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Parachutes, Ticks & Moral Environments

Vance Morgan on how to build a moral environment of your very own.

Being a living organism is hard work. Any organism, from the simplest to the most complex, must navigate a physical environment of dizzying intricacy in order to survive, an environment whose elements gain and lose importance depending on the organism. A crab, for instance, lives in a submarine space of rocks, open sand, and hidden recesses. A ground squirrel lives in a space of subterranean holes, branching tunnels, and leaf-lined bedrooms, knowing nothing of seashores. Human beings occupy a physical space of comparable complexity, leading to an obvious question: how do we (organisms) do it?

Crabs and squirrels may not think, but they do survive in their environment as we do in ours, apparently in ways supported by physical, biological structures fundamentally similar to ours. One of the ways to enter the field of cognitive science, the interdisciplinary investigation of mind that has grown at a dazzling rate in the last two or three decades, is to see it as the attempt, from the distinct perspectives of neuroscience, artificial intelligence research, linguistics, anthropology, psychology and philosophy, to provide comprehensive insight into issues of the human mind and cognition. What exactly is going on in human cognition? What is the evolutionary story that underlies it? At the various levels of the different disciplines, cognitive scientists hope to fashion a coherent vision of what human cognition and the human mind are, how they operate, and how they emerge from the tangled mess of neurons and neural connections in the brain.

The opening portion of this article touches on some interesting features of recent work in cognitive science. My primary aim, however, is to consider how the physical architecture that supports survival in the physical environment might tell us something about how we humans navigate, successfully or unsuccessfully, the equally important environment of human morality and society. We share the complex physical environment with other organisms, but we also live in a moral and social environment, an intricate web of obligations, duties, entitlements, prohibitions, appointments, debts, affections, insults, allies, contracts, enemies, infatuations, compromises, mutual love, expectations, and ideals. Learning the structure of the moral/social environment, learning to recognize one’s current position and that of others within it, and learning to travel through that space without moral or social failure is at least as important to any human as learning similar skills for navigating successfully through purely physical space.

The unquestioned beginning assumption of cognitive scientists is that the story of ‘how we do it’ must be based on the natural sciences. The philosopher Paul Churchland expresses this clearly:

Social animals must learn the interactive culture that structures their collective life. This means that their nervous systems must learn to represent the many dimensions of the local social space, a space that embeds them as surely and as relevantly as does the local physical space…. In confronting these additional necessities, a social creature must use the same sorts of neuronal resources and coding strategies that it uses for its representation of the sheerly physical world. The job may be special, but the tools available are the same. The creature must configure the many millions of synaptic connection strengths within its brain so as to represent the structure of the social reality in which it lives. Further, it must learn to generate sequences of neuronal activation-patterns that will produced socially acceptable or socially advantageous behavioral outputs…. Social and moral reality is also the province of the physical brain…. We need to confront this fact, squarely and forthrightly, if we are ever to understand our own moral natures. (The Engine of Reason 1995)

I don’t intend in this article to discuss or challenge the assumptions underlying cognitive science. Rather, I am interested in drawing some moral implications from the notion that moral survival, just like survival in the physical environment, is of necessity a function of successful neural connections and representations.

The received, traditional description of the survival of an organism in the physical environment runs along the following lines. The environment is a ‘landing pad’ for organisms that somehow drop or ‘parachute’ into a largely fixed, entirely objective world. Successful adaptation and survival is a matter of the organism’s ability to represent its surroundings to itself successfully in order to avoid harmful environmental elements, such as predators and pursue advantageous ones, such as food. In short, this view plays on the traditional, Western model of a sharp distinction between subject (organism) and object (environment), survival depending upon the organism’s accurate and useable internal representation of the world ‘out there’.

This ‘parachute’ metaphor is perhaps still the prevailing picture of the relationship between organism and environment. Recently, however, a number of researchers in various cognitive science disciplines have begun to challenge this metaphor. The very structure of living organisms, including the neural structure of the human being, indicates that the relationship between organism and environment is highly interactive and codependent. Organisms and environments develop interactively, belying the traditional distinction between subject and object. Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, for instance, argues that the very notion of what an environment is cannot be separated from what organisms are and what they do.

The organism and the environment are not actually separately determined. The environment is not a structure imposed on living beings from the outside but is in fact a creation of those beings. The environment is not an autonomous process but a reflection of the biology of the species. Just as there is no organism without an environment, so there is no environment without an organism. (‘The Organ as the Subject and Object of Evolution’, Scientia)

This interactive and coevolutionary interpretation, stressing the interdependence of organism and world, is remarkably compatible with various features of contemporary continental philosophy, particularly phenomenology. Indeed, philosopher Andy Clark’s recent book, subtitled ‘Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again’, is provocatively and illuminatingly entitled Being There (CUP 1997). When Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty meet cognitive science, interesting things happen.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, artificial intelligence modelling, and psychology, Clark argues that it is misleading at best to see a successful cognitive system as doing much in the way of ‘representing’ or ‘modelling’ its environment. Not only would it be a monumental, perhaps impossible, task for an organism to represent its entire environment, but there is no need for it to do so. An organism only needs to be attuned to those features of its environment that have special relevance and importance to it. Non-important features of the environment are neither represented nor considered by the organism – for all intents and purposes, these features of the environment do not exist for the organism. “The idea is that we reduce the information processing load by sensitizing the system to particular aspects of the world – aspects that have special significance because of the environmental niche the system inhabits.” This is what Clark calls niche-dependent sensing.

To illustrate, Clark draws our attention to the work of Jakob von Uexküll and his 1934 paper entitled ‘A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men.’ Through a fascinating series of examples, von Uexküll develops the idea that an organism’s world, including its space and time, is uniquely fashioned by its umwelt, the set of environmental features to which a given type of animal is sensitized. For example, the common tick requires the ingestion of blood in order to lay its eggs. How, in the midst of the vast physical environment, does this simple blind and deaf organism accomplish its mission? The tick is sensitive to the butyric acid found on mammalian skin. This acid, when detected, causes the tick to loose its hold on a branch and fall on the animal. Tactile contact extinguishes the olfactory response and initiates a procedure of scurrying about until heat is detected. Detection of heat triggers boring and burrowing, then sucking of blood.

The tick hangs motionless on the tip of a branch in a forest clearing. Her position gives her the chance to drop on a passing mammal. Out of the whole environment, no stimulus affects her until a mammal approaches, whose blood she needs before she can bear her young. And now something quite wonderful happens. Of all the influences that emanate from the mammal’s body, only three become stimuli, and those in a definite sequence. Out of the vast world which surrounds the tick, three stimuli shine forth from the dark like beacons, and serve as guides to lead her unerringly to her goal. To accomplish this, the tick, besides her body with its receptors and effectors, has been given three receptor signs, which she can use as sign stimuli. And these perceptual cues prescribe the course of her actions so rigidly that she is only able to produce corresponding specific effector cues.

The whole rich world around the tick shrinks and changes into a scanty framework consisting, in essence, of three receptor cues and three effector cues – her umwelt. But the very poverty of this world guarantees the unfailing certainty of her actions, and security is more important than wealth.

The tick’s sensitivity to only three features of the environment creates a ‘designer world’ for it, one that not only is responsive to the larger environment but also shapes the environment itself. Clark’s argument is that all organisms (including humans) do likewise. This umwelt fashioning is what makes it possible for an organism to navigate the vastly complex environment without experiencing ‘overload.’ Furthermore, this selective sensitivity to various features of the environment actually impacts on and creates the future environment, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued decades ago.

It is the organism itself – according to the proper nature of its receptors, the thresholds of its nerve centers and the movements of the organs – which chooses the stimuli in the physical world to which it will be sensitive. The environment (umwelt) emerges from the world through the actualization or the being of the organism-[granted that] an organism can exist only if it succeeds in finding in the world an adequate environment. (The Structure of Behaviour, 1942)

The survival of an organism depends on that organism’s sensitivity to those features of the environment that are important to it. If an organism is not sensitive to these features, it will not survive. If an organism is sensitive to too many features of its environment, its neural and physical resources may be overburdened, leading just as certainly to its demise.

We, however, are not ticks. We are sensitive to countless more features of our environment than ticks are. Still, the activity of umwelt-fashioning is apparent in everyday human activity. For example, I have spent much of the past few months teaching my youngest son to drive an automobile. To a large extent, this has been a matter of teaching him what environmental features to be sensitive to in order to construct a successful driving-umwelt. New drivers are often sensitive to too much, or to the wrong things – learning to drive requires the fashioning of the appropriate environmental elements into a designer driving-world. Furthermore, this umwelt changes constantly according to any number of environmental factors (such as different traffic laws, traffic patterns, road construction). Additionally, the larger environment itself changes frequently according to the continuing human activity of driving (new traffic laws or speed limit changes, for example). This is a simple example of how organism and environment interact with and change each other.

What has any of this to do with morals or ethics? I propose that the lessons learned from research such as that described earlier provide clues to understanding humans as moral creatures as well as physical creatures. The moral and social environment that humans must navigate on a day-today basis is every bit as complex as the physical environment. If the naturalistic assumptions of cognitive science are largely correct, then the neural structures that support success in the physical environment are the same structures that will support moral and social success. In the case of the physical environment, this includes developing sensitivity to some features of the environment at the expense of ignoring non-relevant features. What might this mean in the moral world?

A number of possibilities arise here. First, it is not helpful to imagine the moral world or environment as entirely fixed and objective, a world into which the prospective moral agent is ‘parachuted’, where success depends on discovering and internally representing the already-in-place ‘lay of the (moral) land.’ Rather, the moral agent and the moral environment co-evolve in a continuous web of interaction. Furthermore, the moral world of the moral agent will be constructed out of her selective sensitivity to any number of features of the moral environment. In other words, she will construct a moral world or umwelt out of those features of the moral environment she chooses as significant.

The candidates for moral significance in the creation of a moral umwelt are too numerous to list exhaustively. Possibilities, however, include (in no particular order) others, self, rules, utility, avoidance of pain, pursuit of pleasure, human life, life in general, the transcendent, autonomy, character, universality, society, context, rationality, emotion, will, rights, duties, contracts, family, friends, enemies, and strangers. Out of these and countless other elements of the moral world the moral agent constructs a ‘designer’ moral umwelt. One can recognize any number of traditional moral umwelten, expressed through traditional moral theories, by selecting one or several of the above features of the moral environment as foundational and allowing any number of the others to recede into background insignificance.

In the physical realm, sensitivity to too little or too much equally leads to failure. The same is true in the moral realm. Consider, for instance, a moral agent who is sensitive to too much. She might attempt to fashion a moral umwelt out of sensitivity to features of the moral environment that overlap, are mutually exclusive, or are at least contradictory. Essentially, her umwelt is too large. This is a recipe for moral confusion and indecision. Any student of moral theory will attest to the fact that trying to pay equal attention to rules, consequences, self, others, and society in a given moral instance will lead to frustration and indecision.

More frequent, perhaps, is the fashioning of a moral umwelt that is not large or sensitive enough. Consider, for instance, the person who selects ‘preservation of human life’ as the central and exclusive feature of his moral umwelt. He will be overly sensitized to features of the moral world that intersect with his exclusive moral preoccupation while being blind to features of the moral world that do not happen to coincide with issues of human life. He will have a ‘one issue’ umwelt, similar to ‘one issue’ voters in political elections. This is a recipe for rigidity, inflexibility, and intolerance.

How, then, does one learn to fashion a healthy moral umwelt? Here we can learn much from Aristotle and virtue ethics. One might describe Aristotle’s practical reason and the life of human flourishing as visions of the moral agent who progressively learns the art of fashioning a moral umwelt. Development of this art begins with the recognition that there is no absolute moral umwelt appropriate to all circumstances and contexts. One’s moral umwelt must be continually sensitive to the moral environment, including the changes in the moral environment that individual and collective moral umwelten bring about over time. It may be that any number or even all of the possible candidates for moral sensitivity listed above may serve as the basis for an appropriate moral umwelt in a given instance. Moral growth and maturity requires first a recognition of the vast array of tools available in the construction of a moral umwelt and, second, an equally strong recognition that no one combination or even limited number of combinations of these elements will suffice for all moral contingencies.

In conclusion, I offer a personal example of the dynamics of becoming appropriately sensitive to features of the moral environment. Aristotle would tell us that we do not come into the world sensitive to these features, only with the potential to be sensitive to any number of elements, for better or worse. Sensitivity to the features of the moral world is something that is learned through observation, training and practice. This places a collective responsibility on moral agents to pass on techniques of successful umwelt-building to young occupants of the moral environment. In particular, parents bear much of the responsibility for providing their children with an array of umwelt-building tools and strategies.

I was raised in a conservative fundamentalist religious tradition, a tradition arising from a collective moral umwelt that I found to be highly restrictive and unresponsive to the reality of lived human experience as I became an adult. I have been anxious to teach my sons of the dangers of a narrow moral umwelt such as the one I was raised in. To that end, I have made a deliberate practice of tuning in to a specific radio talk show every weekday afternoon as my son and I travel the fifteen miles from his high school to our home. The host of this show actively promotes the conservative, religious, and (in my view) narrowly restrictive perspective on life and morality that I was raised in. I did this to sensitise my son to the dangers of having a rigid and inflexible view of the world.

To a certain extent, my experiment worked well in that it did make my son actively aware of rigid thought patterns in a number of contexts. The experiment, however, worked too well in that it also desensitised him to the importance of faith and religion in the fashioning of a moral umwelt. In his mind, rigidity and religion became synonymous. This has caused him to become intolerant and rigid in his rejection of any viewpoint that might be rooted in faith. It is my continuing task to introduce him, primarily by example, to a more finetuned approach to this aspect of moral umwelt-building.

Survival and success in the moral environment may, in the end, be more complex and difficult than physical survival. The idea that organism and environment mutually shape each other seems obviously true in the moral realm. Furthermore, the evolution of moral awareness through this mutual interaction proceeds far more rapidly in the moral than in the physical environment. The sketch of moral health provided here is demanding, in that how we construct our moral umwelt has an impact not only on the umwelten of others but also on the larger moral environment itself. A person’s moral umwelt reflects much of what that person is; we become the moral persons we want to be through the sensitivities to the moral environment that we develop. As Sartre reminds us, these sensitivities project not only what we are, but also our vision of what the world should be.

© Dr Vance Morgan 2000

Vance Morgan is an associate professor of philosophy at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.

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