Neurological Ethics?

Posted on May 12, 2007

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This science article from the Wall Street Journal discusses recent American research into a neurobiological basis for morality.

“Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. “It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality,” said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.”

In fact, the research actually suggests not that moral decisions are simply a matter of biology, but that emotional factors in moral decisions (such as the killing of an innocent person) can be artifically inhibited. This is surely a less significant finding than it first seems. Even if we know that much of our moral activity is implicit or unconscious, we are still able to reconstruct the arguments behind our own decisions.

Nietzsche said something to the effect that knowledge of the chemical composition of water is useless to a drowning man. Even if we overlook the fact that all of the subjects are brain-damaged, surely knowledge of any possible empirical correlation between particular moral activity and particular brain states is subject to the same criticism. Morality is the expression of autonomy, not neuroanatomy. Furthermore, even if a universal brain structure that dealt with moral activity could be identified, the divergence of moral beliefs between people (some of whom have developed very similar environments) clearly indicates that this cannot be a satisfactory explanation.

Let’s assume that such a correspondence can be demonstrated. Will this bring us any closer to a consensus on morality? I am deeply sceptical, since it could only demonstrate an innate capacity for morality; but this isn’t even denied by even the most extreme cultural relativist. Furthermore, if we can show that someone has a particular anatomical predisposition to behaviour we consider immoral, does this mean we would not hold them responsible for what they do?  I think not.

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Posted in: Ethics, News, Philosophy