P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 133
8th February 2008
I. 'Evaluative Judgement, Motivation and the Moral Standard' by Richard H.
II. 'A Rope Stretched over an Abyss: Ethics, Law and Neuroscience' by Pierre
III. 'Some Remarks on the Nature of Philosophy' by Hubertus Fremerey
For this issue Richard Corrigan writes on the nature of moral judgement and
moral responsibility. His analysis is based on the distinction between a
desire, conceived as something merely given, and a value or evaluation which a
moral agent accepts and embraces as part of his or her system of values. The
possibility of moral evaluation rests on the ability of an agent to freely
accept or reject a given value.
The question of freedom, however, has become increasingly vexed as a result of
recent discoveries in neuroscience, for example, evidence for the claim that
when we make a conscious 'decision' the brain has already triggered the action
which we 'decided' to do. Pierre Pouget surveys the ethical and legal issues
arising from neuroscientific research, putting it in the context of a debate
which stretches back as far as the time of Ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine.
Hubertus Fremerey takes a broader, synoptic view of the question of the
relation between science and philosophy, and the light which study of the
history of science sheds on the way philosophy has developed in the Western
world by contrast with the predominant current of Eastern philosophy. Science
has been the greatest spur to Western philosophy; but it is also its greatest
Forthcoming in issue 135 there will a Review by Matthew Del Nevo of 'Thinking
Allowed', a DVD produced by Gallions Primary School in London. The DVD explains
the concept of P4C (Philosophy for Children) and shows the impact that it has
had on the children at Gallions Primary School. For more information, contact
Paul Jackson at PJackson@gallions.newham.sch.uk. Articles on any aspect of P4C
will be very welcome.
I am always happy to discuss ideas for possible articles for Philosophy
Pathways. Please send any thoughts, comments or suggestions to
I. 'EVALUATIVE JUDGEMENT, MOTIVATION AND THE MORAL STANDARD' BY RICHARD H.
In this paper I will discuss the concepts of evaluative and motivational
systems, the moral standard, moral normativity and moral imperatives, and
explain their relevance to moral responsibility. It is my ultimate intention to
comprehensively delineate the indispensability of evaluative judgement for moral
To be able to judge one choice to be more beneficial than another, the agent
must be able to attribute a degree of value (in terms of expected benefit) to
each of the options. After Watson, I will call the sum of the factors and
capacities that allow him to do so the agent's evaluation system (Watson,
1982). This system is reflective of the agent's hierarchy of values, which
embodies the values that have motivational efficacy for the agent, as they are
judged to be of benefit by him.
The agent's reasons for having a particular hierarchy of values will reflect
the benefits that he believes are to be gained from acting in accordance with
them. However, his particular hierarchy of values will also reflect the degree
of cost that he is willing to bear in order to live in accordance with the
values that it embodies. For example, the agent believes that there are
benefits to living according to Christian values -- for instance, the feeling
of satisfaction gained from piety, righteousness, the possibility of eternal
salvation and so forth. However, he also realises that in order to live
according to Christianity he must give up the pleasures of living as a
hedonist. He judges the cost of doing so to outweigh the gain. He thereby more
strongly identifies with hedonism and allows its continued integration in his
evaluation system. The cost of modifying value systems may also be seen in
terms of feelings of dislocation from community, betrayal of culture and so
forth -- basically anything that contributes to the agent's belief that it is
better to retain his current hierarchy of values.
Is there a set of values that the agent should adopt purely in virtue of his
participation in a given culture? The evaluation system of a culture is not a
completely closed and consistent system in the logical sense. However, there
must be some common values, as this is in part what constitutes a culture. Yet
it is obvious that different groups within a culture have different values.
Therefore, the individual in society is caught in what I will call a 'state of
compromise'; he is caught between competing values. I am not necessarily
refuting the suggestion that society strives for a harmonious integration of
evaluation systems; I am rather suggesting that this is very difficult to
accomplish when there is not complete consensus. Personal evaluation systems
are perspectival -- they reflect the individual's interpretation of, and
reaction to, his society, culture and personal experiences.
Because of the existence of the state of compromise, evaluation systems are not
fixed constants. They have a plasticity that allows development and change over
time. I am not defending the idea that the agent can modify his hierarchy of
values on a whim; values may be deeply ingrained. I am rather suggesting that
particular states of affairs may cause the agent to reassess his hierarchy of
values or to modify them. These may be social or personal, but must provide
sufficient stimulus for the individual to reconsider his particular evaluation
system. However, when I argue that the agent must have the ability to make
evaluative judgements in order to have the capacity for moral responsibility,
and that the ability to do so is dependent on his having an evaluation system,
I mean that at the time of judging how to act he must be capable of evaluative
analysis on the basis of his current evaluation system.
This is distinct from his motivational system. A motivational system is a set
of factors that moves an agent to action (I shall not attempt to give an
account of each of these factors). It will include his desires and may include
his evaluation system (unless he is abdicating his ability to evaluate his
actions and/ or desires). The agent's motivational system does not necessarily
coincide with his evaluation system each time he chooses to act. When he acts
according to a first-order (pre-reflective) desire with which he would not
identify, he is not acting according to his evaluation system. Nevertheless, he
still has a motivational system (part of which is constituted by his first-order
There are inevitably grey areas where the merit of a particular action/ desire/
goal has not been clearly established, and these may only be evaluated as they
arise. There are areas in which the agent's initial evaluation may be subject
to revision, or in which special circumstances require him to suspend a general
conviction, but all of this can be accommodated by his evaluation system. It is
only in light of evaluation that a second-order desire becomes the agent's
will. When he wants to have a particular desire there is reflective
consideration involved, there are reasons why he believes the desire to be of
In order for an agent to have the capacity for moral responsibility, it must be
possible for his evaluation system and motivational system to completely
coincide. If this does not occur then the individual would be incapable of
performing the actions that he believes, upon reflection, are of the greatest
moral value. To be capable of accurately judging what desire or action has the
greatest moral value, the agent must have an understanding of the correct moral
standard against which it should be assessed. It is in light of the moral
standard that an agent's acts can be accurately morally assessed. It is a gauge
that allows accurate assessment of the moral value of an act, desire, intention
and so forth.
If the agent does not have the capacity to reach an understanding of the moral
standard (through whatever route, possible candidates for which being
habituation, revelation, intuition, reflective consideration, inherent
knowledge, and so forth), then there is no way that he can consistently assess
the moral worth of different desires/ actions, and accurately judge them to be
morally superior or deficient. An agent's hierarchy of values reflects what
action/ desire he believes is of greatest benefit. In terms of the moral
standard, what is of greatest benefit will be that which has the greatest moral
This understanding does not have to be explicit. The agent does not have to be
able to give an exact account of the structure of the moral standard. An
implicit understanding of it is sufficient for moral responsibility. He does,
however, have to be capable of using it when making moral judgements.
To be able to conform to a moral standard, the agent must be sensitive to the
normative requirements that it entails. The moral standard helps to establish
moral norms for those who adopt it as part of their evaluation system (Copp,
1995 esp. pp. 21, 82 and 103). Moral norms are rules and prescriptions, either
general or specific, for what it is morally correct to do (Gibbard, 1985 esp.
p. 12). In light of the moral standard it is rational to adopt the moral norms
that it entails. In order to justify blaming someone for not conforming to a
moral norm, it must be possible to rationalise one's moral censure -- there
must be a reason why one feels morally indignant.
Moral norms are what allow the formation of 'ought' and 'ought-not' type moral
imperatives (for example, 'you ought to be generous', 'you ought not to
steal'). These imperatives are, in part, justified by appeal to the values
embodied in the moral standard. One of the reasons that one can provide for
blaming someone for doing something that one believes morally deficient, is
that they should have known what they were doing was wrong and this should have
supplied sufficient motivation for them not to do it. In other words, the moral
norm was something that they should have complied with, as it was possible and
rational to do so.
The ability to adopt the moral standard, and live according to it, does not
necessarily mean that the agent can harmonize all of his first-order desires
with that standard. It is rather that he is capable of accepting the hierarchy
of values that it embodies, and of forming second-order desires (desires that
the agent wants to have) that are in accordance with it (Pettit and Smith, 1996
p. 443). The ability to live according to it requires the capacity to make the
desire to conform to the moral norm one's will and to act accordingly. In order
to have the capacity to become the agent's will, his desire to conform to the
moral standard must be the desire with the greatest latent strength. It must be
the desire that can be stronger than all other desires and thereby become the
agent's will, if he chooses to identify with it. In order for the desire to act
morally to become his will, the agent must believe that there is greater benefit
in acting in accordance with moral norms than acting contrary to them. This is
what will give the desire effective strength and make it the agent's will.
Making the desire to conform to the moral norm one's will is not necessarily
synonymous with being moral. The agent could act in accordance with the moral
standard without believing in the moral values that it embodies (for example,
he could do so from fear). Thus, for the agent to be moral, as opposed to just
having the ability to act in accordance with moral norms, requires that he have
the desire to be moral and not just the desire to act in a way that will most
likely be perceived by others to be moral, to want that desire, and be able to
make it his will. This will involve the capacity to make the moral standard the
dominant hierarchy of values in his evaluation system, and to identify with the
values that constitute it. It is not sufficient that the agent be aware that
there is such a thing as a moral standard, and that it can be used as the
yardstick against which the value of individual actions and desires can be
measured. He must have the actual capacity to use it as such a measure. He must
be able to come to the belief that being moral is of greatest benefit.
Let us now consider an example where Jones has a desire to strike Black
(first-order desire). I will assume that Jones has identified with and adopted
the moral standard. He knows that he has two options: he can either act in
accordance with his first-order desire, or he can choose not to do so. He
judges it to be morally superior not to strike Black. This conclusion is
reached due to the fact that the moral standard is part of his evaluation
system and his knowledge of it informs him that it is morally deficient
(lacking moral value) to strike people because of a trivial affront. He does
not want to have the desire to strike others, as he recognises that harbouring
it leads to morally deficient thoughts/ actions/ and so forth, which do not
conform to the moral norm. Because of his identification with the moral
standard, he believes it to be of greatest benefit not to strike Black. He
therefore does not form the second-order desire to do so. His first-order
desire is thereby held in check (it lacks strength because it is not judged to
be most beneficial). In this case, his evaluation and motivational systems
If he had acted according to his first-order desire, then not only would he
have had to take ownership of both his desire and action, he would also have
had to accept moral responsibility for them (as he had knowledge of the moral
standard, it could have formed part of his evaluation system and could have
been an effective part of his motivational system, if he had so chosen).
Certain first-order desires may have moral content in themselves, but all
first-order desires are pre-reflective. Therefore, the agent does not
necessarily have any control over whether they arise or not (although it may be
possible for him to avoid circumstances in which he knows that a certain desire
could, or would, emerge). The agent cannot be morally responsible for having a
desire that he is powerless to avoid. Therefore, it is at the level of
identification with those desires that the agent's moral responsibility begins
to manifest itself. Negligent or intentional failure to integrate the moral
standard into one's evaluation system is no excuse for failing to act morally,
providing one could do so (and that it was rational for one to do so). The
failure to make a judgement about the moral status of one's desires or actions
is morally reprehensible in itself, providing one can do so.
It is possible to be morally responsible for having a morally deficient
second-order desire that one does not act on because of a lack of courage or
determination. For example, one may be a racist, desire to inflict harm on
different ethnic groups, want to have this desire and yet act on the stronger
desire to stay out of trouble. Given that racist violence is morally deficient,
it is my claim that identifying with the desire to engage in it is also morally
deficient (this is assuming that racism and racist violence is judged/ known to
be morally deficient in light of the moral standard, and that the racist has
access to the moral standard and can adopt it).
I have shown in this paper that evaluative judgement plays a role in the
agent's ability to take moral ownership of the actions that he performs and the
desires with which he identifies. I have contended that if the agent is capable
of making such judgements and fails to do so, intentionally or due to
negligence, he is still responsible for the actions that issue from the
unevaluated desires, and must assume responsibility for leaving them
unevaluated. However, I have also attempted to show that the capacity for
evaluative judgement, in itself, is not sufficient for moral responsibility.
The ability to make moral judgements is not synonymous with the ability to act
morally. The agent must also be able to identify with the desire to be moral
and to make that desire his will. He must have access to the moral standard and
have the capacity to integrate it into his hierarchy of values. He must also
have the ability to come to the belief that it is most beneficial to act in
accordance with the moral norms embodied in the moral standard. If this is the
case then the agent has the capacity to be a moral person, and any failures on
his part are the product of his own weakness or wilfulness. If one has the
capacities that I have outlined in this paper, then one must take ownership of
one's morally deficient intentions, desires and actions. One is a suitable
candidate for morally reactive attitudes and for the application of the
categories of praise and blame.
1. It should be noted that, for the agent, a certain action's/desire's value
may be context specific (that is, what is judged to be most valuable in one
specific set of circumstances may be judged to be of diminished value in
2. When referring to 'the moral standard' from here onwards I mean the correct
moral standard unless otherwise stated.
Copp, D. (1995). Morality, Normativity and Society. New York, Oxford University
Gibbard, A. (1985). Moral Judgment and the Acceptance of Norms. Ethics, 96,
Pettit, P. and Smith, M. (1996). Freedom in Belief and Desire. The Journal of
Philosophy, 93, 429-499.
Watson, G. (1982a). 'Free Agency'. In Watson, G (ed.) (1982). Free Will.
Oxford, Oxford University Press.
(c) Richard Corrigan 2008
Richard H. Corrigan (Ph.D)
University College Dublin
Editor of the Philosophical Frontiers Journal
II. 'A ROPE STRETCHED OVER AN ABYSS: ETHICS, LAW AND NEUROSCIENCE' BY PIERRE
The dream of a complete noesis of the natural world is probably one of the most
and profound aspirations of the human species, and even if the word 'scientist'
was only introduced in 1840, this desire to understand the rules governing our
physical world was expressed in the earlier stage of human civilization. As
Franciscan friar Bacon emphasized in the middle of the 13th centuries, 'The
strongest argument proves nothing so long as the conclusions are unverified by
Yet the scientific approach of the medicine has since then always faced
difficulties in undertaking those experiments.
An important step during medical training is the dissection of human or animal
cadavers. Over the course of the history this practice has been often viewed as
both morally and legally unacceptable. In fact, in the city of Alexandria in
ancient Egypt, where Herophilos and others explored the nervous system, the
circulatory system and the anatomy of the eye, human dissection was forbidden
as it was later throughout Greece and Rome. This legal interdiction had
important consequences, and despite major discoveries realized in ancient
Egypt, Galen (then later Hyppocratus in Greece), had to face a massive handicap
in studying human physiology and anatomy. Unfortunately some of those works were
The controversy only ended nearly 1,400 years later, when Vesalius introduced
into Europe the scientific examination of human anatomy. The Belgium anatomist
who spent several years protected at the imperial court of Charles V in order
to exert his talent as a surgeon, definitively marked a new consideration of
the conception of medicine. Those researches were difficult. In fact Vesalius
was harassed by the Church all his life, and most of his research was possible
only as physician to Emperor Charles V.
Two centuries later, in England, Vesalius was succeeded by William Harvey whose
1628 book Exercitatio Anatomica de Motus Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus
demonstrated that the heart was the center of the circulatory process, that the
same blood flows through both veins and arteries, and that the blood makes a
complete circuit throughout the body. To achieve these observations, William
Harvey practiced numerous animal autopsies and vivisections. For the quality and
the organization of his research Harvey is sometimes considered as the inventor
of the modern laboratory. Following Harvey, during most of the 19th century and
even the early 20th century, the increasing use of animals as subjects of
scientific research was then universally accepted and approved.
In 1831, a British physiologist whose name is associated with the theory of
reflex arc mediated by the spinal cord, proposed a critical aim in relation to
animals as subjects of scientific research. Marshall Hall at that time was
still working on the reflex function but the same year he proposed five
principles that he believed should govern all animal experimentation. Since
those recommendations are today formally instituted in the British Animals
(Scientific Procedures) Act and the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, it is important to
briefly state them:
1. An experiment should never be performed if the necessary
information can be obtained by observations.
2. No experiment should be performed without a clearly
defined and obtainable objective.
3. Scientists should be well-informed about the work of
their predecessors and peers in order to avoid unnecessary
repetition of an experiment.
4. Justifiable experiments should be carried out with the
least possible infliction of suffering (often through the
use of lower, less sentient animals).
5. Every experiment should be performed under circumstances
that would provide the clearest possible results, thereby
diminishing the need for repetition of experiments.
During the same period, Hall also proposed the founding of a scientific society
to oversee publication of research results and recommended that 'the results of
experimentation be laid before the public in the simplest, plainest terms'.
In general, Hall was criticised by those who disapproved of animal
experimentation, both within and without the medical community.
Ethics, Law and Neuro-ethics: influences on Neurosciences
Marshall Hall's recommendations are today an important part of what is
considered by the public society as an ethics of scientific practice. In terms
of definition, the notion of ethics refers to the second-order and reflective
consideration of our moral beliefs and practices, by contrast to morality which
refers to the first-order beliefs and practices about right and wrong by means
of which we guide our behavior. In others words, ethics may be defined as the
explicit, philosophical reflection on moral beliefs and practices. Generally
speaking, the difference between ethics and morality is similar to the
difference between psychology and mind. Ethics is a conscious stepping back and
reflecting on morality, just as psychology is a scientific reflection on mind.
In academic terms, ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with morals and
human conduct. With the recent development of neurosciences the notion of
'neuro-ethics' arose in order to address moral and social issues concerning the
conduct of research in the neurosciences and biological psychology including
their clinical applications.
Typical issues in neuro-ethics include the ethics of conducting research into
novel interventions in the brain itself, but also the question of the ethical
and social implications of the transformed 'models of man' arising from the
findings of neuroscience. Neuro-ethics is also concerned by the meaning and
application of brain imaging in the courts or schools as well as the ethical
and social aspects of the clinical and public health treatment of psychiatric
and neurological disorders in the light of modern research. Finally, the
implications of modern neuroscience for our understanding of the basis of
morality and social behaviour have given rise to the problem of the
transformations of our concepts of free will and responsibility. For the
purpose of this article we will only discuss the critical implication of this
Since neuro-ethics refers to a specific aspect of ethics, the specification of
what definition of ethics we will rely on in this article is essential. Most
authorship of ethical codes distinguishes codes from civil or criminal laws. In
fact, codes of ethics are commonly compiled primarily by members of the
professions to whom they apply when laws are written by elected officials. An
important difference between ethics and law resides in the aspirational quality
of ethics, contrasted with minimal standards set by the law. It is incorrect to
assume automatically that 'if it's legal, it's ethical.'
A law-abiding physician is not necessarily highly skilled or compassionate. The
aspirational nature of ethical codes involves questions such as: 'What virtues
and acts must characterize the best of our profession?' Sometimes one might
have to choose between ethics and law. While ethics generally sets the bar for
conduct at a different level than law, it would be incorrect to say that the
law is unconcerned with values. The adage 'you can't legislate morality' is
false in that every statute mandates some act or restraint in order to preserve
a moral value. In most countries, the law prohibits wearing firearms in public
in order to protect human life.
By contrast, what morally true cannot always be subject to law. Nor should it
be. A society in which every good act is mandated by law would be tyranny. In
today's life, meaningful moral action requires reflection, choice, or even
failure. In contrast, ethical codes should not be seen as requiring perfection,
but as statements of those purposes toward which one aims throughout the course
of one's professional life. Generally speaking, however, values inform both
ethics and law: ethics focusing on particular professional values, and law
setting minimal standards of conduct to preserve the common good. So while
ethics can govern the profession of a particular group of neuroscientists,
neuroscience is also governed by law.
As we mentioned earlier, the law is the usual term that defines a rule, made by
a government or political group that governs a society. Those rules are used to
regulate the way in which a society behaves, or the whole system of such rules:
such as laws against driving without a valid driving licence. In neuroscience,
law did in fact precede the introduction of ethics. For instance, the first law
written specifically to regulate animal experimentation was written in Great
Britain's 1876: The Cruelty to Animals Act.
The 1876 law, which implicitly approved animal experimentation at the same time
as it set up a system of licensing and certification, was replaced by the
Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, which specifically states that
'The Secretary of State shall not grant a project license until he is satisfied
that the applicant has given adequate consideration to the feasibility of
achieving the purpose of the programme to be specified in the license by means
not involving the use of protected animals' (Animal Welfare, UFAW, Vol. 1, No.
2, 1992). In the United States, the 1966 Animal Welfare Act, amended in 1970,
1976, 1986, 1989, and 1991, set standards for laboratory animals, including
rats, mice, and birds. On January 8, 1992 the U.S. District Court in
Washington, DC ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been violating
the Animal Welfare Act by not enforcing its provisions as they relate to these
On a liberal view, society must not interfere with scientific questions or how
scientists behave towards one another. In other words, investigation in science
should not be limited by law. But society certainly does have an interest in
protecting vulnerable subjects. On that view, neuro-ethics can be defined as
this abyssal ocean between the two continents represented by law and
As shown by the modifications of law in the mid of the 20th century in most
contemporary societies, classical researches on ethics were concerned mainly
with invasive medical and physiological research, and secondarily with the
ethics of some psychological, social psychological and anthropological
research. Those concerns were certainly driven by the hypothetical revolution
that those invasive research might imply.
To illustrate this idea, let's suppose that a precise set of neural imaging
correlates of lying has been defined. For some purposes in psychological
research it could be more or less immediately apparent to the researcher when
the imaging subject is lying, even if the topic of the research is something
quite different. Since part of the ethics of research involves seeking only the
information required in the research, this could be considered as a breach of
privacy. There are long-standing questions about the ethics of using a
technology to detect lying, in the courts, in interrogation, or for other
purposes, and whether evidence obtained in this way would or should be
admissible or usable in making police inquiries. From the point of view of
neuroscientists and many social scientists this is inevitably a biased
perspective: it is clear that a social science take on the neurosciences will
be more descriptive and explanatory than normative. Even within this
perspective, however, it would be essential for a social science to understand
the findings of neuroscience.
Neurosciences and its influences on Ethics, Law and Neuro-ethics
The concepts of 'moral' and 'responsibility' are explicitly present in many of
the earliest surviving Greek texts (the Homeric epics). In those texts, both
human and superhuman agents are often regarded as fair targets of praise and
blame on the basis of how they have behaved. Sometimes a behavior is excused
because of the presence of some factor that has undermined his control.
Reflection on these factors gave rise to fatalism, the view that one's future
or some aspect of it is predetermined, in such a way as to make one's
particular deliberations, choices and actions irrelevant to whether that
particular future is realized or not. If some particular outcome is destined,
then it seems that the agent concerned could not be morally responsible for
that outcome. Likewise, if fatalism is accepted with respect to all human
futures, then it would seems that no human agent could be morally responsible
for anything. Though this mark of fatalism has sometimes exerted significant
historical influence, most philosophers have rejected it on the grounds that
there is no good reason to think that our futures are destined in the sense
that they will expand no matter what particular deliberations we engage in,
choices we make, or actions we perform.
As often, when looking among the earliest surviving Greek texts, Aristotle
seems to be the first to construct explicitly a theory of moral responsibility.
In the course of his discussion on human virtues and their corresponding vices,
Aristotle starts in Nicomachean ethics to explore their foundations. For
Aristotle, only a certain kind of agent qualifies as a moral agent and is thus
properly subject to ascriptions of responsibility, namely, one who possess a
capacity for decision.
This consideration still remains essential and even today in the contemporary
Anglo-American legal tradition, one of the requirements for criminal punishment
is showing that the accused meets a test for being able to act responsibly. The
failure to meet that requirement is a possible defense to a criminal
prosecution. There are two basic components to the test: a cognitive
requirement and a volitional requirement. The cognitive component focuses on
whether the offender had the capacity to understand the wrongful and or
unlawful nature of the criminal act. The volitional component asks whether or
not the offender had the ability to control whether or not he committed the
Generally, only people suffering from extreme and obvious deficits are able
successfully to invoke the defense; and often not even then. This concept of
personal responsibility largely enlightened individualism but we should
remember, that this conception was a late development of our legal system, and
that its remains unpopular in many parts of the world today. It is important to
keep in mind that the intuitive psychology idea of human action we possess is
definitively the product of such enlightenment.
The neuroscience studies of decision-making and impulse control have major
implications for the legal system. Those topics vary, including prediction of
behavior, neuropsychiatric instruments that can be used for help in skills
determinations, improvement in lie detection or even detection of brain death.
Being able to enhance specific skills may raise the possibility of mandated
enhancement, such as requiring people to take an antidepressant drug to make
them less angry or irritable. Electrode stimulation of medio-frontal part of
the cortex can temporarily modify the behavior of a macaque monkey and we
can imagine some procedures to modify the brain in order to treat addictions.
In many aspects, the potential for discrimination based on neuroscientific
tests and procedures raise serious issues regarding the exceptional treatment
of individuals. Questions of privacy and confidentiality are also problematic,
such as the extensive information gathered in a single imaging procedure. If
admissible, are there other reasons for a court for not using the information
that future neuroscience finding may be able to provide? Should a court allow
testimony that a person has a superior memory or inferior activity of brain
control? Should we introduce the possibility of refusing neuroscientific tests?
If people's actions are caused by factors for which they are not responsible,
how can they be held responsible for actions that occur as a result of these
factors? Neurophysiological experiments show that before a subject is even
consciously aware of a decision to perform an act, the brain was active. The
brain, as a physical organ is carrying on the ongoing action before the
consciousness and awareness of the subject. So then, can there be free
choice in a deterministic scientific world of explanation?
When a violent act occurs, the quest is not simply to understand it as an
activity of neurons but to assess responsibility. However, the point where the
ability to inhibit an act is impaired is not clear. Of course, social rules are
not based on neuroscientific findings and responsibility is a social construct.
But recent neuroscientific findings raise some issues for the legal system that
cannot be ignored. Old or recent discussions of these issues leave the
impression of three disparate approaches with their own conceptions and
projections. First, at a philosophical level, the debates about 'free will' and
its perception in terms of determinism have not been fully resolved. Secondly,
the law and more generally the entire legal system assesses responsibility of
people as intentional agents governed by reason and goals. Finally, the
neuroscience and its extraordinary development is now permitting to raises
questions about the functioning of the brain and its mysterious relationship to
The Case of Mr. Puppet
In their recent paper, to illustrate the profound implication of responsibility
in neuroscience, Green and Cohen (2004) used the case of a certain 'Mr. Puppet'.
'Mr. Puppet' is a criminal designed by a group of scientists through tight
genetic and environmental control. Having being arrested, Mr. Puppet will
be judged for his unacceptable social behavior. The leader of the group of
scientists is called to the stand by the defense, and here is what Greene and
Cohen had him say:
It is very simple, really. I designed him. I carefully
selected every gene in his body and carefully scripted
every significant event in his life so that he would become
precisely what he is today. I selected his mother knowing
that she would let him cry for hours and hours before
picking him up. I carefully selected each of his relatives,
teachers, friends, enemies, etc., and told them exactly what
to say to him and how to treat him. Things generally went as
planned, but not always. For example, the angry letters
written to his dead father were not supposed to appear
until he was fourteen, but by the end of his thirteenth
year he had already written four of them. In retrospect I
think this was because of a handful of substitutions I made
to his eighth chromosome. At any rate, my plans for him
succeeded, as they have for 95% of the people I've
designed. I assure you that the accused deserves none of
Could a change in the chromosome determine the timing of a nasty letter
written? Nothing in the genome does contain all the information that will
specify any particular action. The fact is that even if the environmental
regulations are impossible to fully apprehend and control, Greene and Cohen
illustrate how it is difficult to consider Mr. Puppet to be responsible for his
actions. Because those 'forces beyond his control played a dominant role in
causing him to commit the crimes, it is hard to think of him as anything more
than a pawn.'
Law and liberty
As illustrated in the preceding text from Greene and Cohen, the notion of free
will implies an ability of exerting control based on volition. Neuroscience
will not change this fact. In order to solve this problem over history, a
distinction has been made between responsibility understood as attributability
and responsibility as accountability.
The central idea to be able to judge whether or not an agent is responsible for
an action in the sense of attributability, is to examine whether this particular
action illustrate important information about the nature of the agent
(Watson 1996). In other words, to regard an agent in the attributability sense
of responsibility is simply to believe that the merit or fault identified
properly belongs to the agent. On the other hand, while responsibility can be
shared among group of subjects, accountability cannot. The idea being that
there is no 'shared accountability'. Discussion of the place and role of the
reactive attitudes in human life continues to be a central theme in accounts of
the concept of responsibility. What is certain is that the interest of
neuroscience in apprehending the concept of moral responsibility and its
application would certainly be an essential element for the future of our
The refinement and the development of experimental techniques in neurosciences
now permits without too much difficulty observation of the level of activity of
clearly defined regions of the brain of humans or animals during the performance
of various tasks. By recording the activity of single neurons, scalp potential
or variation of blood flow, one can today, literally, observe how one's own
brain is thinking.
At the level of the cells, we are familiar today with the nature of the nerve
influx and the various electrical phenomena which confer upon the neuron its
properties of excitability and its information-processing capabilities. At the
molecular level, in addition to identifying the structure of the channels,
neurotransmitters and their receivers, the identification of an abundance of
molecules which interact in cascades enables us to understand the functional
and molecular substrates of fundamental phenomena such as pleasure, suffering,
dependence, memory and the formation of cognitive maps in the brain.
Genetics has also been particularly fertile in the area of the neurosciences,
revealing families of genes for the enzymes, receptors and linking proteins
which take care of the different neuronal functions. The discovery of
regulating genes, which are responsible for the development of the brain in
response to exposure to the influences of its environment, holds out
considerable prospects for the understanding of the phylogenesis of the brain.
Should we consider the neurosciences to be a poisoned chalice on which the
worst forms of ideology may be expressed? Looking to history has shown that if
such temptations of using scientific discoveries for atrocious reasons may
arise at a specific time, they never become part of the foundations of human
society. The purpose of this article was to examine the complex relationship
that neuroscience has with ethics and law and to present with optimism the
wonderful but critical challenge that our society will have to face with in
order to resolve how ethics and law should influence neuroscience.
As discussed by Cohen and Green (2004, but also see e.g. Churchland 1981;
Bisiach, 1988), in the next decades our society will undoubtedly have to
reconcile the discoveries of neuroscience discoveries and the determinism of
the brain's function with the current conceptions or interpretations of the law
and notion of responsibility. It is also important to underline that at
the same time, reactions from our society may force our legal system to adapt
in order to restrict what is considered acceptable as an experimental study in
neuroscience. Already, today an increasing number of regulations and laws
influence the way the research in neurosciences is carried out.
Once again, although many people believe that, in principle, human behavior is
the physical result of a causally determined chain of biophysical events, most
people put that aside when making moral judgments or casting their vote.
1. Bacon R. (1265). Opus Majus. Translated in English by Belle Burke Robert
(1928). Heyl, Paul R. Publication.
2. Harvey W. (1628). Exercitatio Anatomica de Motus Cordis et Sanguinis in
Animalibus. Translated by Robert Willis (1993). New York: P.F. Collier & Son
3. Rupke NA. (1987). Vivisection in Historical perspective. by N.A. Rupke.
Beckenham: Croom Helm.
4. Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Edward McCrorie (2004). Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press.
5. Sartre (1948). Existentialism Is a Humanism. Yale Univ Press 1953.
6. Aristotle. Nicomachean ethics. Translated by W.D. Ross. ebook.at.adelaide
7. Lewis DO, Pincus JH, Feldman M, Jackson L, Bard B. Psychiatric,
neurological, and psychoeducational characteristics of 15 death row inmates in
the United States. AmJ Psychiatry 1986;143:838-45.
8. Histed MH., Miller EK. (2006). Microstimulation of frontal cortex can
reorder a remembered spatial sequence. Plos Biol. May; 4(5):e134.
9. Stuphorn V., Schall JD. Executive control of countermanding saccades by the
supplementary eye field. Nat Neurosci. 2006 Jul;9(7):925-31.
10. Haber SB, Kim KS, Mailly P, Calzavara R. (2006). Reward-related cortical
inputs define a large striatal region in primates that interface with
associative cortical connections, providing a substrate for incentive-based
learning. J Neurosci. Aug 9;26(32):8368-76.
11. Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W., and Pearl, D. K. (1983). Time of
conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity
(readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act.
12. Greene, J. D., Cohen J. D. (2004) For the law, neuroscience changes nothing
and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B,
13. Watson, Gary, 1996, 'Two Faces of Responsibility.' Philosophical Topics 24:
14. Bisiach, E. (1988). The (haunted) brain and consciousness. In (A. Marcel
and E. Bisiach, eds) Consciousness in Contemporary Science. Oxford University
15. Churchland, P. S. (1981). On the alleged backwards referral of experiences
and its relevance to the mind-body problem. Philosophy of Science, 48:165-181.
(c) Pierre Pouget 2008
Center for Integrative & Cognitive Neuroscience
Vanderbilt Vision Research Center
Department of Psychology
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203
III. 'SOME REMARKS ON THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY' BY HUBERTUS FREMEREY
In this essay I comment on some inherent limitations of philosophy. It could be
questioned whether this is philosophy at all. But thinking about the inherent
limits of philosophy is meta-philosophy. I did not need Godel to know that you
cannot criticize a theory from within. If you are a true Marxist, you cannot
concede that there is a meta-theory to Marxism, since in your Marxist world
Marxism is the highest form of theory possible. Thus from a Marxist point of
view, for to be a 'meta-Marxist' you have to be wrong. And in the opinion of
the analytical philosopher there cannot be such a thing as 'meta-analytical'
philosophy, since to be analytic is by definition the highest form of
philosophical thinking. But we all know that this is wrong, because analytical
philosophy misses many problems by denying their existence. As a result
analytical thinking becomes blinding dogmatism. When you simply define what is
real, then if something does not fit your criteria of 'reality', it cannot be
real. What did Hamlet answer to Polonius when he was asked what he was reading?
'Words, words, nothing but words!'
The point of my essay below is just this: When you define what philosophy is,
the most important philosophy may simply evade you (since according to your
predefined standards it is no philosophy at all), and then you may be in for a
shock, because 'that which is no philosophy at all' has turned out to be a more
vital and more effective philosophy than your own. Compare it to art: For many
lovers of art the painting of Cezanne and Gauguin and Picasso some hundred
years ago was 'no art at all'. And surely not what we call 'primitive art'
today or even pop-art or op-art or abstract art etc. But our concept of art has
changed. In the same way our concept of philosophy has changed. This is not just
from the confrontation with Hindu or Buddhist or Chinese or African philosophy
in the first line, but as much from confrontation with phenomenology,
hermeneutics, structuralism, feminism and language analysis etc.
Kant saw certain limitations in philosophy, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger,
Wittgenstein and others saw different limitations, and this is the way
philosophy proceeds: Not only by solving logical problems, but by expanding the
limits (= definitions) of philosophy and seeing problems from new perspectives
and in a different light, which has nothing to do with logical or
methodological solutions of problems, but with a change of awareness. Problems
are not just there to be solved. Problems come and go, depending on light and
perspective and our understanding.
Kant was not the end of philosophy, neither was Hegel, and not even Heidegger
or Derrida or Wittgenstein have defined the limits of philosophy. They all did
what Socrates did: Instead of solving problems, they expanded our awareness of
what philosophical problems can be. No analytical philosophy will ever tell you
where philosophy ends. If you think otherwise you have a restricted idea of what
philosophy is in the same way as the critics of Picasso had a restricted idea of
what art is.
In this time of globalization, we see a new and rising interest in what is
called 'intercultural philosophy'. So I take my illustrating example from a
note on Indian philosophy. From the Wiki-article on Indian Philosophy
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_philosophy) I take the following:
Chatterjee and Datta give this definition, explaining that
a cornerstone of Indian philosophy is a tradition of
respect for multiple views:
'Indian philosophy denotes the philosophical speculations
of all Indian thinkers, ancient or modern, Hindus or
non-Hindus, theists or atheists... Indian philosophy is
marked... by a striking breadth of outlook which only
testifies to its unflinching devotion to the search for
truth. Though there were many different schools and their
views differed sometimes vary widely, yet each school took
care to learn the views of all the others and did not come
to any conclusions before considering thoroughly what
others had to say and how their points could be met... If
the openness of mind -- the willingness to listen to what
others have to say -- has been one of the chief causes of
the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past,
it has a definite moral for the future.'
 Chatterjee, Satischandra; Datta, Dhirendramohan (1984).
An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Eighth Reprint
Edition, Calcutta: University of Calcutta.
But, as is well known, Indian philosophy in all its breadth of understanding
did not arrive at modern 'Western' rational science. And why not? Because there
was no felt need to even ask for it.
This may sound strange. But think again: All children in the world sometime
will ask their parents: 'Mom, dad, what is the moon?' But the parents might
answer -- quite naturally: 'We don't know, God made it, he will know, and that
suffices.' Indeed, for some, it does. Because how should we know what the moon
is -- and why? To find out has been a very difficult task, and the driving
force behind this achievement has not been the moon itself but the invention of
telescopes in the times of Galilei and Kepler around 1600. If you have a
telescope you will see many things you did not see before. But why should you
build a telescope? Perhaps for navigation on seagoing ships? Or for observing
the stars as an astrologer? Surely not for observing the moon in the first
And in this same way we may ask: Why at all should the Hindus or the Chinese or
the inhabitants of Africa have been interested in studying nature? Of course
they all knew much about the plants and animals around from observations and
experiences. But this is not methodical science. Only the Greeks tried to find
out about nature because of a strange sort of curiousness. They wanted to live
in a world that was rational, consistent and explained. This is quite uncommon
and not at all natural. The Jews never even tried to develop a natural science
or the math needed to support it. In the opinion of the Jews God would care
about his creation, while man should care about his relation with God. This is
a natural attitude. Neither Jesus nor the Buddha nor Confucius were interested
in natural sciences. Not even Socrates was. They all said that to become a good
human and to improve mutual understanding among humans natural science is not
needed. So why bother?
This is the main explanation of the seemingly strange fact that in all of Asia
and Africa nobody got really interested in doing natural science in any
methodically strict way. Science starts with 'what is nature?' and 'how to find
out?' Thus you should not be interested in the moon, you should be interested in
the nature of nature. And you should not speculate like the astrologer and
alchemist. Instead you should observe and do experiments and consider your
observations and experiments critically. This is what the Greeks and later the
'Occidentals' or 'Franken' did. If you are interested in the study of nature,
you eventually will find out about the moon, but the moon itself is of no help
when embarking on such a grand endeavour.
In contrast, the Indians and the Chinese engaged in speculation and magical
thinking. You can see the outcome in so many of todays 'kung fu' and 'mystical'
movies (f.i. 'Tiger and Dragon' see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0190332/ ). The
concept of nature in these movies (and there are many of this sort) is a
magical 'Daoist' one, not a scientific one. True natural science is a Western
invention and had to be imported into all of Asia and Africa. (See f.i. Joseph
Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science, on this:
But this has absolutely nothing to do with any lack of brains in Asia or
Africa. There simply was no felt need to methodically study nature since it did
not bear to the only questions that mattered: 'How to become a good human and
how to build a stable and well governed society?' What do we care the true
nature of the moon then?
Lest I am looked upon as a 'racist Eurocentric' here let me once more make the
point very clear: If you dismiss mathematics as irrelevant and not worth
studying, even if you are a mathematical genius you will not arrive at great
results in mathematics. And if you dismiss the study of nature as not helping
in the understanding and improving of man and society, you will not be
knowledgeable on the nature of nature, even if you are very bright and easily
would have got at great results in studying nature. It is not a matter of
intelligence whether you become a gardener or a technician. It's a matter of
choice. But if you choose to become a gardener, you will not come out as a
famous maker of cars and airplanes. You cannot expect to be good at what you
are not interested in.
Only by a strange and improbable coincidence of very special conditions did
Newton stumble over his law of gravitation of 1678. He himself acknowledged
that he perhaps would not have arrived at his results without the work of the
mystic Behmen. Behmen was a simple shoemaker and ignorant of mathematics. But
once more: To get at the law of gravitation, you first have to be interested in
it. What Newton wanted to achieve was not 'industrial society' (which was
completely out of sight for him and his time) but a demonstration of the wisdom
of God. He was interested in the wisdom of God -- in theo-sophy -- and so was
Behmen. Thus modern natural science was derived from theology and theosophy.
But instead of speculating about the nature of God, Kepler, Galileo and Newton
all were mathematicians and observers of nature. This explains why in Asia and
Africa and even in the eastern part of Europe, there was no Kepler nor Galileo
nor Newton. What was lacking was an interest in methodical observations of
nature, and a culture of mathematics, which made the calculations of Kepler and
Thus a telescope and an interest in methodical observations of nature and a
knowledge of advanced mathematics had to come together to start modern
sciences. All three were lacking in the Orient more or less, and this explains
why modern natural science could not start there, because it had no cultural
base from which to start.
Seen in this light, even while 'the openness of mind... has been one of the
chief causes of the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past', it
did not arrive at modern thinking and very probably never would have in the
future, since before you can find out about nature, you first need reason and
motivation to find out. The Greeks had such motivation and reason, and the
scientists of the later Western Renaissance the same, but of another sort. The
Greeks expected the world to be rationally understandable, and the Western
Christians wanted to see God's wisdom incorporated in his creation. In both
cases the driving force was a metaphysical assumption. So the main difference
between Occidental and Oriental thinking in this questions was a difference of
Which is an aside on the current contempt of metaphysics in Western analytical
philosophy of today.
To be not misunderstood: What I fight is a naive idea that it could suffice to
sit down and think a bit and by this become wise and all-knowing. To become
knowledgeable about electrodynamics you cannot sit down and study the
Upanishads or the wisdom of Lao Tse or Confucius. Nor do you lock yourself away
in a Western university, merely looking at books. You have to do experiments and
you have to do math in the way Faraday and Maxwell did. You have to change not
your books but your attitudes with respect to reality.
And what about the modern liberal state and human and civil rights? Did they
grow in India or in China or in Africa? No! They were born in the English and
French Revolutions of 1649 and 1789, and in the American Declaration of
Independence of 1776. India and China with all their openness to new ideas were
in fact closed to any new ideas not fitting their fundamental assumptions. And
since the ideas of freedom and progress and the 'common wealth and happinesse'
are metaphysical ideas, this once more is a comment on the current contempt of
One could speak of mere 'cultural differences', but 'cultural differences'
sounds too much like 'costumes and customs'. But I am speaking of different
approaches to reality here, which is metaphysics. Cf. the well known
I think we could afford some second thoughts on the state of philosophy and on
its relation to the world we live in today. We should try to see the whole
picture again and not be content with solving this or that analytical problem,
as valuable as this may be. The destination of mankind is not an analytical but
a metaphysical problem of the first order. I even expect some valuable
contributions from the Asian and African traditions. But to become valuable
counselors the philosophers of the East and of Africa have to understand 'the
modern condition' first.
Modern man lives in a dynamic world of rapid changes and technical adaptations,
not in the quasi static world of 'the ways of our ancestors.' This is what
modern philosophy is up to, from whatever region of the world it may originate.
All else would be 'seeking your lost Western soul in Asia and Africa' as in the
days of the 'Dharma bums' of the 1970s and of the 'New Age' movement
thereafter. But the task of philosophy is not that of psychotherapy, even while
both ask for truth and clarification. Instead we have to clarify the true
meaning of philosophy again, which is to ask for reason in a maddening world.
(c) Hubertus Fremerey 2008
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