welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Justice and Biology, Revisited

Is there a link between biology and ethical behaviour? Alexander E. Hooke takes a look at phrenology and other theories from down the ages. This article is dedicated to Bill Connolly.

In 1828, English barrister George Combe wrote, “In [phrenology's] view, morality becomes a science, and departures from its dictates may be demonstrated as practical follies, injurious to the real interest and happiness of the individual, just as errors in logic are capable of refutation to the satisfaction of the understanding.”

In 1998, American philosopher Paul Churchland contended, “At least some failures of moral character, therefore, and especially the most serious failures, are likely to involve some confounding disability or marginality at the level of brain structure and/or physiological activity.”

The same point, only expressed in different words? Or two perspectives whose resemblance belies two contrary truths, since they emerge from different – and incompatible – paradigms? It is tempting to detach ourselves from these historical and scientific debates. Without the expertise for the intricacies of cranial faculties or the billions of brain synapses that determine the success and failure of perception and cognition, most of us likely prefer a more conventional focus on exemplars, self-reflection, sacred texts, or the lessons of hard knocks.

Yet the promises of these biological efforts extend beyond scientific inquiries. They entreat our moral deliberations. Proper uses of these deliberations are more than an academic or intellectual enterprise; rather, they can generate greater justice, hence greater happiness.

The Seeds of Justice

What sort of justice? Ideas of justice have varied down the ages and differ from culture to culture, but one enduring feature is harmony. In the Republic Plato describes the just person as one who harmonizes the different principles and elements that define one's self. This harmony is not solely internal; it also involves harmonious relations with the world. Plato's emphasis on early and thorough education, reflected in his respect for the potential of music, art and gymnastics, is understandably complemented by his desire to regulate the passionate and corruptive powers of poetry and theatre. Too much passion threatens the rational attention needed to comprehend the mathematical components needed for a complete sense of harmony. Aristotle argues that justice, since it weighs the claims of others as well as ourselves, is a species of the proportionate.

It takes a sense of proportion to distinguish which external forces are important or not. Regardless of how carefully teachers, parents and others may sow the seeds of justice, the possibilities for corruption can always appear at the most surprising moments. These can be sparked by a host of potentially malevolent but all-too-human forces, such as religious or political doctrines, the crafty manipulations of a demagogue, or the seduction by clever speakers or erotic temptations.

The possibilities also come from nature. Long before phrenology or neurophysiology, moralists concerned themselves with biological contributions to and corruptions of the good life. Ancient pagans as well as early Christians devoted considerable attention to the effect of diet and environment on moral development. Michel Foucault in the second and third volumes of his The History of Sexuality examines the way thinkers cautioned and encouraged (‘problematized’, in Foucault's neologism) a technology of the self that considered foods, liquids, climates, and physical development. One brief example: medical opinion in the ancient world claimed that the brain was the source of semen. So as puberty encroached upon young men, their lustful yearnings needed constraint – not because promiscuous intercourse or excessive masturbation violated moral sensibilities, but because they put young men at risk of premature dementia, and hence moral incompetence. (Historians note that later theories about onanism speculated on guilty individuals turning into freaks, becoming blind, or worse, experiencing more intense pleasures than those offered in marital cohabitation.)

Early Christians had their own take on these matters. The Desert Fathers, early followers of Jesus who led their own people to barren and often harsh lands, were renowned for eschewing city life because of its sensual overload. In the desert, with purer air, simple food, and minimal contact with sinful temptations, a practicing Christian was better able to live God's word in a community of fellow adherents who would nourish rather than corrupt the seeds of virtue that lie within nearly all of us.

Criminal Microbodies

Of course, these ancient intersections of justice and biology were framed in an intellectual climate where the theory of the four humors (essential fluids or biles) was fundamental. Virtues such as courage or justice were thought to depend on a proper, harmonious balance between these four humors. Challenged by mountains of evidence and better hypotheses, this theory had lost most of its power (as science or as a reputable study of human nature) by the time of phrenology's arrival. Phrenology anchored its approach to studies of the brain and the relative development of its specific lobes (from which lobotomy derives). According to phrenology, each lobe corresponds to a fundamental faculty. At the start of the 19th century, Francis Gall, a pioneer in phrenology, identified 26 lobes that have moral import. Some, such as amativeness or combativeness resemble previous virtues and vices, such as love, lust, anger or envy. How did he know? Through study of the skull – its shape, size, dimensions of the forehead, and abnormal ridges or lumps on the scalp. In the right hands, speculated Gall and his many disciples, society could benefit from phrenology by detecting potential criminals, lending craniological expertise in legal cases, and recommend likely cures for abnormally-developed lobes.

The promises of phrenology were short-lived. Profit-driven charlatans began telling people's fortunes. The European bias (Caucasian male with high forehead as ideal skull) was obvious, but that is a footnote to its demise. More significantly, phrenology could not hide its inherent circularity that led to an empirical dead end: how do we know the predisposition until there's an action; but only when the action occurs can we trace the predisposition. Despite its promise, phrenology was hopeless when it came to specifics such as criminal justice.

The four humors theory lasted for centuries; by comparison, phrenology was little more than a blip on the screen. In the vacuum left by its demise, contemporary biology has again started to offer some possible solutions to ethical problems. Under the rubric of sociobiology, social psychology, behavioral genetics, or neurophysiology, researchers are proposing new directions for understanding – and hence treating or preventing – anti-social or criminal predispositions that have their origins within the natural body. The low arousal theory, for example, holds that individuals drawn to crime often suffer not from low self-esteem or low income, but from low serotonin levels. Unlike those of us whose serotonin levels (range of satisfaction of specific desires or appetites) mesh with the range of socially permissible behavior, there are many who are not excited by the pleasures regulated and condoned by society. Those with abnormally low serotonin levels can only be satisfied by experiences so extreme that they may violate the social mores. Or, as neurophysiologists would surmise, to commit a socially unacceptable or forbidden action could indicate a malfunctioning of specific synapses in the brain.

That this theory does not help predict whether someone who needs intense thrills will, say, rob banks, practice jurisprudence, teach Nietzsche, or climb Mount Everest is part of a larger obstacle. As with phrenology, there is a question of reliable testing. Much of the current support for revisiting justice/biology theory depends on studies of identical twins who have been separated and reared in drastically different environments or studies of adopted siblings who share similar upbrinings but have quite different biological heritages. However, samples of separated identical twins are too small and of adopted siblings two skewered by evident but immeasurable factors. Pedagogical contagions might be apparent – from mother or father, friend or neighbor, teacher or babysitter, innumberable candidates, in other words – without independent verification or falsification.

For example, researchers traced the lives of two identical brothers who were separated soon after birth. Raised in different section of the United States, in families with contrasting education and incomes, the brothers did show some remarkable similarities their twenty first birthday. Formal education, classical music, community involvement, even preference of beer over wine, indicated biological predispositions of potentially moral import. But the differences, noted skeptics, were alarming, such as that one brother was heterosexual and the other gay. Not a problem, responded the adherents, for both brothers acknowledged their amorous pursuits included an affinity for leather and bondage.

This sort of dispute could stretch endlessly. There are countless actions we do that hardly reflect any biological pattern or family resemblance. To expound on these counterexamples, though, draws a rebuke from current researchers claiming that this attitude betrays a disrespect not only of the progress of science but also of self-knowledge. However, we should not be too quick to laugh at the antics of phrenology because, according to today's experts on microbodies, there is a demonstrable connection between pathological gambling and the DRD2 gene, between the daily experiences of London cab drivers and the enlargement of their hippocampus (the memory lobe), and between the frequency of teenage sex and the length of the summer heat wave.

Microbodies are not like the four humors, which were ideally subject to the charges of the integral self. Microbodies can be distinct organisms. They respect the first law of nature – self-preservation, but also find themselves so valuable that they are driven to duplicate themselves. Their human host is not a moral agent, but a mere vessel. The recent debate about the selfish gene is more than semantics: it involves a dispute about whether biological entities such as genes are independent creatures with humans as their unwitting accomplices.

Harmonious Bodies

Is that how we understand ourselves – as servants to invisible microbodies? If not that, are we limited to biologists doing their professional service to society by informing us of the errant genes and malfunctioning synapses existing in our bodies? Is there not something drab, ugly, if not unjust to this enterprise?

In 1999, musician Susan Alexjander and biologist David Deamer examined sequences of the four DNA bases (A, C, G and T: adenine, cystosine, guanine and thymine) in the human genome to determine whether there is a harmony among the microbodies within us. Social harmony is of course a metaphor borrowed from music, so, appropriately, they translated the chemical bases A, C, G and T into notes, with frequencies derived from the light absorption spectra of the bases. In doing so they discovered a ‘microtonal world’ in which harmony illuminated a profound sense of beauty. The ratios among the vibrancies of the DNA bases display a proportionality that is remarkably similar to – and effected by! – the proportionality of musical sounds that we find beautiful.

This beauty was not only an effect of harmony. It also produced the freedom and sense of proportion that comprised central features of justice. Playing these note sequences to emotionally and psychologically troubled patients, Alexjander and Deamer found that the resonances, rhythms, flows and coherences that entail the musical-to-body experience actually helped alienated or distraught individuals.

Though their study is too brief to count as a comprehensive approach to justice and biology, it does highlight a perspective that eerily evokes the wisdom of the ancients. For Plato observed in his Timaeus: “…and harmony, whose motions are akin to the revolutions of the soul within us, has been given by the Muses (gods of music) to him whose commerce with them is guided by intelligence, not for the sake of irrational pleasure… but as an ally against the inward discord that has come into the revolution of the soul, to bring it into order and consonance with itself.”

Perhaps Plato is more empirically grounded than credited. For individuals who seem to be driven by vice and threaten social well-being suffer not from an undeveloped lobe or malfunctioning synapse, but from a lack of harmony and beauty in their lives.

Threats to justice, and concentration on potential criminals as a threat to justice, deserve reconsideration. The love for harmony, note Alexjander and Deamer, is compelled by freedom and integration, spontaneity and order. It is a love marked by experiences of beauty. If the external demands for justice simply focus on coercion, reciprocity, game theory, the prisoner's dilemma, or the maximization of individual interests – the stuff of much debate about justice as fairness and structures of society – then the richness of individual lives will be diminished.

For us, then, the following becomes imperative: How does one support a vision of social harmony when it overlooks the disharmonies – the lack of beauty – in one another's own bodies?

© Prof. Alexander E. Hooke 2004

Alex Hooke is Professor of Philosophy at Villa Julie College, near Baltimore.

Further reading

Paul Churchland (1998) ‘Toward a Cognitive Neurobiology of the Moral Virtues.’ Topoi, 17: 83-86.
George Combe (1835) The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects. (Boston: William D. Ticknor & Co.).
P. Schlag (1997) ‘Law and Phrenology.’ Harvard Law Review 110, February.
Jay Joseph (2001) ‘Is Crime in the Genes? A Critical Review of Twin and Adoption Studies of Criminality and Antisocial Behavior.’ The Journal of Mind and Behavior. 22, 2, 179-218.
S. Alexjander and D. Deamer (1999) ‘The Infrared Frequencies of DNA Bases: Science and Art.’ Engineering in Medicine and Biology. March/April.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X