By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cleaning House: Reflections on Moral Philosophy

When our little “home office,” that is the room my husband and I have stuffed our books, papers and computers into (being both academics) gets a bit crowded and when the piles of students’ requirements (mine), plates (his) gets a bit too much, my husband’s nesting instincts kick in.

Between us two, he is usually the first one to start clearing out the mess, (although tentatively) separating assorted knickknacks (and toys) that somehow made their way into the room (usually via the seven year old daughter we have) from the stuff that doesn’t get thrown out.

He says he needs the room just “to think” and he finds it hard to do so in the “mess.”

I also “nest” but find I often do so about only twice a year or three times, tops. But nonetheless, I do know and appreciate the look and feel of a completely clean area to study and think in. It does have its rewards having a nook to get your work done, especially when your work like ours, requires a lot of “alone” time and reflection.

Thinking about the nature of thinking I suppose is a bit out there as far as topics go but after recently lecturing about Ethics before a group of lawyers, so many of them much older than I am, a question sort of lingered at the back of mind. We all think but how often do we think about how we think?

It was a Feminist Mary Belenkly who pointed out: “We do not think of the ordinary person as preoccupied with such difficult and profound questions as “What is truth? What is authority? To whom do I listen? What counts for me as evidence? How do I know what I know? Yet to ask these questions and to reflect on our answers is more than an intellectual exercise, for our basic assumptions about the nature and truth and reality and the origins of knowledge shape the way we interact with others, our public and private personae, our sense of control over life’s events, our views of teaching and learning and our conceptions of morality.” (Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind)

Nowadays, most people hardly get to think about “the ways people think” because that part of us has been snuffed out either by school or the media. Mind you, it never really is a linear process and the snuffing out always depends a lot on the willingness of the person to abandon this part of the thought process and even schools and media have produced stellar exceptions.

Yes, it is often easier (and feels like it) to stop thinking. Heck I should know, I was a law student and whenever relatives and friends (who obviously had some strange idea that surviving law school is such an intellectual feat) asked me how I did it, (survived) I responded by saying: “I stopped thinking and concentrated on studying.”

Yes, I have to admit, that in law school, I often found that thinking was often counter productive to the quest for decent grades. (And by the way, I loved the reactions on people’s faces in response to my statement.)

Is it also because of the dominant culture of wanting things quick and easy that people readily abandon the capacity for reflective thinking? Interestingly it turns out that popular culture isn’t the only culprit in portraying “philosophers” and “thinkers” as some lot of distracted buffoons seriously in need of fixing.

Historians note how Socrates himself was put to trial in part for causing such a stir with his questions about morality (where it comes from and what it is?). Yes, asking such questions, the stuff of philosophy and ethics, it seems, one can be labeled quite the rabble-rouser or in some cases, stir crazy.

When I was first asked to talk about Ethics, Law and Human Rights, I have to admit (at the risk of more labeling by colleagues and friends who have pointed out my obvious ecstasy for the most esoteric things) that I looked forward to it. After all, I knew I wasn’t going to be doing it for the honorarium.

Preparing for that lecture for me was a little bit like “cleaning house,” and even a bit of updating that can be akin to redecorating, since we’re using that metaphor.

It was in many ways, a welcome opportunity to go back and sift through the clutter of forgotten philosophy readings in college, (a lot of them no doubt, also half-digested) and sort them out literally, with my more recently digested information base on human rights and feminism.

On one hand, a part of me knows and realizes that such opportunities, “cleaning house,” is veritably a class issue. To have a house to clean and stuff in it presupposes access to some kind of education and yes, the time and space to do it.

But at the back of my mind (yes, that often very busy place since they say utilitarian thoughts are on the prefrontal lobe, but we’ll get to that later), I think about how isn’t always accurate to assume that people with education think better than those who do not have formal schooling.

To think is actually a choice and while education can often open opportunities like time, space and the means to do it purposively, regrettably, pissing contests all about accumulated information and “knowledge” in the realm of academia doesn’t quite cut it as “thinking.”

I like considering such displays more like “performances” of thought processes. Yes, I think that is a much better, if not more accurate statement.

The most curious thing about thousands of years of human knowledge is that the quest for the best means of arriving at moral choices has often overtaken the very important issues about how what makes up morality itself.

Even the means of arriving at moral choices is almost always most familiar to us only if handed down as a set of step by step rules, or some sort of rigid law or formula we expect to follow, instead of involving purposeful deliberation or long drawn out decision making.

If you really think about it, the codes and rules and norms are at their coldest, barest, abstract and impersonal form when articulated as "the law." As well meaning as we believe ourselves to be in invoking "the law" in many moral contexts, the purpose of a law (despite the best intentions of its proponents) has often come to mean some thing else besides its original intended meaning.

"No matter how well we have understood the usefulness of some physiological organ or other (or a legal institution, a social custom, a political practice, some style in art or in religious cults), we have not, in that process, grasped anything about its origin—no matter how uncomfortable and unpleasant this may sound in elderly ears. From time immemorial people have believed that in demonstrable purposes, the usefulness of a thing, a form, or an institution, they could understand the reasons it came into existence—the eye as something made to see, the hand as something made to grasp. So people also imagined punishment as invented to punish. But all purposes, all uses, are only signs that a will to power has become master over something with less power and has stamped on it its own meaning of some function, and the entire history of a “thing,” an organ, a practice can by this process be seen as a continuing chain of signs of constantly new interpretations and adjustments, whose causes need not be connected to each other—they rather follow and take over from each other under merely contingent circumstances." (From Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morals)

I recently came across this article which puts a new spin on what philosophers and anybody concerned with ethics, have long pondered about: what makes moral, moral? Where does morality come from?

According to the article, a recent discovery of scientists about way the ventromedial prefrontal cortex affects "decision-making" and "choices" involving what we consider moral dilemas, can shed some light about the possibly neuroscience explanation for morality. Its located in the brain so to speak.

Scientists have basically mapped out where brain activity lies in so-called cognitive and the more social-emotional ones. Apparently, "the moral debate "reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain."

Following the claim of neouroscientists, that the seat of "morality" is actually located in the brain, specifically within the competing subsystems of the brain, they also point out that the socio-emotional seat of the brain is pre-historic, something we inherited from our primate ancestors. The "utilitarian calculus" located in the frontal lobes are supposedly more recently evolved.

The proof scientists offer is simple. People with brain damage, particularly in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, made unusually utilitarian choices when given such problems as: Would you smother your infant to death if while hiding from killers, along with others, your baby starts to cry? Would you throw a seriously injured person off a life boat?

Despite the hoopla however, I don't think the discovery is a cause for declaring the erstwhile domain of philosophers and esrtwhile ethical morality as a dead end. The article discusses how such discoveries have led to recommendations from scientists about manipulating the parts of the brain in cases where the emotive portion of behavior would be "a problem." That other scientists have reacted by urging new bioethical guidelines for research and technology in this area is for me an example of how valid and relevant ethical discussions are in the first place.

One of the alarming recommendations pointed out in one research was the probable use of the technology to scan the brains of soldiers for "emotional interference!"

Honestly, I rather think these kinds of suggestions (not to mention vocabulary!) indicate more of an alarming trend among scientists than actual brain science itself. Emotional interference? I imagine no less than the philosopher David Hume turning in his grave!

When Hume said, "reason is and ought to be the slave of passions," and that "We need a distinctly emotional reaction in order to make a moral pronouncement," he was really on to something. In a way, as the same article points out, the discoveries have also vindicated the emotive part of reasoning as necesarry by the same findings on people with VMPC damage.

An herein lies the paradox. Even supposing that new discoveries are truly useful and beneficial, now that neuroscience has found us a couple of explanations, shall we in the manner societies have privileged law/science/and institutional religion (dogma), now purport that brain science IS THE NEW AUTHORITY on morality?

The author of the article points out tongue in cheek: "What's moral, in the new world, is what's normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit."

But the catch is, what is "normal" has changed over history. And as neuroscience itself points out (re: the recently evolved utilitarian calculus located in the frontal lobes), it has changed even in an evolutionary sense. By this reasoning, even the brain cannot be THE authority because even the brain is not unchanging.

This for me actually brings us back to what even the ancient philosophers had to begin with in the very first place and consider: the individual person. Yes, we have (however meanderingly in this post) made it back to ourselves. Our evolution (literally and philosophically speaking) apparently depends a lot on us.

Must Reads:

If you think Friedrich Nietzsche is a bit too heavy, you can also get the drift of what he essentially said in the quote through this conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland.(Scroll down to 364 for the conversation about what "words" mean.)


Blogger Kent said...

Just wandering around blog land and saw your post.

Were it true that in the end it was all about or all because of me, my existence would be unbearably lonely and futile. I thank God that I have purpose, not just a small part in a big chain of chance happenings (evolution).

Blessings and peace be upon you.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Carolina S. Ruiz Austria said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Carolina S. Ruiz Austria said...

You probably don't realize how thrilling this is for me. A comment from somebody outside my circle of friends about a post, even if solitary certainly made my day.

I understand how maybe how I write and how I articulate my thoughts on moral philosophy can probably strike a lot of readers as a sign of possible and probable "secularism," and while I acknowledge Kent's comments are very much well received (having been extended in what was obviously a very cordial and candid way), I guess its only fitting that I reveal a little about my own thoughts about GOD. I do believe in God too and am actually a Catholic who has very strong feelings about the faith I grew up with. I guess the way I think/feel about evolution isn't something usual for somebody not coming from any professed secularism but neither do I think it is a minority view/sentiment. I'd rather think that every little new discovery about the "science" of the mind somehow also elegantly fits in so well with the profound faith and belief in a maker, that is if you come from such a tradition. I thank the maker that my first ever comment (from a person outside my immediate circle) is from somebody who obviously shares this respectful view of acknowledging it could be different for others...though in the end, if he gets to read my response, I'm sure he would probably be surprised how I am not much different after all. Peace and blessings back at you, Kent.

7:56 PM  

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