Questionable Motives

March 31, 2010

Is morality a question for metaphysics or biology?

Filed under: Harris,Metaphysics,MIT,Morality — tildeb @ 9:35 am

Sam Harris’ proposal that morality can be better informed by facts and science has been met by criticism hot and heavy. Morality, so the common argument goes, is far too subjective and relative to be available to the kind of objective scrutiny used by science.

Is morality too subjective, in the epistemological sense, meaning is how we think about moral issues too individualized to be capable of being objectively studied? Does morality relegate its primary examination to metaphysical considerations? That seems to be the foundation on which much of the argument against Harris’ thesis seems to be based. But is it true?

From MIT News comes this article titled Moral judgments can be altered… by magnets.

To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions — an ability known as “theory of mind.” For example, if one hunter shoots another while on a hunting trip, we need to know what the shooter was thinking: Was he secretly jealous, or did he mistake his fellow hunter for an animal?

MIT neuroscientists have now shown they can influence those judgments by interfering with activity in a specific brain region — a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

The study offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” she says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

If how we think informs what we think – if epistemology informs ontology – then facts and science are exactly the right tools we need to investigate how we inform our morality on a biological rather than metaphysical basis. This kind of research could directly challenge with evidence the unjustified assumption that religion has any kind of domain over issues of morality or that science has no place as a separate ‘magesteria’ in moral discourse.

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