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Churchland cited Eleanor Rosch’s work on concepts and categories [PDF], the famous example of which is the category of vegetable. If you are like 90 percent of Americans, you thought of a carrot first as the prototypical example of a vegetable. The point is that categories have fuzzy edges; radishes are clearly vegetable, but what about wild mushrooms? Mushrooms are located in the same aisle in the supermarket after all. These categories depend on pattern recognition; human beings analogically reason about how new cases related to earlier categories.
Churchland’s argument is that moral categories too have fuzzy edges whose boundaries are different for different cultures. Take the example of the 9/11 atrocities. If you analogize it to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this suggests the proper response is war. On the other hand, if you analogize it to the Oklahoma City bombing, that suggests that it is matter for the police and the courts. We have moral prototypes of what it means to be a friend, brave, kind, and honest. However, cultures will differ over what counts as honest at the edges. Again, our particular social institutions structure our moral expectations and very different behaviors can emerge depending on a culture’s set of institutions.
So on Churchland’s account the project of using neuroscience to uncover some kind of universal human morality looks likely to fail. Philosopher John Shook cast further doubt that a new neuroethics could help using scientific scrutiny to re-engineer ethics. It might be the case that no sophisticated ethical system can be improved beyond a set of basic human moral norms. These moral norms consist of a common set of virtues that people teach their children, e.g., respect your abilities and try to improve them; don’t betray group efforts for personal gain, etc. These norms amount to ethical platitudes that are good enough for most people. Apparently, Shook thinks that most ethical norms are very like what Berns calls sacred values, e.g., social rules that are simply read off and acted on when a relevant case arises.
When I asked him about utilitarian thinking, Shook declared that it was recently devised by some philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, etc.) as a way to justify a certain kind of politics that attempted resolve conflicts within society. There was no utilitarian moral thinking during the time when our ancestors roamed as hunter-gatherers. Morality consisted of a set of rules that regulated social life in small bands, virtue ethics writ small.
Pondering the various presentations, can neuroethics tell us anything new and useful about ourselves? Berns’ research appears to vindicate the sense we all have that some things are just right or wrong and damn the consequences, whereas in other situations consequences matter and we must weigh the harms and benefits that actions impose on others. I interpret Shook as being something of a moral pessimist; neuroscience will most likely end up telling us that we really can’t do much to improve our moral thinking and systems.
The message from Casebeer and Churchland is that institutions matter—but interestingly they refrain from saying that some institutions (and the moral consequences that flow from them) are objectively better than others. Actually, Casebeer’s project to naturalize Aristotleian virtue ethics suggests a way to determine if one set of social institutions is better than others; do they enable and enhance human flourishing? In my view, human prehistory and history has been a more or less random search for social institutions that increasingly discover and conform to our evolved natures. My contention is that is manifestly the case that liberal institutions, e.g., respect for persons, free markets, the rule of law, religious tolerance, and democracy, do contribute to human flourishing. I suspect that a scan of my brain might find that that conclusion amounts to a sacred value for me.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.