Rethinking Moral Philosophy

29 Jun

Ethics Matters!  Rethinking the Philosophy of Moral Thought/Reasserting the Primacy of “Is”

Fallacies of neuroscience as foundation for ethics  Posted in General at 12:18 pm by nemo

For people familiar with Churchland’s work over the past four decades, her desire to bring the brain into the discussion will come as no surprise: She has long made the case that philosophers must take account of neuroscience in their investigations.  Etc..

Why neuroscience? The implicit ‘rationality’ of the ethical (with a larger framework perhaps than the rational), as in the view of Kant, requires no discussion of the brain. Why is neuroscience given the top billing here all of a sudden? It makes no sense.


Why Neuroscience? … Because the brain matters! 

It matters to the consideration of the whole human being … and it matters to the ethics question too, since ethics and the philosophy of the mind can’t be (and shouldn’t be) boxed off from the brain [as if “mind” were a totally separate category from brain and its study by brain science].

(1)  The brain matters … Anyone who says it doesn’t should read the Phineas Gage account again and review that information.  Gage, the victim of a traumatic brain injury, was severely affected when a tamping iron he was working with was driven through his head during a railway-construction accident in 1848.  The explosive charge he had set, prematurely went off driving his iron in below his left cheek bone, out through the top of his skull, and landing several yards away in back of him.  And, though he did recover afterward (physically & to a lesser extent mentally) the psychological damage the accident inflicted on him from all accounts appears to have been significant.

His employers would no longer hire him for railroad work as they once had; acquaintances struck by the fact of his great change in personality.  … All this psychological change brought on by physical injury to the brain.

The mind cannot merely be thought of as a ghost in the machine.  If it were, the effect on Gage would have been far less significant than it was. “Mind” (at the very least) is rooted in the brain.  Damage the brain, alter or change its conditions, and you inevitably affect the mind and the state of human consciousness.  The brain is the essential root and vessel of the psyche; remove the brain from the equation here and you have no mind.

(2)  Secondly, ethics matters and the rationality of ethics matters.  The problem is – how is ethics going to be conceptually-grounded?  It’s all well and good to have a rational ethics (as Aristotle, Kant, and others well understood), but unless it is materialized and made substantial in a firm ontology or scientia of some kind, it loses any real meaning.  … It ends up being lost in metaphysical wonderland.

Value and ethos require some kind of ‘logos’ to make them real; in Classical thought that ‘logos’ was the idea that ‘Action’ followed ‘Being’, and that moral principle was oriented towards Esse and the laws of basic ontology (i.e., the study of real things, substantial form, essential being).

Thus, the moral good followed the existential good, the existential good based in the fulfillment of an entity’s due-nature; an entity’s due-nature was determined via its fundamental functions and tendencies.  Hence, a living system’s ‘good’ was to carry out its life functions.  The human good and social good was to achieve the best possible common benefit for people in a society (i.e., the common good) and the best possible personal good for its members (that is, to the betterment of them physically, mentally, emotionally, and culturally).  That was the aim of Classical moral thought, and how it followed-after the Philosophy of Being.

But, in modern psychology and normative theory, logos still requires its “is” to make “value”, telos, and ethos plausible.

While on a sociologic level, “culture” fulfills that role as do the structures of social value (i.e., norms, mores, and the like)(and all of them rooted in repeated human behaviors and shared ideals), psychologically they must be solidly based in some aspect of human nature readily understood and accessible for analysis.  ‘Free agency’ or ‘will’ as a principle (for one) may fulfill that role, if it is based in distinctly framed choices the chooser in question has to make and it’s oriented towards the betterment of individual and society, but it too must be under-girded by linguistic conceptual structures that emerge from the human mind, whereby our “ought” is crystallized and made real via an “is.”

If neuroscience can help by providing that modern “is” – by pointing to the neurological foundations of mental units integral in the formation of moral thought & the structural epistemology of human thought overall – then that is very good.

It is a welcome development and a much-needed alternative to standard moralistic arguments that one ‘can’t get an ought from an is‘, that ‘value’ stands on its own right, etc.

Ethics suffers when it becomes its own distinct ontological &
metaphysical category.

Without an “is” and a “logos” to provide it form, substance, and intellectual matter, “ethos” and “ought” becomes unhinged, a quasi-magical category, where no limits and no parameters define the power of the freely rational Will to shape its environment or be framed within it.

An undefined, unrestricted Power-To-Will [the real basis of all subsequent moral claims to an individual’s Will-To-Power in the social order & totalitarian designs on human living in society] is a ‘Will’ divorced from all other natural principles; thus making it the perfect vehicle for a supernatural interpretation of morals.

Metaphysical morality, therefore, must be a spiritualistic, supernatural phenomena.  And, for that reason, it’s easy pickings for religionists wanting to use it to advance
their faith-based arguments
about the world.

If ethics is to merit consideration in the discourse of human epistemology, then it will have to square its claims about “value” [and the unique propensities of the human “Will”
as a faculty of mind and consciousness] with the fundamental Philosophy of Being.

It will have to square “value” with the ontological realities of our world, no matter how ‘limiting’ those realities are seen as being or are, in fact, found to be.

An ungrounded ethics is a denatured ethics.  If ethics as a discipline is going to be of any use practically or philosophically, then it will have to address these issues about
its metaphysics or face losing credibility on the mistaken premises of its value-laden principles
.  Neuroscience may not be the  perfect intellectual model to work from in a reassessment of moral philosophy, but it can be of assistance in helping to re-think it.

Today’s ethical theory suffers from a lack of empirical rigor/epistemological sharpness to its study as a field of human inquiry.  It’s time that such a dimension of critical analysis was restored to it.  If not, then ethical theory will suffer.

It will become nothing more than a justification for the
ideological polemic of those wishing to use it to re-mystify
the world via an emphasis on “Value” and “Will.”

Ethics is too important a field to let that happen. … “Ethics
matters” just as “neuroscience matters.”  Without an “is”,
without its ‘logos’ … ethics is useless
.  Without its substance
firmly established in the bedrock of “Fact”, it loses all


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