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Posted on June 10, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Resuming its consideration of ethical issues generated by neuroscience research, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention Tuesday morning to the potential implications of what advances in neuroscience might mean for ethics and moral decision-making.

The session featured Joshua D. Greene, Ph.D., the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and Alfred R. Mele, Ph.D., William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University

Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Bioethics Commission, asked them to consider “how, if at all, does neuroscience alter or revolutionize, as some have claimed, our understanding of ethics?”

Greene argued from the perspective that neuroscience could affect how we see moral decision-making and could impact law and our notions of responsibility. He referred to studies that show that when people are exposed to research showing the extent to which brain functions are controlled by biological functions, their decisions about moral issues, such as punishment, change.

“If you just expose people to neuroscience information that gives people the idea that we are ultimately physical systems, people become less punitive and less retributive,” he said. More broadly, he thinks such research shows that “understanding that the brain is ultimately a physical system can change who we think we are.”

Mele was skeptical about how much neuroscience research ultimately reveals about moral behavior. He particularly took issue with researchers who present evidence of biological processes occurring in the brain that precede human awareness of a particular decision or action and claim it as proof that humans do not, in fact, have free will.

“What is really being tested in these studies is how good we are at detecting when we first become conscious of an urge or intention. And it may be that that’s not very important,” he said.

Mele added that “we are going to continue to learn a lot of very important useful things about the brain, but when thinking about the implications, we should not exaggerate.”

Greene said he, too, disagrees with those who interpret results from neuroscience research as questioning whether humans have free will to make important choices.

“Those results are over-interpreted,” he said. “The whole idea that the brain decides before you do, I think that stuff is a big mistake.”

Gutmann agreed that it’s important to note the limits to what neuroscience can reveal about human behavior and morals in particular. She summarized that both speakers agreed that “whatever neuroscience discovers about the determination of our actions, it cannot tell us what is right and what is wrong.”

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