re talking about brain functions), and yet follows the ‘golden rule’, or ‘do to others as you would have done to you’, then maybe there is an even more basic motive to moral behavior.


Make more sense that way?  What do you think?

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The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisedom
-William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

Life, what is it but a dream?
- Lewis Carroll, “A boat Beneath a Sunny Sky

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Posted: 14 August 2011 08:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Oh, I understand you now, thanks for the explanation.

Well, I think that morality is a necessity for a group if it wants to evolve past the “default” law of the jungle. But, although it is a necessity, it still does not explain how morality came to existence. Because, for something to evolve, you have to have a gradient between non-existence and full existence (maybe better will be “momentary existence”, because we can’t tell if it is at it’s peek already). And I think that mirror neurons provide that gradient, emerging first in certain parts of the brain, and then extend to the whole brain.

But, to answer you question: if there was a species that was incapable of being empathic (and had no mirror neurons), but had some moral rules that they knew “by heart”, instinctively,  than it would mean that there are other means by which morality (at least some parts of it) could flourish.

That is why I am very interested in experiments with animals that prove or disprove existence of mirror neurons. They have been found in primates and birds, but I can’t find any article that looks at mirror neurons from this point of view, concerning the morality.

And another thing that is important is that animals that have mirror neurons but do not have any kind of morality, could be a proof that morality is a kind of a byproduct of those neurons (which emerged for the benefits of social learning, or something else not found yet).


edit: I just saw that post about this forum being old (sort of an archive), and that we should move to project reason forum. Now I understand what nonverbal said. So please tell me should I post this same topic there (after becoming a member) or what?

[ Edited: 14 August 2011 05:43 PM by ivanb]
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Posted: 14 August 2011 08:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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ivanb - 14 August 2011 12:20 PM

I just saw that post about this forum being old (sort of an archive), and that we should move to project reason forum. Now I understand what nonverbal said. So please tell me should I post this same topic there (after becoming a member) or what?

I’ll expedite my OP essay for the Project-Reason forum, and it should be ready by early or mid next week. Watch the psychology department. You could start your own thread there, ivanb, but I think it might be better if you contribute to the thread I’ll start. That’s my take on it, for what it’s worth. I look forward to your contributions.

Rabbit, great to see your presence again here. I think I’ve seen you a bit at the P-R forum, as well, right?

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 15 August 2011 04:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Ok, sure, I will contribute as much as I can!
Please post the link to that topic here, when you write it, in case I miss it.

Also, if you are interested, we could write that essay together, or you can send it to me before posting so I could suggest what to add? Of course, if you want to keep it entirely yours, it’s ok smile

[ Edited: 15 August 2011 05:15 AM by ivanb]
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Posted: 15 August 2011 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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ivanb - 15 August 2011 08:41 AM

Ok, sure, I will contribute as much as I can!
Please post the link to that topic here, when you write it, in case I miss it.

Also, if you are interested, we could write that essay together, or you can send it to me before posting so I could suggest what to add? Of course, if you want to keep it entirely yours, it’s ok smile

I’ve got my own take on this subject, ivanb, and your OP above dovetails nicely with it. Co-authoring, it seems to me, is for professional writers. If we’re writing here, we’re mainly just scribbling in comparison to what professional authors do. We’re having an extended conversation. Our words as they appear here can be highly therapeutic for us, but don’t expect anything resembling wide readership.


You may want to post your OP on the P-R forum, too. I’ll e-mail you before I post mine, and will acknowledge the OP you wrote here.


Many thanks for your interest. I wish the best for you, and I’ll e-mail you in a couple/few days.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 15 August 2011 07:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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I totally agree whit all you said.
I will be very happy to read you mail, and then to say my thoughts about it on the PR forum.
My problem about all this is that my English is not that good (not that I make a lot of mistakes, I’m just a bit slow) so I am pleased that there is someone else interested in this smile

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In heaven all the interesting people are missing.
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      German philosopher (1844 - 1900)

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