Saturday, April 28, 2007

Moral Judgment ≠ Moral Fact

Oh dear. William Saletan of Slate magazine reports the latest neuroscientific breakthrough: to make judgments, people use their brains! Shocking, I know. But you won't believe the philosophical implications:
According to the neuroscientists, philosophers on both sides are wrong, because morality doesn't come from God or transcendent reason. It comes from the brain... The war of ideas is a war of neurons.

It seems a little conflation goes a long way when you're a journalist.


  1. Did you see this, from a few weeks back? Same sort of problem. Is something in the water?

  2. My classmate who is a very good scientists and applied mathematician said, "The things I read in the media which are about topics with which I am familiar are wildly innacurate, making me wonder if the things that I read on topics with which I am not familiar are similarly innacurate."

    Here's one vote for yes.

  3. The media is about talking to some sort of average reader. I presume that is why they show some sort of 'shock amazement' upon discovering the obvious. take for example the hundreds of amazed articles about how animals can think, how brains make decisions and how early humans made inventions or for that matter of some petty scandal involving a famous person.

    I guess it is better to be wrong and interesting than right and boring.

    further what jack says, one of the main issues seems to be the simplification and dubious use of statistics - and the reporting as fact of studies with terrble methodology.


  4. Another "oh dear" is that Saletan seems to look forward to neuroscientists choosing our morals for us in the future:

    "Right now, we're discovering the seat of morality," warns NIO President Zack Lynch. "In 10 to 15 years, we'll have the technologies to manipulate it."[SNIP] Sure, a few mental relics of our primate ancestry will be lost. But it'll be worth it. I think.

  5. Do morals even exist except as a construct of the human mind? What about ethics? You get into situational ethics, consequensialist ethics, etcettera.
    If one uses the argument that morals and ethics evolved, then what of the studies that show much of what many consider abhorrant behavior also evolved along with the "good" behavior.
    It seems that if morals exist at all, those who support them need to prove that they exist.

  6. Tandem, sure, the moral realism debate is an interesting one. I recommend two possible routes to defusing your skeptical worries: (1) offer a naturalistic reduction of values to existing properties we're all familiar with. (2) Forget about existence, and simply consider the ways that any of our judgments can be improved. This may lead us to a kind of constructivism, but it remains "objective" in the sense that our current moral beliefs could be in error.


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