Does the Science of “Prosocial Behaviour” Smuggle in a Political Prior?

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers’ reliably lively ScienceBlogs province, a recent post offers some incisive treatment of a philosophically arresting debate between Sam Harris and sundry interlocutors, most prominently Sean Carroll. The topic – whether science can answer moral questions, or, more perilously rendered, whether one can, in fact, derive “ought” from “is” – exerts a tidal attraction upon my blogging muscles, but I can resist for now; Myers’ relevance to this entry issues specifically from a choice bit of phraseology in his write-up.

When Harris claims that the discernment of human well-being (and hence of utility-maximizing courses of action) is a purely empirical matter, Myers finds him guilty of “smuggling in an unscientific prior in his category of well-being.” What I want to explore after the jump is the following possibility:

It may be that the developing body of work in neuroscience and psychology probing various morally charged phenomena has been smuggling in a politically loaded prior under the terminologically neutral guise of the category “prosocial behaviour.”

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Ripples in political theory

The daily bread of neuroethics is in understanding the impact of new technologies in the neurosciences upon society – new drugs that affect the brain, new ways of imaging the brain, etc.  But there are other ways in which the neurosciences affects society, and one really interesting one is that modern neuroscience is changing politics.  This is a version of the neuro meme about which I have written about before, but two items made me realize that this is happening more than I had even imagined.

The first is the implosion of the Chicago School of Economics.  Both a formal academic enterprise – its brain trust populates the economics faculty at the University of Chicago – and a school of thought, the Chicago School has had a very influential run.  The particular specialty of the Chicago School is libertarianism, the philosophy which puts individual liberty at the top of the list of important freedoms, and emphasizes that the best choices are usually made by individuals rather than by organizations, even if the latter are peopled by experts.  Among the more vocal proponents of the Chicago School has been Richard Posner, a judge who is also a prolific public intellectual: Posner has written at least 38 books, innumerable scholarly, magazine and newspaper articles, and received 11 honorary degrees, all while sitting on the US Court of Appeals (in Chicago).  Sometime after the 2008 debacle in the financial markets, Posner committed heresy: in an article in the New Republic, Posner dumped the Chicago School in its entirety, suggesting that deregulation was a root cause of the financial meltdown.  In an in-depth profile of this change of heart, John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker

“As acts of betrayal go, this was roughly akin to Johnny Damon’s shaving off his beard, forsaking the Red Sox Nation, and joining the Yankees.” Continue reading