‘I’m going to assume that you accept the materialist view of personality, that character/mind is determined by both the brain and environmental factors. You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily good for the former or bad for the latter. But what about indisputably pernicious tendencies like sexual predation/violence, psychopathy or homicidal urges? If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?’

So asked the blogger, Darrick Lim in response to my post on ‘Where Science Harks Back to a Biblical View of Morality’. Darrick poses here questions that get to the heart of the debate about crime, punishment, morality and free will raised by thinkers like Julian Savulescu, Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg. Two issues in particular are important: What do we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’? And how do we decide what is moral? I could write a long book on each of these questions (I am, in fact, writing a book that touches on the latter one), but I do not have the time to write even a short essay. So instead here are a few short points in response, hopefully to kickstart a debate.


‘If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people?’

That depends on what the phrase ‘to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people’ signifies. If this means simply the desire rationally to change the world so that we can reduce, perhaps even eliminate, phenomena such racism or sexual predation, then clearly that would be an ‘uncontroversial good’ (though, of course, the question of what exactly is meant by ‘rationally to change the world’ would still have to be settled). If, however, it means, as I suspect it does, the use of some form of physical intervention (drugs, neurosurgery, gene therapy) to change behaviour, then it could well be anything but an ‘uncontroversial good’. The answer as to whether such interventions are good or not depends very much upon the context.

Clearly, some individuals suffer from specific organic disorders, from dementia to clinical depression to schizophrenia, that result in behavioural problems that can be at least partly resolved through medication. Certain kinds of violent or criminal behaviour may also fall into this category. We should view these, however, as exceptional cases, not as the norm by which we deal with criminal behaviour, even ‘indisputably pernicious’ behaviours.

There are a number of reasons why.  First, what constitutes a crime, as I suggested in my previous post, is often a socially contested issue. Even ‘indisputably pernicious tendencies’ may not be as straightforward as Darrick Lim suggests. We can all agree, for instance, that sexual violence is to be abhorred. Nevertheless there remains a debate about what exactly constitutes a rape.  There is also something deeply disturbing about such easy advocacy of physical intervention, especially irreversible physical intervention, that undermines the integrity of an individual’s body, and often without consent. (It is striking that so many of those who are so vocal about the question of consent when it comes to snipping the foreskin of a baby appear to be far less concerned about assaults on the brains of adults). It is not for nothing that a phrase such as ‘purge these sorts of tendencies from people’ calls to mind the worst excesses of the Soviet psychiatric system.

Many, perhaps most, of the kinds of problems for which philosophers like Julian Savulescu propose physical intervention – racism, for instance, or sexual violence – are not primarily questions of individual pathology, but are social issues. There is a long history of individualizing social problems, of insisting that issues that can only truly be resolved through social transformation can actually be settled by changing the individual. Such individualisation of social problems has often been a means of keeping intact pernicious social practices or structures.

Consider this. The Britain in which I grew up was very different to the Britain of today. In the 1970s and 1980s, racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Firebombings of black and Asian houses were common, stabbings weekly events, racist murders not unusual. ‘Paki-bashing’ was a national sport. Three decades on, racism has not disappeared, but the kind of naked, in-your-face racism, and the brutal, ferocious racial violence that so disfigured the social landscape, has thankfully much faded. This change is not because thirty years large numbers of Britons suffered from a pathology, or a brain disorder, and now have been cured of it. Rather, antiracists and black and Asian communities challenged the social structures and political ideas that once denied non-whites an equal place – indeed often any place – in British society, and that encouraged racial violence. In the process they have helped transform the social perceptions of blacks and Asians, and of racism, and the position of minority communities in British society.

If a 1970s version of Julian Savulescu had suggested that the way of combating racist violence was by giving everyone an anti-racist pill, or by nifty bit of neurosurgery, would that have really been a useful approach to the problem of racism?


‘What would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?’

It is a question that applies not simply to discussions about sexual predators or those with homicidal tendencies, but in debates about everything from terrorism to anti-social behaviour. Preventing risk is not the only, or even the most important, moral aim. Questions of freedom, fairness, liberties, equality, and so on are, in my eyes, far more significant.

Consider torture. Some people oppose torture on the grounds that it does not work. Others, including Sam Harris, insist that it can be morally acceptable because it can provide indispensible information in, say, the war on terror. I have made the point before that while there is debate about the efficacy of torture, it is precisely when torture can be shown to work that it is most important to oppose it:

The moral case depends not upon whether  torture is or is not an effective means of gleaning information but upon whether treating another human being as a piece of meat, whatever the circumstances, is or is not morally acceptable. The pragmatist – or, more properly, the consequentialist – thinks it acceptable to treat humans as a piece of meat so long as the benefits of doing so are clear. The moral opponent of torture disagrees. It is easy to oppose torture when it produces no practical results. Virtually everybody does so. After all, only a psychopath would think it worthwhile to inflict pain simply for the sake of it. It is precisely in those cases in which torture appears to bring practical benefits that it is important to take a stand against it.

Or consider a punishment such as cutting off the hands of thieves. Whether such barbaric punishments work or not is, of course, debatable. But suppose they do work. If they do, it is because they act as a deterrent. Amputating the hands of one thief (or rapist) changes the brains of other potential thieves or rapists, making them less likely to commit those crimes. It is, in other ways, a textbook case of the use of ‘medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people’. So, if they work, should we adopt such policies? If not, why not? Why is cutting off the hands of a thief or a rapist so different from, or so much worse than, cutting out bits of his or her brain?

While few would defend such practices, many simply do not seem to understand the underlying arguments about freedoms and liberties, and their moral importance. Sam Harris, for instance, looks forward in his book The Moral Landscape to the day that governments and corporations will be able to use brain scanning technology to detect whether people are lying, thereby creating ‘zones of obligatory candour’ and enabling an entirely truthful public life. ‘Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption’, he writes, ‘that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.’ This, Harris suggests, would no more be a deprivation of freedom than currently it is to be denied ‘the right to remove our pants in the supermarket.’ Perhaps we should equally say that the attempt by governments to snoop on our emails or to introduce random stop and search procedures on the streets is no more a deprivation of freedom the right to remove our pants in the supermarket.

Harris dismisses the criticism that using compulsory brain scans in the courtroom would be an infringement of the Fifth Amendment which protects an individual against self-incrimination. ‘Prohibition against compelled testimony’, he writes, ‘appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age’ in which it was ‘believed that lying under oath would damn a person’s soul for eternity’. This is an odd view of moral and political history. Protection against compelled testimony is, in fact, an Enlightenment concept, a product of the liberal defence of individual autonomy against the power of the state. Harris’ insistence on enforced truthfulness is, on the other hand, far closer to the premodern and religious belief that authority should take precedence over individual freedom.

All this reveals the fundamental problems of a ‘top down’ view of morality, whether religious or scientific. Top-down moralists look upon morality as a means of imposing rules and regulations so as to produce correct behaviours as defined by some external standard. I, on the other hand, regard morality more in terms of a social conversation through which we collectively define the conditions for human flourishing.


‘I’m going to assume that you accept the materialist view of personality, that character/mind is determined by both the brain and environmental factors.’

To accept a ‘materialist conception of the mind’ is simply to believe in a causal universe. It is not necessarily to take a stand over questions of responsibility or agency. Just as it is possible to be a materialist and to hold a compatabilist view of free will, so it is quite possible to possess a ‘materialist conception of the mind’ and to accept notions of criminal responsibility and human agency. Indeed, my view is that to plausibly hold a materialist view of the mind requires one to believe in free will, agency and moral responsibility. But that is another topic for another post (or another book).

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  1. Thank you so much for your response, Kenan. And for the plug. :D

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go away and squeal in fanboy excitement. It’s not every day that a thinker one admires bestows his attention in such a personal manner. When I have regained my composure (but not dignity, alas), I shall return and read your post.

  2. Kenan! As a responsible human being, I do feel I should inform you of the FACT that neither “schizophrenia” NOR “clinical depression” exist in any way whatsoever.

    • That’s quite the position! I am guessing you are taking an ontological stance here, but to say that they do not “exist in any way whatsoever” also suggests that you might dispute their subjectivity as well – can you clarify?

      Most people know what it is to feel depressed – we have words (at least in our culture) to describe it. As a psychologist who also considers himself a responsible human being, I think some of my clients would take issue with you stating that they are ‘factually incorrect’ about their subjective experiences. I think there are many problems with trying to objectify/reify mental illness (e.g. I thoroughly despise the DSM-IV), but there are just as many problems with dismissing them as illusions. And insofar as our subjective experiences are dependent on underlying mechanisms (note that I am not using the word ’cause’), I think we can also say that there would have to be some organic component (unless you believe in a soul or something).

      • Basically my friend, I am a “Szasz man”. I feel in no way qualified to say anything on the subject containing more wisdom than anything that has already been said by your fellow USAmerican – Professor Thomas Szasz.
        I will say that I believe an illness can ONLY be physiological and very obviously so. All the best.

  3. Ziyad Marar

    Great to read such a clear demonstration of what I would call a social science imagination. Sometimes philosophical or scientific speculations, such as the one you are responding to here, are tempted to reduce ‘context’ to something like wind resistance or friction. It’s a perennial problem when confronting such frictionless theorising to respond by saying it’s not so simple. Thank you for doing so so elegantly and reminding us of Kant’s ‘light dove’ who ‘cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would still be easier in empty space.’

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