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Biological Determinism: Wither Ethics?

January 15, 2010

There is a constant string of studies and research that all “reveal” some aspect of human biology we once believed to be a matter of free will or at least a product of the human mind is in fact genetically “determined.”  Such studies begin to raise the specter of whether or not there will be any free will left for humanity once biology progresses far enough to have a sophisticated understanding of the human mind.  Don’t get me wrong, I want all forms of science and research to continue and expand entirely unabated and uninfluenced by the worriers without any reservation.  However, I worry that Psychology and Biology may be heuristically and morally unhelpful for our understanding of what produces human action, but that fault lies in our lack of understanding practical philosophy, not biology.

For example, this recent article opines on the fact that one’s propensity toward moral action seems to be more controlled by non-conscious biological factors than conscious religious beliefs.

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

What guides your judgments is the universal and unconscious voice of our species, a biological code, a universal moral grammar.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that though the result is intellectually interesting, no policy or approach to ethics can be realistically shaped by such awareness.  Indeed, at what point do we stop calling things biological or genetic “causes” of certain phenotypical behavior from an ethical standpoint?  If a given phenotype is only a matter of probability (i.e., someone is only predisposed to a certain type of action due to their genes and not irrevocably compelled to do it) even when the genotype is clearly “indicative” of some trait or propensity, where does agency and free will lie?  At what point is an explanation by citation to “biology” an excuse for what used to be considered a mere personality trait (e.g., ADHD) subject to deviation and mental control?

As the previously mentioned article goes on to note, certain predispositions are merely behavior altering and we may therefore expect people to pick and choose good content for their behavior, even if they may act slightly differently in acquiring that content.

The good news about the psychology of prejudice, of creating distinctive classes of individuals who are in the tribe and outside of it, is that it is flexible, capable of change and — viewed from an evolutionary perspective — as abstract and content-free as the rules that enter into our moral grammar.

All animals, humans included, have evolved the capacity to create a distinction between members of the in-group and those in the out-group. But the features that are selected are not set in the genome. Rather, it is open to experience.

The trend of attributing one’s successes or lack thereof to genetics is fundamentally non-Pragmatic.  Such an explanation implicitly denies the possibility of change or improvement and absolves the actor of any responsibility to continue striving for the best possible outcome.  Especially given that so many of these genotypic predispositions are not deterministic and only probabilistic, any such excuses are almost self-fulfilling prophecies; no one defies a negative trend by acknowledging its controlling power.

Now, I don’t want to impugn any given psychologist, researcher or otherwise for their admirable work in the field of humans understanding humans.  After all, almost all of their research includes a disclaimer along the lines of:

Lest there be any confusion about the claims I am making, I am not saying that our evolved capacity to intuitively judge what is right or wrong is sufficient to live a moral life. It is most definitely not and for two good reasons.

The problem is that the headline is usually condensed to something like “It Seems Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality,” and that’s all most people read.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    I think, This is best technique.

  2. January 18, 2010 10:02 am

    Ich merke gerade das ich diesen Blog deutlich öfter lesen sollte- da kommt man echt auf Ideen.

  3. January 20, 2010 3:48 am

    Tja, das Leben kann so scheisse sein, mann muss sich nur mühe geben.

  4. February 1, 2010 8:12 pm

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

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