CAN BRAIN SCIENCES ELIMINATE EVIL?
Thanks to modern technologies that enable us to observe, in increasing detail, not only how brains are organised but how they function, and thanks to increasingly capable communications networks and knowledge-management systems, humanity is slowly advancing toward a comprehensive model explaining how the brain works. This task is still very much incomplete but what would be the consequences of its eventual success? What would happen to our minds, when we know our minds completely?
I think that one consequence, once the science is common knowledge among laypersons, would be the elimination of evil.
What do I mean by that?
First, let me explain what I do not mean. I do not mean that, by developing a science sophisticated enough to understand exactly how brains work, we will be able to create a utopia in which nobody ever perpetrates a wrongful act. What I do mean, is that we will reject the concept of ‘evil’ as an immaterial malevolent force which affects some people and causes them to do immoral things. In replace of this outmoded form of thinking, we will have a more mechanistic, malfunction-based way of explaining why people do things which society has deemed immoral.
In the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, there is a scene in which lead character Basil Fawlty is driving his car in a desperate race to reach his destination on time. Inevitably, Murphy’s Law kicks into effect and his car suffers a mechanical breakdown. Trying the ignition several times, and greeted only with the sounds of an engine that refuses to turn over, all the while yelling “Start! Start you selfish bastard, start!”, Fawlty gets out of his car, tells it “right, you’re in for a damn good thrashing” and punishes his uncooperative vehicle by beating it with a branch of a tree.
What makes this scene so absurd and comedic is the fact that Fawlty puts so much blame- in a moral sense- onto his car’s mechanical breakdown. Of course, the vehicle cannot be held morally responsible for jeapordising Fawlty’s gourmet night. It was not an ‘evil bastard’; it simply had suffered a mechanical failure that caused it to cease functioning as it should.
We all can see the absurdity in condemning a machine as evil and slapping it with a makeshift club in order to punish it, but why not see judging people as ‘evil’ as equally absurd? Are they really evil or, like the car, do they have some kind of malfunction which affects their ability to follow social norms?
Broadly speaking, the tendency to be violent or break the rules of society can be seen as being largely a problem of self-control. People who commit crimes do not have the ability to see that a larger reward which is further off in the future outweighs the benefits of a smaller reward which is imminent. Thus, the criminally minded are self-indulgent types who do things which help oneself in the short-term but which will very likely hurt oneself more in the long-term.
The psychologists Janet Metcalf and Walther Mischel carried out studies into ’myopic discounting’ in children (myopic discounting being the name for choosing instant gratification over a higher reward which is further in the future). Studies like these lead economists David Laibson and George Lowenstein (themselves working alongside psychologists and neuroimagers) to conclude that myopic discounting can be seen as a give-or-take between two brain systems. Steven Pinker dubbed these two brain systems ’hot’ and ’cool’, but in neuroscientific terms they are the limbic system and the frontal lobes.
According to Pinker, “the lymbic system includes the rage, fear, and dominance systems that run from the midbrain through the hypothalamus to the amygdala, together with the dopamine-driven seeking circuit that runs from the hypothalamus through to the striatum. Both have two-way connections to the orbital cortex and other parts of frontal lobes, which… can modulate the activity of these emotional circuits”.
Well, there’s a lot of awfully complex-sounding words in that explanation (neuroscience is a master of using latin words to make things sound well-understood. Calling a region of the brain an ‘amygdala’ sounds so much more impressive than ’thingy that looks like a walnut’ which is a fairly accurate translation of ’amygdala’. And then there is the parts of the brain which, when translated from Latin into English, is ’unknown stuff’). But in simpler terms, it says that we all have circuits in the brain which tell us ’go for it!” and circuits in the brain which modulate such impulsive behaviour, enabling us to act more rationally and weigh up the risk-reward benefits and costs.
Armed with knowledge that the brain contains ’hot’ and ’cool’ systems, and understanding where in the brain those two brain systems are, neuroimagers can literally read people’s minds and predict when they will opt for a reward now and when they will abstain from instant gratification in favour of a greater reward that is further off in the future, just by noticing what areas of the brain are ’lighting up’ during fMRI scans.
Long before we had fMRI scanners or any means of peering into live brains to see how they work, psychologists have known that damage to the frontal lobes results in a peculiarly impulsive form of behaviour. If you have frontal lobe damage, you become purely impulse-driven. Put a chair in front of such a person and they will automatically sit on it. Give them an apple and they will reflexively bite into it. I do not know what would happen if you gave such people a gun, but if it ended in tragedy I think it is fair to say that the person is no more ‘evil’ than a person who is paralysed and unable to get out of bed when ordered is ‘lazy’.
Another study into the biology of immoral acts focused on genetics. There is an enzyme in the brain called monoamine oxidise-a or MAO-A for short, and what it does is break down certain neurotransmitters preventing them from building up in the brain. A Dutch family carries a rare mutation that leaves half the men of the family without a working version of the gene that codes for MAO-A, and the result of this inheritable defect is that they are prone to aggressive outbursts. Again, we find a physical, mechanistic explanation for why some individuals’ behaviour falls outside of socially-held views of what is ‘right’,
My conjecture is that we will always be able to reduce any criminal behaviour to a miss-wiring or other kind of malfunction of the brain’s circuitry. In the future, if a person repeatedly breaks the rules of society, rather than suppose some malevolent spirit possessed that person and rather than or condemn them as being ‘pure evil’, we would be able to diagnose the specific neurological malfunctions which leads to their being incapable of following the rules, just as a mechanic could have diagnosed the actual physical reason for Basil Fawlty’s clapped-out old mini and come up with a more useful, rational explanation than ‘it’s an evil bastard’.
If we can diagnose such malfunctions, why can we not also correct them, thereby achieving a utopian society in which everybody is good?
I suppose, given suitably advanced medical technology, we could repair or redesign brains to produce minds which better conform to social norms (those do-anything nanobots beloved of the bright-eyed and optimistic transhumanists would be, as always, an effective tool) but, moral relativist that I am, I am reluctant to say that this would result in a world in which evil acts were eliminated once and for all.
The thing with morality is, our concepts of what are acceptable and what is a gross violation of all that is good, are not immutable but always evolving. Very often, the problem the world has is not a lack of morality, but rather that there is too much of it. Some of the most outrageous crimes against humanity (to our modern eyes) were carried out by people who were driven by a deep-seated sense of moral rightousness. The grim examples include all the homocides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, religious and revolutionary wars, and ideological genocides.
It is a sobering thought to ponder what might have happened if the societies which perpetrated such despicable acts had gained access to neurotechnologies which could rewire citizen’s brains and so make them behave in ways which were deemed ‘morally acceptable’ to that society. I think it is fair to say that the world would be a much darker, malevolent place than it is today.
I like, also, to think that the advances we have made in spreading democracy, abolishing slavery, condemning torture, and expanding the circle of human rights gives us reason to suppose we are a much more tolerant, enlightened bunch than our temperamental, hot-headed ancestors were. But perhaps we should not get too self-congratulatory and remind ourselves that our future descendants may look back on our way of life and be just as appalled at our behaviour.
Maybe human behaviour and the collective action of billions of people is too complex and prone to the ‘butterfly effect’ for there ever to be a grand ethical system which neatly divides actions into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and so it could be that, no matter how sophisticated science and technology becomes, we will never be able to rewire people’s brains and produce free-thinking agents who always do what is intrinsically, morally right. But perhaps, as our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of human behaviour grows toward a complete picture of how minds work and what, physically, goes wrong when they produce bad judgements, we will eliminate ‘evil’ as an explanation for the occurrence of immoral or unethical behaviour in favour of a more scientific, neurological prognosis.