Moral cognition and its neural constituents

Moral cognition and its neural constituents - PERSPECTIVES...

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PERSPECTIVES Here,I briefly review the neural mechanisms of moral cognition, discuss methodological pitfalls and consider issues that might inform future experimental work. Ultimately, the cur- rent situation makes the moral psychology that is required by virtue theory the most neurobiologically plausible, although this is a tentative, defeasible conclusion, and more work is needed to confirm it. Moral theories and moral cognition To study the neural mechanisms of moral cognition, one must delimit the field of inquiry. What does ‘moral cognition’ encompass? This depends on how we con- strue the domain of moral theory. Although all moral theories claim to speak to what an agent should do (this is what makes them distinctively moral), they disagree about the substance of such recommendations and the moral psychologies that are required for effective reasoning and action. The three main classic moral theories in the Western tradition are utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. The typical utilitarian, such as the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), thinks that one should take that action (or follow that ‘rule’) that, if taken (or followed), would produce the greatest amount of happi- ness for the largest number of sentient beings, where happiness is the presence of pleasure or the absence of pain (and where pleasure and pain are given more sophisticated readings than mere affective satisfaction). The second flavour of utility,‘rule utilitarianism’, is probably the most popular 1 . Deontologists, exemplified by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), do not emphasize the consequences of actions, as utilitarians do. Instead, they focus on the maxim of the action — the intent-based principle that plays itself out in an agent’s mind. We must do our duty, as derived from the dictates of pure reason and the ‘categorical imperative’, for duty’s sake alone. Deontologists are particularly concerned to highlight the duties that are owed to each other by free and reasonable creatures (paradigmati- cally, humans). Maximizing happiness is not the goal; instead, ensuring that we do not violate another’s rights is paramount 2 . Virtue theorists, such as the Greek philosophers Plato (427–347 BC ) and Aristotle (384–322 BC ), make paramount the concept of ‘human flourishing’ 3,4 ;to be maximally moral is to function as well as one can given one’s nature. This involves the cultivation of virtues (such as wisdom) and the avoidance of vices (such as intemperance), and is a practical affair. Each approach asks different things of us cognitively. What follows is an abbreviated discussion of each theory’s moral psychology. To make the appropriate
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This note was uploaded on 03/06/2012 for the course BUS M 390 taught by Professor Loriwadsworth during the Fall '10 term at BYU.

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Moral cognition and its neural constituents - PERSPECTIVES...

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