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make different decisions in cases where the facts are identi-

cal but presented in different ways. These framing effects are

quite remarkable, but it is not clear what their significance is
for the nature of morality. None of the authors discuss the
work done in bioethics or, more generally, in applied ethics,
which is quite significant, for they criticize philosophers for
their failure to realize the importance of getting all the facts
Neuroscience and without discussing those philosophers to whom this criticism
does not apply.

Morality s s s

n Experiments in Ethics, Appiah tries to show that the
present distinction between philosophy and the scienc-
es—including psychology, physics, and anthropology—is
the result of “forgetting” the empirical work that was done
by those who are regarded as the great philosophers of the
past—Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Mill. He
shows that an Anglo-American view of philosophy as con-
ceptual analysis is a result of forgetting, or choosing selected
portions of, what these philosophers did, and discarding the
rest as irrelevant to philosophy. What is now called natural-
ism in philosophy has brought science back into philosophy.
by bernard gert For naturalists, it is necessary to show how philosophical ac-
counts of morality can be derived from scientific accounts of
how morality develops. Even those who do not accept natu-
Editor’s Note: Bernard Gert died on December 24, 2011, shortly ralism—that is, who do not think that morality can be de-
after this essay was accepted, making the essay one of the last items rived from science—now accept that philosophical accounts
in his long and illustrious career in bioethics. Gert died before the of morality must be consistent with scientific findings about
essay was prepared for publication, and it appears now with the related matters.
assistance of Joshua Gert. The essay has been edited only lightly. Appiah shows how psychology presents a challenge to
those who rely on intuition in forming their moral theories.
He criticizes Sir David Ross, who claimed that “the moral

n 2009 I participated in a symposium, “Toward a Com- convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people are
mon Morality,” held at the United Nations Building in the data of ethics just as sense-perceptions are the data of a
New York, that reflected the growing interest among natural science” (quoted on p. 752). He also regards Rawls’s
scientists and philosophers in showing that science—par- method of refining our moral intuitions by trying to reach an
ticularly neuroscience—provides a foundation not only for equilibrium between our intuitive moral judgments and our
understanding morality, but also for improving it. In this es- moral theories as seriously flawed. He points out that when
say I shall examine three books that are part of this trend: Rawls talks about shared intuitions, he never tells us who the
Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Moral persons are that share these intuitions. Appiah cites the work
Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by of Kahneman and Tversky to show how framing effects lead
Sam Harris, and Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about many to have different moral intuitions about identical situ-
Morality, by Patricia S. Churchland.1 ations; he also cites other criticisms of intuition that are sup-
These three books are quite different from one another in ported by scientific findings.
both style and content. However, they do share some interest- Appiah makes an important distinction between ethics
ing similarities. All three authors think highly of John Stuart and morality. “I’ll generally follow Aristotle,” he writes, “in
Mill and try to show that he would look with favor on the using ‘ethics’ to refer to questions about human flourishing,
views that they are putting forward. All three are far more about what it means for a life to be well lived. I’ll use ‘mo-
critical of John Rawls than is common among moral philoso- rality’ to designate something narrower, the constraints that
phers. All three are critical of moral intuitions and are im- govern how we should and should not treat other people” (p.
pressed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s account of 37, see also pp. 63, 168). However, describing morality as be-
the importance of framing effects—for example, that people ing concerned only with constraints (obligations) ignores his
earlier distinction between what is morally praiseworthy and
Bernard Gert, “Neuroscience and Morality,” Hastings Center Report 42, no. 3 what is morally obligatory.
(2012): 22-28. DOI: 10.1002/hast.36

22 HASTI N G S C E N T E R R E P ORT May-June 2012

Apart from those who do applied and professional eth- rules for choosing among them, should be warned that a
ics, Appiah is the only philosopher I know who recognizes ‘naturalized ethics’ is never going to get us there” (p. 193).
that whether a situation is an emergency is relevant to what Although no decision procedure can provide a unique cor-
the appropriate moral decision ought to be (pp. 96ff ). Those rect answer to every moral question, people do use some kind
who do bioethics are quite clear that doctors in real emergen- of decision procedure when their moral decisions or judg-
cies should act in ways that are not permissible in the normal ments are challenged. They try to discover all the morally
practice of medicine. Normally a doctor is not supposed to relevant features of the situation, and they consider whether
leave one patient in order to treat another patient who has they would be willing for everyone to know that they can act
a more serious medical problem. However, in a plane crash in the same way in that situation. Although different people
or other emergency situation, a doctor is supposed to prac- using this kind of procedure may arrive at different answers,
tice triage—that is, to treat those patients who will benefit all of these answers should be within the range of morally ac-
most from medical treatment even when that means leaving ceptable answers.
one patient to treat another. Impartiality is morally re-
Also, although in standard quired when violating a moral
practice doctors must ob- rule—for example, when
tain informed consent before
treating a patient, when life
Because science is our best causing harm, deceiving, or
cheating. One must estimate
is at stake in an emergency, the consequences of everyone
physicians can treat without method for finding out knowing that the rule may be
obtaining informed consent violated under certain mor-
from the patient.
The distinction between
truths about events and ally relevant conditions and
decide whether those conse-
harming someone intention-
ally and only doing so know-
states of the world and our quences are better or worse
than the consequences of ev-
ingly is also morally relevant. eryone knowing that such a
A public policy allowing the brains, Harris holds that it is violation is not allowed. This
former is more likely to have estimation is supposed to
overall bad consequences
than a public policy allowing
the best method for finding guarantee the required kind
of impartiality. But impartial-
the latter. This explanation
does not depend on any sci-
out truths about well-being. ity does not guarantee agree-
ment; impartial persons can
entific discoveries, but simply disagree. They may disagree
recognizes that morality is concerning their estimates of
a system that applies to vul- the consequences. They may
nerable, fallible, and biased persons. This fact about moral- disagree about morally relevant features of a situation, such
ity explains why it is morally unacceptable to violate a moral as whether it is an emergency, and they may even disagree
rule unless one is willing for everyone to know that they are about whether there is a violation of a moral rule—whether
allowed to violate the rule in circumstances with the same dyeing one’s hair is an example of deceiving. And some of
morally relevant features. Not everyone will agree on a public these disagreements may be unresolvable. And there also may
policy about how much harm has to be prevented in order to be unresolvable disagreements about the ranking of the ba-
justify harming someone; some, like Peter Singer, may hold sic harms—death, pain, disability, loss of freedom, and loss
that saving five lives is enough to justify killing one, but most of pleasure—and about whether the group that is impar-
others will demand a far higher number. However, when the tially protected by morality includes fetuses and nonhuman
number of people saved is sufficiently large, almost all people animals.
would favor a public policy that allows intentionally causing Appiah admits that science cannot always provide a unique
harm to one to save many, rather than a prohibition on ever correct answer about the morally best way to act. Nonethe-
intentionally causing harm. less, almost everyone would judge a normal case of cheating
Appiah puts forward a limited role for experimentalists— on a test to be morally unacceptable, even if the consequenc-
those who do “experimental work that seems to bear on our es of the particular action are better than not cheating. All
moral makeup” (p. 3). “The contributions of the method are would agree about this because all would estimate the conse-
partly negative, chastening some assumptions about what’s quences of everyone knowing that cheating is allowed to be
‘obvious’; and partly positive, shining a light on anomalies far worse than those of a public policy that disallowed cheat-
of our moral folk psychology, and connecting them to philo- ing. Although no one explicitly uses any kind of procedure
sophical arguments” (pp. 192-93). He is skeptical about us- when making their moral decisions and judgments, there is
ing science to provide a decision procedure: “Anyone looking such overwhelming agreement on most moral decisions and
for decision procedures, a way of ranking values or a set of judgments that they are not even discussed (consider the

May-June 2012 H AS TI N GS C EN TE R RE P O RT 23
question whether one may hit a person simply because one beings. His view is probably best expressed by the following
does not like him). This overwhelming agreement suggests remarks: “Practically speaking, I think that we have some very
overwhelming implicit acceptance of something like the pro- useful intuitions on this front. We care more about creatures
cedure described above. However, as indicated above, this that can experience a greater range of suffering and happi-
procedure allows for unresolvable disagreements in all con- ness—and we are right to, because suffering and happiness
troversial moral cases. (defined in the widest possible sense) are all that can be cared
According to Appiah, naturalism “denies that the explora- about” (p. 198, n. 8).
tion of value must proceed without reference to the phenom- This is a quite plausible view, but in the same note, Har-
ena that scientists study, the causal systems of the material ris goes on to say, “Are all human lives equivalent? No. . . .
world, the framings of our nature” (p. 184). Appiah holds However, it also seems quite rational for us to collectively act
that ethics is closely related to morality, which is about how as though all human lives were equally valuable. Hence, most
we should and should not treat other people, but he still of our laws and social institutions generally ignore differences
holds that morality is less dependent on scientific findings between people. I suspect that this is a very good thing. Of
than is ethics. Morality is primarily concerned with avoid- course, I could be wrong about this—and that is precisely
ing causing harm to others, and with preventing or relieving the point. If we didn’t behave this way, our world would be
harm, and there is almost complete agreement about what different, and these differences would either affect the totality
counts as harm. Although being a pastry chef is a completely of human well-being, or they wouldn’t” (p. 199, n. 8). The
acceptable occupation, and may add to human flourishing, it view that we should only act as if “all human lives are equally
is not, as medicine sometimes is, considered a moral calling valuable” if this would result in increasing the totality of hu-
because it is not concerned with minimizing harm to others. man well-being is not quite such a plausible view. I would
Appiah holds that science is relevant to morality because sci- not be surprised if many people were disturbed by this act-
ence provides reliable information about what ways of acting consequentialist view.
are better at avoiding causing harm and at preventing and Harris’s reply to a standard criticism of consequentialism
relieving it. I do not know of anyone who would deny that is the following, “Can the disparity between our commit-
science is relevant to morality in this way, however. ment to fulfilling our selfish desires and our commitment to
alleviating the unnecessary misery and death of millions be
s s s morally justified? Of course not. These failures of ethical con-
sistency are often considered a strike against consequential-

arris takes a much stronger view about the relation- ism. They shouldn’t be. Who ever said that being truly good,
ship between science and morality. Harris says that or even ethically consistent, must be easy?” (p. 82). Like other
his argument “rests on a very simple premise: hu- act consequentialists, Harris makes no distinction between
man well-being entirely depends on events in the world and avoiding causing harm (what I call obeying moral rules) and
on states of the human brain” (p. 2). Because science is our preventing and relieving harm (what I call following moral
best method for finding out truths about events and states ideals). Thus, he has no moral foundation for condemning
of the world and about events and states of the brain, Harris the enslavement of a few members of a disliked minority in
holds that science is our best method for finding out truths order to provide strong feelings of pleasure, relief, and safety
about human well-being. His emphasis on the importance of to the vastly larger number of people in the majority. Nor
neuroscience to ethics and morality is made clear by his state- can he condemn, without seeing the results on total human
ment, “the primacy of neuroscience and the other sciences of well-being (defined in the widest possible sense), the decep-
mind on questions of human experience cannot be denied” tion involved in medical experiments done on poor, vulner-
(p. 8). However, as the book progresses, it seems that neuro- able populations in order to provide benefits to a much larger
science has no greater relevance to morality than any other group of more valuable people. Harris is primarily concerned
science related to human beings. with persuading the reader that science provides a far better
Unlike Appiah, Harris makes no distinction between eth- guide for morality than religion, but by adopting an unso-
ics and morality. He says, “‘Ethics’ and ‘morality’ (I use the phisticated act-consequentialist position, he actually makes
terms interchangeably) are the names that we give to our de- people more afraid of basing morality on science.
liberate thinking about these matters [human cooperation]” Harris agrees that morality has to be universal, but because
(p. 55), and the index entry for “ethics” says, “See morality; of his failure to distinguish between moral rules and mor-
value; and headings beginning with moral.” Harris does not al ideals, he mistakenly holds that morality always requires
make such a distinction because he holds that maximizing impartiality. He does not realize that impartiality is moral-
well-being is the only thing that can be reasonably valued, so ly required only when considering the violation of a moral
it must be the goal of morality. Sometimes Harris says that rule—causing someone pain—and not when following mor-
morality is concerned only with human well-being, and at al ideals, such as when deciding which charity to donate to.
other times he takes a view similar to that of Peter Singer, His failure to distinguish between obeying moral rules and
that morality is concerned with the well-being of all sentient following moral ideals is also why he regards someone who

24 HASTI N G S C E N T E R R E P ORT May-June 2012

does not always act to maximize well-being as morally incon- as harm. He does not see that the function of science is not to
sistent. We are always morally required to obey moral rules, determine human values, but to provide a reliable guide on
but both Kant and Mill agree that we can choose when to how to minimize the harms. Some religions also offer useful
act on moral ideals, so there is no moral inconsistency in not guides on how to minimize the harms, but a well-established
always acting to maximize well-being. Harris does not make religious guide, unlike a well-established scientific guide, need
a distinction between moral rules and ideals because he may not be a reliable guide. Further, many religious guides are not
hold that only academics are interested in this distinction, even primarily concerned with minimizing harms. Like other
and they are not his intended audience. act consequentialists, Harris does not recognize that morality
The subtitle of Harris’s book is “How Science Can Deter- is more concerned with minimizing harms than with maxi-
mine Human Values.” But he does not even attempt to show mizing well-being. He does not realize that by concentrat-
how science can do this. His view that human or sentient ing on maximizing well-being and ignoring the distinction
well-being (in the deepest sense) is the ultimate value is not a between rules and ideals, he raises the fear that science allows
scientific discovery, but simply one version of act consequen- harming some for the greater well-being of others. It is unfor-
tialism. Science can show tunate that his contempt for
what sort of activities, laws, academic philosophy makes
and practices have the best his support of science as the
chance of promoting human
or sentient well-being, but
Science can show what source of morality far less per-
suasive than it would other-
science does not determine
what counts as human or sen-
sort of activities, laws, and wise be.

tient well-being. Harris does s s s

not appreciate that there is far practices have the best chance
more agreement about what atricia Churchland is
counts as harms to humans
and other sentient beings
of promoting well-being, but a professional philoso-
pher, so one would ex-
than on what counts as their
well-being. Everyone agrees
science does not determine pect a greater sophistication
about philosophical matters
that death, pain (including than is shown by Harris. This
mental pain and suffering), what counts as well-being. expectation is only minimally
disabilities, loss of freedom, met. Also, since the subtitle of
and loss of pleasure are harms. the book is “What Neurosci-
Everyone avoids all of these ence Tells Us about Morality,”
harms unless they are thereby one would expect that neuro-
avoiding, preventing, or relieving another one of these harms, science does tell us something about the kind of morality we
or gaining the corresponding goods for themselves or others. should have, but unfortunately that expectation is not met
Indeed, we regard a person as acting irrationally if she does at all.
not avoid these harms, unless she has an adequate reason for Chapter two is titled “Brain-Based Values,” but the values
not avoiding them. Churchland discusses could be discussed with no mention of
This agreement on the list of harms is shown by the fol- the brain at all. To make it seem as if the brain is central to her
lowing examples. Nothing counts as a malady (that is, a discussion, she writes sentences like the following: “Where do
disease or injury) unless the person is suffering one of these values come from? How did brains come to care about oth-
harms or is at increased risk of suffering one of them. Also, ers?” (p. 12). Later, though, she expresses herself more clearly:
nothing counts as a punishment unless it involves inflicting “Why do we, and other social mammals, care for others?” (p.
one of these harms on a person. What counts as harm is a fac- 13); and the next chapter starts out with the more promising
tual matter, and Harris holds that it is pointless to distinguish question, “What is going on in the brain such that an animal
between facts and values. However, agreement on the harms cares about others, or expresses social values?” (p. 27). No lon-
does not depend on science, and science cannot change what ger are brains caring for others, but something is going on in
counts as harm. It is rational for individuals to consent to the brains of animals that care about others. It is quite inter-
suffering serious harm, as in boxing and football, in order to esting what is going on in the brain that explains why animals
make money, but without consent it is morally unacceptable care about others, and Churchland has some nice diagrams
to cause serious harm to one person in order to make money and pictures to illustrate her discussion. She also points out
or give pleasure to others, no matter how much money or very clearly and persuasively that evolution is not a sufficient
pleasure is involved. explanation for much of what is special about human beings.
Harris is so concerned with showing that science is a bet- She makes the point that if mammals are to pass on their
ter guide to moral behavior than religion that he does not genes, they must care about their offspring, sometimes even
appreciate that there is universal agreement on what counts to the extent of sacrificing themselves to save their children

May-June 2012 H AS TI N GS C EN TE R RE P O RT 25
(p. 31). But she is clear that “The first and most fundamen- compensating goods—then it is quite clear that the Humean
tal part of the story concerns self-preservation. All nervous view of reason is incorrect. What we call rational behavior of-
systems are organized to take care of the basic survival of the ten does involve problem-solving and planning for the future,
body they are part of . . . Animals that fail at self-preserving but as Hobbes makes clear, this kind of behavior counts as ra-
behavior have no chance to pass on their genes” (p. 27). It is tional only when it is not intended to achieve some irrational
biology, especially evolution, that explains human and mam- end. Someone who makes elaborate plans to kill himself in
malian social behavior; neuroscience simply provides the the most painful possible way and solves the many problems
mechanism whereby evolution leads to the evolutionarily ap- involved in keeping himself conscious of intense pain until
propriate behavior. Understanding this mechanism is impor- he dies is acting rationally only on the absurd philosophical
tant when trying to discover the causes of aberrant behavior instrumental account of rationality. Psychiatry would regard
and trying to treat it, but neuroscience does not add anything such a person as mentally ill simply on the basis of this ex-
significant to our knowledge or understanding of morality. treme example of irrational behavior.
Churchland makes the interesting point that “deferring Irrationality is an objective concept in the same sense that
gratification typically involves consciousness” (p. 42). In the green is an objective concept. People who, without reasons,
book on human nature that I have been writing for the last do not avoid harms for themselves and those for whom they
couple of decades, I speculate that emotional behavior is a care have a defect, in a way parallel to the defect in people
natural response to circumstances, and that consciousness is who do not see green leaves as green. We call the former ir-
a later development that occurs when the natural emotional rational and the latter color-blind; that their judgments differ
responses no longer reliably lead to beneficial results. Animals from the overwhelming majority of people does not affect
that become aware of how they are about to behave, that is, the objectivity of the concepts of rationality and green.3
feel the emotion and are able to suppress overt harmful be- Churchland herself contrasts the brains of psychopaths with
havior and act in a way that is less likely to have harmful the brains of healthy controls (p. 40). To call an action irra-
consequences. When people do this, we call their behavior tional is to claim that all morally responsible persons would
“rational”; when they do not suppress the harmful behavior advocate that no one for whom they care, including them-
but act on their emotions, then we say that they are “acting selves, act that way. However, as pointed out earlier, it is not
out.” That is why “reason” is often thought to be opposed irrational to accept harms for oneself if one has an adequate
to the emotions. But, as Churchland points out, our natural reason, so that making sacrifices for the benefit of others does
responses to circumstances are still appropriate most of the not count as irrational.
time. Her criticism of many of the standard philosophical ac-
Surprisingly, there is no entry in the index for “reason,” counts of morality simply repeats criticisms that many philos-
“reasons,” “rational,” or “rationality.” This may be due to the ophers have made of these views. She says, “The Golden Rule
fact that Churchland accepts the still dominant modified Hu- (‘Do unto others as you would have them due unto you’) is
mean view of rationality as purely instrumental. She criticizes very often held up as a judicious rule, an exceptionless rule,
Christine Korsgaard for saying “only humans are genuinely and a rule that is universally espoused. Or very close to it” (p.
rational, morality depends on rationality, and hence nonhu- 168). One would never guess that Kant made similar criti-
man animals are not moral” (p. 26). She argues, instead, that cisms of the Golden Rule. However, her discussion of Kant
“Because many species of birds and mammals display good and Mill acknowledges that they had some valuable things
examples of problem-solving and planning, this claim about to say about morality. “Like others before him, most notably
rationality looks narrow and uninformed.” Because many David Hume, Kant recognized that fairness is important in
animals engage in social behavior that Churchland regards morality. Hume’s point was that we cannot argue that some-
as very similar to her account of what humans call ethics or thing is right for me and wrong for you just because ‘I am me
morality, she does not want to engage in linguistic disputes and you are you.’ There has to be, at the very least, a morally
about whether marmosets have a morality. She says that hold- relevant difference between us” (p. 173). I take it that in this
ing that only humans have human morality is “a tedious tau- passage, Churchland is not talking about morality in general,
tology” (p. 26). Churchland has no problem talking about whatever that is, but human morality, so I will confine my
“marmoset morality” (p. 26). As she uses the term “morality,” discussion to this kind of morality.
it need have no relationship to universality or impartiality. Churchland acknowledges that Mill makes two impor-
I do not want to defend Korsgaard’s Kantian account of tant points. “First, for Mill, the moral sphere is fundamen-
rationality, but I do want to challenge Churchland’s modified tally about conduct that injures, damages, or harms others or
Humean instrumental account of rationality. Since Church- their interests. Injurious conduct, such as assault and mur-
land regards self-preservation as the basic value, it is surprising der, is wrong and is punishable. Conduct that falls outside
that she does not follow Hobbes and challenge the prevailing this domain should be neither restricted nor deemed wrong”
philosophical view of rationality as purely instrumental. If, (p. 176). Second, for Mill, issues of self-defense—and hence
as is generally acknowledged, it is irrational to fail to avoid morality—are tightly tied to issues concerning acceptable re-
harms without some adequate reason—that is, a belief that striction on personal liberty. She criticizes “maximizing con-
you or someone else will avoid equal or greater harms or gain sequentialists, such as philosopher Peter Singer,” who “argue

26 HASTI N G S C E N T E R R E P ORT May-June 2012

that maximizing happiness of all requires that we do much within the same limits, they can disagree about the interpre-
more than consider the consequences of a plan for the hap- tation of a moral rule. Just as they can disagree about whether
piness of those near and dear” (p. 178). Churchland holds these are the kind of special circumstances in which it is not
that there are serious problems with maximizing consequen- immoral to do an action of a certain kind, they can disagree
tialism, but she does not offer an alternative account of the about whether the morally relevant features of the situation
morally moderate views that she would accept. are such that they would be willing for everyone to know that
Common morality meets Churchland’s desire for a mor- they can violate the rule in the same circumstances.
ally moderate view that acknowledges the two points that she The advantages of talking about rules and a procedure for
cites from Mill and incorporates Kant’s concern with fairness. deciding on acceptable violations of them is that it leads to
Common morality, as Mill points out, is not about maximiz- a clearer account of what may be responsible for the moral
ing well-being but about minimizing harm. Common mo- disagreement. One need not, as Churchland does, base dis-
rality also distinguishes between moral ideals, which do not agreement on the particular memories and experiences of
restrict personal liberty, and moral rules that do, so that it does the people who disagree (p. 183). Churchland regards Owen
not result in what Mill would Flanagan’s criticism of John
regard as an unacceptable re- Rawls as “one of the deep-
striction of personal liberty. est discussions of why the
Common morality recognizes The fact that those who approach is flawed beyond
the moral requirement of im- redemption, . . . Owen Fla-
partiality that Kant sought
to achieve by means of the
relate neuroscience to nagan sums up, ‘There is no
such thing as universal ethical
Categorical Imperative; but intuitions at the level Rawls
requiring that one wills that morality differ so radically was initially looking to locate
everyone act in the same way them’” (p. 183). This is an
imposes a stronger condition in their accounts of morality important criticism of Rawls,
for impartiality than morality but it is significant to note
actually requires; impartiality
can be achieved by holding
suggests that neuroscience has that Churchland herself holds
that there are universal ethi-
merely that an agent must be cal intuitions at the level that
willing that everyone knows nothing to add to our common morality includes.
that they are allowed to act in One needs to justify killing or
the same way. That impartial- understanding of morality. causing pain to another hu-
ity is required only when con- man being, for example.
sidering violations of moral A point of particular in-
rules. terest to me is Churchland’s
Because Churchland holds criticism of my entry in the
that “Moral theories that leave room for exceptions to rules Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the “Definition of
have tended to seem incomplete” (p. 168), she considers and Morality.”4 Because I distinguish between descriptive uses
criticizes only moral theories with exceptionless rules. She of “morality” and normative uses, Churchland accuses me
does not even consider an account of morality that includes a of holding that “The distinction between descriptions and
method for people to use when deciding whether a specified norms—between what is and what ought to be—is obvi-
violation of a moral rule is justified. This method, as men- ous and unbridgeable.” However, I say nothing about any
tioned in the discussion of Appiah, allows for considerable unbridgeable gap between what is and what ought to be; I
disagreement in controversial cases, but provides a unique am making a claim about the use of the word “morality.” I
correct answer for all noncontroversial cases. Churchland claim that when anthropologists talk about the morality of
does not present any objections to an account of this kind of some group, they are not endorsing that way of acting; they
morality, for it incorporates all of the features that she puts are simply describing the code of conduct that this society
forward as desirable. Churchland has no criticism of a moral follows. Similarly, when Churchland talks about various re-
system that incorporates rules if it also includes a procedure ligious moralities, she is not endorsing any of them; she is
for people to use when deciding whether they are justified in simply describing the code of conduct that members of that
violating a rule. religion accept. But often people use the term “morality” nor-
There is no difference, except in style, between an account matively; they are then endorsing that code of conduct. Phi-
of morality that incorporates rules of this kind and an ac- losophers from Plato and Aristotle on use “morality” in this
count of morality that lists the kinds of actions that people normative sense. This is the sense of morality with which I
regard as immoral except in special circumstances. Just as, hope Churchland is also concerned.
within limits, people can differ about whether an action is Churchland seems to think that the normative sense of
of a kind that is immoral except in special circumstances, so, morality derives from what happens in the brain, but she has

May-June 2012 H AS TI N GS C EN TE R RE P O RT 27
no way of distinguishing between those things that happen claims that neuroscience shows that “suffering and happiness
in the brain that she wants to endorse and those that she does (defined in the widest possible sense) are all that can be cared
not. For almost all philosophers, the normative sense of mo- about” and concludes that neuroscience supports a version of
rality derives from rationality. Given that Churchland holds act consequentialism very similar to that put forward by Peter
that self-preservation is fundamental, it is clear why she does Singer. Churchland criticizes Harris for not recognizing that
not regard morality as deriving from Kantian rationality. It what neuroscience shows about human beings might require
is also clear that the Humean instrumental account of ratio- morality to be more complex than act consequentialism.
nality does not provide a foundation for morality. Perhaps if Both Appiah and Churchland differ from Harris in holding
Churchland knew about the Hobbesian concept of rational- that morality is more concerned with minimizing harm than
ity, which takes the avoidance of harm to self as the basic with promoting well-being. Churchland differs from both
tenet of rationality, she might have been more sympathetic Appiah and Harris in seeming to hold that neuroscience tells
to basing morality on rationality rather than simply on what us something about morality because it provides an explana-
happens in the brain. tion of why human beings make the kinds of moral decisions
“Morality” in the normative sense refers to a code of con- and judgments that they do. But Churchland does not relate
duct that all vulnerable, fallible, and biased persons who want neuroscience to any of the features that she claims that any
to avoid harm for themselves and those for whom they care adequate morality must have.
would put forward as the code of conduct if they were seek- The fact that those who relate neuroscience to morality
ing agreement with all other vulnerable, fallible, and biased differ so radically in their accounts of morality suggests that
persons about what guide to behavior to adopt. “Morality” neuroscience has nothing to add to our understanding of
in the normative sense is universal, so it cannot be based on morality as a code of conduct that everyone should follow.
facts not known by everyone. However, even if everyone uses However, neuroscience may help explain why some people
only the same facts, because people disagree about several behave as they do in situations that call for moral decisions
matters including the rankings of the basic harms, morality or judgments.
must allow for unresolvable disagreements. Because all people
who accept morality as their guide want to settle these dis- Acknowledgments
agreements in a way that will result in the least amount of
harm, they would agree that moral disagreements be settled I want to thank Daniel and Sydney Callahan for their help in
by compromise, law, negotiation, and votes rather than by revising an earlier draft of this paper.
violence and war. A full account of the nature and justifica-
tion of morality is contained in my book Morality: Its Nature 1. K.A. Appiah, Experiments in Ethics (Cambridge, Mass.: Har-
and Justification. I would be delighted to have a discussion vard University Press, 2010); S. Harris, The Moral Landscape: How
Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010);
with Churchland about how neuroscience views this account P.S. Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
of morality. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011).
2. Quotation is from W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford,
s s s U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1930).
3. For a fuller account of response-dependent concepts, see J. Gert,

Normative Bedrock: Response-Dependence, Rationality and Reasons (Ox-
ppiah, Harris, and Churchland put forward quite ford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, in press).
different perspectives about the relationship between 4. B. Gert, “The Definition of Morality,” Stanford Encyclopedia
science and morality. Appiah holds the moderate view of Philosophy, ed. E.N. Zolta. Entry first published April 17, 2002,
that science is useful in challenging common moral intuitions and revised March 14, 2011, at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/
and in helping us avoid the harms that we all want to avoid; morality-definition/.
science does not provide us with new ends or values. Harris

28 HASTI N G S C E N T E R R E P ORT May-June 2012

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