Bioethics Blogs

Cognitive (neuro)science and bioethics

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

In a recent article in Ethics, “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics,” Josh Greene argues that empirical research in moral judgment has significant relevance for normative ethics in that it (1) exposes the inner workings of our moral judgments, revealing that we should have less confidence in some of our judgments and the ethical theories that are based on them, and (2) informs us of where we tend to rely on intuition or automatic processing (which is often heavily emotive), but ought to rely more manual, controlled processing (such as consequentialist reasoning).

Problems with our (intuitive) moral judgments (and for deontology?)

Greene uses a camera analogy throughout the article: a camera has an automatic mode (which allows for efficiency) and a manual mode (which allows for flexibility and is sometimes important to use). Such is the case with moral reasoning. The problem is that automatic, intuitive moral judgment is susceptible to framing effects, reflects imperfect cognitive heuristics, and is often resistant to evidence that might change or undermine it (instead, we tend to engage in post-hoc rationalization or “intuition chasing”). Greene recounts a substantial amount of this evidence. And, here’s the kicker: deontological type judgments (“rights,” “duties”) are linked more closely to the automatic, emotional response systems (the VMPFC region of the brain is activated), and consequentialist type judgments (impartial cost-benefit reasoning) are linked more closely to the controlled, reasoned response systems (the DLPFC region of the brain is activated). Thus, according to Greene, we should have less confidence in deontological moral theories than in consequentialist ones.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.