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 â€¦ 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.
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