Cognitive Science, Moral Reasoning, and the Theological Suspicion of Ethics

Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 36 (1):51-68 (2016)
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Abstract

This essay explores some theological implications of cognitive-science research into moral reasoning. Evolutionary theorizing argues that human morality originated as an adaptation that enabled our evolutionary ancestors to function as members of a social species. Neuroscientific experiments suggest that utilitarian responses to the moral dilemmas known as “trolley problems” involve more activity in brain areas associated with reason and less in areas associated with emotion than do nonutilitarian responses. According to Peter Singer and Joshua Greene, these two areas of research, taken together, support utilitarianism. They might therefore also seem to challenge nonutilitarian theological ethics. However, drawing on Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is argued instead that cognitive-science research on moral reasoning could offer a valuable hermeneutic of suspicion concerning ethics as a human project. Christians can welcome this critical function as an aid in the theological reconstruction of ethics without thereby being committed to the inferences drawn by Singer and Greene.

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