Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

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Happiness, Compassion, Dalai Lama, and Maternal Love

Happiness comes from caring for others

Fresno Bee March 7, 2014

Compassion is deeply rooted in our biology. Human beings are conceived in love. We are carried in our mother’s bodies. And for the first days of our lives, we are nurtured by mother’s milk. How is it, then, that we become exploitative, selfish and unhappy?

That question was raised by the Dalai Lama when he spoke recently at Santa Clara University. I was fortunate to attend that event, which began with the 78-year-old monk recalling the nurturing love of his own mother. He argued that compassion grows from the experience of maternal love.

In one of his writings, the Dalai Lama suggests we should learn “to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all.” The idea of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism may help. If a stranger may have once been my mother or my child, I might view that stranger differently. In another place, the Dalai Lama writes that he tries to treat each person he meets as if she were an old friend.

Religious metaphysics aside, there is no denying that we are social animals. We possess a basic tendency toward community and cooperation. But the seeds of compassion are fragile. They must be nurtured and can easily be destroyed. The Dalai Lama suggested that our mode of life promotes selfishness, which increases anxiety and undermines community.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s presentation was surrounded by the stresses of modern life. The Bay Area traffic was difficult. The audience had to endure long lines and security searches before entering the building. Police roamed the hall. Protesters gathered outside. The political situation in Tibet remains complicated. Before his visit to California, the Dalai Lama met with President Barack Obama. The meeting outraged the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama’s message is a deceptively simple antidote to all of that turmoil. On Thursday he delivered a prayer in the U.S. Congress, where he said: “Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow.” Easier said than done in the U.S. Congress!

At his Santa Clara speech he said that compassion reduces stress, produces inner peace, builds trust and engenders happiness. Selfishness destroys relationships, breeds anger and leaves us lonely. He indicated that much of this has been confirmed by medical science. Indeed, some studies show that smiling can decrease anxiety and that happiness is contagious. Compassion is linked to health and longevity.

When we concern ourselves with the happiness of others we become happier. When we give happiness, we get it in return. When we ignore others, we suffer more. There is a paradox here: To get what you want, you have to give it away. But by giving happiness, your attitude changes so that you no longer selfishly desire your own happiness. You find happiness when you are no longer obsessed with it.

It is easy to dismiss this, along with the idea of reincarnation, as silly, superficial and superstitious. Some horrors cannot be cured with love. The causes of unhappiness are biological, social and political. Compassion is important. But it needs to be organized and mobilized.

Compassion cannot eradicate traffic jams, security queues and war. Hardness and cynicism are coping strategies in a broken world. Most of the time, we live quite far from the nurturing simplicity of mother’s love; and some people, like the Dalai Lama, live in permanent exile.

But strategic cynicism should not undermine imagination and hope. Love is difficult to imagine before it happens. I never imagined the transformative power of love until my own children were born. My desire for their happiness is strange and unexpected. I am happy when they are happy. I suffer when they suffer. How odd! But here is a kernel of hope.

The Dalai Lama’s focus on maternal love is a reminder that each of us can discover a capacity for care that was previously unimagined. What if we could learn to love all of our neighbors as we love our own children? What if we could see strangers as relatives and old friends? A story about reincarnation may help. Or we may simply need to remember that each of was loved and that each is worthy of love. And we might thank our mothers for that.

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It’s time to stop privatizing our grief

Fresno Bee

January 10, 2014

In December, Jahi McMath, an Oakland 13-year-old, was declared brain-dead. Her family refused to pull the plug. After court intervention, Jahi was moved into a care facility. Her prognosis is grim.

It is easy to sympathize with Jahi’s family. It is always difficult to believe someone we love is dead. It must be more difficult when your child’s body is warm and her heart is beating.

There are deep questions here about death, dying and grieving. These perennial issues are made tougher in a culture like ours that is often in denial about death.

I spoke about this with Nate Hinerman, a professor at Golden Gate University. Hinerman is an expert on dying and grieving and the editor of a book about the presence of the dead in our lives.

Hinerman suggests that pop culture makes dying appear as something unnatural — it happens by accident, at the hands of criminals or as a result of medical malfeasance. We no longer see dying as something natural or normal.

Dying happens in institutional settings, instead of in our homes. We don’t see it happening. As a result, we don’t know how to think about it or fit it into our worldview.

Hinerman is also critical of our tendency to pathologize and privatize grief. Instead of viewing grieving as a normal process, we view it as a disease that should be quickly gotten over. When it lingers too long, it can be diagnosed as depression and cured with a pill. But Hinerman suggests there is no right way to grieve.

We also think it is polite to leave the grieving alone. We avoid talking about death and loss because of our own discomfort. We use euphemisms like “passed away” to speak around the issue. And so death and dying recede from ordinary experience, leaving us speechless and clumsy around the bereaved.

Dying and grieving are thus devalued. The whole process is seen as shameful and bad — to be staved off and hidden away. The solution, Hinerman suggests, is to take these things out of the closet. We need more education about dying and grieving. We need to see the process and think about it before it happens to us. And when it does happen, we need quality care both for the patient and for those left behind.

I suspect we also need to simply admit that there is no way out of this life except through the door of death and grief. The world’s philosophical traditions have always made this clear. The path to wisdom is to admit our own mortality and to recognize that everyone we love will someday perish.

But this admission is made harder by the promise of medical science. In December, as Jahi’s case was unfolding, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging announced that they had extended the lifespan of a nematode — a small worm — by five times. A similar increase for humans would mean a life of 400-500 years.

With the elixir of immortality near at hand, death appears unfair and irrelevant. We don’t expect people to die anymore or want to think about it. It seems fatalistic and pessimistic to accept dying and grieving. Maybe modern science will fulfill the dream of the ancient alchemists and finally cure us of our mortality.

I’m not convinced that longevity would be all we imagine it to be. Life without death might leave us unable to experience the depth of care and love. Love is unique to mortal beings who are aware of our need for care and the potential for loss.

One risk of love is grief. To love someone is to be indelibly affected by their presence. We will be damaged when our loved ones die. But they will also remain present with us. Grief resonates in the empty places in our hearts where those we love uncannily dwell.

Scientific miracles and the alienating institutions of death and dying can confuse us about this. Death is not a good thing. But accepting our mortality may increase the intensity of love and life. Our lover’s beauty, our parents’ twinkling eyes and our children’s joyful laughter are accentuated by the bittersweet awareness that for all its wonders, life is usually far too short.


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Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ raises ethical questions

Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ raises ethical questions, reminds us to appreciate the humanities

June 14, 2013

Would you be willing to destroy half of humanity in order to save the human species from going extinct? Would it be acceptable to involuntarily sterilize people in an effort to prevent overpopulation? Those are the central questions of Dan Brown’s new novel, “Inferno.”

Brown’s novel is fun summer reading that poses troubling ethical questions. It is also a reminder of the value of the humanities. The villains in Brown’s novels are zealots. In “The Da Vinci Code” the bad guys were religious fanatics. In this novel, the villains are mad scientists. The hero is a tweedy humanities professor who loves art and poetry.

While “Inferno” isn’t great literature, it inspires appreciation for art, poetry, philosophy and history. It celebrates the skills learned in the humanities: to learn to read carefully, to think broadly and deeply and to understand the symbols and cultural artifacts that surround us.

Brown’s villains are coldly inhumane: They think population control can be justified by simple mathematics. There are too many people, so something must be done. This idea is rooted in Machiavelli, the Renaissance theorist who warned that teeming population would inevitably be purged. Terrorists are often Machiavellian in thinking that the end justifies the means. Machiavellian idealists treat human beings as things to be manipulated and quantities to be calculated rather than as persons to be valued and loved.

Study in the humanities teaches us to be wary of Machiavellian schemes. Philosophers have long warned that nothing straight can be constructed from the crooked timber of humanity. We are not wise enough or virtuous enough to engineer reality or impose final solutions.

The humanities remind us that uncritical certainty is linked to hubris. Human beings achieve moments of profound insight and sparkling beauty. But these moments do not last forever. Indeed, they are often undone by the zealots and idealists who insist that they know how to save humankind from itself.

Brown’s novel is set in Italy. It celebrates the art of the Renaissance. Great art reminds us of the power of human genius. But history warns us against taking ourselves too seriously. Before the Renaissance, the Greeks and Romans also created luminous works of genius. The cycles repeat. Saviors come and go. Civilizations rise and fall. Each generation is plagued by its own narcissism, thinking that its creative genius is unique and unprecedented.

But historical awareness should make us wary of that sort of narcissism. A sense of history should make us modest in assessing the value of our own ideals. It should also inspire skepticism toward those who propound simple technological solutions to complex human problems.

So what can we do about the population problem? A solution requires something more than science and technology. Purely technical solutions — such as forced sterilization — would work on a population of rodents or insects. But human beings are not pests to be controlled. We inhabit a world of spirit and ideas. We hope, we dream; and we create art, literature and philosophy. We also love.

Brown’s “Inferno” borrows its title from Dante Alighieri’s famous poem about hell. Dante was a romantic whose poetry was inspired by Beatrice, a beautiful woman he loved from afar. Dante recounts that his love for Beatrice kindled a flame of charity that moved him to forgive everyone, including his enemies. Love transforms us, making us ethical and inspiring work of creative genius.

The population problem is driven by sex. Machiavellian technologists may argue that sex should be subjected to mathematical control. But the humane solution is to find a way to transform sex into love — to broaden and sublimate the sex drive in ways made possible by art, literature, religion and philosophy.

People need to be educated and empowered to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. But we also need to be reminded that there is more to life than mating and reproducing.

Technology without humanity can easily become heartless. The study of the humanities cures that sort of spiritual sterility. And it reminds us to beware of zealots offering quick fixes for deeply human problems. The humanities won’t save the world. But they remind us about those works of love, genius and beauty that make humankind worth saving.

True Love Overpowers Cynicism, Marketing

Ethics: True love overpowers cynicism, marketing

By Andrew Fiala

Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 | 11:10 AM

Valentine’s Day celebrates the defiant, unruly and awe-inspiring power of love. Love is emotional, unstable and fleeting. But it offers hope, inspiration and a taste of eternity.

When we fall in love, we are overcome by desire for the beloved. We crave the other’s presence and feel incomplete without them. We will break rules and resist authority to be with the beloved. That’s the story of Romeo and Juliet: defiant teenage lovers who cannot stand to live apart.

The legend of Saint Valentine is also connected with the rebellious affirmation of love. Valentine supposedly married Christians in defiance of Roman law. This led to his martyrdom. Love arouses courageous resistance to authority and sacrificial deeds.

Philosophers have long noted the power of love. Plato suggested that love stimulates virtue. Love inspires us to become better, so that we are more deserving of the beautiful presence of the beloved. And Plato hinted that love and beauty were eternal goods.

Kant explained that beauty is a symbol of morality. When we love a beautiful object, we celebrate its inherent worth. True love is for the sake of the beloved. The Romantics extolled the experience of beauty and the spiritual power of love. Emerson explained “all mankind loves a lover.” We love to see people in love. The smiles and glances of those who have fallen in love are hints of joy and magic.

Love is enchanting and beauty is bewitching. Advertisers know this. They use love and beauty to sell us products, filling our screens with enticing appearances and images of lovers. Too much of a focus on beautiful appearances is a problem. It can lead us to see persons as objects. Facebook “friends,” pornography, video games and the icons of popular culture are pixels without personality. Such images are disposable and exchangeable. We use them, discard them, and move on to the next.

There is a risk that we will come to see living human persons this way, if we are too focused on beautiful appearances. The risk is that we will move through relationships and interact with people as if they were merely pictures on a screen. Attraction to beautiful images remains skin deep. Love aims deeper, toward the person who abides beneath changing appearances.

Shakespeare indicated this when he suggested that true love lasts beyond the changes of the seasons. In one of his sonnets, he says to his beloved, “thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Love remains devoted to the beauty of the other, the youthful summer day, even as time moves on. Great and beautiful love affairs are hints of eternity. The Shakespearian lover remains enamored of the beloved even as death approaches.

Some may deny that there is such thing as deep and abiding love. Critics will claim that attraction and appetite rule the day, that love is a flowery façade concealing primal desires. The critic will dismiss love with a cynical wink and a salacious snicker.

The cynic is right that love remains an ideal. It is obvious that we are seduced by appetite and appearance. But ethical love corrects the wandering eye and the hungry heart out of devotion to the beloved. If there is no such thing as true and eternal love, the lover claims that there ought to be.

Our culture celebrates the dazzling heat of young, impetuous lovers. But this ignores the fact that young love dies, as Romeo and Juliet did. Would Romeo still love Juliet as her beauty faded and her hair turned grey? Would Juliet love a pudgy, balding Romeo?

Lasting love requires commitment and care for the concrete reality of an actual person over time. Genuine love happens when you love the other person despite their changing appearance, through hardship, illness and despair. It happens when we see the summer day even in the gloom of February.

It is not always easy to see the beauty in the other. Some days it is quite hard to love ourselves, and even harder to love anyone else. But true lovers look for the ideal, defying the changing appearances and the ravages of time. They keep looking for the summer day. Nothing lasts forever. But true love comes close.

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