Guilt by Free Association

By Dave Andrusko

Dave Andrusko, NRL News Today editor

Dave Andrusko, NRL News Today editor

As part of our ongoing series of stories that have appeared in National Right to Life News since the 1970s, here is an editorial that ran in the November 2001 edition of the “Pro-Life Newspaper of Record.” If you are not subscribing, call us at 202-626-8828.

As any responsible pro-lifer knows, we are a peaceful, law-abiding lot, which drives our benighted opposition to tear out their hair. Their strategy for 30+ years has never changed: keep people’s attention off of abortion’s inhumanity. Their two most successful stratagems are (1)to insist abortion is about “who chooses?” rather than what is chosen; and (2)to insist that those who oppose the killing are beyond the pale.

Most times this latter strategy is straightforward name-calling. But not infrequently it’s marginally subtle and often rears its unfriendly head in major media outlets. Consider…

“Watching How the Brain Works as It Weighs a Moral Dilemma” appeared in the New York Times September 25, 2001. Written by Sandra Blakeslee the story drew on a fascinating article published in the September 14 “Science” magazine. But to obtain the conclusion Blakeslee wants requires that she goes far beyond the cautious conclusions drawn there.

The Princeton study dealt with two groups of nine people who were asked to wrestle with 60 hypothetical moral dilemmas. They used buttons to indicate whether the proposed action was appropriate or inappropriate.

Blakeslee’s story begins with two of the moral quandaries, both of which require the participant to consider whether it is appropriate that one person die to save five others. One scenario is more “impersonal” (requiring only that a switch be thrown), while the other is more personal (requiring the direct killing of someone to save the five).

Most people agree that the first action is appropriate but not the latter. Blakeslee writes,

“After many years of debate, moral philosophers have never been able to arrive at a set of principles to explain why people treat the two situations differently. But now a new study suggests that at least part of the answer lies not in philosophy but in the working of the brain.”

How’d they know that? The Princeton study participants rested inside functioning imaging machines that measured changes in blood flow to detect brain activity. According to authors Joshua D. Greene, R. Brian Sommerville, Leigh E. Nystrom, John M. Darley, and Jonathan D. Cohen, a region of the brain more actively engaged will “light up brightly compared with less active regions.”

It turns out that a different area of the brain is engaged, depending on the nature of the dilemma presented. The more impersonal moral quandary is processed by that part of the brain that deals primarily with memory, while the personal dilemma activates a part of the brain that deals primarily with emotions. [In this case, we’re told, the memory areas are “temporarily suppress(ed).”]

This emotional entanglement, the authors of the study published in Science propose, is “the crucial [but not sole] difference” in explaining the variance. The “personal dilemma” is “more emotionally salient.”

The authors caution that their conclusion is “descriptive rather than prescriptive” – – they do not claim to show which judgements are wrong or right morally. Indeed, because some participants overcame (if that is the right word) their emotional aversion to being directly involved in the (hypothetical) deaths, it illustrates that moral judgments engage both reason and emotion.

But Blakeslee has bigger fish to fry. She writes,

“Dr. Jonathan Cohen of Princeton, a psychologist and expert on brain imaging who worked on the study, says it begins to provide tools to understand why people with different cultural backgrounds can arrive at different conclusions about moral dilemmas, like taking a life for some greater good. If people’s gut-level emotions are organized differently as a result of their backgrounds, he said, they may reason differently about what is right or wrong.”

The next paragraph then suggests,

“While moral philosophy deals with ethics and logic rather than emotion and biology, Dr. Stephen Stich, a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Rutgers, says that in the real world people have feelings about life-and-death issues. Knowing how their brains behave as they wrestle with difficult issues like abortion and euthanasia may be more useful than most philosophers realize, Dr. Stich said.”

Blakeslee then recruits Dr. Jonathan Haidt, described as an expert on moral psychology at the University of Virginia, who told the Times, “It’s crazy to say that the mind is based on reasoning alone.” Haidt appears to go all the way over to the other side when he says that moral judgments are “a matter of intuition and gut feeling” and that “cultural background affects even the most basic intuitions about the difference between right and wrong.”

Dr. Haidt argues that the results of the Princeton research indicate that children learn about morality not from simply reading the Ten Commandments or by engaging in classroom exercises that tackle moral dilemmas but

“by observing how their parents, teachers and other adults react to moral problems and by showing emotions like sadness, happiness, anger and disgust. Children internalize those reactions in emotional brain circuits, he said. When they encounter morally challenging situations later in life, these automatic gut feelings help guide their decision making.”

Makes sense, right? Well, ponder the concluding paragraph:

“People who are emotionally wrought by anger or disgust, say, over abortion or the condition of the downtrodden, may decide that certain brutal actions are morally acceptable, the researchers said. While it would be a stretch to try to apply the study’s findings to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they said, it is now possible to study scientifically how moral reasoning differs among individual people and across cultures.”

Is this to suggest that when pro-lifers are “emotionally wrought” over the slaughter of innocent children, we “may decide that certain brutal actions are morally acceptable”? Or that our efforts to instill in our kids the precepts of the Ten Commandments are overridden by the subliminal message that we are angry about abortion and therefore our children “internalize” the message that it’s okay to act violently? Or that we (potentially, at least) are the equivalent of terrorists who kill thousands of innocent people?

For more than 30 years we’ve been lectured that our opposition to the taking of innocent life is much ado about nothing. Now we’re told that very much is much ado about something: we may be rearing violence-prone children!

What poppycock! The entire vocabulary of the pro-life movement – – verbal and non-verbal – – is non-violent. An absolute commitment to finding peaceful win-win solutions is the foundation of its moral grammar. Our heads and our hearts work in perfect harmony toward the same end: helping both mother and unborn child.

But the story’s implication is correct in one sense. By our examples, we ARE teaching our children lessons. At the very head of that list of moral instructions is the Sixth Commandment: thou shall not kill.