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Neuroethics journal club: Right-brained, wrongly reasoned

Who’d believe there’s a liberal professor (he freely acknowledges he belongs to this group) that’s willing to admit that conservatives might be right about something? Don’t get too excited; he also thinks the reasoning that many conservatives use to decide what’s right is all wrong. What’s more, he thinks that neuroscience proves the way that many conservatives reason is wrong. The professor, Dr. John Banja, led a discussion of one of his articles last Wednesday at the second meeting of the Neuroethics Journal Club hosted by the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics.

I had this great idea to summarize Dr. Banja’s message with music videos. It turned out to be harder than I thought (but I’m still peppering this post with pop)–there is not one song that has the words “virtue essentialism” in the title, although those words are in the title of Dr. Banja’s article: “Virtue Essentialism, Prototypes, and the Moral Conservative Opposition to Enhancement Technologies: A Neuroethical Critique”. Banja describes virtue essentialism as a type of argument often employed by scholars like Leon Kass, Gilbert Meilander, and Michael Sandel. According to Banja, there are three characteristics of “virtue essentialist” arguments: (1) they invoke concepts like “dignity” as if those concepts have an essence–i.e., definition–that everyone agrees upon, (2) they adopt absolutist positions, because their positions supposedly are based on clearly-defined concepts and, (3) they attack anything that smacks of moral relativism.

You might wonder why you should be worried about this virtue essentialism that Dr. Banja describes. Consider this: virtue essentialist arguments make up the backbone of many of the publications authored by President George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB). W announced he was creating the PCB back in 2001, during the same speech in which he announced he would only allow embryonic stem cell research to be carried out on cell lines already in existence. Bush promised that the council would “consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation,” and appointed Leon Kass to be the head of the council.

You might still be wondering why this is relevant in today’s political atmosphere. We talked about that at the journal club, too. First I’ll explain how we got there. Banja is not alone in his concern about the arguments made by Kass and others. Ruth Macklin, writing in 2006, dissected just the sort of reasoning–or lack thereof–that Banja wants to attack, all neuroethics style. According to Macklin, issues in bioethics were not black nor white before these self-styled “conservatives” came along; she explicitly links their appearance to the polarized political climate of the Bush regime during which you were either one of us or one of them. Macklin also observes that Kass and others who call themselves “conservatives” in bioethics are characterized largely by being against anything “artificial: artifical reproduction, artificial life extension, artificial intelligence and artificial life, and, in general, making ourselves ‘artificially better’.”

Didn’t I promise there would be rock? Here’s David Byrne on “making ourselves ‘artifically better'”:

Byrne continues the tradition of rockers confounding us all by writing from a perspective that seems a little–gulp–conservative (cf., Graham Parker’s You Can’t Be Too Strong.)

What’s wrong with virtue essentialism and why do we need neuroscience to figure it out? Banja began by discussing “essentialism,” which as you might guess is the view that everything has an essence. There is something about Lady Gaga that is essentially Lady Gaga. You might say she was “born this way” (bad joke, sorry). Essentialism, explained Dr. Banja, has been around at least since the time of Plato, who captured it essence (again, sorry) in the Socratic dialogue with Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks what the essence of “holiness” or “piety” is. Socrates runs into Euthyphro down at the courthouse and, thinking that it might help him defend himself in his upcoming court case, asks Euthyphro for a definition of “piety”. As Dr. Banja emphasized, the best Euthyphro can do is come up with some examples. He fails to define it in a way that Socrates can’t deconstruct. Here’s the moral of the story: if it were true that concepts like “holy” had some essence, then we could somehow discern that essence and know when our actions were holy (or “fair” or “just”, etc.).

Then Wittgenstein came along and dared to suggest that we might not classify things based on their essence that our god-given reason is supposed to somehow have access to. Instead, he suggested we categorize things based on “family resemblances“–things that they have in common. Wittgenstein’s insights spelled the beginning of the end for essentialism. He was implying that there might not be any source of morals outside of humanity. Maybe there’s no right or wrong outside of what we say is right or wrong.

Song time again! Perhaps Stereolab can use their perfect pop powers to help us understand the source of the morals that form the backbone of a society.

The once-firm moral foundation that Wittgenstein started to undermine really crumbled once neuroscience and psychology came into the picture, said Dr. Banja. In the 70s, psychologists like Eleanor Rosch began to test how people categorize. These experiments gave rise to prototype theory, a theory that holds that we are able to classify things not because our reason has access to their essence, but because our brains build prototypes. Such prototypes are the “statistical central tendency of a body of concrete exemplars,” to recycle Dr. Banja’s quote from philosopher Andy Clark. In other words, we supposedly classify things by keeping a running average for every category and by measuring the distance of any item we are classifying from the average. I would show you an image from a study Dr. Banja described so that we could understand prototype theory, but in the spirit of this semi-musical post, I think I have to link to songs that neuroscience grad student Laura Mariani mentioned at the journal club. This music, composed by Komar & Molamid and David Soldier, is based on the results of an on-line survey. Click on the links to hear the “prototypes” of what people consider to be the “most wanted song” and “most unwanted song“.

Prototype theory, concluded Dr.Banja, presents some problems for virtue essentialist arguments as defined above. It holds that there can be no completely objective definition of concepts like “dignity”. Hence, anyone who argues against something like cognitive enhancement because they feel it degrades dignity will have to accept that their idea of what dignity means might not be agreed upon by everyone. This is a good result. It replaces the moral majority with a democratic process of ethics.

In closing, we discussed why virtue essentialism seems to work, even if it is flawed. Dr. Banja recalled the points he made at the end of his article: it works because it appeals to people. It plays their heartstrings. The excesses of the Bush administration showed that Republicans had learned how to hit the right notes to get all the votes, according to Dr. Banja. My labmate Lukas Hoffman countered that you could say the same thing about the Democrats. With the Tea Party on one hand and Occupy Wall Street on the other, it’s certain that people are feeling like something is wrong more and more, and believing that they know what that is. How can they be reminded that everything might not be what it seems? Education is key, offered MD/PhD student Orion Kiefer. And he’s right. Anyone who has a sound grasp of science will understand that theories can sometimes be overturned, even theories about right and wrong, and that there’s always room for debate.

Next month’s meeting of the journal club will take place November 16th from 1-2pm. You can RSVP by sending an e-mail to [email protected]. Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics, will facilitate a discussion on emerging technologies and lie detection.

— David Nicholson

Neuroscience Graduate Student (Sober Lab)

I leave you with one last tune to inculcate you against the siren song of anybody that would make appeals to your gut feelings about what’s right and what’s wrong.

Want to cite this post?

Nicholson, D. (2011). Neuroethics journal club: Right-brained, wrongly reasoned. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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  1. hmm. David, I find your strategy of supporting an argument for objective reasoning (with respect to ethical issues) by including related music /videos/performances (as far as I can tell designed to appeal simultaneously to 'objective' and 'gut instinct' levels to get a point across) to be very interesting in itself. (especially considering that the same “the Who” song was featured on Farenheit 9/11)
    In defense of the virtue essentialists, calling to mind notions of "human dignity" (even if they do assume that their notion of "human dignity" is equivalent to everyone else's) has some use to it. Gut instincts are there for a (biological) reason, they are an (unavoidable?) part of the human experience and the human decision making process. Not saying that gut instincts aren't malleable in the face of experience, or that they should trump a well reasoned argument, but there is a reason why "a modest proposal" didn't catch on. Our notions (whether those are prototypes or essentialist #definitions) of virtues such as dignity, justice, are at the very least useful for filling in the gaps of what our powers of reason can comprehend at the moment (allowing for faster decision making in the face of uncertainty), (I would conjecture) most likely inform our reasoning capabilities of the "expected answer" to limit our search space, and (also conjecture) serve as a final test to our well-reasoned results to make sure they make sense (

    Along these lines, moral relativism itself sets off most of my own internal alarms (which, as they are "gut instincts", must find their neural basis in the Enteric system). Ruth Macklin, who you mentioned above, has an interesting book ("against relativism," 1999) that tries to flesh out some of the space between moral relativism and absolutism, currently trying to digest it.

    in the spirit of using every available mode of communication to get a point across, here's a (surprisingly) relevant webcomic (you might as well put a Riley name tag on the kid):

    -Riley ZT
    Potter Lab


  2. Hey, Riley. Thanks for commenting. I'm not arguing for an objective reasoning if by that you mean reasoning that doesn't rely on emotions. My guess is that Dr.Banja doesn't want to take emotions out of ethics either, and I'm basing that on his citations of Jesse Prinz, who has written extensively about "emotional ethics". He has also written in defense of moral relativism (see here) in a way that I convincing. Can't say I've read Macklin's book but maybe I should.


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