Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Exchanging 'Reasons' for 'Values'

Julia Haas is a McDonnell Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on decision-making.

Over the past two decades, computational and neurobiological research has had a big impact on the field of economics, bringing into existence a new and prominent interdisciplinary field of inquiry, ‘neuroeconomics.’ The guiding tenet of neuroeconomics has been that by combining both theoretical and empirical tools from neuroscience, psychology and economics, the resulting synthesis could provide valuable insights into all three of its parent disciplines (Glimcher 2009). And although some economists have resisted the influence of neuroscience research (Gul and Psendorfer 2008), neuroeconomics has by all measures thrived as a theoretical endeavor, and proven itself as a discipline capable of marshaling substantial institutional and financial resources.

For example, theories from economics and psychology have already begun to restructure our neurobiological understanding of decision-making, and a number of recent neurobiological findings are beginning to suggest constraints on theoretical models of choice developed in both economic and psychological domains. Similarly, a study by the Eigenfactor project at the University of Washington showed that while there were no citations from either of these disciplines to the other in 1997, by 2010, there were 195 citations from economics journals to neuroscience journals, and 74 citations from neuroscience journals to economics journals.

Disciplinary cross-pollination 
This interdisciplinary partnership has caught the attention of the National Institutes of Health, which finances 21 current research projects with "neuroeconomics" in their descriptions, to the tune of $7.6-million. The agency gives out many more millions for other neurobiology work related to decision-making: Caltech got $9-million this month to establish a center in this field. The National Science Foundation has backed eight neuroeconomics projects with $3.5-million in research money.

Neuroeconomics: A Role Model for the Neuroscience of Ethics 

Neuroeconomics has thus been one of the most significant and astute beneficiaries of computational and neuroscientific research on decision-making. By contrast, the discipline of philosophy has fallen behind. Although many insights from computational and decision neuroscience are directly relevant to philosophical discussions about deliberation and choice, the vast majority of them have fallen by the philosophical wayside. This is not to say that philosophy has ignored neuroscience: this would not at all be true. Beginning with the publication of Patricia Churchland’s Neurophilosophy in 1985, both neurophilosophy and the philosophy of neuroscience have become active research areas across philosophy departments. But many of these neuroscientific contributions have focused on issues pertaining to traditional metaphysics (such as consciousness and free will) and epistemology (such as perception and representation). By contrast, the implications of computational and decision neuroscience for philosophical theories of decision-making and practical reasoning have yet to be realized.

Where it all got started
Again, this is not to say that neuroscience has not been brought to bear on issues in ethics! I have written about Molly Crockett’s research on this blog, Neil Levy and Julian Savulescu have made important contributions, and there are many valuable neuroscientific contributions to the study of altruism, utilitarianism, spirituality, aggression, and so on. But what I want to suggest that is that the neuroscience of decision-making can help philosophers arrive at a more wide-ranging theory underlying specific kinds of moral decisions: namely, it can help us understand how we make decisions in general. And this understanding should in turn provide a valuable constraint and useful platform for understanding what happens in moments of having to make tough, moral decisions.

Some general principles are, I think, beginning to emerge. For example, while philosophers frequently turn to concepts such as reasons and intentions to try and explain human action, there is good evidence to suggest that human beings rely on something that is closer to the metaphor of evaluating or ‘weighing.’ We come to value objects and actions over the course of our experiences, and these positive valuations lead us to elect those objects or actions when it comes time to make a concrete decision. Moreover, computational neuroscientists are beginning to understand the mechanisms whereby these valuations are carried out in the mind/brain, and they are increasingly in position to make detailed predictions about how human beings make decisions in all kinds of situations involving risk, delay and stress. From my perspective, these same situations often form the backdrop for our toughest ethical dilemmas, so we should gradually be able to untangle why people ‘mis-value’ certain options and make unethical decisions.

Some might argue that moral decisions are too complex for neuroscience to help us understand them. But the same was once said of economic choices, and it is safe to say that neuroeconomics has come a long way in advancing our understanding of them. I look forward to, and hope to be a part of, seeing practical and moral philosophy follow suit.


Glimcher, P. W. (2009). Choice: towards a standard back-pocket model. Neuroeconomics: Decision making and the brain, 501-519.

Gul, F., & Pesendorfer, W. (2008). The case for mindless economics. The foundations of positive and normative economics, 3-42.

Want to cite this post?
Hass, J. (2015). Exchanging 'Reasons' for 'Values'. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/02/exchanging-reasons-for-values.html

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