What can neuroscience tell us about ethics?
|Image courtesy of Bill Sanderson, Wellcome Collection
What can neuroscience tell us about ethics? Some say nothing – ethics is a normative discipline that concerns the way the world should be, while neuroscience is normatively insignificant: it is a descriptive science which tells us about the way the world is. This seems in line with what is sometimes called “Hume’s Law”, the claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is (Cohon, 2018). This claim is contentious and its scope unclear, but it certainly does seem true of demonstrative arguments, at the least. Neuroethics, by its name, however, seems to suggest that neuroscience is relevant for ethical thought, and indeed some have taken it to be a fact that neuroscience has delivered ethical consequences. It seems to me that there is some confusion about this issue, and so here I’d like to clarify the ways in which I think neuroscience can be relevant to ethics.
1. Efforts to naturalize normativity
2. Examples and counterexamples
|Photograph of Phineas Gage, photo courtesy of Jack and
Beverly Wilgus, now in the Warren Anatomical Museum
Some philosophical theories claim to capture the nature of various concepts or constructs. One particular metaethical view, for example, holds that it is true of moral judgment or belief that it necessarily motivates: that judging or believing something to be good or right intrinsically leads to motivation to pursue it. This view, motivational internalism (MI), has been attacked by a thought experiment, the claim that one could coherently conceive of someone who had moral beliefs but was not motivated by them (Brink, 1997). Adherents of MI, however, argue that this is not coherent or conceivable, and that such “amoralists” could not ever exist. Neuroscience has offered up potential counterexamples to MI in the form of a type of brain damage that prima facie results in people who aver moral beliefs that appear normal, but do not seem motivated to act in accordance with them (A. Roskies, 2003). Although adherents of MI can offer similar moves (denying, for example, that they have moral beliefs, asserting that they do have moral motivation, etc.) as in the conceptual case of the amoralist, the existence of these people offers opportunities to test these arguments in the real world, and forces us to constrain our interpretations in ways that respect the fact that these are real people embedded in the actual social/moral world. For example, if the seemingly moral claims these people make have the same psychological profile as other things that they aver and that we count as their beliefs, can we really deny that these people have moral beliefs? The theory that best accommodates the complexity of this real-world data should ultimately win the day.
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A second example of how understanding how things could have ethical implications comes from the free will literature. Some have argued that work showing that certain signals from the brain that precede awareness rule out the possibility of free will, and that that has ethical consequences (Kaposy, 2010; Libet, 1985). Although further work shows this claim to be mistaken on empirical grounds, the idea that the neuroscience alone could disprove some complex philosophical concept is mistaken, for the mechanistic commitments of the concept are not explicit. Only given real philosophical work and clear philosophical commitments can the neuroscience ever weigh in on a philosophical issue. In the case of free will, for example, there are alternative philosophical theories of free will which would be unchallenged even if the original interpretation of the neuroscientific claims held up (A. L. Roskies, 2006).
Want to cite this post?
Roskies, A. (2018). What can neuroscience tell us about ethics? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/10/what-can-neuroscience-tell-us-about.htmlfrom