Richard Rorty thinks not. Last summer he wrote a damning New York Times book review of Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds in which he took issue with the entire research program.
Rorty has several problems with the book, such as the way Hauser fails to adequately distinguish morality from etiquette, and how Hauser’s conclusions are unsupported by his own empirical evidence. But stripped of all the argumentative extras, his core objection is that neuroscience can’t help us distinguish right from wrong.
It’s a ‘So what?’ type of response, which understandably irritated those who think neuroethics is pretty keen. The blogosphere was ripe with commentary, but I’ll not chart it except to mention in passing John Mikhail’s complaint and Jim Chen’s answer, which illustrate legal scholars are taking an interest in this topic. And since legal scholars can’t go anywhere without a wagon-train of citations, these also provide lots of good links to critical scholarship.
That was almost a year ago, and with new things to talk about the debate has settled down a bit. But the question remains: is Rawls wrong? The general consensus among those working in neuroethics seems to be that he was missing the point. Upon reflection, I think they are missing his.
Philosophers deal in the business of puzzling over and evaluating moral choices. It’s their stock in trade. The problem is that neuroscience says nothing about particular moral propositions. We can’t use brain scans to tell us if our moral beliefs are true or false. We have yet to invent microscopes which can see moral truths.
As such, this fledgling discipline at the intersection of science and morality seems to be mostly useless to applied ethicists, clinical ethicists, and moral theorists. That is where Rawls’ skepticism gets traction, and good for him for pointing it out.
However, to evaluate neuroethics only on Rawls’ terms is to miss out on something important. It is to ignore the implications which follow from learning more about human nature and the world in which we live.
Neuroscience is a lens through which we might be able to see and explain the history of moral and political philosophy. It has consequences for how we look at moral responsibility. It may even instruct us in how to go about assessing the political utility of certain moral beliefs
Even if neuroethics can’t tell us much about ethical principles, it can tell us a lot about the people who believe in them. As such, it is an indispensable part of any moral epistemology.