21st century enlightenment

Another great video from RSA-Animate.  Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) explores the meaning of  21st century enlightenment. There are many worthy ideas here, and given the way understanding of the brain is highlighted, I was naturally smitten.  My favourite line: “21st century enlightenment calls for us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice, and of progress.” [2nd place: “The moral and political critique of individualism now has an evidence base.” ]

Watch, and feel free to note your favourite (or most reviled) line in the comments.

Does the Science of “Prosocial Behaviour” Smuggle in a Political Prior?

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers’ reliably lively ScienceBlogs province, a recent post offers some incisive treatment of a philosophically arresting debate between Sam Harris and sundry interlocutors, most prominently Sean Carroll. The topic – whether science can answer moral questions, or, more perilously rendered, whether one can, in fact, derive “ought” from “is” – exerts a tidal attraction upon my blogging muscles, but I can resist for now; Myers’ relevance to this entry issues specifically from a choice bit of phraseology in his write-up.

When Harris claims that the discernment of human well-being (and hence of utility-maximizing courses of action) is a purely empirical matter, Myers finds him guilty of “smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.” What I want to explore after the jump is the following possibility:

It may be that the developing body of work in neuroscience and psychology probing various morally charged phenomena has been smuggling in a politically loaded prior under the terminologically neutral guise of the category “prosocial behaviour.”

Continue reading


Adbusters, the magazine for and about culture jamming, never ceases to amaze me.  But this time, the thought-provoking issue is not their content per se, but rather one of the Letters to the Editor that they published.  It is from a long-term reader named Taylor Hudson, who begins his missive with this gentle disconnection:  “With a kind smile, I’m writing to share with you why I have canceled my subscription.”  Taylor goes on to explain, in a long and very thoughtful letter, that “It’s not enough to criticize anymore.  It is exhausting, disheartening and counterproductive…  Adbusters has presented or railed around very few true solutions for fostering people’s happiness.  For therein lies the real revolution, right?  To claim the right to be happy and free?”  [Adbusters does have at least one ‘campaign’ that is intended to foster happiness: Digital Detox Week.  Regular readers will recognize its similarity to a regular rant of my own.]

I very much like the gentle manner in which Taylor Hudson made his point to Adbusters, and wish to do likewise for neuroethics. Not to disconnect, but rather to suggest that we regularly scrub our analyses of innovations in the neurosciences to be sure that they are not criticisms devoid of solutions.  It is hardly news to point out that fields such as neuroethics can slip into the realm of nagging, raising alarms about new innovations and the harm they might bring to individuals, to society, to our very way of being.  In fairness, this is a natural outcome of the kinds of issues that we deal with in the field, and probably all of us have tripped up now and again while attempting to avoid that particular pitfall.  But really, it is easy to be a critic.

The challenge in neuroethics is to distinguish ourselves from the neuro-Technophiles, for whom all change is good, and from the neuro-Luddites, for whom all change is bad.  Rather, I suggest that we strive to find a third way, using techniques of close observation to analyze ways in which advances in the neurosciences writ large are or are about to affect us all, and then offering innovative solutions to make it more likely that these wondrous, exciting and even inevitable changes in the world around us, to the extent possible, improve the human condition.

Link to Adbusters’ Magazine and their Digital Detox Week Campaign

Image Credit: Smithereensblog

On Cooperation

handshakeOne of the enduring questions of human existence relates to the tension between private and common interest. Often framed as the distinction between cooperation and individualism, it can be summarized as asking, “to what extent are my actions determined by my desire to pursue my own self-interest versus the interests of others.”  The dilemma was certainly recognized by Darwin, but has been the focus of several bursts of academic interest in the last 50 years.  In the 1960s, William Hamilton began to formalize the idea that altruism towards kin – those with whom we share some genetic heritage – made sense using the tools of evolutionary theory, and Richard Dawkins famously added a laser-like focus to this formalism with his selfish gene hypothesis.

But what are we to make of the fact that humans regularly help individuals who are not kin?  In the 1970s, Robert Trivers developed the notion of reciprocal altruism to explain such cooperative behaviour – essentially, if you help me I’ll help you.  Soon thereafter, game theory began to be applied to the paradigm, and has turned out to be an exemplary way of probing the tension between cooperation and selfish behaviour (a previous post dealt with game theory and reciprocal altruism).  In one prominent series of studies, Ernst Fehr and his colleagues have amassed a substantial body of data showing that the kind of large scale cooperative behaviour exhibited by humans is dependent primarily upon the threat of punishment: the tit for tat hypothesis.  Now, in a new paper in Science, Rand et al. challenge this view, showing that in a public goods game, positive interactions promote cooperation when repeated interactions are expected to occur.  From the abstract.

The public goods game is the classic laboratory paradigm for studying collective action problems. Each participant chooses how much to contribute to a common pool that returns benefits to all participants equally. The ideal outcome occurs if everybody contributes the maximum amount, but the self-interested strategy is not to contribute anything. Most previous studies have found punishment to be more effective than reward for maintaining cooperation in public goods games. The typical design of these studies, however, represses future consequences for todays actions. In an experimental setting, we compare public goods games followed by punishment, reward, or both in the setting of truly repeated games, in which player identities persist from round to round. We show that reward is as effective as punishment for maintaining public cooperation and leads to higher total earnings. Moreover, when both options are available, reward leads to increased contributions and payoff, whereas punishment has no effect on contributions and leads to lower payoff. We conclude that reward outperforms punishment in repeated public goods games and that human cooperation in such repeated settings is best supported by positive interactions with others.

This work from Nowak’s group reprises a theme that is important in considering neuroeconomic studies of human behaviour: it is important to model the behaviour as closely as possible on the real world conditions in which humans live (and thrive), while trying to limit confounding variables as laboratory experiments are wont to do. [For another take on the issue, see this paper in Nature from earlier in the year, also from Nowak’s group.  Also, there is an excellent commentary in the recent issue of Science on the origins of cooperation by Elizabeth Pennissi.]

The tension between private and common interest is certainly of interest to academics studying the evolution of social behavior, but it is also central to nearly every debate about political life in the modern world.  Examples abound (the current health care debate in the US is an obvious one), but as a citizen of both the US and Canada, one comment in a recent issue of The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik strikes me as particularly relevant.  The article is a profile of Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Official Opposition and the Liberal party in Canada, and possibly the next Prime Minister of the country.  Because Ignatieff is both a politician and a political philosopher who spent 25 years abroad including a long stint on the faculty of Harvard, it was perhaps inevitable that Gopnik’s prose would wander into describing the unique brand of glue that holds together the country known as Canada.

We are not, and have never been, the Canadian collectivists argue – in conscious opposition to older Anglo-American traditions – the rational individuals of liberal contract theory.  No man is an island, and rules made for imaginary islands ignore the fragile ecology of the archipelago.  We are people who live in communities, and our sense of who we are derives from what the people around us are like.  To exalt the individual and his rights at the expense of nurturing the tenuous threads of togetherness leads to violence, alienation, political apathy, and the growth of crazy movements that can supply, in moonshine form, the sense of solidarity that pure “rights” liberalism can’t – the very traits that Canadians see in a nearby country, they name no names.