by Jake Aronoff
In “Toward a Neuroanthropology of Ethics”, Dominguez provides a rational for the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics. Dominguez first highlights the interest of anthropologists in ethics more generally, as ethics and morality have been viewed as inseparable from culture, ideology, and discourse. These three concepts represent shared rules, ideas, values, beliefs, opinions, desires, and preferences, and produce a view of the ethical subject as intersubjective. This intersubjective view of the ethical subject leads to one of the main points Dominguez makes regarding the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics, that “the neural bases of moral agency are to be found beyond the confines of a single brain” (295).
Dominguez highlights findings in cultural neuroscience on the influence of culture on brain function relevant to ethics, such as perceptual judgments, emotional responses, theory of mind, and self-knowledge. However, Dominguez distinguishes the complementary questions of interest in neuroanthropology, such as how socially shared meanings and practices are represented in the brain, how the brain processes cultural experiences, what neural mechanisms make culture possible, how these mechanisms evolved, and how they interact with genetically mediated neurocognitive processes and behaviors. Previous research is highlighted that has been directed by these questions and of relevance to ethics, including the study of the neural substrates of the disposition to treat someone as a rational agent, the sociocultural patterning of neural activity during self-reflection, and social interaction research conducted through simultaneous two-person brain imaging or hyperscanning.
One component of neuroanthropology’s repertoire that Dominguez highlights as relevant to ethics (that is particularly compelling due its more immediately manageable focus) is its critical and reflexive approach. Dominguez notes that this does not only include critically studying the practice of neuroscience, but the implications of neuroscientific knowledge as well. This knowledge, as Dominguez points out, will likely have ramifications such as political and social uses as well as influencing understandings individuals have of their own behavior. Dominguez also highlights how neuroanthropology can critically situate the neural bases of moral agency within broader structures. This was done by referencing the article titled “Free Will, Agency, and the Cultural, Reflexive Brain” by Steve Reyna, in which Reyna takes a critical stance on the concept of free will understood as “unrestricted action”. Reyna asserts that the concept of free will has often been used as a tool for domination by those in power, and provides a hypothetical example of free will being used to attribute responsibility and therefore punishment for the crime of theft without acknowledging causative social structures manifested in the form of poverty. Placing the neural bases of moral agency within broader structures is certainly needed, as evidenced by criminology’s (arguably one of the most closely tied fields to ethics) trend of increasingly ignoring relevant structural influences, such as class (Lynch 2015).
Dominguez provides suggestions for future directions in a neuroanthropology of ethics. Drawing from one of the cornerstones of neuroanthropology, the embedding of neuroscientific research in ethnographic fieldwork, Dominguez suggests examining how ethical subjectivities are formed and how they are expressed in ordinary social encounters. Keeping with a focus on intersubjectivity, Dominguez suggests research on the production, reproduction, and distribution of moral knowledge through brain scanning techniques during joint ethical judgment or reasoning tasks while taking into consideration relevant cultural scripts and conventions.
Dominguez provides ample justification for the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics, and provides necessary insight on what has already been done in neuroanthropology that has relevance to ethics along with what can be done in the future. Ambitious research goals are proposed, such as studying how socially shared meanings and practices are represented in the brain or how the brain processes cultural experiences, along with research goals anthropologists are likely more comfortable with, such as critically examining the production of neuroscientific knowledge or the intersubjective nature of the ethical subject. It will be interesting to see further development in a neuroanthropology of ethics, especially in light of the increasing interest the field of anthropology has in ethics and morality, an interest that has brought along with it critiques of how anthropology should even go about studying this (one example is the objection made by Csordas (2013) regarding the study of morality as a distinct cultural system).
Csordas, T. J. (2013). Morality as a cultural system?. Current Anthropology, 54(5), 523-546.
Domínguez D, J. F. (2015). Toward a neuroanthropology of ethics: Introduction. Handbook of Neuroethics, 289-298.
Lynch, M. J. (2015). The classlessness state of criminology and why criminology without class is rather meaningless. Crime, Law and Social Change, 63(1-2), 65-90.