Well, in answer to a question that I raised in the "preface" thread, it looks as though Gazzaniga's intention was to initiate the search for a set of flexible principles that allow for moral determination. His suggestion that there may be a universal moral response in the brain turned out to avoid -- though perhaps suggest -- the implication that morals are tied to a particular set of neurological features that are identical from person to person, and therefore always tend towards the same general formulation. It seems to me that his concluding remarks leave all of that rather open -- the focus is on a conscious
effort to derive ethical maxims from the context of situations, not on an automatic response that is basically immutable.
That said, I do see a few points for disagreement. (C'mon, you knew I would.)
One is at the point where Gazzaniga raises, by reference to J. Q. Wilson, the idea that there are certain universal moral impulses. "Highest among these," Gazzaniga writes on page 167, "are that all societies believe that murder and incest are wrong, that children are to be cared for and not abandoned, that we should not tell lies or break promises, and that we should be loyal to family." We may start by recognizing that these are broadly true, but only because the definitions range from culture to culture. Incest, for example, is a matter of degree. One culture may define incest as any sexual relation that takes place with any one related as far back as several generations (that is, up to fourth or fifth degree cousins), including adopted children, while another generation allows sexual relations between aunts and uncles and their nephews or nieces. Murder is also a matter of translation, and some societies allow for deaths that most Western nations would consider murder plain and simple. Murder in ancient Norse society, for example, was restricted to killing in secret -- so long as the killer announced his crime, thus allowing for recompense, the death was not considered murder and not subject to the same moral sanction.
More even so, those "univeral values" are only so universal. The Greeks, for instance, sometimes abandoned their children, going so far as to pierce their ankles to prevent their survival. Some societies have held that service to the state, the tribe, or some given ideal supercedes one's loyalty to their family. The taboo against incest, once held to be universal, has seen been recognized to hold no sway over certain societies. Anthropologists and psychologists have come to reject the idea of universal taboos, and I don't see any reason why Gazzaniga and Wilson should thing themselves more qualified to decide the matter.
Gazzaniga concludes on page 177 that, no matter how we decide those rules were put into place, "one thing is clear: the rules exist." Not universally, I would argue, and therefore, not as the result of a biological commonality alone. Some other factor must be in play in the development of these moral values.
And a final issue I want to raise in this post is Gazzaniga's assumption as to what should determine the principles of his universal ethics. I see four criteria, listed in a single sentence on page 177. Feel free to draw other criteria to the group's attention; these are just the criteria I see in Gazzaniga's argument.
The sentence is this: "I believe, therefore, that we should look not for a universal ethics comprising hard-and-fast truths, but for the universal ethics that arises from being human, which is clearly contextual, emotion-influenced, and designed to increase our survival." Whether or not everything else in the book leads up to this point -- I don't think it does -- it seems clear to me that this was meant to be the central point of "The Ethical Brain".
Here are the criteria:
1) "being human" -- this is problematic precisely because, while able to raise the question of what it means to be human, Gazzaniga hasn't yet found a way to answer the question. Leaving it open has allowed him, over the course of the book, to imply that we can exclude from the category of embryos, people with severe dementia, possibly even professional atheletes. As I see it, there are two sides to this criteria. One is how we determine who is worthy of ethical determination. If we can say that another being is not human, then we can also assume a different set of ethical responsibilities to that person. That's the sort of mentality that has allowed previous generations to take positions that we now hold to be unethical in the extreme. The other side of the coin is that of how we determine how what ethical responsibilities are proper for someone who is human. But, again, before we can decide that, we have to agree on what it means to be human -- that is, it's the question of what it means to be humane.
-- this is acceptable on the face of it, but it invites a certain danger. We have to ask ourselves how much context ought to play into an ethical consideration. Otherwise, we run the risk of finding that all of our ethical conclusions are relative to the circumstances in which they take place, relative to the degree that the formulation of ethics becomes practically impossible. I'm not talking merely about it being impossible to arrive at ethical maxims that are always applicable, the "hard-and-fast truths" Gazzaniga rejects. More worrisome is that idea that context may play such a large part that we cannot hope to figure out what ethical solutions is applicable to any individual situation. In short, we have to be sure that contextuality is not ultimately antithetical to ethics itself.
3) "emotion-influenced" -- this, as I understand Gazzaniga, is the point at which neuroscience is most instrumental. He has argued that morality may ultimately be linked to emotion in such a way that understanding how emotion works can help us clarify what is most ethical. I'm skeptical of that conclusion, but it's something we can discuss in more depth at the insistence of others.
4) "designed to increase our survival" -- let's ask the simpler question first: does Gazzaniga mean our survival individually, the survivial of the social group, or something else? There's a pretty clear answer in the school of neo-Darwinians that sprung up in the wake of Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", but I'd like to see us address the question on its own merits, and apart from the assertions made by writers like William Right, et al. The trickier question, I think, is that of whether or not morality is really, at root, about survival. It is not a given that we have been evolved to address evolution, as such, to react consciously to it. In fact, it is patent that some individuals make decisions that they know will limit their survival, and do not feel that such conclusions conflict with their nature. Some individuals even make decisions that limit the survival of the species -- think of all the people who know, or ought to know, that polution damages the environment, and that it could eventually make the earth uninhabitable, but who knowingly contribute to pollution in avoidable ways. I think we ought to at least consider the possibility that the human creature is cognitively flexible enough to subvert the survival imperative in favor of another goal, and that at least part of our morality is geared towards serving other goals. It may even be that, apart from preserving life, morality is geared towards producing "the good life" -- that's something we have to consider, I think, any time we assert that it is sometimes more ethical to die than it is to live under certain conditions.