Philosopher’s Corner: Can the Scientific Mind Beget a Moral Mind?

Meera Modi, Pursuer of Wisdom

Originally published February 2007.

Meera Modi
Meera Modi

Philosophers have long pondered the under girding of moral reasoning. From Aristotle to Kant, they have sought to answer the questions of how to act morally and from where moral quality is derived. Recently, neuroscientists have joined philosophers in the field of deciphering moral thought. The unity of such disparate disciplines has not surprisingly created controversy over the correct approach to answering such weighty questions.

In the effort to determine how one ‘ought’ to act in order for their actions to be moral, philosophers have come up with two main theories of morality: consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialism holds that the production of the ‘best’ consequences should be the determining factor in making moral decisions. Most familiar is John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian brand of consequentialism, where ‘right’ actions are those that maximize happiness for the greatest number of sentient beings. Deontologists, on the other hand, are not concerned with the consequences of actions but rather the maxims upon which moral decisions are made. Immanuel Kant, our deontologist exemplar, holds that

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

moral actions are those, which are rationally reasoned from categorical imperatives (basic maxims or truths). Each theory derives moral truth through a different mechanism of reasoning. Morally correct action can therefore vary according to which ideological doctrine is followed. Thus the philoso- Meera Modi phical basis of ‘morality’ still remains elusive.

Neuroscientists have joined in the pursuit of moral truth over the last twenty years with the advancements of functional imaging and the analysis of clinical cases, opening the door to the pursuit of neural correlates for morality. The studies have converged on a surprisingly consistent network of brain regions associated with moral emotions, decision-making and reasoning. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the superior temporal sulcus (STS), the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), along with the pre-limbic and limbic structures have been implicated in mediating moral cognition. Each of these areas have been hypothesized to mediate particular aspects of moral reasoning utilized in both consequentialist and deontological frameworks of moral cognition. The executive function properties of the prefrontal cortex are thought to be employed in goal oriented and reward prediction activities enabling the dorsolateral PFC and the medioventral PFC to mediate utilitarian moral reasoning. Conversely, the storage of context independent concepts and values (like honor and greed) in the anterior temporal lobe along with hierarchical processing of the dorsolateral PFC and the anterior cingulated cortex may provide the neural underpinnings for a more deontological form of moral reasoning.

Neural correlates for moral behaviors is tantalizing evidence for the support of a single moral doctrine. It seems to be a plausible argument that the moral philosophies for which there are recognized neural substrates have a stronger basis for being ‘correct’ moral philosophies than those without apparent biological validity. However, while moral philosophers seek to determine how one ‘ought’ to act, neuroscientists are limited to the study of what ‘is’ in moral reasoning. The logic of a neurobiological approach to the study of morality presents the potential pitfall David Hume warned us against of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’. To derive what ‘ought’ to be from what ‘is’ is to say that a thing assumes ‘rightness’ simply because it exists. G.E. Moore spoke more specifically to the problem in describing the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, in which something is incorrectly described as good or right simply based on it being natural or possessing natural properties. In application to the study of moral theory through scientific means, it suggests that we are incorrect to reason that the mechanisms that exist for moral thought can provide any appraisal on what is the truth of morality. Thus we are forced to question what, if anything, research on the neural basis morality offers the philosophical study of morality. Ideas?


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