You may recall that a chapter on Corporate Psychopaths was included in the 2010 book I co-edited on Ethical Leadership. Its primary author, Clive Boddy, has been attracting some recent press attention on the subject, following publication of an extended version of the chapter in the Journal of Business Ethics. One of my longstanding worries about this very useful identification of a potential boardroom problem is whether the said psychopaths could then use this diagnosis to plead diminished responsibility for any perceived wrongdoing.
So I was doubly interested to see that LSE is shortly to hold a seminar to discuss neuroscience, responsibility and the law, given recent developments in neurobiology that suggest free will is in fact illusory (see for example the recent piece by Prof Jerry Coyne in USA Today). While the notion of corporate psychopathy thrusts a spoke in the wheels of business ethics, the idea that we don’t have free will at all is far more devastating, because it attacks our very notion of what it means to be a person. Today I was at a very interesting seminar at Westminster Abbey on ‘transformational theology’ delivered by Professor Oliver Davies of King’s College London. Apart from a difference of opinion about the merits of its necessarily empirical and subjective approach, my main concern with his theology is his belief that an incarnationally ‘ethnographic’ approach is the best way for theology as a discipline to reply to recent advances in technology and science – specifically those in the field of neuroscience. But if neuroscience is arguing that there is nothing other than matter, or at least – in mind/brain theory terms – that causality is firmly from the material to the ‘mental’ and not vice versa, how could such a theological approach rescue God? If we are as programmed as the neurobiologists suggest, surely asking subjects to reflect on their personal experiences of revelation and discipleship can at best net idle post-hoc speculation about motivations and decisions, which may or may not link to an underlying material reality? Surely this would merely play into the hands of those who argue that religion is essentially fantasy?
Now, I don’t yet want to concede the debate on free will, but the challenge it presents requires a more fundamental theological response than an approach which colludes with social science’s current methodological preoccupation with subjectivity. It needs to address the issue this poses for belief in a God who has made us free to opt in or out of revelation and discipleship in the first place, before these become legitimate grounds for inquiry.