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?