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New work on neuroethics in Spain.

The growing relevance of neurosciences within Bioethics leads to the appearance of new Centres dedicated to the study of neuroethics around the world. This is the case of a new group just appeared at my home University, the University of Valencia. I would like to dedicate my first contribution to this blog to introduce this group, and specifically the first contributions that they are beginning to produce. I do this because these first contributions are being published in Hispanic journals and for that reason they would not be accessible to the English audience.

In the following lines I’ll develop the key aspects of the article of the group’s director, Adela Cortina, “Neuroethics: the brain’s foundations for politically relevant ethics”, published in the Journal “Isegoría. Revista de Filosofía Moral y Política”, num.42, 2010, pp.129-148. I hope the theses developed here could arouse interest and debate among the blog’s members.

Following Adina Roskies and Neil Levy, Professor Cortina advertises of the existence of two ways in which the concept of “neuroethics” is being used since its origin. One of them is the “ethics of neuroscience”, which consists in the attempt to articulate the ethical framework which the neuroscientific research should be conducted in. The second is the “neuroscience of ethics”. It would analyze the implications that the discoveries realized in the field of neuroescence have in our understanding of ethics and of moral behaviour.

Certainly, it’s difficult to do a clear distinction between both spheres of relation between neuroscience and ethics. However, if we understand “neuroethics” as the ethics of neuroscience, we would understand it like a dimension of Bioethics; neuroethics would be one more applied ethics, such as business ethics. Instead, if we think on “neuroethics” like the science of ethics, it would foreshadow the discovery of the neural basis of our moral behaviour to build a universal ethics. As a consequence, neuroethics could replace the current religious and philosophical systems for understanding morality, like neuroscientist like Gazzaniga seems to say. In this article the Professor Cortina’s aim is to refuse this last aspiration of neuroethics.

Neuroethics, as the neuroscience of ethics, is grounded in the study of the brain while individuals give answers to certain moral dilemmas. We could quote the trolley dilemma, presented by Philippa Foot, or the confrontation between helping a stranger on the street and the refusal to help the African families through a NGO, presented by Singer, as the most famous cases that all we know. In these cases, individuals stress different moral judgements when the case refers to a close or a distant person. Which is the cause of that different judgement? The answer of James Wilson, which we could find also in Marc Hauser, is that the interference with a close person (for instance when we help a person on the street) activates emotional conduct codes inherited from the Palaeolithic age. At that time the value of survival was crucial, so helping other humans had a primary importance and was promoted by everybody. This behaviour has remained in our brain and for that reason we instinctively help a close person while we refuse to help a remote person (e.g. the starving African children). This is because the attitude to help a distant person comes from more recent cognitive processes and with a less emotional content.

According to Cortina, the consequence of this explanation is that the cognitive processes developed in our brain through the evolutionary process produced a “universal moral grammar” which explains the response that persons give to the diverse moral scenarios with the aim to maintain their survival. Neuroethics would be the science able to reveal what that universal moral grammar is and, consequentially, the universally valid moral system.

Adela Cortina refuses that evolutionary conception for understanding morality. The main reason is that this approach would reproduce the ancient naturalist fallacy. As Joshua Green titled one of his articles, neuroethics would move from the neuronal “is” to the moral “ought”. Adela Cortina says: “Between the natural world and the moral ought (the moral codes) would exist an adaptive connection which would establish as ethical norms these behaviours able to reinforce the survival. Moral norms would only be adaptive norms only. (…) From the survival’s “is” can’t be concluded the moral “ought” that would correspond to it.” (p.138). This is the core thesis that makes impossible the articulation of an universal ethics from the brain.

Even more, we can realise that the norms that would arise from a neural “ethics of survival” differ with the common moral codes, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the most relevant religions and secular ethics. None of them suggests we should worry about the persons that can guarantee our survival only.

Third, Cortina argues that the explanations given by the neuroethics to the moral dilemmas could be useful to understand why the close problems affect us more than the distant ones. But this doesn’t imply that people should adopt a resigned attitude toward this situation. Instead, at an ethical level people should ask themselves if they should worry about the distant problems too. In other words, ethics isn’t merely to follow the behavioural codes we could have in our brain, but just ask if the appropriate behaviour is to follow our inherited reaction or maybe to reinforce sentiments towards the distant people too. Here we can find the deontological level which the former approach lacks.

These are the main elements concerning the Adela Cortina’s article on neuroethics. Also, this work stresses two fundamental limitations to the attempt to base an ethics on the functioning of the brain . The first one is that the discovery of the cognitive and emotional processes that lead our brain to take decisions and moral judgements wouldn’t provide a ground for an ethical proposal based on the guarantee of the individual’s survival. The second one is that describing the individual’s reaction toward certain dilemmas isn’t enough to invalidate entire (secular or religious) ethics and philosophies. These are two theses which I agree with, and I expose them here so that they may be submitted to debate.

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