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The good, the bad, and the brain: theory and history of the neuroscience of morality

PhD ceremony:Mr F. (Felix) Schirmann
When:October 09, 2014
Supervisor:prof. dr. G.C.G. (Trudy) Dehue
Co-supervisor:dr. S. (Stephan) Schleim, MA
Where:Academy building RUG
Faculty:Behavioural and Social Sciences
The good, the bad, and the brain: theory and history of the
neuroscience of morality

Modern neuroscientific methods and technologies offer new perspectives on an intriguing and elusive object of research: morality. Currently, neuroscientists scan psychopaths’ brains, study the effects of neurotransmitters on moral cognition, temporarily interrupt neuronal networks associated with moral decision-making, and research immoral conduct in patients with distinct brain lesions. Recently a science that confidently calls itself neuroscience of morality has emerged.

Predicated on the rationale that good and evil are essentially functions of the brain, the insights offered by this nascent science are fascinating and puzzling at the same time. Ostensibly, this science undermines established penal evaluation practices, criminal law, and legal policy.

However, the scientific search for the somatic origin of good and evil has a long history. Phrenologists, brain anatomists, criminal anthropologists, social Darwinists, and bio-psychiatrists explored the physiology of morality over the course of the last two centuries. Their science yielded descriptions of moral brain centers, murder cells, and postencephalitic moral insanity. These somatic understandings challenged established notions of morality and caused disputes in the academy, the courtroom, and society at large. Thus, the science of the moral brain ignited controversy – then and now.

Accordingly, controversies surrounding biological understandings of vice and virtue are of long standing. This dissertation investigates the theory and history of the rationales, practices, implications, and contexts of the neuroscience of morality. It analyzes how the moral brain was known and made knowable, how it emerged and developed, and how it framed people and societies and was framed by them.