This is the 25th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
Patricia Churchland spoke at the Beyond Belief conference last year, and began her discussion the same way that she began this one. She attempted to draw a link between morality and brain chemistry by showing that there are certain physical characteristics in the brain associated with pair bonding versus promiscuity in certain species of mice. From this, she attempted to imply that there was a relationship between brain chemistry and the morality of pair bonding versus promiscuity in mice.
I hold that it is obviously the case that different behaviors ultimate rest on different features in the brains of different agents. I have little doubt of the ability to take behavioral dispositions and trace them, at least theoretically to facts about the brain.
However, one of the things that I seriously doubt is that you can take a characteristic, discover the underlying brain functions associated with that characteristic, and in that brain function discover its morality. It is at least theoretically possible to take the brains of rapists, and the brains of homosexuals, and discover how each is related to parts of the brains having particular structures.
There are some who would want to argue that the mere fact that homosexuality can be associated with a particular brain structure, that this implies that homosexuality is not immoral. Every time a discovery is made along these lines we are told that this means that homosexuality is not a choice, and that homosexuals should be free to engage in practices consistent with their nature.
Yet, we should well expect that the disposition to rape will also be linked to particular brain structures. We would certainly not accept the argument that this implies that rape is not a matter of choice, and that rapists should therefore be free to engage in practices consistent with their nature. This argument linking brain structure to moral permissibility is completely invalid. All dispositions – obligatory, permissible, and prohibited – are (at least theoretically) associated with certain brain structures. Being associated with a brain structure, and being morally permissible, are not the same thing.
We do not find moral obligation, permission, and prohibition for a disposition in the fact that it is associated with an underlying brain structure. I have been arguing that we find the moral obligation, permission, and prohibition of a disposition by measuring its relationship to other dispositions. What makes rape morally prohibited while homosexual behavior is morally permissible is that the former is a disposition that thwarts the desires of others (thus giving others a reason to prevent it), while the latter is a disposition that does not require the thwarting of other desires.
I have also argued that morality is only relevant when we are talking about malleable desires. By this I mean that social forces, particularly the forces of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, can have an effect on the disposition. This means that morality is involved where these behaviors have an effect on the underlying brain structure, making brain structures that tend to thwart other desires less common, and brain structures that fulfill other desires more common.
The ways in which social forces affect brain structures, and the effect of those different brain structures on behavior, is another area where science can make meaningful contributions to morality. Science may tell us that certain brain structures are immune to social conditioning. If this is true of a brain structure associated with behavior that thwarts the desires of others, it means that we should consider that disposition an ‘illness’ rather than an ‘evil’. We call it ‘evil’ when social condemnation can make the disposition less common; we call it ‘illness’ when social condemnation can have no such effect.
So, assume that Patricia Churchland is correct when she says that oxytocin levels have an effect on promiscuity (higher oxytocin levels means less promiscuity). Let us also assume that science tells us that promiscuity tends to be desire-thwarting (in that it contributes to the spread of disease and breaks apart families to the detriment of the children within those families. Finally, let us assume that science discovers a relationship between certain social practices (the condemnation of adultery and the praise of monogamy) tends to promote oxytocin production in the brain.
Where these three items apply, we have reason to instruct society to use its forces of praise and condemnation to promote monogamy and reduce promiscuity. The effect, in this case, would be to reduce the desire for sex with people other than a pair-bonded mate, which will then reduce the spread of disease and protect children from the dangers of living in a single-parent household.
Please note that I am not assuming, nor am I arguing, that any of the three propositions in my opening paragraph are true. I am simply arguing for the implications that findings such as this might have on designing a moral system for a society.
It is often said that science cannot provide us with moral principles. Here is at least a hypothetical example in which it can. Here is a set of hypothetical examples in which people have a reason to use social forces to praise one type of behavior and to condemn another, as proved by science.
This analysis is quite different from what usually hear from biologists and evolutionists regarding the link between morality and biology. The typical link that biologists tend to draw is that if we can find a brain structure associated with the attitude that X is wrong that this proves that morality springs from biology, and somehow ‘justifies’ the attitude that X is wrong.
However, this is like saying that if the attitude ‘God exists’ can be traced to a certain brain structure (which, at least theoretically, it can be), that this proves that the attitude is justified. There is no difference between this inference and the inference that the fact that one has traced a moral attitude (homosexuality is sinful) to a mental state to the conclusion that the state is justified (that homosexuality is, indeed, sinful).
Of course an attitude is going to have a biological basis. This is true of all attitudes – attitudes that are justified, and attitudes that are not justified. It tells us nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . about whether or not that attitude is justified. Those who find a biological basis for a moral attitude and who claim that the study stops there – that science has solved the question of morality – simply demonstrate that they do not understand what it is they are studying.
I can imagine that some people may take my opposition to the way that science studies morality to mean that I am opposed to the scientific study of morality. At the same time, they may note that I hold that moral claims are objective, and that moral statements are subject to the same standards of evidence as any other kind of scientific statement.
Let me clarify this distinction.
Science has a lot to say about morality. However, at the same time, the bulk of scientists who think they are studying morality are studying nothing of the kind. What the bulk of scientists are studying falls victim to the false inference that, “I have shown that moral attitude X has a biological basis; therefore, I have shown that moral attitude X is justified.” Scientists who make this inference are studying moral attitudes, but they are far from studying the justification of moral claims. The justification of moral claims cannot be found in this research. It has to be found elsewhere. However, the ‘elsewhere’ itself is something that can be studied scientifically.
The same is true of beliefs. A scientist would be a fool to think that because he has discovered a biological foundation for a particular belief that he has shown the belief to be justified. The justification for a belief rests somewhere other than in its biological foundation. Yet, the fact that the justification of beliefs is to be found elsewhere does not imply that the justification of beliefs is outside of the realm of science. Indeed, the scientific method itself is very much tied to the justification of beliefs. The scientific method is a system for justifying beliefs.
The point is not that science cannot provide us with information useful in making moral judgments. The point is that you do not find that information in the mere fact that an attitude has a biological underpinning. It is found, instead, in the relationships that an attitude has to other attitudes – to the degree that beliefs cohere with other beliefs, and to the degree that desires are in harmony with other desires.