Thursday, July 28, 2005

Carl Zimmer versus Eugene Volokh

I'd be surprised if anyone has pitted highly-interesting science blogger Carl Zimmer against the highly-interesting conservative libertarian blogger Eugene Volokh, but I'm going to try it out. (Disclaimer: I've criticized some of the conservative postings on Volokh's group blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, but the criticism usually involved other bloggers' posts, and in any event, the group blog remains interesting.)

Volokh has asserted numerous times over the years his opinion that "Religious people have moral views just like secular people do, and they're just as entitled as secular people to use the political process to enact their views into law." I have no problem with that opinion. He says that most coercive laws involve the majority forcing its views on the minority; implies that in many cases those views involve moral viewpoints; and argues a person/group/majority that has a religious basis for its moral viewpoint can still work to enact that viewpoint. Volokh is still on solid ground.

Where Volokh goes wrong, though, is arguing that a faith-based moral viewpoint presents no special problems in a democracy where people are meant to attempt to persuade one another of their viewpoints. I would make a distinction between some types of religious morality - someone could accept Christ's resurrection as a leap of faith that trumps reason while accepting Christian moral teachings only because they seem reasonable. Such a Christian could remain Christian theologically no matter what evidence is presented, be a current proponent of a Christian moral worldview, and yet be persuadable that the moral viewpoint should change given good reason. This Christian viewpoint is just as "democratic" as any secularist. In contrast to the "persuadable Christian" and the secularist, we have the Biblical literalist whose views on abortion and homosexuality are derived solely from "literal truths" in the Bible. The literalist has made a moral leap of faith, not just a theological leap of faith, and is beyond the persuasion that is the lubricating element of democracy.

Volokh argues that persuadability is overrated, that the many different secular and religious moral viewpoints are all beyond persuasion. This is where Zimmer comes in, with the most interesting "science and ethics" article I've seen on the web. Zimmer interviewed the philosopher Joshua Greene, who asked people to ponder two ethical dilemmas while monitoring their brain activity in a magnetic resonance imager. The dilemmas require the patient to choose between the collective good and individual rights, and for no inherently obvious reason, people tend to protect the collective good in one case, and individual rights in another:

Imagine you’re at the wheel of a trolley and the brakes have failed. You’re approaching a fork in the track at top speed. On the left side, five rail workers are fixing the track. On the right side, there is a single worker. If you do nothing, the trolley will bear left and kills the five workers. The only way to save five lives is to take responsibility of changing the trolley’s path by hitting the switch. Then you will kill one worker. What would you do?

Now imagine that you are watching the runaway trolley from a footbridge. This time there is no fork in the track. Instead, five workers are on it, facing certain death. But you happen to be standing next to a big man. If you sneak up on him, and push him off the footbridge, he will fall to his death. Because he is so big, he will stop the trolley. Do you willfully kill one man, or do you let reality play out and allow five people to die?

People tend to protect the collective good if it involves turning the trolley wheel, and individual rights if it involved physically pushing a man from a height. While no logical distinction exists here, an evolutionary one does. A caveman, or an even-more primitive ancestor, understands what it means to kill someone with your bare hands. Moral revulsion could be hard-wired in this case, not based on reasoning. Greene found that to be the case based on the MRI scans:

personal moral decisions tended to stimulate certain parts of the brain more than impersonal moral decisions. . . . Impersonal decisions (like whether to throw a switch on a trolley) triggered many of the same parts of the brain as does non-moral questions (like whether you should take the train or the bus to work). Among the regions that become active was a patch on the surface of the brain near the temples. This region, known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is vital for logical thinking. Neuroscientists believe it helps keeps track of several pieces of information at once so that they can be compared. . . . Personal moral questions lit up other areas. . . . .Greene suspects these regions are part of a neural network that produces the emotional instincts behind many of our moral judgments. The superior temporal sulcus may help make us aware of others who would be harmed. Mind-reading lets us appreciate their suffering. The precuneus may help trigger a negative feeling—an inarticulate sense, for example, that killing someone is plain wrong.

The question Zimmer would pose to Volokh concerns what - if anything - would the different types of people learn from this experiment. The "persuadable Christian" and secularists of any stripe should consider the experiment directly relevant to their ethical beliefs, and possibly cause them to rethink those beliefs. The Biblical literalist considers it to be just so much time-wasting trivia that could be better spent in determining what the Bible says in these situations.

This type of reasoning and persuasion plays a necessary role in democracy. I agree with Volokh's statement that "We cannot demand that religious believers leave their deepest beliefs unspoken, while secular believers remain free to speak their own deepest beliefs." I disagree with an argument that these types of beliefs pose no problems in a democracy based on persuasion and reason.

One final note: I'll email both authors, and would be happy to post any reaction they have.

key: science, morality, religion, Volokh Correction

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