There is a classic dilemma in studies of ethics: Imagine a trolley is speeding down a track toward five unsuspecting people. You have the power to divert the trolley down a different track so that it kills only one innocent bystander. The question is, would it be morally right to do so?
Questions like the ‘trolley problem’ have traditionally been the arena of philosophers, but recent advances in technology have allowed psychologists and neurologists to weigh in with a new set of answers. According to Richard Brandt of Technology Review, researchers like Harvard University’s Joshua Greene have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to figure out how people’s brains react in moral quandaries. What Greene has found, Brandt reports, is that ‘either an emotional center or a reasoning center may play the dominant role, depending on the kind of moral decision being pondered.’
William Saletan of Slate Magazine puts it this way: ‘If you often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out, that’s because, in fact, they are.’ People tend to see the brain as a single organ, when in reality, Saletan writes, it’s actually ‘an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete.’ Many neuroscientists have concluded that competing tendencies inside the brain — not some transient being or God — are the true source of morality.
So if morality is reduced to brain chemistry, do we face a scary sci-fi dystopia? Quite possibly. Hugh Gusterson of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, writes that the US military is exploring neurotechnology for national defense. Gusterson cites Jonathan Moreno’s book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense (Dana Press, 2006), saying that the Department of Defense is already funding ‘neuroweapons,’ much like neuron toxins, and drugs that would ‘repress psychological inhibitions against killing.’
When neurotechnology begins to change ‘psychological inhibitions,’ the role of morality is called into question. As Saletan points out: ‘Once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology.’
Go there >>
Mind Makes Right
Go there too >>
What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Evil?
And there >>
The Militarization of Neuroscience
Related Links from the Utne Reader Archive:
- Trauma: Get Over It
- Control Your Mind, Control Your Future: With Neurofeedback
Comments? Story tips?Write a letter to the editor
Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne Reader