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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Morality and the Mind

William Saletan writing at Slate.com has an interesting piece on the brain and morality.  He writes,

Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They're in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby's face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it?

If you're normal, you wouldn't, according to a study published last week in Nature. But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would. In the study, people were given hypothetical dilemmas: Would you throw a fatally injured person off a lifeboat to save everyone else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most normal people said no. Most people with VMPC damage said yes. . . .

The article discusses why people may be making these different choices.  It then concludes with a rather frightening discussion concerning controlling those choices:

Five years ago, in a government report, scientists proposed using microscopic technology to screen the brains of soldiers for emotional interference. Today, the Neurotechnology Industry Organization is lobbying for a federal initiative to study the ethics as well as the mechanics of brain science. "Right now, we're discovering the seat of morality," warns NIO President Zack Lynch. "In 10 to 15 years, we'll have the technologies to manipulate it."

But there's the other catch: Once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology. Nor can human nature discredit the mentality that shapes human nature. In a utilitarian world, what's neurologically fit is utilitarianism. It'll become the norm, the standard of right and wrong. Sure, a few mental relics of our primate ancestry will be lost. But it'll be worth it. I think.

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