Much Of Our Morality Lies In The Brain

If you’ve been reading AgnosticMom for a long time then you know about my position on morality and ethics. While most religious people think morality comes from their god and some non-believers think it is purely a social construct, others of us (including myself) believe that humans have an innate moral sense which is a compilation of states that evolved in humans.

I have long expressed that empathy is a key factor in a person’s morality. Empathy is a state that the human brain evolved a capacity for. Guilt is another. Our social upbringing also comes into play, but only because an ability to experiences these things first evolved within the brain.

Gregg100 sent me a link to an article that tells of a recent study on this subject. I’ve pulled out a few statements that summarize the main points of the article but I recommend you read the whole thing so you know the specifics and the limitations to how far the study extends.

Damage to the part of the brain that controls social emotions changes the way people respond to thorny moral problems, demonstrating the role of empathy and other feelings in life-or-death decisions.

“Part of our moral behavior is grounded … in a specific part of our brains,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, one of the study’s lead authors and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex processes feelings of empathy, shame, compassion and guilt. Damage to this part of the brain, which occupies a small region in the forehead, causes a diminished capacity for social emotions but leaves logical reasoning intact.

Researchers found no difference among groups in their responses to scenarios with no moral content, such as turning a tractor left to harvest turnips.

This study is not in isolation. Without even looking for them I come across studies with similar or related conclusions quite regularly. The conclusions have perspective-altering implications that might challenge the way religious believers expect their god to hold people accountable for their “sins.” Or the way societies deal with criminals. Such implications and how we should deal with them are complicated. But I think this is an extremely important area to learn more about if we are ever going to understand human nature and hope for a more peaceful world.

14 thoughts on “Much Of Our Morality Lies In The Brain

  1. I can’t remember where I found you, but I enjoyed reading several of your posts, including this one. I’ve put this site in my bookmarks to check back later. Erm, so hi? De-lurk, de-lurk, new reader!

  2. I think that more then an innate sense of morality in our brains… the same morality that religious people make their own, is nothing more then a conscious and obvious innate understanding that if we do not live together in harmony, we would eventually destroy our own species (humanity)

    We know that killing someone for example, is not good, because we don’t want that to happen to us. We know that stealing is not good because we don’t want that to happen to us… and so on and so forth

    So really and truly we know exactly what are the wrongs and rights. They are written in the face of everyone to see and understand

    If we let murder for example, happen in a society, that society would accelerate its disintegration, i.e. murder foments revenge, triggering a chain of revenge murders that would eventually destroy that society. Same can happen to humanity if we let murder (or any other ‘moral’ wrong) happen unobstructed on a global scale

    So morals are nothing more then mere obvious rules that are paramount to social cohesion and human evolutionary progress

  3. This post got a little longer than I meant it to but I hope you find some value in it.

    “I do not believe that the Bible or the God of Christianity is a good source for morality”
    I would have to agree – if complying with a list of directives because “God says we must” doesn’t meet the definition of arbitrary I don’t know what does. I think it’s important to note that it’s probably not a good idea to examine the brain and build a moral system around the hardwired limits we find their either (for the record I don’t think either Noelle or the study authors are suggesting that) for three reasons:
    1. This would be turning an “is” to an “ought” which is a whole can of worms I’m not going into here.
    2. Historically every early society (even ones with
    highly developed moral systems) has had no problem ruthlessly destroying out groups. The post referenced above at Agnostic Atheism provides great examples of exactly that.
    3. Natural selection can reward cooperation (which is probably responsible for the study findings) but it can also reward parasitic behaviors as well – and based on what I see in the business world I wouldn’t be surprised to find some behaviors hardwired along those lines as well.

    I think to build a really good moral system we need to start with a base principle and build rule sets to meet the principle. Noelle wrote a really good article on that at HNN but I can’t find the URL just now. What we can use the kind of information developed above for would be to fine tune our rule sets so as to account for limits of normal human behavior and to maximize the likelihood that any given person will live up to our base principle. This doesn’t mean that because some individual who has an organic deficit which makes it impossible for him/her to not be a danger to public safety (Ted Bundy, etc) should be allowed to wander free – it just means that while they must be isolated to protect society it should not be done as punishment but as a practical recognition of those individuals’ limitations.
    It’s also important to remember that even if a certain amount of morality is inbuilt in the brain the Stanford Prison Experiment showed it is very easy to create situations where that morality is set aside or disregarded. So what I think we really need is to build institutions and norms that maximize positive (moral) behavior and minimize negative (immoral) behavior – and that is where the kind of information displayed above will be most useful.

  4. I just spent a long day with a Buddhist nun at the largest Buddhist Temple in the USA. It was quite an experience. They have some good concepts, unfortunately cluttered up with enough of the supernatural to lose some credibility. My comment relates to one of the Buddhist concepts which basically takes the view that it is the responsibility of the individual to discover the “good” that is intrinsic to the human species and such discovery requires listening to one’s intuition as well as constant learning to gain rational thinking skills to augment the intuition. I was struck by the very familiar (nature and nurture) ring to all that.

  5. D’Amasio’s book — pretty old by now — Descartes’ Error, details how brain damage can affect one’s ability to make good, moral decisions. Among other interesting things he points out, emotions appear to be a key ingredient in good decisions. (That rather grates on business folk who try to ‘not be emotional’ about decisions, especially decision involving layoffs . . .).

    In any case, he’s got a couple of books out on this stuff, and you may want to track them down.

  6. I have ardently disagreed with Noelle on this subject in the past. I return to find her feeling unabated that there is some kind of value in athiests being able to claim some version of morality for themselves.

    Skyslinger, I couldn’t agree more; survival instincts go both ways. If group cooperation is instinctive, the same goal of reproductive survival is equally served by the instinct toward exploitation and brutalizaton of deviants within and other groups without. As we know from history and biology, both are usually practiced in equal measure by the very same individuals.(And cooperation is a long cry from “morality: def, conforming to a standard of right behavior”)

    As for the scientific pronouncements about inherent morality. These papers use “morality” as a catchword, sure. But all they tell us is that in-group cooperation is in the self-interest of one’s gene. Duh! Not to be overlooked is the corollary here that the very same goal is also served by the instinct to eliminate the competition. An example, off the top of my head, would be the phenomena of infanticide in humans and higher primates with the arrival of a new alpha/father. This behavior is as inherent as cooperaton – while in no way contradicting it.

    Well, if that is morality, then I say that there is no morality – not, a least, that anyone should want to take part in. As an instinct, like many others, it is one that we have outgrown for the better.

    As to how to get along in the world together without the bugaboo of morality: we already have a basis: In modern liberal societies, moral systems are already replaced by the Constitutional Republic, which implements a rational, legal system of guaranteed rights – in its millions of subparagraphs, deliberations and compromises. Rather than ensuring the continuity of a monolithic societal model of conformity (the definition of “morality”), the modern republic represents and negotiates the roles, rights and responsibilities among a diversity of groups.

    In fundamental contradistinction to systems of morality, a modern republican system expands rather than circumscribes individual freedoms.

    Free societies neither want nor require “conformity to standards of behavior” in order to prosper. To the contrary, progressive, rational societies go out of their way to nurture diverse groups and individuals in living as eccentrically as they so desire – just as long as none encroaches upon the freedom of another to do likewise.

    So what is all of this fuss about morality? Are we worried that the progressive secular ideals we hold – the same ones upon which modern societies are based – will be rejected if we don’t put a “moral” label on them? Well, if we can resist getting so easily suckered into the ruse that public policy must be framed around morality, when it comes time to deliberate law, the only objection to our reality-based propositions will not be that they are to be discounted out-of-hand for lack of authority in the supernatural realm, only that compromise is a bitch.

    Rather that we all share in a questionable morality, this is the place we want to move the national conversation to – because difficult adjustments in the face of change is the modern rational and political process. Neither our inherent, horrifically contradictory instincts nor the ancient mythologies cobbled on to them are up to the task that lies before humanity tommorow.

    I won’t keep beating this tired horse here, please refer to:

  7. Encouraged by your encouragement of the delurking above, I decided to delurk on my very first visit here (via School of Thought). I agree that humans have an innate ethical sense (I’d say moral sense but I’m still not entirely sure what “moral” mean). And in fact, I think that the moral dictates that were attributed to a god or gods were values that were already in place, already the norm. Does anyone really think people were running around murdering and dishonoring their parents left and right when suddenly! God gave us the 10 commandments and we completely changed our ways?

  8. Our moral sense is far more profound than the mere calculation of do unto others what you want done to you. I recommend a New York Times article by the esteemed scientist Steven Pinker, The Moral Instinct. Richard Dawkins also touches on the subject in The God Delusion. A deeper treatment is in Michael Gazanniga’s, The Ethical Brain. Lots of experiments have been done to explore the cusp of calculation and innate morality. There is no doubt that such an instinct is subconsciously exercised, and is in addition to obvious facets of empathy and fairness. It’s the instinct that likely weaves the fabric of many social species. Monkey’s and apes will risk drowning to save a cage mate, or even starve if doing so prevents electric shocks to a team member (so who is their monkey jesus … and was it born of some monkey virgin?). In humans, this moral instinct is interwoven with reasoning capacity, culture, and historical narrative. Religious people have this moral instinct just as non-believers do. But the former have their reasoning capacity stunted by dogma, and their ethical criterion limited by the privileged interpreter of god’s intent. Their track record is accordingly wantonly shameful. Not surprisingly, the most incisive and visionary ethicists have been those who have famously repudiated religious authority, be it Baruch Spinoza centuries ago or Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century.

  9. This is a very interesting read. Still, I do not see how an immediate conclusion can be drawn that a creator would have no connection to the inner-workings of its creation. Just as an architect may design a building with common parts, human beings are designed with common parts. To see these parts doing their jobs does not suggest that their craftsman is not at work.

    That’s not to say every part of the creation works perfectly.

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