What neuroscience doesn’t tell us about morality

23 02 2014

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Over the first two weeks of Feb., in our ‘logic slot’ my group discussed a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring Patricia Churchland on “what neuroscience can teach us about morality“: a promising-sounding choice by Walter.

These podcasts typically feature professional philosophers and so usually leave us little to critique in terms of the quality of their arguments. Sadly, this was an exception. A pervasive problem handicapping proper discussion right from the start was vagueness: morality was never defined. This seemed to allow Churchland to talk at length about oxytocin and pair-bonding, and to digress about social mores and manners: topics we felt were red herrings. Nigel pushed her at points as to whether she was making a naturalistic fallacy, but he didn’t get anywhere, primarily because of her persistent tendency to give politician’s answers that addressed either only part of a question, or a slightly different one from that actually asked. There were also references to Hume and Darwin which felt to us merely appeals to authority.

I’m sure neuroscience does have a lot to say about morality; for example about the types of theory of mind that allow us to imagine how things are for another person even if we don’t have an emotional bond with them; the biological bases of psychopathy; and the accommodations we might want to make for those with disorders giving them diminished responsibility. This was not, however, the place to learn about these. As one of the few women philosophers I was rooting for Churchland, but this podcast was just annoying.


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