Skip to main content
Fascinating Blog

If Aristotle covered it, it’s not news

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

The great value of science is in its capacity to prove counter-intuitive concepts.  But like any pearl of great price, such events are rare and hard to find.  Far more often we see a scientific sheen being put over common sand, forming the epistemological equivalent of costume jewelry.

Exhibit A is Matthew Hutson’s article in the New York Times “Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts.”

Hutson, author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” is one of those thinkers who delights in using all the formidable capacities gained by achieving a B.S. in cognitive neuroscience (and an M.S. in science writing) to show us how little we know ourselves.

“We like to believe that the principled side of (morality) is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction,” he writes in the Times.  “But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes.”

A “growing wealth of research” shows that our ethical intuitions can be shaped by subjective factors?  Wow, that would be shocking … except that Aristotle already covered it.

The whole point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that ethical behavior is formed by and through subjective states of mind, rather than an abstract knowledge of “the good.”  Aristotle writes about how young people “are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing,” and that “With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it.”  The idea that someone’s judgement was susceptible to how hungry they were, or the mood they were in, was a given. 

Aristotle was hardly alone.  St. Augustine  understood that one’s state of mind can impact one’s ethical judgments (he recounts how having bad companions led him into bad behavior, among many other things).  So did St. Thomas Aquinas … so did Hobbs …

Hutson’s discovery, in other words, has been common knowledge for thousands of years.   Indeed the whole reason why we have works of philosophical ethics is BECAUSE our judgments are so habitually wayward that we need clear guidelines to follow … flawed as our ability to follow them might be.  The whole point of ethics is that we are not creatures of pure reason.  If we were, we wouldn’t need ethics.

There’s nothing new here.  Hutson’s disproving a premise that no one ever held … except, perhaps, for Objectivists and Vulcans, neither of which really exist.

Hutson’s examples of this phenomenon are equally unsurprising.  Exhibit A:

“For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses.”

So … let’s get this straight:  when people are primed to think abstractly, they tend to do so, valueing abstract goods over concrete losses.  When people are primed to think in concrete terms, they tend to do so, sympathizing with suffering individuals over abstract notions of “the good.”

Of course it works that way.  When you prime someone to think about something, they think about it.  That’s the whole point.  What you think about right now impacts what you think about in the next moment.  It would be much more shocking if you primed people to think one way and then it didn’t change anything.  The result would be so odd that the default assumption would be that researches hadn’t primed people effectively, not that priming doesn’t change thought and behavior.

Hutson goes on:

Upper-income subjects took more money from another subject to multiply it and give to others, and found it more acceptable to push a fat man in front of a trolley to save five others on the track — both outcome-oriented responses.

But asking subjects to focus on the feelings of the person losing the money made wealthier respondents less likely to accept such a trade-off.

Well yes – that’s how this works.  The more you encourage someone to empathize, the less likely they are to be cruel.  A well understood phenomenon.  Once again, it’s been covered by Aristotle, Voltaire, and the Dalai Lama.  Neuroscience didn’t invent it.

The end result of all this repetition is a call by Hutson for us “to encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely.”  Honestly you can’t get any more old hat than that.  That’s exactly what the study of ethics is.

People with degrees in neuroscience have a disturbing tendency to take any old facet of human nature, gussy it up with some talk about “new science,” and claim they’ve discovered it.  But I’d like to suggest a new rule:

If anyone from the Greeks through Freud already covered it, it hasn’t been “discovered” by neuroscience.

It’s depressing that this has to be said out loud.