Morality, Neuro-myths, and the Spurious Seduction of Evolutionary Ethics

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you are an aid agency providing food for children in a refugee camp. You have limited resources and could either feed all the hungry children inadequately, in which case they will soon starve, or feed a few adequately so they will survive but the others will all die. It’s a moral choice between equity and efficiency. What do you do – especially if your head is in an fMRI brain imager when you are confronted with the dilemma? According to the authors of this neuroscientific quandary, who claim to be measuring the brain correlates of distributive justice, one brain region, the insula, encodes inequity while the putamen region encodes efficiency.[i]

This typifies the beliefs of the new discipline of neuroethics that absolute moral values are inscribed in the brain. But how did we get here? For as long as oral traditions or written records have been available, moral injunctions have been laid down as representing the word of God, the wisdom of philosophers or the command of kings. Think of the Bible’s Ten Commandments, the teachings of Confucius or Ashoka, or the Code of Hammurabi. Precepts, rules of conduct and penalties for disobedience follow, engraved on tablets and enshrined in ancient texts, interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars and theologians as central pillars of society.

No longer...