A new, neuroscientific window on ethics

Aaron called this Washington Post article to my attention:

Neuroscientists are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass.

Neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers as they were asked to consider a scenario:  should they donate a sum of money to charity or keep it for themselves?

When the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

What does the research reveal about ethical dilemmas? They manifest as competing centres of electrical activity in the brain. According to Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher,

simple moral decisions — is killing a child right or wrong? — are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.

But what does that mean? Is the electrical activity the origin of moral confusion, or a consequence of moral confusion that originates elsewhere? In effect, the article argues that what we call “conscience” reduces to a physiological process. Guilt feelings reduce to two conflicting physiological responses.

Theists regard the human conscience as something separate from and prior to those physiological responses. I don’t see how the brain scans constitute evidence to the contrary.

Experiments with other animals arguably present more of a challenge to the theistic account of conscience.

According to the article, if morality is hard-wired in the brain, it is “most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.” For example,

one experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

Joshua Greene maintains that morality is “handed up”:  i.e., an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities. Theists regard morality as “handed down” — conscience as a God-given faculty.

Does the rat illustration count against the theistic account, suggesting that naturalistic evolutionary processes led to the development of conscience and morals? Does the research prove that morals are “not a superior moral faculty” bestowed by God on human beings, one of the characteristics that sets us apart from other animals?

One more interesting observation from the article, plus a question of my own:

  • The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy (being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through).
  • Don’t these experiments imply a (limited) universal morality of the sort that moral relativists deny?

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Knotwurth Mentioning
    May 30, 2007 @ 12:59:11

    I don’t think there’s any definite conclusion you can reach one way or the other concerning the morality being handed up or down, in this case. A theist such as myself would say that God programmed a limited amount of morality in the minds of lesser animals as well, but because humans have been formed as higher beings, we have been granted a more thorough capacity for morality. Certainly your point about morality being based on empathy would seem to back that, since it would seem natural for God to program empathy into most creatures, since all animals must co-exist in one way or another. The atheist would argue the opposite, that it’s a product of millions of years of gradual mutations, which also could be supported through the thought on empathy, since the gene for empathy could potentially mutate and develop into higher morality. Both seem equally supportable, to me.

    As for the universal morality, I think it’s really hard to deny that there is some sort of capacity in all humans for recognizing certain actions as “right” and others as “wrong.” As it says… is killing a child wrong? Almost all people will answer yes without a question. Those who don’t still, as far as I’m concerned, have the emotional response that the answer is no, but then consciously deny that emotion because of their belief that morals are relative, and thus respond “it depends.”

    What I would like to see is a comparison of the brain activity when a socially imposed restriction comes into play against a principle that is hard-wired into your mind, per se. It would be neat to see if there was a somewhat universal response to which type of “law” would win out.


  2. Anonymous
    May 30, 2007 @ 13:53:07

    I suspect though that the structure of the brain is to some degree influenced by environment. in other words hardwiring may also be the result of environment.

    So is this proof that empathy is built in?


  3. juggling mother
    May 30, 2007 @ 16:01:52

    Interesting as it may be, I don’t think it “proves” anything about where the emotions come from:-)

    Although I do have to say – which bastard came up with the idea of the rat experiment?


  4. 49erdweet
    May 31, 2007 @ 02:46:50

    KM’s last idea seems quite interesting. Interesting post and ditto on the comments. And, wow! This is not a good time to be a ‘moral relativist”, apparently. All kinds of bad things messing up their pov’s.



  5. Stephen
    Jun 04, 2007 @ 09:07:29

    I’m surprised no one took a dogmatic stance here, using the data to argue strongly for or strongly against the existence of a Creator. I suppose you’re getting used to my style, with the constant diet of ambiguity I serve up.

    Anonymous, I agree there’s no proof here that empathy is built in. The whole argument, from the atheistic point of view, is that it arose through evolution. The questions then become, (1) Does morality have a naturalistic or divine origin? and (2), Are some mores universal, (regardless of their source)?


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