Friday, September 19, 2008

Startles and Moral Reasoning

I was startled awake today by the work at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, that showed a potential link between political affiliation and startle response. Partisan Republicans exhibit greater startle response to threats than do partisan Democrats, seemingly supporting the penumbra of classic definitions of "liberal" like this fine Bertrand Russell offering:

The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.
There are other results that seemingly bear this out, including Jonathan Haidt's findings that political conservatives simply value tradition and fairness at different levels from liberals. Preservation and stability trumps flexibility and risk.

Other recent interesting finds this week include Pyschiatric Times reporting that adult ADHD sufferers have lower educational and professional outcomes than non-ADHD individuals, even when IQ was held constant:

Adults with ADHD are not achieving the educational and occupational successes that they should be, noted researchers in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

In a case control study, Dr. Joseph Biederman and colleagues looked at 222 adults with and 146 adults without ADHD to determine if educational and occupational functioning in ADHD represented low attainment or underattainment relative to expectations based on intellectual abilities.

In the control group, educational levels were significantly predicted by IQ scores, and, in turn, employment attainment was significantly predicted by educational levels. However, in the ADHD group, patients did not achieve successes as expected based on IQ and educational levels. In fact, only 50% of patients with ADHD were college graduates, yet based on IQs, 84% should have been. Similarly, only 50% achieved semi-professional or major professional levels, although 80% were expected to achieve such based on their education. Most importantly, the researchers noted, ADHD was associated with significantly decreased educational obtainment independent of IQ.

“These findings stress the critical importance of early identification and aggressive treatment of subjects with ADHD,” the researchers concluded. “Appropriate intervention could be highly beneficial in reducing the disparity between ability and attainment for individuals with ADHD.”

The take-away to me continues to support the notion that an evolutionary effective brain that trades-off risk aversion with creativity (and the kinds of transcendant and even randomizing cogitation that is essential to creativity) is in a wide valley of contributory genetic and environmental inputs that are easy to get just slightly wrong, whether we are looking at dysfunctional and excessive behavior among artists, interference with educational success for ADHD sufferers, or enhanced mental capabilities among borderline autistic individuals. The continued maintenance of this diversity of types suggests that the diversity is or was more adaptively useful than the obverse.

Finally, Marc Hauser works the landscape of moral decision making in a recent Newsweek article, once again describing how remarkably uniform a "moral grammar" we seem to share, regardless of ethnic background or political affiliation. In discussions among friends and family on this topic, I always come away with a more complicated picture of the moral dilemmas. How can you guarantee that dropping the fat man onto the railroad tracks will stop the train? How can you be certain additional help will not arrive before cutting the woman out of the cave mouth? How can you be certain that the death row inmate really committed the crime?

In every case, the trade-off is not between what is morally permissible and obligatory, but between the individual's level of certitude and the killing of one or many. I can therefore almost always answer the dilemmas with a refusal to act until the situation is so dire that action is required. Flipping the switch to divert the trolley car is the exceptional case that demonstrates pure utilitarian moral reasoning, but almost all others require persmissibilty to be modified to something like "permissible only given a lose lose situation where there is the strongest signal that other lives may be lost."

That kind of reasoning requires a low startle response, of course.

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