Richard Rorty reviewed Macr Hauser's Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong in the Sunday August 27th Book Review section of the New York Times. Rorty shows great respect for brain research, but he ultimately questions the implications for practical affairs. As he puts it:
Knowing more details about how the diodes in your computer are laid out may, in some cases, help you decide what software to buy. But now imagine that we are debating the merits of a proposed change in what we tell our kids about right and wrong. The neurobiologists intervene, explaining that the novel moral code will not compute. We have, they tell us, run up against the hard-wired limits: our neural layout permit us to formulate and commend the proposed change, but makes it impossible for us to adopt it. Surely our reaction to such an intervention would be, "You might be right, but let's try adopting it and see what happens; maybe our brains are a bit more flexible than you think." It is hard to imagine our taking the biologists' word as final on such matters, for that would amount to giving them a veto over utopian moral initiatives.
The humanities and the social sciences have, over the centuries, done a great deal to encourage such initiatives. They have helped us better to distinguish right from wrong. Reading histories, novels, philosophical treatises and ethnographies has helped us to reprogram ourselves --- to update our moral software. Maybe someday biology will do the same. But Hauser has given us little reason to believe that day is near at hand.
I find Rorty's words very relevant to discussions about neuroeconomics as well. No doubt there are exciting developments in this area of inquiry, I think it is important that individuals work in this area, and support research initiatives along these lines, but ultimately I remain of the opinion that with regard to the relevance for understanding social order and public policy, neuroeconomics may lag significantly behind that of classic political economy.
I would suggest to the reader James Buchanan's essay "Natural and Artifactual Man" in What Should Economists Do? for a discussion how the human imagination and volition play off the constraints of nature.