Brain damage, evolution, and the future of morality.

Science, technology, and life.
March 31 2007 8:35 AM

Mind Makes Right

Brain damage, evolution, and the future of morality.

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In other words, brain science has discredited religion and philosophy, but don't worry: Morality won't disappear. Brain science is offering itself as the new authority. What's moral, in the new world, is what's normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit.

The catch is that what's normal, natural, necessary, and neurologically fit can change. In fact, it has been changing throughout history. As our ancestors adapted from small, kin-based groups toward elaborate nation-states, the brain evolved from reflexive emotions toward the abstract reasoning power that gave birth, in this millennium, to utilitarianism. The full story is a lot more complicated, but that's the rough outline.

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And evolution doesn't stop here. Look around you. The world of touch, tribe, and taboo is fading. Acceptance of homosexuality is spreading at an amazing pace. Trade is supplanting war. Democracy and communications technology are forcing governments to promote the general welfare. Utilitarians welcome these changes, and so do I. But utility unchecked can become a monster. The Internet is liberating us from visual and physical contact. Economic globalization is crushing resistance to the bottom line. Companies are sending employees to get cheap medical care abroad. Brokers are buying organs in slums. In a utilitarian world, you do what it takes. It's all about helping people.

If you're out of step with this world—if you're too squeamish to slash the payroll or pull the plug—we can help. Books by neuroscientists, including some involved in the Nature and Neuron studies, will teach you the appeal of utilitarianism and the illogic of your aversions to it. If that doesn't work, maybe we can tweak your brain. Two months ago, when research showed that damage to another area of the brain could help people quit smoking, scientists inferred that therapy in that area might achieve the same happy result without the damage. Why not target the VMPC in a similar way? We won't even need drugs. Last year, psychologists proved they could boost people's willingness to kill in a utilitarian dilemma just by showing them a five-minute clip from Saturday Night Live.

Not that we want you to go around killing people. At least, not until you join the military. 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.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.

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