In certain areas, such as the neuroscience of moral judgment, philosophers have a tendency to overextend the claims that recent research and advances in neuroscience are taken to support. Yet, in other areas, such as metaphysics of free will or ethics, philosophy makes incorrect presuppositions about the world. In the following, I illustrate this tense between philosophy and the empirical world and, tentatively, offer that one thing this suggests is the need for philosophers to consider working with others outside of their own field.
To illustrate the former, consider Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt’s work on the neuroscience of moral judgment. Greene relies on fMRIs of participants when they are providing answers to moral dilemmas (Trolley and Footbridge cases), and Haidt has examined students’ responses to moral violations from across different cultures and educational levels (Greene, et al. 2001; Greene 2003; Haidt, Koller and Dias 1993; Haidt 2003; Schnall, et al. 2008). Both Green and Haidt have argued the basis of their research on the neuroscience of moral judgment, what Neil Levy refers to as deflationary account of morality (Levy 2007). On Haidt and Greene’s accounts, morality is reducible to intuition, which in turn is only an affective, not rational, response that is the result of biological and evolutionary hardwiring. If moral judgments are based upon intuitions, which are emotional and part of evolutionary hardwiring, then Haidt and Greene’s claim it is not evident that moral judgments in fact track morally relevant features in the world. If this is the case, then theories of morality that are rationally-based, such as deontology or Kant, or theories that hold there can be reflective equilibrium between theory and intuition, such as Rawls, seem to be unjustified. If a person’s moral intuitions are merely the product of evolutionary hardwiring, then deontologists or Kantian thinkers cannot hold that morality and moral judgment are fundamentally reason-based. If a person’s moral intuitions are merely the product of evolutionary hardwiring then it seems there cannot be, as Rawls (1999) claims, reflective equilibrium between our theories and intuitions. For Greene and Haidt, a deflationary account of morality contends that being moral is merely a part of our evolutionary hardwiring.
Nevertheless, while Greene and Haidt’s work shows that intuitions are often the result of biological and evolutionary hardwiring and affect moral judgments, it is not clear how this research supports Greene and Haidt’s conclusions about morality and moral theories. Kahane and Shackel argue that Greene has methodological flaws that result in his work not sufficiently appreciating the “step from philosophical discourse to the ascription of belief to lay persons” (Kahane and Shackel 2010, 580). Neil Levy (2007) contends that neuroscience has shown that intuitions, even if emotional and not rational, are relevant considerations that guide decisions and moral judgments.
While I remain neutral on this debate about the neuroscience of moral judgment and moral theory, Greene and Haidt’s work is interesting and important, but is it also indicative of the potential for using neuroscience to make bold philosophical claims. It is not yet clear if Greene and Haidt’s research does show deontological or Kant’s moral theory is not justified; it also does not showthat intuitions or a theory built up from intuitions cannot achieve reflective equilibrium.
Yet, the tension is that philosophy often ignores the empirical before armchair theorizing. In discussion of the metaphysics of free will, a common assumption is that people’s ordinary folk conception of choice is inconsistent with a deterministic conception of free will. Yet, as illustrated by the recent work of Shepard and Shane (2012), Monroe and Malle (2010) and many others (such as Joshua Knoble) who have examined people’s folk conceptions of free will and discovered, in fact, that people’s folk conceptions of choice is not taken to be an unconditional ability to do otherwise or even as being a causal notion.
In the case of ethics, it is often argued that palliative sedation is not any different from euthanasia or physician-aid-in-dying because it, like the others, directly hastens the patient’s death. However, empirical evidence does not conclusively show that opioids and sedation quicken the dying process in terminal patients (Sykes and Thorns 2003) (Morita, Tei and Inoue 2001), or that palliative sedation does not shorten the life of terminal ill patients (Maltoni, et al. 2009), or that 20 percent of palliative sedation patients actually are discharged from the hospital of their own accord (Elsayem, et al. 2009).
This does not mean, however, that philosophy has no place in these discussions (because it does) or that it provides no insight (because it does). Rather this tension suggests, at least to me, that philosophers should be more willing to go outside their own field or academic discipline, such as understanding the relevant literature in medicine, neuroscience, and psychology, or, possibly, consider working with other disciplines on certain topics.
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