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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kant, Mill and brain damage

A recent article by Slate's "Human Nature" columnist discusses (and broadens) findings from a research article in Nature. (Most of Nature is not available freely over the web, although members of university constituencies should have access to it. It is the most important science periodical published in the United Kingdom, and, arguably, in English. The abstract of the article is available.)

William Saletan, the columnist, also discusses an earlier research article by a different group, but on a similar topic, which is freely available.

Both of these research studies involved measurement of neuron responses when the human subjects were presented with ethical dilemmas.

As the second article says, there is a long-standing debate in philosophy/ethics between advocates of consequentialism (way too simply, the end justifies the means -- utilitarianism is closely related to consequentialism) and deontologists (who argue that some things are right regardless of the consequences) or, as the article also puts it, Immanuel Kant versus John Stuart Mill.

To illustrate these two theories of right and wrong, some people argue that embryonic stem cell research is wrong, at least so long as any human embryos are destroyed to make it possible, regardless of the possible benefits. This is a deontological argument. Others argue that the possible benefits are so good that they outweigh the destruction of human embryos. This is a consequentialist argument. President Bush attempted to satisfy both sides, by authorizing federal funding of embryonic stem cell lines already in existence on August 9, 2001, but prohibiting the use of such funding for development of additional lines. This, of course, has not stopped calls for more such lines. When he made this important speech, I expected some significant condemnation of the President for allowing the lines already in existence to be used, but have seen no such.

The second article says that ". . . we speculate that the controversy surrounding utilitarian moral philosophy reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain." (p. 389) They also conclude by saying that "We emphasize that this cognitive account of the Kant versus Mill problem in ethics is speculative." (p. 398)

Saletan says that the authors of the first study say that humans are not wired in a way that makes strict utilitarian thinking possible. He makes a bold statement: "In other words, brain science has discredited religion and philosophy . . ." Oh? We are wired for a lot of things, most of which we don't understand, but moral people, religious or not, can override their wiring, whatever it may be, and make moral choices, based on what they perceive as standards of absolute right and wrong (such as the prohibition against murder in the Ten Commandments) or on the supposed consequences of their actions (some people, of course, claim that Christians act and believe as they do in an attempt to evade eternal punishment, a most serious consequence).

The fundamental ethical standard of Christianity, the so-called Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12, it seems to me, is not exactly consequentialist or deontological, but requires thinking of both types.

Thanks for reading.


Weekend Fisher said...

And since when is religious or philosophical thinking equated with strict utilitarian thinking? Isn't the whole "whatever works" line (utilitarian) the part that the religious are most likely to protest?

I think I hear evidence being stretched like a rubber band to fit something ...

Martin LaBar said...

Since Saletan said so, I guess.


Elliot said...

LOL. I think the author must just be trying to be provocative and attract attention.

Discredited religion and philosophy! In one fell swoop! My, my.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. Saletan strikes me as being serious about what he says.