Academic journal article Trames

Philosophical Implications and Multidisciplinary Challenges of Moral Physiology

Academic journal article Trames

Philosophical Implications and Multidisciplinary Challenges of Moral Physiology

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

When Roger Sperry received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1981 for his work on split-brain patients and the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres, he concluded his Nobel Lecture with the announcement that scientific progress will soon have a far reaching impact on the values and beliefs by which humans are living (Sperry 1981a). In his view, science had an "unmatched potential for the shaping of ethical values" and "[i]n the worldview perspectives and truths of science we will find the best key to valid moral guidelines" (Sperry 1981b:3). Among the multitude of scientific disciplines, Sperry particularly had his own field in mind: brain research. Philosophies, value-systems, and religious doctrines, he explained, "will stand or fall depending on the kinds of answers that brain research eventually reveals. It all comes together in the brain" (ibid. 4).

When reading some contemporary neuroscientific and philosophical papers on moral cognition and behaviour, one might get the impression that Sperry's idea has prevailed thirty to forty years after his announcement. While Michael Gazzaniga, who formerly worked together with Sperry on the split-brain patients, still hopes that we might identify and live more fully by "a universal set of ethics, built into our brains" (Gazzaniga 2005:xix), William Casebeer already draws the tentative conclusion that "the moral psychology required by virtue theory is the most neurobiologically plausible" (Casebeer 2003:841) and suggests jointly with Patricia Churchland that the investigation of brain processing related to moral decisions "may allow us to eliminate certain moral theories as being psychologically and neurobiologically unrealistic" (Casebeer and Churchland 2003:171).

In a similar vein, but with a different outcome, both Joshua Greene and Peter Singer interpret neuroscientific research on decisions to sacrifice few in order to save many (Greene et al. 2001, 2004) in a way that denounces intuitions against utilitarianism as irrational and ultimately defend the utilitarian outcome as the rational solution on these grounds (Greene 2007, Green et al. 2004, Singer 2005).These interpretations suggest that long-debated issues in moral philosophy related to ethically right human conduct can nowadays be informed or perhaps even solved by means of brain research. Indeed, in a news feature accompanying the first original publication of this field in Science (Greene et al. 2001), it is implied that this research might now fulfil a function that traditionally provided "job security for philosophers" (Helmuth 2001:1971).

This new kind of research and particularly its philosophical interpretations seem to constitute a new chapter in the debate on moral naturalism, that is, the identification of moral properties with some kind of natural properties, in this case properties of brain activations. At the same time, it is a central and perhaps even the central issue concerning the ethical implications of neuroscience: If progress in neuroscience did not only offer new possibilities of human treatment and enhancement calling for the discussion of its ethical, legal and social aspects (Giordano and Gordijn 2010, Farah 2010, Illes 2006, Levy 2007, Nagel 2010, Racine 2010) but also direct insight into moral right and wrong, then a cultural revolution of the kind envisaged by Sperry might indeed be imminent. Both of these aspects, the ethical description and analysis of neuroscience applications and the neuroscientific investigation of moral decisions, summarized in simpler terms as ethics of neuroscience and neuroscience of ethics, have previously been subsumed under the concept of 'neuroethics' (Roskies 2002). Because we want to avoid confusion between the applied and theoretical questions concerning neuroscience and ethics, we use the concept of 'moral physiology' in the remainder of this paper. Just as 'moral psychology' refers to the psychological investigation of moral phenomena, 'moral physiology' refers to their physiological investigation with a particular focus on brain research. …

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