There is influential neuroscientific data which shows that that the level of neural activity in cognitive brain areas (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobe) correlate positively with the characteristically consequentialist judgment, while the level of activity in emotion related areas (the posterior cingulate cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala) correlate positively with the characteristically deontological judgment. These have mostly been explained by a dual process theory which ties neural mechanisms to a particular moral content, suggesting that deontological approaches to ethical decision making are preferentially supported by automatic emotional responses, whereas consequentialist approaches are preferentially supported by conscious reasoning and allied processes of cognitive control.
One piece of evidence comes from the cognitive psychology of punishing. Consequentialists would claim that punishment is justified by the prevention of future harm, while deontologists would argue that retribution is the primary justification. Some studies show that people’s motives appear to be predominantly retributivist and emotionally driven by anger and outrage when confronted with particular cases of wrongdoing (Baron et al. 1993; Kahneman et al. 1998; Sanfey et al. 2003). As long as punishment choices are sufficiently concrete, consequentialist reasoning will have no major role in punishment justification, while common-sense punitive judgment will be retributivist.
Anger and revenge do push people to punish in response to wrong doing. As Achilles famously said, revenge is “far sweeter than flowing honey wells up like smoke in the breasts of man”. Kantian oriented philosophers have rejected interpretations which tie deontology to vindictiveness. Retributivism implies institutions of justice and rational deliberation on facts in order to establish correct punishments, thus limiting revenge private justice (Dean 2010). Kant himself explains that “punishment is not an act that the injured party can undertake on his private authority but rather an act of a court distinct from him” (Metaphysics of Morals, VI:461).
However, one may grant that retributivism presupposes institutions of justice, but this only tempers revenge, without ruling it out as a basis of justification. I find unconvincing the idea that the presence of institutions makes retributivism a proper framework of punishment. It is rather the other way around. Only if retributivism is normatively sound then institutions are a proper framework of punishment. We would have a good standard of ruling out ill-grounded institutions.
I have suggested in a recent paper (Mihailov 2015) that in order to undermine sweeping conclusions about the emotional “essence” of deontology, we have to start by pointing out that the issue of punishment justification has many angles, not covered by purported evidence. Deontological thinking resists being driven by anger in cases of punishing agents with impaired autonomy. Many criminal actions, caused by brain disorders, elicit outrage and revenge, but deontologists would be reserved to justify punishment since attributing responsibility is problematic. Despite the fact that a criminal action elicits extreme anger, if the agent’s autonomy is impaired to a large extent then punishment can hardly be justified. No results have been produced for a correlation between emotions and deontological judgements in such cases.
Suppose now that we can produce some evidence and interpret it according to the standard model. Probably, it will not support the emotivist hypothesis mainly because deontological reasoning in such cases fits the cognitive model of utilitarian reasoning. According to the standard model (Greene 2004), utilitarian responses make use of cognitive control processes in order to overcome prepotent emotional reactions. Once we control our emotional reaction we are able to see other relevant features which provide reasons for actions that run counter to our initial reactions. Allegedly, this is how utilitarian reasoning unfolds in the crying baby dilemma.
You are hiding with several other people from enemy soldiers. Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if you do not cover your baby’s mouth the soldiers will find you and kill everyone. But if you cover your baby’s mouth, that will kill him. Contemplating the action of covering the baby’s mouth to his death elicits a strong aversion which makes people endorse the impermissibility of killing. However, if our cognitive processes manage to win out against the prepotent emotional response, then we will acknowledge that the baby is going to die in either scenario, and so we have much to gain in terms of lives saved by smothering it. Similarly, the deontological response would have to exercise heavy cognitive control over anger or private revenge in order to see that punishment is no longer justifiable in cases of impaired autonomy. It would not be surprising if future fMRI data will show a positive correlation between “cognitive” brain areas and deontological judgements in cases of punishing individuals with impaired autonomy.
If I am right, differences in content may not be as important as it is currently believed for dual process explanations.
Baron, Jonathan, Rajeev Gowda, and Howard Kunreuther. 1993. “Attitudes toward managing hazardous waste: What should be cleaned up and who should pay for it?.” Risk Analysis 13: 183-192.
Dean, Richard. 2010. “Does neuroscience undermine deontological theory?.” Neuroethics 3.1: 43-60.
Greene, Joshua, Leigh E. Nystrom, Engell, A. D., John M. Darley, & Jonathan D. Cohen. 2004. “The neural bases of cognitive conflict and control in moral judgment.” Neuron 44.2: 389-400.
Kahneman, Daniel, David Schkade and Cass Sunstein. 1998. “Shared outrage and erratic awards: The psychology of punitive damages.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 16.1: 49-86.
Kant, Immanuel. 1999. Practical philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mihailov, Emilian. 2015. “The Argument from Self-Defeating Beliefs Against Deontology.” Ethical Perspectives 22.4: 573-600.
Sanfey, Alan G., James K. Rilling, Jessica A. Aronson, Leigh E. Nystrom, and Jonathan D. Cohen. 2003. “The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game.” Science 300.5626: 1755-1758.