[asa] The Neurology of Morality and the Politics of Science

From: David Opderbeck <dopderbeck@gmail.com>
Date: Mon Mar 26 2007 - 14:18:13 EDT

There is an interesting article in this month's Economist that illustrates,
I think, some of the problems with social Darwinism, particularly when it is
linked to a particular political outlook, as it seemingly inevitably
is (article here:
http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_RRRTQSD). The
article reports on a study of six people who have suffered damage to a part
of the brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC)) that is involved
with social emotion. The study showed that these people were more likely
than a control group to provide a "utilitarian" answer to the "runaway train

The "runaway train paradox" involves two dilemmas -- in one, you must decide
whether to push a person in front of an oncoming train in order to slow the
train before it hits five other people further down the line; in the other,
you must decide whether to switch the track so that that train will hit only
one person further down the line rather than hitting five people. Most
people will hesistate to push a person in front of the train to save five
lives, but will not hesistate to switch the track so that the train hits one
person further down the line instead of five. The six subjects with damaged
VMPC's felt the same about both possibilities -- they would not hesitate in
either case to sacrifice one person in order to save five.

The article explains that *"In these cases it seems that the decision on how
to act is not a single, rational calculation of the sort that moral
philosophers have generally assumed is going on, but a conflict between two
processes, with one (the emotional) sometimes able to override the other
(the utilitarian, the location of which this study does not address)." *This
yin-and-yang of emotional and rational responses, the article says, *"fits
with one of the tenets of evolutionary psychology.... This is that minds are
composed of modules evolved for given purposes.... The VMPC may be the site
of a 'moral-decision' module, linked to the social emotions, that either
regulates or is regulated by an as-yet-unlocated utilitarian module.**" *
So far, perhaps, so good. All of this seems very speculative, and a sample
size of six people with brain damage hardly seems adequate, but
nevertheless, it wouldn't be surprising that the emotional and rational
aspects of moral reasoning relate to different parts of the brain, and it
doesn't problematic per se if those parts of the brain developed over time
through evolutionary processes. The kicker is in the article's concluding

*This does not answer the question of what this module (what philosophers
woudl call 'moral sense') is actually for. But it does suggest the question
should be addressed functionally, rather than in the abstract. Time,
perhaps, for philosophers to put away their copies of Kant and pull a dusty
tome of Darwin off the bookshelf.*

It seems to me that in this paragraph the article crosses from descriptive
to prescriptive; from science to metaphysics. This is particularly so in
that, as a devoted reader of the Economist, I'm well aware of that
magazine's pragmatist / libertarian political philosophy and its slant
towards materialist metaphysics. In a very subtle way, this is an example
of the materialist / pragmatist saying: *"See there ... all that 'moral
sense' and whot is in your head. We shall move beyond this and learn to
develop our utilitarian modules."*

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Received on Mon Mar 26 14:18:30 2007

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