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Science, morality and GRC

Tuesday 28 November 2017

By Dr Bob Murray
I am a scientist—a clinical psychologist and behavioral neurogeneticist by training—and also one who works closely with GRC professionals in a number of industries and as a speaker at conventions discussing issues of risk, ethics and governance. My expertise is not in these particular areas, but in human behavior—in what makes human beings do the things they do, ethical and not.
One thing I know is that the whole basis of the laws under which we are governed—corporate, judicial and moral—is probably false. I know this because it is based on assumptions made, sometimes hundreds of years ago, about humans—about the ways in which we think and operate. Laws and regulations are based on theories of “moral” and “immoral” actions and “right” and “wrong” behaviors that are scientifically-outdated—some of them proven false decades ago.
And yet GRC professionals, like law enforcement officers, have dedicated their lives to working within and upholding those laws, standards and regulations.
It would undoubtedly be painful to members of the profession, as well as to politicians, clergy-people and others, to actually have to come to terms with science, to fashion ways of relating to our fellow humans that matched our design specs. Because at the moment we don’t.
Our design specs were crafted over millions of years to enable us to survive on the African savanna and to keep ourselves and our small band of hunter-gatherers safe. In simple terms, we are designed to collaborate with, defend and be altruistic toward those whom we feel are part of our tribe—which, as the most recent research shows, means those with whom we share most in common. We are designed to fear and oppose those who we perceive to be not like us. We were designed to seek out and strengthen our relationships with those who can give us the most protection and support. We are designed to follow these people, come what may. We are designed to make instantaneous “decisions” based on a calculation of fear and reward. We are designed to ignore facts and reasoning when making decisions, since facts and reasoning take time to weigh, and on the savanna, taking time could result in death.
There are many other aspects of our evolutionary design, but these are the most important from the point of view of morality and the laws of various kinds by which we’re governed.
Both laws and ethical systems are designed on the assumption that humans have choice in their decision-making and thus can be held accountable for their actions. In this way, we are held to be different from any other predator—or indeed any other animal. But in fact, this isn’t so. We’ve known that the assumption was false ever since the end of the “rational man (or woman)” idea and the rise of behavioral economics.
Our decisions are based on instantaneous calculations of safety/danger, reward/harm. The latest science tells us that almost certainly, all decisions are unconscious. That means that “conscious” ethical behavior is a myth. It means that “guilt” and “innocence” are terms that have no basis in the reality of human decision-making. We act in ways that our genetics, our experience, our unconscious drives, our habitual reactions, our neurochemistry and even the microbiota of our gut dictate that we act.
We have tended, for example to put addicts in jail—to punish them for their wayward choices—yet the overwhelming evidence now available shows that addiction, whether to a substance or an action such as shopping or gambling or sex, is genetic. It is caused by the dopamine receptor genes not behaving normally. You can cease to be an addict, but that takes getting a greater dopamine reward (dopamine is the reward neurochemical upon which a vast number of our behaviors are based) from something or someone else.
Should we prosecute people for unconscious behavior? Should we condemn them for following people who—no matter how evil—appear to give them safety or support? If a jury, or a judge for that matter, is unable to make a decision based on facts or reasoning, should we keep the system as it is? In a trial, all a barrister can do is persuade a judge that he or she is part of the judge’s tribe or, if there’s a jury, that the defendant is part of the jury’s tribe. The O.J. Simpson trial is a marvelous case-in-point. People whose job it is to enforce good governance, or risk and compliance, can only do so if they convince others they offer more tribal support than those forces encouraging disobediance.
Some extraordinary studies, conducted done a couple of years ago, pitted chimpanzees against humans in a number of different strategy games. The chimps won over 90% of the time. Why? Chimps are able to make decisions based on facts. We can’t. The reason is that they’re stronger, quicker and more able to defend themselves than we are. They have more time for facts and reasoning in the way they make decisions. We don’t. In that way, their design specs are quite different from ours.
Perhaps, therefore, the point of lawyers, prisons, executioners and GRC professionals should be to keep society safe from people who cannot or will not cooperate with us—not to punish people for actions they can’t help.

About the Author 

Dr Bob Murray, co-founder of Fortinberry Murray