Mrs. Adela Cortina and neuroethics

Adela Cortina  (1947-)

I believe that of all the current Spanish philosophers, it is Mrs. Adela who has most sought the foundation of ethics. As far as I know, at least since her “Minimum Ethics” of 1986. And although she has been more concerned with applied ethics and practical morality, in all her works there is still present, in one way or another, her attempt to establish morality. And she has done so on the basis of known doctrines, which, as Victoria Camps does, can be grouped into ethics of virtues, duty and utilitarianism.

Adela, like all previous philosophers, knows that these doctrines do not provide a universal ethical principle that serves as a common foundation for the ethics and moral norms applied by men throughout their history. That is why I did not write earlier about what I read in some of her many works.

But two months ago, in November 2018, I found her “Neuroethics and Neuropolitics” of 2011. The copy I bought is the reprint of the fourth edition of Tecnos in 2014. From what I have read, it seems that Mrs. Adela has continued working in the new field of neurology, where the precious and elusive foundation of ethics is now being sought. And even though she does not agree with letting neurologists base ethics on the brain, she is interested in being aware of its discoveries. And to collaborate so that it is the philosophers who transform them, in their case, into moral norms.

I am going to comment on what seems to me to be the most significant part of the cited book in relation to our ideas:

In the section “El mapa de la neuroética” (Neuroethics map) (pp.39-47) she tries to establish whether bioethics is concerned: "only to apply the philosophical theories we already have to the ethical problems that neurosciences may pose in research and clinical intervention...". Or if: "...Neuroethics is fundamental ethics", in which case: "...already known ethical theories and religious proposals would be overturned and the knowledge of the neurosciences would suffice to offer answers".

She quotes several experts in these subjects and, among other possible ones, distinguishes two fundamental branches of neuroscience: The "ethics of neuroscience" which starts from the existing ethical theories to judge on interventions and the "neuroscience of ethics" which would deal with the possible neural bases of the moral agency.

She then says: "...what is usually understood by neuroscience should be a joint task of ethicists and neuroscientists who would study the brain bases of moral conduct but would wonder at the same time whether those bases provide a basis for extracting moral obligations from it, that is, to say what we should do...".… ”

 Then she distinguishes base from foundation and says: " In this case, Neuroethics would deal with the cerebral bases of moral behavior and would wonder about the philosophical foundations of the obligation".

She ends on page 50 by posing the four questions that ethics and neuroscientists seek to resolve. We are interested in the first one: "what is the foundation of morality and to what extent can knowing the cerebral bases of our behaviour help to decipher it?".  The other three questions refer to neuropolitics, freedom and education, which do not affect our ideas although they depend on them. We follow the reading to see their answers to the two questions contained in the first question.

I believe that Mrs. Adela poses the problem by distinguishing the possible "physical" bases as the material support of the brain from which ethical judgments originate, which in turn are the basis of moral conduct.

In my opinion, both Ms. Adela and the neuroscientists are right. Everything is in the brain. There are the bases and the foundation. But both are still looking for partial bases and foundations. Certain but partial. They look for and find partial tasks and objectives (virtues, duties, utilities), which support the classical partial ethical theories, instead of wondering about the priority vital objective.

Chapter 2 (pp. 53-76) has the suggestive title of: “The promise of a universal ethics based on the brain”. And its first section deals with “The Recurring Attempt to Build a Universal Scientific Ethics”. I quote the most significant for us.

P. 54. It says: "To affirm in the twenty-first century that ethics must be universal is obvious. And she develops this affirmation by denying relativism and citing the universalism of human rights. And that, since the Enlightenment, all ethical theories claim to be universalist, both utilitarian and intuitionist and Kantian. 

The rest of the section is dedicated to the authors who work in this field and distinguishes two groups in particular:

Those that seem more radical, represented by Michael Gazzaniga and Francisco Mora, who: "explicitly propose to displace previous ethical theories and also religious morals and replace them with an ethics based on neuroscientific and sociobiological knowledge that, by taking its assets from the study of the human brain, would be universal". 

And those who: "... do not pretend to reach with their research to discover the contents of a universal ethics, but only to discover a universal moral structure that is modulated differently in different cultures; their proposals of neuroethics are much more elaborated than those of the previous group and allow to design a certain theoretical framework; and, finally they do not refuse the help of philosophy...". In this group of authors she quotes Neil Levy and Marc Hauser.

The universality demanded by Ms. Adela and sought by the authors she cites is certain. Although with some nuances: what must be universal is the basic law implicit in all living beings and in man as such. But the norms of animal behavior and the ethics or moral norms of today's men have been accumulating throughout our history and are therefore common in what each human brain has inherited as a common past.

It's clear that today's men have a lot in common with each other and that's what neuroscientists will find. And in any case, as they delve deeper they will find traits of altruism and its virtues and partial ends. Altruism that is growing and common to all human populations. And from the first men, as social beings that already were and therefore altruistic in the broad sense that reflects my second basic hypothesis.

From what has been said, the claim quoted by Gazazaniga and Mora that an ethics based on neuroscientific and sociobiological knowledge is possible also seems valid. As long as this knowledge goes as far as unraveling the content of the bottom of the spinal trunk, which I believe is where Damasio situates the oldest part of the brain and where it seems that the primeval vital imperative must be. (see Damasio)

Adela realizes the partiality of contingent ethics and devotes the rest of the chapter to the moral judgments present in all cultures, to intuition, to what happens in the brain in the face of moral dilemmas, to the old naturalistic fallacy and also to the old imperative to love the near and reject the distant. I quote some more significant paragraphs:

On page 59 following James Q. Wilson considers that "there seem to exist certain guiding moral instincts of universal scope such as that all societies believe that murder and incest are wrong, that children must be cared for, that we must not lie or break promises and that we must be faithful to the family".

And then, after quoting complete the definition of instinct of the RAE (*), it says: " In my opinion, the evaluative judgments that we have mentioned could be related to some kind of instinct aimed at the conservation of the individual or the species, but they are too heterogeneous to be able to belong to the same set of guidelines and to fit into the same instinct". 

(*) I remember that the first sense of instinct of the RAE is: "Set of reaction patterns that, in animals, contribute to the conservation of the life of the individual and of the species". And she gives as an example. Reproductive instinct. End of note.

Adela has been one step away from seeing the basic idea, the vital imperative, as "some kind of instinct" capable of framing all those human value judgments, no longer just instinctive. She is right in that we humans do not act only by instincts and that is why Wilson's "moral instincts" do not fit her. And that is why she does not see or value the "and of the species" at the end of the definition of instinct of the RAE. I want to think that the RAE has not fully realized what those last four words suppose either.  

I think that with what has been said we understand where the bottom of the problem lies, because both philosophers and neuroscientists do not just fit together the pieces of the various ethics that, since the Greeks, some and more recently the others, are finding in reason, in will, in usefulness or in the brain. The vital imperative to survive as a basis and the universal ethical principle as a basis are unique for all men. The rest are partial bases and objectives, inherited or adopted by our species, in order to try to survive; and they continue in the present brains according to the degree of utility and the use of the ancestors of each individual.  

The rules of behaviour for survival are different for each species. And each species has adopted and conserved, to the best of its knowledge and ability, the rules it has found best at any given time to try to survive in its environment. The same goes for man, where instinct is reinforced by his enormous differential capacities that have allowed him to develop a heterogeneous range of patterns. All aimed at achieving the vital priority objective of the survival of the species, through the iterative conservation of the life of its individuals and vice versa.

I can't resist copying some phrases that Dr. Cortina seems to highlight on page 70. She says: "According to Wilson, people obey codes of conduct that are very solidly anchored in the deepest part of our paleolithic brain. And then "In the millions of years that hominization lasts, homogeneity and social cohesion have had a great survival value.

In these phrases and in many other also certain ones that Ms. Adela cites, are the partial bases already seen some time ago by many authors (evolutionary biologists, ethologists, anthropologists, philosophers, ....) and that now are confirming the neuroethics. Those who are also discovering the value of broad altruism, as an essential factor for the essential social cohesion that has fostered our survival and mastery and adaptation to all environments of our habitat. And its modification. Almost better than ants: in a very short time and without changing species. At least for the moment.

On page 72, in the section entitled: From the cerebral "is" to moral "must", she almost gets to see the basic idea but partially considers it and rejects it. She says: "...the moral conduct would be nothing but a mechanism of adaptation that allows us to survive". And then: "Moral norms would then be nothing but adaptive norms and the ethical task would be to try to discover which norms favour survival". Better. But I think she doesn't accept these ideas because she doesn't like, with any reason, what Francisco Mora says, who, as quoted by Adela, has said that: "ethical values so different, for such different ethical groups, can converge in rules and norms established by neuroethics, based on the functioning of the human brain, the common base of all men".

Neither Mora nor Ms. Adela have, nor can they have, common universal ethics working with the different ethical values that reside in the different brains of different human groups. We know that these human brains have a common base but their successive "ethical" layers have been formed throughout our history with that, good and bad, that each human group or population, survivor now, has been accumulating in their brains, all different. All the existing human groups now have, we have in common in our brains, or wherever, two imperatives: the basic and vital priority of surviving common to all living beings, and the recommendation or operative mandate of broad altruism, common to the social species that, in our case, is the fundamental element that has allowed us to get to where we are. The rest will normally differ, a little or a lot, depending on the ancestors of each living brain today.

And on the other hand, it is clear that the bases found in the brains that are now being analyzed will be those accumulated by the ancestors of the current headlines of each brain analyzed. But that does not mean that it is just those bases that can serve to establish the rules to follow now. For many reasons. Among others because in those bases are the successes and the previous errors. And although the successes will have been greater than the errors because otherwise the brain analyzed would not exist, the rules are, as Ms. Adela supposes, to survive in each moment. And in each moment, and in the present more than in others, the circumstances of Man and his environment are very different from those that were the origin of the bases engraved in each brain of the ancestors.

Ms. Adela seems to be more on the side of J.D. Greene who, as she says, maintains the difference between being and must be and is limited to suggesting that knowing more about bioethics could lead us to re-evaluate our moral values and our conceptions of morality. I don't know the work of Greene but I will try to tell him and Mrs. Adela that they can now begin the task of re-evaluating our moral values without waiting for the discoveries of the neuroscientists. What they discover is written in the history of each human group. And it will be interesting, but it would be to continue working by bases and partial tasks, instead of doing it by objectives. For the basic vital objective that is the original cause of all ethics and partial norms. The right ones and the wrong ones. A list of norms to reevaluate in order to try to fulfill the vital imperative is in the “Possible applications” section of my last two books.

On page 74 the title is “Loving the Near and Rejecting the Stranger”. Adela rightly says that this seems to be the neuroethical imperative that follows from the work of neuroscientists. And she says that such an imperative: "would come to give the moral backing to conducts as usual as nepotism, the so-called 'amoral familism', the concern only for those of one's own people, region or country, the oblivion of the distant...".

 And then she adds: "Faced with such dissonance (...) the authors we are commenting on either continue to defend the universal ethics based on the brain without daring to say what its norms consist of (Gazzaniga); or they adopt that position and also give advice (...) as to how to reduce the size of cities and promote life in the countryside (Mora); or they assure that (...) it is necessary to universally extend the benevolence that those close to all humanity arouse to us because it is the adaptive mechanism that works today (Levy), which is false because it is not necessary to worry about all human beings in order to survive".

From what she says afterwards, Ms. Adela seems to be closer to Levy although she considers his idea to be false. This idea is almost true for me, although from what I have read after Levy, he has not seen the basic objective either and therefore still has little strength in his ideas. They are still classics. Benevolence is good, but the most effective and efficient element for surviving is broad altruism, which contains it. Benevolence or goodwill and sympathy (even if it is Darwin's English) are not enough. Broad altruism, which includes all virtues and values, is what now seems essential for our humanity to survive. Whose components, all men, are of the same biological family. And that, for better or worse, they are more and more in number, and are closer to each other in an increasingly global and interrelated humanity.  

Humanity, or at least some of its members, has only recently become aware that it exists as a collective that can become extinct: through natural causes or through its own actions or omissions. A humanity that, in spite of calling itself Sapiens, still does not know, nor has it formally assumed as such, that its vital priority duty is to survive. A duty that it has tried to fulfill since its origin, as universorum, through its genetic and cultural groups and populations. And that now it has already begun to try it as singulorum. Although it continues to try without knowing it explicitly, as the bourgeois gentile man spoke in prose.

Ms. Adela ends the chapter on page 76 saying: “Universal ethics with a cerebral base will not, therefore, offer concrete content, but rather will say that we have discovered a moral structure, which is common to all human beings because they have brain bases " For this reason I agree with Ms. Adela, although neuroscientists may find more than structures. And I was very happy to continue reading our author who says: “In the task of unraveling that structure, it is especially fruitful to take as an thread the attempt to reveal what has been called 'the altruism paradox'«.

The third and last chapter on Neuroethics (pp. 77-96) is entitled “There is no universal ethics based on the brain”. And it contains the conclusions of the exposed, the lights and shadows of the situation, the natural-supernatural pugilato and the differences between cerebral foundation and cerebral bases. Everything she says is very interesting, but the background comments would be similar to those already made. And naturally the content of the rest of the book on neuropolitics and moral education would be affected by the applications of the vital imperative and broad altruism. Both social and economic policies and education are important issues to review as suggested in the Possible Applications of our “Surviving and Altruism. A Universal Principle of Ethics” of 2016 and “Survival. Ideas for a Universal Ethics” of 2015.

I hope that Mrs. Adela comes to read this note and knows my ideas so that, with them, the apparent paradox of altruism can be explained. And the rest of her doubts about neuroethics and relationships with neuroscientists will also be clarified.

First additional note.

After writing the above I have reviewed what seems to have more relation to these issues in the Comares Guide to Practical Neurophilosophy of 2012, in the ethical brain of Gazzaniga of 2006, in Neuroética of Neil Leyy of 2007 and in other recent texts such as The Generous Revolution of Stefan Klein of 2010, Dar y recibir of Adam Grant of 2013 and The altruistic brain of Donal W. Pfaff of 2015. And Damasio.

I believe that Mrs. Adela has posed perfectly in her Neuroethics and Neuropolitics, and summarized in the first article of the Comares Guide, both the situation and the problems and expectations of neuroethics. And I have not seen in the books cited or in other more recent media that someone has explained my hypotheses: what I call the vital imperative, broad altruism and universal ethical principle.

And I have seen that, as with classical ethics, my hypotheses fit the ideas of neuroscientists. And in those of the philosophers who, like Mrs. Adela, work following her discoveries on neuroethics. Or rather, I believe that everything that is being discovered and philosophized about neuroethics fits within my hypotheses and confirms them. Hypotheses that, if contrasted and used, would serve to guide and frame the work of neuroscientists and philosophers in the study and application of the bases and foundations of partial ethics: inherited and to be applied.

Also very interesting is the hermeneutic Ethics of Jesús Conill Sancho. The work has the problem that the authors it analyzes are pure philosophers and therefore its works refer to the ethics and morality of individual people as subjects. And when they deal with life, they also refer to individual life. My hypotheses have as subject humanity as a species, and men as members of that humanity. The ethical principle is universal because it refers to individual men in what they have on behalf of humanity.

And as I have said elsewhere, Ortega's vital imperative would coincide with my basic idea if the orteguian "I" were all men as such and the circumstance to be saved, which for Ortega is the environment that dominates, was the entire humanity.

I have also said somewhere else that Ortega's work would have to be worked on hermeneutically and we would surely discover that, in some way, he saw or intuited the basic idea. He had, like his predecessors, the problem of individualism that has biased philosophers since Aristotle rejected Plato's idea of the State as a subject. And so do neuroscientists. I suppose that soon, some and others, will realize this reducing deficiency. Genetic biologists Mayr, Dobzhansky and Gould have at least partially seen it. Although they were not philosophers at the same time, they did not see that these "species subjects" (and their individuals as part of them) were the ones who had the objective of surviving and the universal moral imperative or duty to try it as a priority. They are problems of the specialization of the experts, which do not occur in my case because I am an inexperienced multidisciplinary.

Second additional note

After writing the above, it seems appropriate to remind everyone, and especially neuroscientists, that the basis of the vital imperative is in the brains, or equivalent places, of all living beings. And the bases of group altruism are in all the brains, or similar, of all the organisms of the social species. I warn you in case it is easier for you to look for these bases in some of those many beings different from man. The vital imperative will be in the most primitive part. And the first elements of group altruism will be quite deep, where each species became social. Ants, in their thousands of species, can be good altruistic organisms to observe.

As for the foundations that can be deduced from these bases, and that serve as norms for the behavior of these beings, their study seems to correspond to biologists and ethologists. I believe that they have already worked quite a lot in these areas but perhaps it has not occurred to them to look for or take into account the aforementioned bases. This note is also a warning to them. But philosophers can also find analogies or similarities between the norms of behavior of these beings, especially those belonging to social species, and the moral norms of men as individual beings. And of Man as a species and as humanity.

In men, because of their possible origins, the bases of group altruism will be broad from their beginnings. And they will have been increasing and diversifying to base the values and virtues that have historically conformed, until now, the group altruisms of the different human populations, both genetic and cultural. Bases that we hope will become the foundation of global and universal altruism that includes, with various virtues and group values, all populations and all groups of all humanity.

J.C. Madrid, January 25, 2019. Revised March 8, 2019. Translated October 15. 2019.