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The ethics of biology

June 22, 2011

One of the primary ethical obligations biologists have, I think, is to not presume that biology can explain ethics. Here we have an article about Patricia Churchland, a so-called “neurophilosopher” who does exactly this–says that morality is determined, basically, by oxytocin levels in our brains. One of her defenders, Owen Flanagan Jr, says the following in her defense:

Where we get a lot of pushback from philosophers is that they’ll say, ‘If you go this naturalistic route that Flanagan and Churchland go, then you make ethics merely a theory of prudence.’ And the answer is, Yeah, you kind of do that. Morality doesn’t become any different than deciding what kind of bridge to build across a river. The reason we both think it makes sense is that the other stories [morality coming from God, or from philosophical intuition] are just so implausible.

My reaction to this is… um, what?

I understand how studying oxytocin levels and how their correlate to human behavior is interesting. I don’t understand saying that this has anything to do with morality. It might have something to do with why one does what one does. But it can’t tell me why I should. To say that oxytocin is to explain morality is to admit that there is no such thing as moral behavior, there is only behavior that is or is not socially acceptable. In which case, why should I listen to what society says, as long as I don’t get caught?…

Really, I don’t want to be completely dismissive of these sorts of people. They’re clearly quite bright. But how can they possibly think that what they’re doing is even related to how we should decide what we ought to do?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 3, 2014 11:26 pm

    You should check out Dobzhansky’s ‘ethics.’ He’s the guy who wrote “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution.” The way he manipulates and misappropriates other cultures is appalling, but it also explains the widespread disdain amongst scientists for other cultures, religions and scholarly works from the humanities. In 1973, the tone is defensive. In 2014, the tone is condescending.

    Here are the citations for those two articles:

    Dobzhansky, T.G. (1973). Ethics and values in biological and cultural evolution. Zygon 8, 261–281.

    Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution. The American Biology Teacher 35, 125–129.

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