This year the Tanner Lectures on Human Values were delivered by the renowned theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. These lectures are dedicated to advancing scholarly and scientific inquiry into the vast scope of moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual values “pertinent to the human condition, interest, behavior, and aspiration.” Williams began the lectures with a domain that is gaining attention for its potential insight into ethics and human behavior: the neurosciences.

Research into the cells, circuits, and disorders of the human brain is a rapidly growing area of interest. Last month President Obama proposed doubling the Federal investment in the BRAIN Initiative, a research program dedicated to “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.” Many talk about the BRAIN Initiative like space travel—which reflects hope for how momentous this research might be, but also how unknown the territory is. As Columbia University’s Nobel Prize–winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel puts it, “We don’t know what the goal is. What does it mean to understand the human mind? When will we be satisfied?” A significant part of the BRAIN initiative is dedicated to considering the ethical implications of this new research.

 

Cohen proposes that the traditional notion of evil should be replaced with the idea of empathy erosion.

 

Rowan Williams’ first lecture addressed the insights of neuroscientific research into the understanding of empathy. He discussed the growing tendency in the neurosciences to identify empathy as the key to resolving ethical issues of definition, education, and behavior. Empathy is typically understood as the capacity to recognize and respond appropriately to the mental and affective states of others.

But Williams argues that empathy understood as the capacity to respond to the suffering of another person risks over-appropriating the experiences of others. In what could be called an “implicitly post-colonial reading,” Williams problematized how easily we believed we can inhabit (i.e. colonize) the mind of others. Ironically, this draws attention away from the real separations created by language, culture, and power. As Williams puts it, there is “no shortcut into the alien heart of the neighbor.”

Williams spent much of the lecture talking about the recent work of Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Psychopathy and Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge In his recent book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, Cohen proposes that the traditional notion of evil should be replaced with the idea of empathy erosion. Based on autism research, he argues that human cruelty results from under activity of what is often called the “empathy circuit of the brain.”

 

Williams also argues that Cohen is overly optimistic that empathy solves all ethical problems. Empathy is not enough to help us choose between competing goods.

 

Williams took issue with Baron-Cohen’s conclusions. He believes that Baron-Cohen oversimplifies in his belief that all human cruelty is the result of the “erosion of a natural capacity.” This doesn’t account for behaviors that are “learned” or “culturally endorsed.” Williams also argues that Cohen is overly optimistic that empathy solves all ethical problems. Empathy is not enough to help us choose between competing goods.

But Williams gives us a refreshingly nuanced position between the critics and proponents of neuroscience research. One side worries that neuroscience is hopelessly reductionistic. The other has hope that the field will provide vital insights into human behavior. Williams gives us a middle way—suggesting a deep interest in both the possibilities and the limitations of this work.

Williams’ analysis is so persuasive, I think, because it not only engages Baron-Cohen’s work on its own terms, but because he opens his own analysis into larger questions about the nature of ethical discourse. Williams argues that ethics are not only about individual acts of evil and virtue, but rather that it is an “irreducible linguistic and cultural discourse.” Rather than perpetuating isolated factions, Williams’ lectures inspires us with the possibility for truly constructive ethical conversations.


Mara Block is an editor-at-large and a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

Image from Flickr via Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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