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Moral agency, psychology, neuroscience…and Seinfeld…

I am in the midst of a paper on moral agency and accountability, and this has led me into areas that I did not quite imagine going a few months ago. Yesterday it put me in a vortex that included a bit of philosophy, a slice of psychology, a good helping of neuroscience — and a Seinfeld episode that happened to be on TV when I attempted to take a break from all that…

Moral agency has never been a simple concept to work with, and for some (e.g., those who define agency as a subordination to some task-defining principal) the very idea is oxymoronic, while for others (e.g., those who see agency as always morally situated) the concept is redundant. I started to explore the recent literature more inclined to the latter, but then ran into the complications raised by the work of psychologists and neuroscientists.

Example: Kwame Anthony Appiah has just published a work on Experiments in Ethics in which he tackles the issues raised by empirical studies of human behavior (primarily drawn from psychology) for different schools of ethics (which tend to rely on non-empirical foundations, e.g. character and intuition). I am only midway through the book, but the basic argument is for philosophers of ethics to avoid seeking universal principles (in the Kantian tradition) and to be more attentive to the reality of human behavior in their consideration of ethics and morality (an approach in line with the Aristotlean and Humean traditions).

Which led me to pick up a work that might be considered on the far (or leading, depending on your perspective) edge of neuroscience research into how the human brain connects with learned or intentional behavior. Michael Gazzaniga’s The Mind’s Past in a critical work that is annoyingly self-righteous at times about misguided “political correctness” (not surprisingly he is at Dartmouth, which seems to be the academic center of debates about that issue), but if you get past the diatribes there is a pretty strong empirically-based argument for human behavior being genetically constrained and driven. Although he seems very bothered by the Clintons (the book was published in 1998), his real argument is with those neuroscientists (I suspect he would call them pseudo-neuroscientists) who argue for the “plasticity” of the human brian — that is, that the operations of the brain could somehow be rewired or changed through changes in the environment. He is a hard core evolutionist when it comes to human behavior, and is greatly annoyed by those who deviate form that position with a less hard-core view. He doesn’t really have much explicitly to say about ethics or morality (he does have a book on The Ethical Brian that I have on order and will read next), but the implications are clear. Reading that work in tandem with Appiah’s has certainly been thought provoking….

But it has also been a bit overwhelming, and so I sought escape by turning on the TV and clicking through the various choices. One of the benefits of having hundreds of options via cable TV is that when nothing else interesting is on you can usually find a repeat of some Seinfeld episode. The episode I happened to stumble on in my effort to escape from Appiah and Gazzaniga was “The Abstinence”, and the main plot centered around the benefits (or drawbacks) of avoiding sex. For one character (George) the result was to release his true potential as an intellectual giant, while another character (Elaine) was transformed into a dimwit. At one point, Jerry Seinfeld offers an explanation, using a head of lettuce to demonstrate his point to George:

“Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows large piece) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce) ”  (from transcript; click here)

So much for seeking an escape….

January 20th, 2008 Posted by | accountability, moral agency, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology | no comments