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Can morality keep up with technology?

September 7, 2009

42-17073449I’ve been playing around in my mind with a postulate I picked up from a Ken Wilber audio lecture; namely, that cognitive development is necessary but not sufficient for moral development. In other words, Wilber is asserting that for a person to develop morally, it is essential for them to first develop cognitively—you cannot have an expansion of morality without first having some kind of expansion in cognition. However, just because a person develops cognitively, it does not intrinsically signify that they are going to develop morally in lockstep with their cognitive realizations.

This “necessary but not sufficient” hypothesis about cognitive versus moral development is particularly notable to me in light of my interests in futurism, generally, and synthetic cognitive enhancement, specifically (e.g., direct interfacing of computer chips and human brains in order to augment the processing and memory capabilities of the human mind). Nick Bostrom at the Future for Humanity Institute at Oxford University has some especially thorough analysis of the ethics of cognitive enhancement. (Bostrom’s work on the topic will be the subject of future posts on this blog.)

Assuming that synthetic cognitive enhancement is an inevitable element of the future of humanity (which I do, by the way, assume to be essentially inevitable), then we can resolve to some conclusions: given that expanded cognitive development is a necessary precursor for increased moral development, the augmentation of the net cognitive prowess in the human population will inherently create opportunity for an expansion in the net tonnage of human morality: more sweeping views of the deep interconnectivity of living beings, leading to more generosity and compassion for the suffering of other sentient life and greater care for the nurturing of others, with more mental power to act efficiently in response to that compassionate awareness.

This, however, is only part of the picture.

Because cognition is not guaranteed to create morality, the collective expansion of human cognition will ultimately result in both an expansion of human morality, as well as an expansion of human immorality. Just as souped up super-brains will be able to rev harder toward curing disease and eliminating poverty, the hyper-minds of the future will also be able to flex their cognitive muscle toward more deviously brilliant schemes for the usurpation of power and the indulgent stranglehold of resources.

What emerges, then, is the perspective that a morally excellent society cannot be measured only in terms of the net tonnage of morality existent in the human population. But rather that a morally excellent society must be conceived in terms of a moral ratio, or in other words, the ratio of net morality to net immorality. Expressed as a simplified abstract formula,

moral ratio = net tonnage human morality
……………….net tonnage human immorality.

Potential yardsticks for these entities have been alluded to in previous posts, and expanded discussion of this topic will be forthcoming. (Look forward to more pyschometric fun.) Reining it back to the brain, I have to believe that furthering our understanding of the neural substrates of our emotional and cognitive lives will enrich our paradigms and expand our consensus about the character and the shape of human morality. This is a significant first step toward increasing society’s moral ratio. Further, as previously discussed on this blog, I remain optimistic that technological proliferation will ultimately yield tools and modalities for accelerating the the cultivation of prosocial human values. What exactly these tools will be…I’m still searching and pondering. (Think Omneuron meets positive psychology meets The Foundation for a Better Life.)

As a cheerful take-home, check out the admirable list of human virtues aggregated by The Foundation for a Better Life:

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  1. Dan Hyde permalink

    I agree that cognitive development is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for moral development. However, I’m not sure that artificially increasing brain power through medical technology will do much for the morality of the human race. I say this for two reasons. The first has to do with the timescale of our evolutionary history. The actual contribution of genetics/cognitive development to the morality of the human race has not changed much over the thousands of years since recorded human history. That means that say 3000 years ago the cognitive mechanisms that contribute innately and unfold naturally in “typical” developing humans to our morality were virtually the same as those we have today. Yet, huge changes in collective morality have occurred. I won’t expand on those here, but take for example views of racism, slavery, sexism, or even how permissible it is to murder your neighbor over a simple disagreement (as in the wild west and before). If cognitive development hasn’t changed but morality has then we have to ask what other contributing factors led to this change. In my opinion, the other major component of moral development is collective cultural innovation. This can be seen not only in the history of the world but through a cross-section of populations of the world in various stages of “moral development”. “Less developed countries” have higher rates of violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and exploitation compared to more developed countries. And, while more developed countries still have these problems, they are on a smaller scale and these countries have more laws to protect the disadvantaged. I would argue, then, that cultural innovation or collective knowledge is what creates change in moral development above the core abilities endowed by nature. And, attempts to increase morality by increasing brain power would not be successful. This view alludes to an important aspect of any formula attempting to characterize morality of human existence, the negative correlation between morality and immorality.

  2. Hey Dan. You bring up some very good points regarding the influence of cultural shift on moral expression. Certainly the stasis of cognitive biology for the past 3000 years of Homo sapiens’ history taken alongside the fact of moral evolution during the same time period is convincing evidence that there are major “software” advancements in our social moral norms that are independent of the “hardware” that happen to be running them (i.e., culture as software, biology as hardware).

    This observation of cultural software influencing moral output does not, however, negate the potential for an augmented hardware system to produce a greater moral output. Indeed, much like the computer industry deliberately working to enhance both the hardware and the software in order to create a better machine, I would argue that (at least in theory) techno-biological enhancement in addition to continued cultural progress is an optimal dual-effort for creating a more moral human being. The crux of this idea, of course, is the postulate that cognitive enhancement expands the potential for moral development—and I think we are in agreement that this is a correct supposition.

    I will concede that at the present moment, strong synthetic cognitive enhancement via direct biological/computational interfacing may seem more science fiction than it is science. But is it? For all practical purposes, am I not interfacing my biology with computational technology even as I type on my laptop and surf the net? Indeed, the very trend of ethical resolution that you cite as occurring in developed nations might be a foretaste of the potential moral outflow that could occur following more extensive biological and computational integration. People may argue about how long it will take for us to master the relevant technologies needed for this type of direct cognitive augmentation. But my bet is that it is only a question of “when” rather than a question of “if” Homo sapiens will eventually transition to become Homo silicons.

    As far as the problem of how to leverage technology to tip the moral ratio toward greater morality within the human population, however, I would say that empirical characterization of prosociality (sort of a neuroscientific version of positive psychology) and biological feedback have more immediate potential to influence the cultivation of positive values than does cognitive engineering.

  3. Martin permalink

    N.B. From an educator, not a scientist
    I hate to be the party crasher – but I have not really seen a direct correlation between cognition (to know the good) and morality (to do the good?), except in the imperative to development a significant vocabulary to allow for the moral to be sufficiently recognized so as to offer possibilities for successful practice.
    We can begin simplistically with St. Paul’s assertion in the New Testament of his own frustration in not being able to succeed with both. We can move on to the extreme example of Hitler’s 7 men, all possessing Ph.D.s at the Wannsee Conference outside of Berlin on January 20, 1942 (google is loaded with this topic), who began to lay out a most amoral conclusion to the Third Reich’s victory. And we can examine our own frustration as educators in this country in finding that elusive path towards offering an education (whilst avoiding a training) in which students aim towards becoming good rather than just smart.
    I am impressed with your new term Homo silicons – check your latin to make sure that the correct case ends in “s”, rather than “is”. Someone will cite you soon enough.
    In the end, I need to understand the argument better about the relationship between positive psychology, technology, and those who are considering stepping off the grid because of such a transformation. Homo sapiens may be worth preserving no matter what the economic or social cost – I, for one, would like to look at that more seriously before assuming that I get to swim along merrily downriver towards a happy (but how brave?) new world. (cf. I miss the mountains, song from the broadway hit, Next to Normal)

  4. Jeff permalink

    So here’s a few thoughts along those lines. Is morality an absolute defined by logic, like mathematics, something outside our minds that we strive to comprehend? Or is morality determined by our brains themselves? For example, there are many choices where one can be mindful of suffering and empathy of others, such as choosing to save a child playing on a train track from an oncoming train by switching the train to another track at the last second, even though this might have a significant probability of derailing the track and harming even more people on board. Complex moral choices (even if forced in this example) probably would be answered differently by different cultures in terms of what is moral.

    Might it be that not just our actualization of morality, but the very concept of morality, is based on biology? If we are wired to believe that loyalty to our tribe outweighs loyalty to those outside of our tribe, then we may have a very different concept of immorality than those who may be wired to believe that human life, even at a cellular level, is sacred, or from those who feel that the death of a cockroach is only a difference of scale from the death of a child. There are some very alien concepts of morality that are not conceptually different from those we believe – they just feel different?

    So to what extent is an enhanced being more or less moral than we? Is a being with a new version of oxytocin that creates a hypersensitive loyalty to kin at expense of kith more moral?

    • Empathy – from the brain? Huh?
      Loyalty to a tribe is a learned experience. It takes education to understand that such tribal instincts (e.g. tight religious groups, extended genetic families) CAN be replaced by larger connections to the human race, for example. See Fowler’s Taxonomies in the Spiritual Domain (?) – I think 1978.
      I understand that you are dedicated to the brain, but for me there is a disconnect epistemologically in assuming that these philosophical ideals (such as high morals, caring, even wisdom) are to be found in the sixth chakra region alone. There is knowledge is the heart. There is knowledge in the groin. There is knowledge in the feet.
      It’s not about playing devil’s advocate here. MIght I ask you to write out your credo – regarding your field as a whole. I, for one, would like that very much. Why? To avoid the trivialization of passion. Lest we not understand how the rest of the world operates.

      • Michael permalink

        Marty—thank you for the thoughtful questions and considerations. I certainly agree with you that there is a certain type of risk involved in our rush to understand our humanity, which risk is heightened by our insatiable desire as westerners to be reductionistic—to find THE ultimate cause, if you will. I think this is a worthy caution to contemplate in trying to both assemble an understanding of how the brain works to shape our human experience, and also in trying to communicate the growing body of understanding about how the physical brain helps to orchestrate our humanity.

        Regarding empathy specifically, there is no question that the brain is an organ that helps to mediate and construct both the feelings and the behaviors affiliated with empathetic responsiveness. You are well to point out the more holistic longings for fuller integration of the bodily experience of such deep emotions and passions. It does start to become somewhat recursive, though, since—although these feelings of bodily knowledge and memory SEEM like they are experienced IN the respective regions of the body—these bodily experiences are constructed by flurries of electrical popping inside of your head! What is more astonishing, still, is that the sensation of bodily stimulation can be replicated by stimulating the brain directly (as has been done through direct electrical contact during open brain surgery). It’s almost ghostly.

        You might be interested in some of the recent work by Alva Noë. Noë is a bright philosopher at UC Berkley who is fighting hard to try and revise what he thinks are overly reductionistic paradigms about the brain and the cognitive field generally. His most recent book, published this year, is entitled Out of Our Heads:

      • Michael permalink

        As for a credo, for me personally, I see the brain as a most central player in the *ecology* of the human process (rather than THE human process, pars pro toto). The deeper down the rabbit hole you go, however, in some important ways it actually becomes trickier to parse physical brain and experiential humanity, since—again—the brain reconstructs, represents, and mediates the interactions of two “not brain” entities: body and…well…everything else “out there.”

        Perhaps on an even more abstract level, our accelerating understanding of “brain” to me is iconic of our zeitgeist—it is a token and a badge that contradict the Preacher of Ecclesiastes’ mournful iterations that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It’s almost a Prometheus-like pleasure to ponder the possibilities of stealing fire from these “gods” inside of us that have tossed us about these numerous millennia, while achieving new heights of self-determinism as a species. Some may call it pride. I prefer to think of it as optimism.

  5. Michael permalink

    Really great questions, Jeff. I’m not doctrinaire about it, but my tendency is actually to think that morality has absolute qualities (like mathematics) that exist beyond our biology, and that our social milieu even exist at all because of emergent phenomena stemming from the evolutionary wandering of our biological development into the “field space” (for lack of a better term right now) of moral forms. For me, the moral developmental stages described by folks like Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg actually seem quite Platonic (in the classical sense of some ideal form beyond the material world).

    Although the eastern concepts of universal-stage morality often get swallowed in cultural thickness, the persistence of concepts like “Bodhichitta,” “luminous mind,” “enlightenment” seem like they are forms that are real enough that they can (theoretically) be modeled and engineered.

    It’s sort of hazy and is definitely subject to reevaluation and change, but my current thinking is that phenomena like morality are transcendent forms that evolution happily clothed with matter.

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