Neuroscience, Ethics, and Business

Zack Lynch has a post that links to some really good articles about neuroscience and ethics. Evidence is building that we don't have the "free will" that we think we do, and that our morality is less ingrained and more situational than we thought. Here's an excerpt:

The keynote address was given by renowned Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, who described a neuromorality of personal responsibility. In Pinker's view, the worry that a biologically based understanding of human behavior will turn into a "my brain/genes/hormones made me do it" catch-all excuse stems from a basic fallacy: the assumption that bad acts deserve to be punished only if they result from some fully autonomous "free will" exempt from biological or other causation. How can we "salvage the core of responsibility" without such mystical notions? For Pinker, the answer is to shift the focus from the unanswerable question of whether an act was truly "freely chosen" to whether the perpetrator has a normally functioning brain with a normal response to the stimuli of reward and punishment.

Thus, responsibility really means deterrability: the capacity to understand that if we harm others, we'll suffer the consequences. Pinker asserted that we already use such an approach in practice. Cases in which we do not punish harmful actions because we don't assign moral responsibility to the perpetrator happen to be just the kinds of cases in which punishment cannot deter similar acts: when the harm was accidental, or when the perpetrator is too young or too mentally ill to be deterred by the threat of punishment. Even "abstract justice"—seeking to impose punishment when it's clearly not cost-effective for society and when, as with elderly Nazi war criminals, there's no chance of recidivism—ultimately serves utilitarian ends, since creating exemptions for some crimes would be too inviting to scofflaws.

But is Pinker's vision of brain-based justice far more radical than he is willing to admit? That was the case made by Princeton philosopher and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, whose snazzy presentation, illustrated with slides of pop culture images, was titled "Dueling Dualisms" but could have been called "Punishment Without Guilt." Greene noted that in all the debates about whether to blame the guilty person or his damaged brain, we assume some nonphysical core self—a soul—that makes moral judgments. What's going to happen as research in neuroscience explains more and more of the mind in physical and mechanical terms? The likelihood, said Greene, is "a lot more fighting" about morality and responsibility unless we're willing to give up the idea of the soul altogether—something that, he wryly noted, "Americans are not yet ready to do." Like Pinker, Greene spoke of a shift toward a utilitarian understanding of deterrent justice; however, he saw this as a dramatic departure from tradition because it would entail giving up on the idea that punishment is not only efficient but morally just. "What we're saying," he said, "is no one's really guilty in their souls because, secret: No one has a soul."

The most important consequence of this, in my opinion, is the necessity that business ethics start at the top and permeate a corporation. If morality is heavily situational, help your employees stay out of situations that may cause them to engage in immoral or illegal business practices. Don't put intense pressure on them to meet quarterly earnings targets by doing "whatever it takes" and implying that certain actions are only bad if you get caught.

I've said it time and time again – business people need to study basic neuroscience because of what it reveals about ourselves. Brain research is going to expose all kinds of new information about us that we don't want to believe, and it is going to present some interesting dilemmas that we won't be prepared for if we don't have some background in these issues.