Moral Neutrality, Practical Rationalities and Social Practices

In this section, I expand my criticism of neuroessentialism particularly in relation to the concept of moral agency. If the premise that “we are the brain” is correct, it means that, in principle, human behavior can be altered or manipulated at will through psychopharmacological means or brain stimulation. Brain areas associated with basic and moral emotions (including the amygdala, thalamus, upper midbrain, medial orbitofrontal cortex, medial frontal gyrus, and right posterior superior temporal sulcus) can be manipulated to achieve particular behavioral outcomes. For instance, using techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain-computer interface can be developed to regulate brain activity for the treatment of disorders of cognition, emotions, and behavior (e.g., psychopathy, pedophilia; see Sitaram, Caria, and Birnbaumer49 and Renaud et al.50). The approach of these procedures suggests the activation and the reinforcement of neural pathways in the brain associated with particular behaviors.51-52

Although these techniques might have the potential to treat or at least mitigate the symptoms of mental disorders such as psychopathy and pedophilia, it is nevertheless important to examine how patterns of behaviors are acquired. Specifically, closer attention should focus on the factors, such as upbringing, culture assumptions, social environment, and the like, that determine and shape one’s moral identity and neurobiological makeup. Many neurobiological systems (e.g., the neural basis of morality) “must be ‘tuned up’ by experience in order to reinforce and motivate normal behavior, including moral behav- ior.”53: 46 In other words, individuals develop character traits and a moral identity shaped by their neurobiology but also by their upbringing, understanding of the good, and life experience. This dual dimension of moral development constitutes the internal and external constraints of moral agency.5 The internal constraints concern the neural basis of morality or the capacity of an individual to respond morally grounded on his or her neurobiology and psychological makeup. But the capacity to respond to moral dilemmas is likewise shaped by external factors such as life experience, beliefs, values, and presuppositions. Moral decisions, then, need particular philosophical and moral perspectives developed within the social context of the family and the broader community, which in turn shape and refine particular moral emotions. To reiterate Sinnott- Armstrong,44 moral beliefs are justified by moving beyond a purely psychological account of moral life to a normative framework that guides and justifies moral emotions. The justifiability of one’s actions presupposes a specific understanding of notions of the good, the right, and the just based on a particular mode of practical reasoning as a tool for social interpretation.54 Specifically, this means that the idea of a philosophical and moral neutrality is illusory. Any discussion about morality presupposes a particular conception of rationality determined by a particular social environment and conceptions of the good and human flourishing. In short, a framework of moral agency presupposing a moral neutrality does not take into account the complexity of moral life, which includes emotional, motivational, and rational dimensions formed throughout one’s life.

This last point becomes even clearer when we look at the nature of rationality and rational actions through the lens of the work done by Alasdair Maclntyre54 whose inquiry on the question of practical rationality provides insights pertaining to the question at hand. He rightly notes that rationality and rational actions are structured differently depending on the social context, time in history, and location. In his view, contemporary accounts of rationality and practical reasoning usually depict agents as uninformed in their rational deliberations by some processes antecedent to any action. In the words of Maclntyre,

[In] contemporary accounts of practical reasoning ... we are presented ... with agents as if detached altogether from any conception of or perception of the good or goods . such an individual exemplifies what I will borrow a phrase from the late A. A. Zhdanov to describe rootless cosmopolitanism. Such individuals speak ... from a standpoint dictated by a stage in the dissolution of social traditions at which no form of practical rationality is any longer possible.541 129- 135

An alternative to the “rootless cosmopolitanism” framework of practical reasoning and the resulting dissolution of social traditions would be to consider moral deliberation and the development of moral agency as part of an initiation into practices and their inherent skills and virtues for the attainment of the internal goods of these practices. This process of initiation takes place in various social contexts and includes domains such as science, politics, games, arts, and family life.55 Importantly, each practice has a history in which particular goals, skills, and virtues (or standards of excellence) have been identified, refined, and accepted.56 MacIntyre is quick to recognize that there is a potential for interpreting his line of reasoning as a form of relativism or perspectivism. However, his point is to stress that practical rationality (and its moral dimensions) does not occur in a vacuum. Individuals engaged in practical rationality inquire about it from some particular point of view within a social context that shapes right practices as exemplified within communities.54 For instance, the game of chess, the sport of golf, or the practice of medicine requires socialization into the nature, goals, and standards for their practice, which have been established, critiqued, and accepted by the community of chess players, golfers, and physicians, respectively. Any new participant will need to be socialized in these communities and will be required to understand the basic social rules, standards, and ends of the activity before being identified as a chess player, golfer, or physician. Ultimately, MacIntyre contends that human beings need to identify characteristics (concept of the good) that will help them flourish within a social context at a particular time in history.54 The application of practical rationality entails a process of reasoning and learning about the ends of human existence and the goods necessary to achieve these ends.57

To summarize, MacIntyre57 holds that moral deliberation is an endeavor in which an individual constantly engages in the evaluation of internal and external constraints essential for moral agency.5-57 First, moral agency develops within a social context embedded in a particular narrative. Although neurobiology certainly influences and shapes the moral development and makeup of individuals, personal journeys through life, education, interests, and human relations likewise determine one’s moral identity. Second reflections about the nature of the good are essential for human flourishing. Human beings are constantly engaged in reasoning about what constitutes the ultimate ends of human existence and how to achieve these ends. For MacIntyre, the failure to acknowledge that human beings are “practical reasoners about goods” results in their inability to flourish because they are unable to define and establish the nature and goals of practices.57 These practices are determined by particular visions of the good life and define one’s own understanding of human flourishing. Third, as individuals develop as moral agents, they learn through trial and error: that is, each person goes “through a process of learning, making mistakes, correcting those mistakes and so moving towards the achievement of excellence, [in which] the individual comes to understand her or himself as in via, in the middle of a journey.”56 The consolidation of these various learning experiences occurs in the application of practical wisdom (phronesis), which allows the integration of affective, motivational, and cognitive processes in a coherent entity. The final key point is the necessity to develop the skills for the integration of life experience and moral reasoning as necessary conditions for character development. The failure to do so would result in “intellectual blindness” and, ultimately, in the development of bad character because a person with such a trait does not have the knowledge to recognize what makes right judgment and action.56 MacIntyre’s framework allows us to make an important distinction between having character traits and having character. The former refers to behavioral attributes that describe how people carry out particular activities, whereas the latter describes more fundamental features of an individual’s moral identity and ability to show moral strength.5 Based on these definitions, moral enhancement technologies focus on some character traits to achieve particular ends but do not shape the more fundamental moral attributes of a moral agent. Moral enhancement technologies place outside constraints to produce a particular outcome, whereas having character requires an internal process that motivates an agent to act based on reasons for action.5 Building on the earlier distinction between moral capacity and moral content, and in the light of the preceding analysis, a robust understanding of moral agency cannot be limited or reduced to the alteration or manipulation of the brain structure or brain chemistry to enhance moral behavior. The notion of “moral” or “morality” intrinsically assumes an interpretation of human flourishing grounded on a particular understanding of the good. Technological means, as far as we know, do not provide any content to moral deliberation but only control affective and motivational responses to moral conundrums.

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